Street photography emerged in the late 20th Century as a means for capturing everyday life, for documenting social activity, and to “hold a mirror up to society”.
Hopefully this tutorial will provide some useful advice for street photography as well as highlighting some of the ethical and practical issues that will help you get started on you quest to document life on the streets!
Step 1. What Is Street Photography?
Street photography meets the desire to document social activity, aiming to capture the essence of life in a specific time and place, highlighting single acts of human behaviour, often providing snapshots of real and literal moments of life.
Photographers such as Henri-Cartier Bresson and Garry Winograd are past masters of this documentary style, but anyone is capable of capturing their locality—you just need to have an eye for detail and an awareness of what’s going on around you.
Step 2. Which Camera to Use?
There’s no right or wrong camera to use for street photography, it’s all about personal preference. You need to bear in mind that manoeuvrability and general mobility will be far easier if you don’t have lots of equipment; so maybe limit yourself to just one camera and a lens or two if you feel it necessary. This will also make you more inconspicuous and less like to stand out as a photographer (but more of that later on).
Traditionally, it’s best to use a fixed lens, something fairly wide like a 28mm or 35m, although that means getting fairly close to your subject. You might want to start off with a 75mm or 50mm so you can keep a bit of distance to build up confidence.
Step 3. Capturing the Place You Are In
Before heading out, consider the place you’re going to shoot. Does it have a particular mood or style that you want to try and capture in your shots? Maybe it has a particularly high tempo and vibrancy that you could aim to exemplify or maybe it has a more sleepy and quaint demeanour?
Think about any particular features or landmarks and consider whether you want to represent them as points of reference for the location, or whether you’d rather leave them out so you shots are more ambiguous.
Step 4. Go Out and Find It
There aren’t any definitive places to recommended for going out to shoot street photography, you’ve got to go out and find it! Don’t wait for it to come to you, you’ll find far more interesting subject matter if you get out and get involved with your surroundings.
Maybe set a route to walk around the town, keep a look out for anything interesting, and have an eager eye for what’s happening all around you. Have the camera settings decided and ready so you don’t waste time fiddling about and know how your camera works so you can change any settings in reaction to what you’re seeing.
Step 5. Instinctive Decisions
You’ll find that the more time you spend in areas like this, the easier it becomes to catch the goings on around you. Your eye will be trained to spot points of interest. Street photography involves a lot of instinctive decisions, particularly with regard to composition.
For me, the best way to approach this is to forget any compositional rules and just go with whatever feels right to you, different photographers will see things differently and have a different take on a subject, so shoot what you see.
Step 6. What’s Your Motive?
The motive for your photography is important to consider before you go out, otherwise you’ll be spending time making lots of decisions on the street and missing out on potential shots.
Consider whether you want to take the stance of honest documentary shots that capture a place for what it is, highlighting the style and mood of a place and it’s inhabitants. On the flip side, you can look to be more creative and capture and highlight the things that people might not notice, to create something artistic from something that might not usually catch the eye.
Step 7. Photographing in Public
When entering into street photography it is important to understand the moral implications of what you are doing. In most countries, taking photos of people in a public place is totally legal and you’ll only need permission if you’re going to use the photos for commercial use – but please check the relevant laws and regulations for where you’re planning on shooting.
It’s important to keep in mind that asking someone if you can shoot them will affect how they behave in the shot and, if you’re looking for a natural style, shooting in covert might be a better option. Be inconspicuous, not suspicious.
Step 8. When Not to Shoot
When considering who and when you shoot, make sure you have thought about where you’d draw the line personally. Consider illegal activity, confrontation and other people’s children—these are all probably best avoided.
Once you’ve set your boundaries you can start getting involved with the scenes and moments that you do want to capture. Be aware that some people react positively to a camera, which can make for a great shot, but others really don’t want to have their photo taken. Respect their decision. If you do get confronted, be polite, smile and co-operate fully with the other party.
Step 9. Black and White, or Colour?
You’ll see from the examples that I’ve chosen for this article that the majority are black and white. This wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, but traditionally, documentary and street photography have been in black and white.
Shooting in black and white will highlight the action in your scene, it will draw the eye into the points of interest and maximise impact. That’s not to say though that there isn’t room for colour in street photography, I always shoot in colour and then convert later, but consider whether colour will add anything to the shot, if not, stick with black and white!
Step 10. Get Up and Go!
So there you go, hopefully you’re up to speed with the ins and outs of street photography and you’re ready to get out and capture your own neighbourhood.
Don’t spend too long thinking. Obviously if you have a certain motive, or want to capture a certain mood, then employ those whilst working, but the best thing you can do is to grab your camera, get out and start shooting.
You never know what you’re going to find, and it’s the perfect chance to find out whether all those articles you’ve been reading have given you a better “instinct” for photography!
by Simon Bray
Simon Bray is a freelance photographer from Manchester, UK, working on commercial shoots as well as photographing weddings, musicians and artists, and also taking time out to capture landscapes in the surrounding countryside.