The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide for Street Photography – Erick Kim

Marseille, 2012. Photo by Eric Kim
Marseille, 2012. I saw this man passed out on the beach, and took about 5 photos. This one turned out the best.

If you are a beginner in street photography, all you need is this guide to get started. I was quite frustrated when I started street photography. I had no idea what camera to use, what settings to use, what to look for, how to approach strangers, and most of all– how to overcome my fear of shooting in the streets.

All of the information in this guide are my opinion and isn’t the only “right” way to shoot street photography. But I hope it is a good starting point. Take everything with a pinch of salt– take what you want, and leave the rest.

What is street photography?

Downtown LA, 2012. I saw this guy in a Starbucks, talked with him for a while, and asked if I could take a few photos of him. He said yes.
Downtown LA, 2012. I saw this guy in a Starbucks, talked with him for a while, and asked if I could take a few photos of him. He said yes.

The first question you might be thinking is: “What is street photography?”

Simply put, street photography is about documenting everyday life and society. I personally don’t think street photography needs to be shot in the street. You can shoot at the airport, at the mall, at the beach, at the park, in the bus or subway, in the doctor’s office, in the grocery store, or in any other public places.

Furthermore, street photography is generally done candidly (without permission and without knowledge of your subjects). However I personally don’t think that street photography has to be candid. You can ask for permission when taking a photograph of a stranger. I don’t think just because a photo is candid makes it any better than a photo with permission. The most important thing in street photography is to capture emotion, humanity, and soul.

Therefore if you are drawn to taking photos in public (of mostly people) you are probably interested in street photography. Also as a side-note, I don’t think that street photography has to include people in it (although the best ones generally do have people in it).

So don’t worry so much about what “street photography” is and isn’t. The most important thing at the end of the day is creating powerful, compelling, and emotional images.

For some of my more in-depth thoughts about the definition of street photography, you can read my article: “What is Street Photography?

Cameras, Lenses, and Technical Settings in Street Photography

If you are curious what cameras, lenses, and technical settings are ideal in street photography– check out my guide below:

The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide for Cameras in Street Photography

What to look for when shooting in the streets

Okay so now you have your camera, lenses, and technical settings sorted out in street photography. Now what do you look for when you’re out on the streets? Here are some things you can look for:

1. “The decisive moment”

Henri Cartier Bresson, 1932. The "Decisive Moment" of the man about to land in the puddle.
Henri Cartier Bresson, 1932. The “Decisive Moment” of the man about to land in the puddle.

“The decisive moment” was a phrase coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the earliest practitioners of street photographers. “The decisive moment” is the same as the “Kodak moment” where everything comes together in a perfect moment, and you hit the shutter. So essentially it is capturing the photo with the perfect timing.

But realize “the decisive moment” is a bit misleading. There can be many “decisive moments” when you’re out shooting in the streets. This means if you see a good street photography scene, don’t just take one photograph. Take a ton of shots (I recommend 10-30 photos if possible). Even Henri Cartier-Bresson took 20+ photos of a single scene (if he thought it was interesting enough). Then afterwards in the editing process he would choose which image he felt was the best.

You can catch “the decisive moment” by the position of a person in the frame, in their facial expression, in their hand gesture, or their action or movement.

2. Juxtaposition

Zurich, 2011. Note the "juxtaposition" of the figure on the left and right
Zurich, 2011. Note the “juxtaposition” of the figure on the left and right

In street photography, you can create a strong image by juxtaposing elements in your frame. Juxtaposition is essentially a fancy word for contrast. But to be more specific, juxtaposition is when you put two different elements in a frame that directly contradict one another (while having a relationship). For example: taking a street photograph of a fat man next to a skinny man, a grandmother next to a child, someone in a red shirt in front of a green background (juxtaposing colors), etc.

To create a strong juxtaposition shot, you can either start off by looking for an interesting background (let’s say a billboard of a man looking happy) and waiting for someone who looks really happy to enter the frame.

Another strategy could be looking for certain emotions in people when you’re out on the street, and trying to find emotions of other people in the street that either are similar or dissimilar– and include them in the frame.

3. Emotion

London, 2012. Note the emotion in the man's face and hand-gesture. What do you think is on his mind?
London, 2012. Note the emotion in the man’s face and hand-gesture. What do you think is on his mind?

