By: Eric Kim
How can you capture stunning street photos? What’s the best way to get started with street photography?
As an experienced street shooter, I’ve been exactly where you are – and over time, I’ve developed plenty of street photography tips and techniques to go from beginner shots to standout professional images.
That’s what this article is all about; I share everything you need to know to jumpstart your street photos, including:
- My favorite street photography gear
- How to get over the fear of being noticed
- An easy way to make your subjects feel comfortable
- Compositional tips to really get those eye-catching shots
- Much more!
Let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:
1. Ditch the zoom and use a wide-angle prime
Street photography is not like your high-school science class. You don’t examine your subjects under a microscope. Rather, street photography is about experiencing life up close and personal.
When starting out as a street photographer, you may be tempted to use a long zoom (e.g., a 70-200mm lens) so you can shoot from afar and feel less awkward. But it will do much more harm than good.
First of all, you will look hugely conspicuous in public holding a monster zoom lens. A long lens stands out from miles away and people will notice.
Second, if you use a zoom lens, you have to point it directly at somebody. This makes the person you’re trying to photograph aware of what’s happening as if they have a gun pointed to their head.
So instead of a long zoom, use a lens that’s much smaller, more inconspicuous, and less threatening: a wide-angle prime, such as a 24mm f/2.8 lens, a 20mm f/2.8 lens, or a 35mm f/2.8 lens.
People will be far less bothered by such a compact lens, and they often won’t even notice you holding it. Plus, by using a wide-angle lens, you can capture your subjects without pointing your camera directly at them; for instance, you can compose so they’re off to one side, and it’ll look (to your subjects) like you’re shooting a completely different part of the scene.
2. Get as close as you can
In street photography, closeness makes a big difference. So when I tell you to get close, I mean it. Get so close that you can see the perspiration dripping from a person’s forehead or the texture of their skin.
When you combine closeness with a wide-angle prime lens (as discussed in the previous tip), you’ll get a highly immersive, engaging perspective. The viewer will feel like they’re a part of the scene, not just someone looking in from afar.
Plus, if you get very close to your subject, they won’t think anything of it; they’ll believe you’re taking a photo of something behind them, especially if you aim your camera slightly to the side.
3. Always carry your camera with you
If you’ve been doing street photography for a while, you’ve probably heard this one a million times – but I bet you’ve come up with a million excuses and reasons not to carry a camera.
“My camera is too heavy,” you probably think. “It’s frustrating to keep the camera constantly charged and ready to go.”
And yes, carrying a camera can be frustrating. But you know what’s more frustrating? Missing the perfect photo opportunity and regretting it for the rest of your life.
Yes, that’s a bit dramatic, but it’s genuinely true; you never know when the most amazing moment will present itself. Do you really want to be standing there without a camera when it happens?
On the other hand, if you get in the habit of always carrying your camera with you, you’ll never miss those “Kodak moments” that always seem to happen with no warning. I myself have taken some of my best images at the most unexpected times – images that would have been impossible to capture if I were not dedicated to keeping a camera by my side.
4. Disregard what other people think of you
Here’s a street photography tip for beginners:
One of the things that you’re probably worried about is being viewed by other people as a “creeper,” a “weirdo,” or simply getting unpleasant comments. But you must learn to disregard these thoughts.
When you’re shooting on the streets, you will most likely be alone. That means that any judging bystanders will be people that you do not know and will most likely never see again in your life. Why let them get in your way?
You may feel constricted by social rules, especially when you’re just starting out. But remember, social rules are not laws, and in many locations, there is no law that prevents photography in public places.
If you’re really struggling to get past your fear of being judged, here’s a simple exercise to try:
Spend time doing something unusual in public. Lie on the ground for a minute and see how other people react. Then get up and simply walk away like nothing happened. Walk into an elevator and stand facing the back wall. Go to a busy intersection and stand like a statue. People won’t care, trust me – I had to do that last one as an experiment for one of my sociology classes.
The social world is full of rules that constrict us. Break them, learn to be at peace with it, and shooting in the streets will become quite natural.
