The Beginner’s Guide to Stunning Street Photography

In Features by Brent Huntley

Just about every photographer should try street photography.  Not only is it a great outlet for your photo itch, it will help you develop beneficial skills to improve your portraits, landscapes, wildlife shots and whatever else may be your individual passion.

What is Street Photography?

According to Wikipedia, “street photography is photography that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places.” Hope that cleared it up for everyone! If you ask someone for a better definition, you are more likely to be told what is not street photography than what is.  You may here it can't be posed or it can't be edited or it has to be urban, but I say, “why limit it?”  Street photography is you shooting what you see when you go out in public on the street, alley, park, mall or any other public place.

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Why should you try Street Photography?

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I took this photo in Boston a few years ago. I actually moved to this side of the building to avoid having people in the image. The result is a lackluster image taken from the uninteresting side of the building that didn't showcase the great light.

Disclaimer: I am not a street photographer.  I shoot landscapes and other non-moving things.  I have left a shot behind many times because I couldn't get it with all those annoying people in the way.  I never even thought about including random people in my photographs until I listened to an interview with Paris-based street photographer Valerie Jardin.

It can be tough to get out and shoot what you love.  Not everyone can travel to a grand landscape or has access to beautiful models whenever they want.  We all find ourselves wanting to use all the photo gear we always buy, but if you are like me, you spend a lot more time dreaming about what you want to shoot than actually shooting anything.  It was this situation that led me to the streets to try out street photography.  Luckily, I am only ten minutes from the Vegas strip, but you can shoot amazing street photography just about anywhere so do not let your location stop you.

How does Street Photography Improve my Other Photography?

At first, I used street photography as an outlet to fill my need to shoot something when I was stuck around home, but I soon realized I was practicing many of the same techniques I use when shooting landscapes.

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There is a set of buildings on the strip that I have always enjoyed shooting. This day I decided to set up low and wait for an interesting couple to walk through my image, adding an interesting foreground to the background I liked.

For me, street photography is all about the background.  I love looking for interesting patterns or defined lines and shapes.  Once I find the background, then I look for the right angle and wait for an interesting subject (usually a person).  From there, I choose the right aperture for depth of field and hope for some good light.  It is nearly the same process I use when scouting landscapes.  I find the grand landscape I want and then search out some interesting foreground, set the aperture and look for great light.

It is not hard to imagine the skills a portrait photographer can practice.  If you can get tack sharp focus on the eyes of a passerby, imagine what you could do in a studio.  For those adventurous soles, street portraiture is its own genre of photography.  If you have the guts, ask that perfect subject to pose for you.  You'll be surprised how many people are happy to have their photography taken (especially young people).  If you are willing to dive into street portraiture, you can create beautiful portraits that really tell a story.

If you google street photography, you will see the vast majority of skilled street photographers shoot in black and white.  I love color in my landscapes, but there is something about a black and white image that just draws me in.  Street photography is a great opportunity to develop your ability to see in black and white.  You can do so much in black and white that is not available in color and really capture images with a lot of contrast, depth and feeling.  You will hopefully be able to take that ability to your other areas of photography and recognize a great black and white scene when it presents itself and know how to edit it to create that epic image full of power and emotion.  If there is another style you want to improve in, why not practice it through street photography?  That way, when you finally get to a situation to use it, you will have the skill to make the most of your shot.

Finally, no matter what you are shooting, you can take the image into lightroom, photoshop or the software of your choice and put those editing skills to work. The more time you spend editing, the more comfortable you get and more methods you will learn.  Even if you are a minimalist, a practiced editing hand can add the little touch you need for a polished image.

Where to Start

You can start anywhere at anytime. I am somewhat spoiled because I live less than ten minutes from the Las Vegas strip.  Many street photographers do not enjoy the strip because there are so many tourists and street performers (if you can call someone that who just dresses up in a costume and asks for money), but there is a lot of great architecture for backgrounds and you do not have to be shy when people are taking photographs all around.

Even if you do not live next to some great, busy street, there are chances to undertake street photography just about anywhere you live.  In line with the definition from Wikipedia, all you need for street photography are chance encounters and random incidents within public places.  Unless you live in a mountain cabin, you can find a public place.  Go there with your camera and just observe people.  Look at expressions on people and you will find yourself drawn to a subject.

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I would have never noticed this couple if I had not been standing on the sidewalk actively looking for subjects. I was drawn by the interplay of the red in their outfits and had already picked out my background before I saw them coming.  You can see I missed the focus on the moving targets, but that is a skill I need to work on that I don't get much practice at when I am shooting landscapes.

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I didn't need a street for this image. All these people were gathered together to watch the NFL playoffs.

If you do not believe you can do it where you live, get on your computer and google street photography. You will find countless images from large cities around the world, but if you look hard enough, you will see people in parks, restaurants, religious sites, alleys and bus stops.  Just a couple weeks ago, I was in Phoenix attending MLB Spring Training.  As I looked around the ballpark, I regretted not bringing my camera in.  I didn't have a telephoto lens with me so I figured I would not be able to get great shots of the players.  I never thought I would see awesome images all over the stands.  There was the plump man sitting in the sun with no shirt and sweat dripping from everywhere.  There was a young lady with a hoop through her nose and her tattooed legs kicked up on the top of the dugout.  There was the always-entertaining hawkers selling beer, peanuts, cotton candy and so forth.  I found myself watching the crowd more than the game as I thought of all the potential chance encounters I could be shooting in this public place

What if you're Shy

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I get shy sometimes even in Vegas, where it isn't weird at all to take photographs of people on the street.

