Street photography is one of the most accessible genres of photography. All you need is a camera and a public place with people. However, with so many variables and elements out of your control, taking photos on the street can often feel like an impossible task.
When I started street photography last year, my early attempts were a complete disaster. Not only was I incredibly nervous, but I wasn’t really thinking about what I was photographing. The result: poor photos. Lots of them.
Of course, bad days are inevitable, especially when you’re just starting out, but there are many ways to overcome these challenges. In this post, I’ll be sharing eleven things I’ve learned along the way - steps that will help you improve your street photography:
1. DEAL WITH FEAR AND NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
Overcoming fears is one of the most important steps. When you’re scared or nervous you’ll often deal with this by standing too far away or trying to conceal what you’re doing. Not only will this make people around you feel uncomfortable, but it's likely to lead to poor results.
If your intentions are good and honest, you should have nothing to fear. Be open about what you’re doing, but always respect people’s personal space. Project relaxed and positive body language, and don’t forget to smile —if you’re confident you’ll make those around you feel more comfortable with your presence.
Try this: assume the role of a tourist in your city. Pretend to take a video using live view and capture some photos as you pass the subject. Use your peripheral vision to track peoples’ movement and walk in a relaxed and confident manner.
2. REMOVE TECHNICAL DISTRACTIONS
Digital cameras are great for speed and ease, but with all the technology and features, using them can become a bit of a distraction from what’s most important — seeing and capturing the decisive moment.
There’s no shame in using automatic modes on your camera, especially when you’re just starting out. People will remember the end result, not the technical settings you used to get there. Also, try to work with one focal length i.e. a prime lens. Removing focal length choices will help you better judge framing and composition - you’ll also create a more consistent look to your images than if you’re using different focal lengths on a zoom lens.
Try this: set your camera to full automatic mode for a day. Forget about the technical side and simply enjoy the process of taking in the world around you and creating photos. Once you feel confident with this, then experiment with manual modes to give you better control of the results.
3. ALWAYS BE PREPARED
Walking around the city with your camera in your bag or with the lens cap on will prevent you from reacting quickly. Always assume that the next opportunity is just around the corner so be prepared for it.
Tip: Have your camera setup and ready to shoot i.e so all you need to do is compose and take the photo. Being prepared is one of the easiest ways to improve your hit rate.
4. CONSIDER THE STORY IN THE PHOTO
Part of the role of a street photographer is to document things that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Saul Leiter once said, “Seeing is a neglected enterprise.” And it’s true. In a fast-paced world full of distractions, it’s all too easy to miss the little things that can lead to great photos. For your images to stand out they have to go beyond the ordinary and project a more personal view of the world.
Try this: think of the city as one giant movie being played out in real-time. Seek out the most interesting scenes and capture them - look for a narrative that can be expressed without words.
5. FORGET ABOUT PERFECTION
If you worry about making technically perfect photos, it will hold you back.
Having well composed photos with the correct exposure and sharpness is great, but these things aren’t necessarily critical for the success of your photos. After all, some of the most revered photos of all time aren’t especially sharp or well exposed, but they sum up the moment in a powerful way.
Try this: forget about taking a perfect photo every time. Embrace the imperfection: be experimental with compositions and technical approach. The mistakes can be lead to unexpected surprises that steer your work in a whole new direction.
6. SHOW SOMETHING NEW
To make your street photos really stand out, you want to take the viewer somewhere they haven’t been before (metaphorically speaking).
Always be looking for anything that’s out of the ordinary and visualise how this can be turned into a photo. Look for details and relationships between multiple elements, and explore different angles to best frame the story.
Try this: scope out a scene with interesting light, colours and textures. Take test shots to find the most pleasing composition. Visualise how people will interact with the scene and then take a series of images to try and capture your vision. Be ready for unexpected surprises as they arise.
7. EDIT YOUR PHOTOS (RUTHLESSLY)
By editing your photos, I mean the selection step of the process i.e. picking which images are really worth post-processing. Sometimes what you don’t show is just as important as what you do choose to share with your audience.
Tip: choose your best. Leave the rest. Retain your old files and revisit these periodically with fresh eyes to see if you've missed anything.
8. ENHANCE WITH POST PROCESSING
Our cameras don’t always record the vision we had at the moment of capture. Therefore, some post processing may be required to bring this vision to life and correct any distracting issues.
It’s very easy to go too far with post-processing. It should be done to complement the photo, not detract from what’s going on. If in doubt, keep it simple.
Tip: take your time. Post-process your best images and then revisit them with fresh eyes a few hours, days or weeks later. You’ll be better able to view the photo objectively and more likely to spot anything that requires further attention.
9. GET FEEDBACK
Getting feedback from your followers on social media is great, but it’s not always valuable. After all, these people are often already emotionally invested in your work and are unlikely to give you critique from an independent point of view.
Instead, seek advice and feedback from photographers you admire. Send them your favourite image and ask what they would do to change or improve it. Not everyone will respond, but if they do you’re getting independent feedback on your work.
Tip: look online for portfolio review sessions in your city and consider entering competitions that offer a submission review from a panel of reputable photographers.
10. CREATE YOUR OWN LUCK
Luck plays a big role in street photography, but there are ways to stack the odds in your favour.
Spending more time on the streets and always being prepared are two of the easiest ways to create opportunities for yourself. Unique moments often happen when we least expect, so maintain a positive mindset — the next great opportunity may be just around the corner. Some days you'll get nothing, but all the effort is worth it for that one special image.
Tip: pick your favourite area of the city and spend the day there. Keep revisiting your favourite spots throughout the day to see what opportunities arise. Each visit will bring something new - it just takes one special moment so be prepared to capture it.
11. UPGRADE SKILLS BEFORE GEAR
Finally, having the latest gear is great, but it’s no substitute for learning and practising the craft. Invest in yourself — improving skills will have a far bigger impact on your photos than the camera.
Tip: use what you have and put the money you save towards towards buying books or taking workshops with street photographers you admire.
I hope you find this post useful. Thank you for reading and happy shooting!