5. Smile often
When shooting in the streets, a smile can go a long way. If you take a photo of someone and they give you a weird look, simply tip your hat to them and show them two rows of your pearly white chompers. They’ll generally go on with their day (and they might even smile back).
I use this approach all the time, and I get around a 95% response rate, even in Los Angeles. Some of the most unapproachable people smile back at me. People trust a street photographer who smiles; they will simply see you as a hobbyist, not someone with malicious intent.
Plus, by smiling often, it’ll help you relax – and a relaxed photographer is a better photographer!
6. Ask for permission
Many street photography purists say that the only real street photography is candid. And it’s certainly true that you sometimes don’t want to ask for permission when shooting on the street; otherwise, you’ll fail to capture those unique, spontaneous moments that really define the genre.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with asking before shooting, and street portrait photography is a genuinely interesting area of exploration.
So feel free to go up to strangers who you want to photograph and ask to take a portrait. Most people love getting their photos taken, and as long as you act courteous and casual about it, many will accept.
Also, try approaching mundane subjects of everyday life, like the waitress at a diner, the bellhop of a hotel, or even a parking lot attendant.
7. Be respectful
There’s a tricky, gray line that every street photographer must navigate:
Whether it’s acceptable to photograph the homeless. Some street shooters avoid this type of photography completely, while others specifically aim to document difficult living conditions.
Personally, I try not to take photos of people who appear too down on their luck. I do think there are tasteful images of the homeless that generate awareness and support – but there are also many images that look like pure exploitation. Think of the cliché shot of a homeless person crouched over on the street, begging for money. Such a photo might look “real” or “edgy,” but that doesn’t mean you should take it.
Before you press the shutter button, determine the message you are trying to convey. Are you shooting to build awareness of the atrocious situations that many homeless people experience? Or are you merely taking a photo of a homeless person for the sake of taking their photo or to boost your portfolio? If it’s the latter, you should probably put your camera back down, though ultimately only you can decide what to do.
8. Look for juxtaposition
For me, juxtaposition is what makes street photography so unique and fascinating compared to other genres. Thanks to the careful use of juxtaposition, street photographs can convey the humor, irony, and beauty of everyday life.
The idea is to take two contrasting elements – often a subject and their environment, or two subjects – then put them together in the same frame.
A few quick juxtaposition tips:
- Look for signs with interesting messages that seem contradictory to the people standing nearby
- Be on the lookout for human heads that seem to be displaced by other objects, such as street lamps
- Look for two individuals that differ in height, complexion, or even weight
- Look for several individuals displaying a range of emotions, be it happiness, sadness, curiosity, anger, etc.
By the way, juxtaposition doesn’t always need to make sense. Some juxtapositions highlight a clear message, but others simply emphasize the absurdity of life, and that’s okay, too!
9. Tell a story
Many beginner street photographers simply try to capture people out and about, and that’s fine – but as you progress, try to add a bit of narrative to each of your photos. https://1c9bd53b9e8aac3c284b20aee67d9b23.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Before you take an image, imagine that you are a film director and that you’re trying to make an interesting movie. Who are the main actors? What is your backdrop? How are the main actors interacting? What kind of emotions are you trying to convey?
Ultimately, images that tell a story are the ones that really stick in the mind of the viewer. And the absolute best images tend to be so illustrative, so evocative, that the viewer returns to them again and again.
So when you get the opportunity, weave a narrative into your photos!
10. Just do it
This is my last tip, and it’s an absolutely essential point to understand:
If you want to be a street photographer, you’ve got to get out and actually shoot. Reading about street photography techniques is helpful, but photography isn’t done behind a computer screen! At some point, no matter how hard it might feel, you need to head out that door and start capturing the world.
So grab a DSLR, point-and-shoot camera, smartphone, or even a disposable film camera – then hit the streets. The beauty of the world awaits, so don’t miss your chance.
Street photography tips: final words
Hopefully, you found these street photography tips and techniques useful. Remember, street photography is all about getting out and capturing the world, so push away your discomfort, do a big smile, and take some great photos!
Now over to you:
Which of these street shooting tips do you like most? Which do you plan to use? And do you have any tips of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below!