To me, the most memorable street photographs are the ones that have strong emotion and show some sort of reflection on the human condition. This can include happiness, pain, sadness, loneliness, humor, anxiety, youth, and love.

To find emotion in street photographs is difficult. First of all, you have to find the emotion in the streets through peoples’ body language or facial expressions. Then you have to be quick enough to take the photograph before people notice you. However if you do it well, you will create a compelling and emotional image that people can connect with on a deeper level.

4. Graphical/visual elements

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #7: Perspective
© Rene Burri / Magnum Photos. BRAZIL. Sao Paulo. 1960.

Not all street photography needs to be super emotional. Some street photographs are purely visual images– that appeal to our sense of geometry, composition, and composition. These images are generally shot in good light with nice lights and shadows, have strong diagonal lines, leading lines, curves, and shapes of interest.

5. Focusing on details

Downtown LA, 2012. Sometimes just by focusing on the hands, you can make a more powerful image.
Downtown LA, 2012. Sometimes just by focusing on the hands, you can make a more powerful image.

Some of the best street photographs focus on the details, not the whole picture. When you are shooting on the streets, you can focus on small details. This means rather than taking a full-body shot of someone on the streets, focus on their hands, their face, their earrings, their hands, their feet, or anything else they are holding.

By showing less of what is going on in the photograph, you create more mystery in your image. Less is more.

6. Urban landscapes

Pittsburgh, 2013. Note the juxtaposition between the abandoned soda machines and the dilapidated buildings in the background.
Pittsburgh, 2013. Note the juxtaposition between the abandoned soda machines and the dilapidated buildings in the background.

I don’t think street photography has to include people in it. Sometimes you can create compelling urban landscapes that show some sort of human condition and reflection on society.

The hardest thing to do in urban landscapes is to find a scene that somehow elicits a sense of nostalgia, emotion, or societal critique. For example, photographing a run-down building can make a strong societal statement.

When photographing urban landscapes, it is also extremely important to have a nice composition, sense of symmetry, and balance.

It is hard to make interesting urban landscapes– but to better capture them you can read my guide on urban landscapes.

7. Commonly found objects

21_colors-5
Melbourne, 2012. A photograph of a colorful mattress I saw in a garage.

Sometimes the most interesting street photographs are of stuff on the ground. So take photos of common objects you find in public places. Get close up to them, juxtapose them against other objects, and experiment using a flash. Try to be creative and find ways to make them interesting.

8. Self-portraits

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #9: Self Portraits
Self portrait by Lee Friedlander

If you have a hard time finding an interesting subject, use yourself as the subject. Superimpose yourself into your images with your shadows and reflections. Create interesting frames and compositions, and see how you can add a sense of mystery or intrigue to your images by having yourself in it.

For good inspiration, check out Lee Friedlander’s Self-Portraits and Vivian Maier’s Self-Portraits as well.

Conquering your fear of shooting street photography

Below is a presentation of some tips I have to conquer your fear of shooting street photography:

You can also see the presentation on Slideshare here.

Composition and Street Photography

To become better at capturing graphical/visual street photographs, I recommend reading my series of composition in street photography below:

  1. Composition Lesson #1: Triangles
  2. Composition Lesson #2: Figure-to-ground
  3. Composition Lesson #3: Diagonals
  4. Composition Lesson #4: Leading Lines
  5. Composition Lesson #5: Depth
  6. Composition Lesson #6: Framing
  7. Composition Lesson #7: Perspective
  8. Composition Lesson #8: Curves
  9. Composition Lesson #9: Self-Portraits
  10. Composition Lesson #10: Urban Landscapes
  11. Composition Lesson #11: “Spot the not”
  12. Composition Lesson #12: Color Theory
  13. Composition Lesson #13: Multiple-Subjects

You can also see a Powerpoint I’ve done on composition and street photography below:

You can see the full presentation on Slideshare here.

FAQ’s

Q: Do I need an expensive camera for street photography?

A: No! You can use practically any camera for street photography. I know some street photographers who only shoot with their smartphones and take incredible photos. Check out the “Tiny Collective” (all street photography done on smartphones).

Q: Does street photography need to be in black and white?

A: No! All the classic street photography was done in black and white (that is all they had back then), but some of the most exciting new street photography is done in color. Use whatever medium expresses your vision of the world the best.

Q: Is street photography illegal?

A: In most countries, no — as long as your subjects are in a public space.

Ask any more questions you may have in the comments below– and I’ll add them here!