I’m fascinated by the lives of others. I love collecting images of people and scenes on the street. I find that often these images can be ironic, poetic and thought provoking.
I started my photographic journey on the streets of Manhattan, usually whilst pushing my son in his stroller with one hand, shooting with an old Nikon 35mmSLR in the other. Interesting times! I think perhaps the addition of the stroller and baby made me less threatening to folks who may have caught me taking their picture. Here are some tips on successful and fun street photography. Babies are optional.
Travel light and bring the right lens for you.
Don’t carry too much equipment. Choose one lens and stick with it. I have a small cross-body bag I use for film, lipstick and essentials, but keep my camera around my neck or over my shoulder. Choose your camera wisely. After a whole day, certain cameras become very cumbersome to carry—if you are serious about walking the streets—so plan the equipment in advance. A comfortable camerastrap is a must. I find the best ones have neoprene cushioning at the neck. Take your camera everywhere with you so it starts to feel part of you. Your lens choice is very important. I find that prime lenses, such as 35mm or 50mm, give me sharper images than a zoom lens. I like to get closer to my subjects, rather than rely on a zoom to get me there —that almost ruins the intimacy of street photography. Start with a 50mm or 75mm, gain confidence and get closer from there.
Color versus black and white.
I like to simplify my photos to give more focus to the subject matter. I find that while I love color for portraits and conceptual work, black and white gives me a cleaner and more simplified image. There are so many images, ads, other people and cars on the streets, it can get very confusing to the eye in a color image. Sometimes a color image is necessary, especially if one is shooting in a place like Times Square, for example, or in a colorful place like India. Pay close attention to the background and how it may enhance your picture.
Steal a moment.
Watch people’s behavior and body language. Anticipate moments before they happen, such as a couple about to kiss. Follow human interactions, watch people. Stand in a spot for an hour, or in one specific area. Wait for a moment to happen, rather than search the streets for it. Try to be invisible.
Look for multiples.
Often I find multiples or repetition interesting in a shot, so look for scenes with this type of rhythm. For example, during fleet week in Manhattan, the sailors were walking the streets in groups, as were the four marines in the photograph below. Parades and protests are also great places to find good street scenes.
Streets are bustling places, full of people going about their daily lives—often in a hurry. Make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to get sharp shots even during movement. Street photography is something that requires fast reactions and fast shooting. Metering exposure in such situations (and to not miss a shot) can be hard. Very often I can guess the exposure, or perhaps use the “sunny 16” rule. Try to experiment with your camera settings and utilize the Shutter Priority mode to keep that shutter speed fast, or perhaps the Aperture Priority mode, if you want to remain more in control of your depth of field. The important aspect of street photography is to be fast and ready at all times.
It’s also interesting to try slower shutter speeds on the street and capture movement. Blurred vehicles, people running or panning shots can be just as intriguing as in-focus ones.
I caught you!
In my last B&H Insights article, I referred to catching people through my portraiture. In my street photography work I refer to it in a slightly difference context. The joy of street photography (and also the hard part) is that you want to capture a moment without the person even knowing you are there. It’s more about being unobtrusive and subtle than interacting with people. However, very often, the subject will notice you taking their picture. That moment of the subject first catching you is quite telling. I find that moment to be extremely real.
Don’t be afraid.
Street photography requires confidence. Act like you should be there. Don’t be afraid of confrontation. I have been yelled at many, many times but it’s all part of the experience. Explain yourself. Be polite, smile and say sorry if somebody is offended you took a photograph of them. Offer to e-mail the photograph. It takes practice being comfortable in this style of photography, but the results are very true to life and worth it.
All images in this article are © Sara Louise Petty.
Sara Louise Petty is a New York-based fashion designer and most importantly, mother. Always a lover of photography and the arts, she picked up a plastic toy Holga camera and started to experiment with analog photography. Although the Holga produced (and still produces) some of her most moving images, she moved on to 35mm and medium-format cameras.