While street photography may be the easiest genre to find a subject because you do not need a grand landscape or beautiful model, it can be very difficult to some who are used to having a volunteer subject or non-living subject.  Nobody likes to feel out of place and “sneaking” photographs of random people can make you feel uncomfortable.

There are many things you can do to not draw attention to yourself.  First, be smart with your gear.  There is a reason most street photographers love small, simple cameras like the Fuji X100T.  You usually want something small that won't draw attention to what you are doing.  There are many famous street photographers that shoot exclusively with their iPhones.  I shoot the Fuji X-T1 so I bought the cheap 27 mm pancake lens (review coming soon).  I can fit the whole camera in my pocket with this tiny lens on it so people don't think much of it when I pull it out and start shooting.

Think about what you look like when you are shooting.  You want to blend in. Wear dark clothes in styles that will help you fit in.  Keep your elbows in and don't take up a lot of space.  Find a spot to shoot from that is out of the way so you are not impeding foot (or car!) traffic.  Have your camera out and in your hands so there is not a lot of movement when you take the shot.

Try to smile.  If you don't look like you are doing something wrong, most people won't think twice about it.  If someone “catches” you, own it.  Show them the photograph, explain what street photography is, ask them to pose for a street portrait and give them a card and offer to send them a copy of your image.

What Settings to Use

There is no correct answer to this.  It all depends on where you are shooting and what effect you are going for.  If you have a great background you want to emphasize, shut down the aperture so the background stays in focus.  A lot of times it can be difficult to make your subject stand out from other people or a busy background.  In that situation, open up the aperture to render the rest of the image slightly out of focus so the viewer is drawn to your subject, but can still see the environment.

Your shutter speed is probably going to stay more standard unless you are trying to show motion.  Because a lot my subjects are walking, I try to keep my shutter speed at or above 1/125.  Usually, this is easy because I am outside with plenty of light, but I also like to go inside casinos and buildings get something different.  Inside buildings, there tends to be a lot less movement so I will slow my shutter to 1/60 if necessary in the lighting.  There are many instances where I slow the shutter way down to capture motion.  This may be the motion of cars zooming by or just the motion of someone hustling through the street.

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In the image above, I wanted to capture the motion of the gentleman walking down the stairs.  Normally, I would not have dropped all the way to 1/8 shutter speed because the subject would have been completely blurred, but in this situation, I had someone with me to hold an off-camera flash and the subject had agreed to let me take his photograph.  Using the flash, I was able to freeze his upper body and keep his face in focus while showing the motion in his legs.  This is a somewhat unique shot, and many would say it is not street photography, because I was able to use a flash.  Obviously, you do not want to blind random strangers with your flash as you capture your images.  That being said, most people love having their photograph taken so if you are not shy about it, people will often pose for you or reenact something so you can get a good shot.  In a situation like that, a flash is an awesome tool.  Just check out some of Jim Harmer's street photography in China.  Because he had willing participants, he was able to capture amazing street shots using his flash.

Some Ideas to Get You Started

Reflections-Shooting reflections can be a great way to get started.  Because you aren't pointing your camera at anyone, you don't have to worry about confrontation.  It also creates a unique and over-looked vision of ordinary scenes.  In the image below, I was riding up an escalator at the Bellagio when I saw this man coming down.  I saw the big mirror and loved the contrast that would be in the scene.  I already had my camera dialed in and ready so all I had to do was take the image.

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Motion-I discussed motion above, but this is a great tool that many photographers never get a chance to practice.  There is so much movement on the streets, try to capture some of it.  Panning in street photography can be a lot of fun and is another way to draw your subject out of a chaotic scene.  It is also a great skill to practice if you ever want to shoot your kids' sporting events!

Perspectives-You may not be able to do this without standing out somewhat, but try capturing the scene from a perspective that tells a different story.  The street can change when you view it differently than everyone else walking by.  I love to get low when I am shooting street photography.  I often have my bag on the ground and try to make it less obvious that I am taking a photograph.  I like to shoot low to capture the scale of a building in the background by having it tower above the subject.  Some other ideas might be to shoot through a chain link fence or through a store-front window.  The image above shows a different position of someone through the mirror above an opposite escalator. If you are in a market, try getting above the subject and capturing the food or goods that a person is looking at.

Interaction-Seek out people on the street who are interacting with each other.  It may be a couple deep in conversation, a man buying roses or a newspaper, a woman paying her driver, a first date at a patio table.  With interacting subjects, you can capture a lot of emotion and tell a story.

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In this photograph, the group of tourists all spotted something and you can see that interaction of them all being drawn to the same thing together.

Light-Every photographer needs practice when it comes to lighting.  Pick different times of the day and see what different scenarios you get.  Light coming through building gaps or reflecting off colored glass can change the whole mood of an image and create beautiful contrast. Pay attention to where the sun is and work on skills you use in portraiture.

In the end, street photography may not be your thing.  It definitely won't be replacing my passion, but the more I have experimented with it, the more fun I have.  It has become a great learning source and, most importantly, it has provided me more opportunities to get out there and shoot when I don't have the time to drive to a great landscape or shoot during the golden hours.


About the Author

Brent Huntley

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Brent Huntley is a 32 year old partner at a litigation-focused law firm. He is a hobbyist photographer focused primarily on landscape and travel photography. He also writes articles and shares his work at photographyandtravel.com and is active on instragram @brentdhuntley.