5 Ways to Work with Light in Street Photography


One of the best things about street photography is there’s nearly always an opportunity to take great photos, regardless of the conditions. All you need is some light, a camera and an attentive eye.

Craig Whitehead and I were recently invited by the team at 500px to host an online street photography class. For 'Working with Light', we looked at how changes in the available light can lead to dramatic changes in the look of your street photos.

In this post we'll look at five ways to use light in street photography and some creative possibilities for you to try out:

1. Silhouettes

When: high contrast scenes during bright daylight.

How: look for a subject or something that’s backlit to create a dark shape and outline. Expose for the backlight and look for interesting subjects or recognisable elements that can take the photo from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

Try this: capture a silhouette that includes an easily identifiable and well defined subject or element.

Tip: look for interesting scenes that add a new dimension to your image. Pay special attention to unique shapes cast by the light, along with textures and complementary colours.

Street Photography Silhouettes - Soho, London

2. Shadows

When: early morning or late afternoon.

How: look for long shadows created by the low angle of the sun. Get started by seeking out simple compositions and setting your exposure for the highlights. Aim to capture the moment when the shadow fits best within the composition of your scene.

Try this: find a high vantage point and capture a subject with a long shadow.

Tip: the shadows should be dark and clearly defined. Keep it simple in the beginning - less can be so much more!

Street photography tips - working with shadows.

3. Reflections

When: round the clock. Avoid flash.

How: look for reflective windows (shops, restaurants, cafes, bus stops), glossy surfaces, still water (puddles) and mirrors.

Try this: take a photo of a subject moving past a reflective surface. Play around with the timing of your photo and the depth of field to find a result that’s most visually appealing to you.

Tip: experiment with shutter speeds. Use slow shutter speeds (1/15 sec or 1/30 sec) to convey
movement or fast shutter speeds (1/250 sec +) to freeze motion.

Use reflections in street photography - Picdadilly, London

4. At Night

When: after dark i.e. when the sun has set.

How: look for light sources such as neon signs, brightly lit windows, street lights and car headlights.

Try this: photograph a subject illuminated by the light from a window. Consider the role
colour will play and seek out other elements (gestures, emotions etc) that enhance the story in the photo.

Tip: incorporate reflections and layers to add greater complexity to the scene.

Street Photography at Night with Neon Lights - London, UK
Chinatown London

5. Abstraction

When: round the clock, but artificial light at night can yield some of the most interesting results.

How: look for details and their relationship with the available light. Visualise the scene i.e. what you what to happen and be ready to capture the moment.

Try this: photograph a subject through a backlit rain covered or steamed-up window. Get creative by using a wide aperture (low F number) and setting your focus on the window.

Tip: Abstraction in street photography works best when elements within the frame retain some familiarity for the viewer. It’s also a great opportunity to showcase your artistic vision.

Abstract street photography - London, UK
Street Photography in London

Concluding Notes

  • Be consciously aware of the available light at any given moment and work with what you have - there’s always an opportunity to take good street photos

  • Be actively looking for shapes, light and colour. Visualise how you can frame these elements in a photo

  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with composition, shutter speed and depth of field. Being creative with your approach can lead to more original results

  • Finally, keep practicing to see what's working and what isn't. Mistakes often deliver unexpected surprises and will be your greatest source of learning to improve

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