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Street photography can be seen as a photographic treasure hunt – you may go home empty-handed after spending several hours walking through the city but you may also find yourself capturing shots you could never have predicted. It is a type of photography that is open to everyone and can also be pursued anywhere in the world.
However, the endless opportunities available within street photography are also the reason why it may appear daunting for beginners. You may be asking yourself what constitutes a street photograph, what should you focus on and what is ethically acceptable to photograph in the public arena. Let us explore what street photography is, what kind of photographic equipment you need and how you can make the most of it using the environment available to you.
It is not simple to define street photography because there are so many ways that photographers can approach it. Street photography documents a small piece of social history unfolding in front of the photographer’s eyes and lens, regardless of how obscure it may seem. It depicts the personality of the photographer just as much as what they choose to photograph. You will see humour, coincidences, juxtapositions, human interactions with one another as well as with their environment, interestingly composed and captured minute details of the street and more.
Street photography also includes certain aspects of documentary, architecture, abstract, portrait and other genres of photography. It can be seen as snippets of one’s visual diary as the photographer blends in with the background of the city and observes the life and people around them.
Even the most mundane moments can give you photo opportunities. Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
Historically, street photography became a distinct genre in its own right during the 1930s, especially through the works of street photography pioneers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï and André Kertész. Their work is still influential and relevant nowadays, with many of us seeking inspiration in the work of those who began pursuing street photography decades ago.
Street photographs generally will either tell a story, raise questions or be visually pleasing to the viewer’s eye. Whether you choose a more direct and invasive approach like American street photographer Bruce Gilden, pursue it more subtly both as an observer and as someone who engages with some of the subjects, such as Vivian Maier, or you take on a more surreal and abstract approach by creating emotive shots of your environment similar to Ralph Gibson, you will soon learn what draws you to street photography and you will eventually find your own unique style.
There is something for everyone to find in the streets and you just have to ask yourself what is visually appealing to you, what catches your eye, what suits your personality and what you enjoy shooting.
Before discussing photographic equipment, it is important to ask yourself the purpose of pursuing street photography. Heading outdoors with a camera in hand but without any forethought on what you want to photograph can often lead to feeling disappointed. You do not need to create a complicated street photography project but having a faint idea of what theme you are looking for will help you gain focus and give you a reason to pick up your camera and go outside.
Having a loose photographic project or idea in mind will still enable you to document other spontaneous, unexpected and random occurrences on the streets because you will have your camera ready.
Having a theme does not mean you will miss unexpected moments to capture. Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
However, if you put your photography solely into the hands of fate, it is likely that as a beginner, you will be inclined to photograph places, people and details of the city that others do, too. For example, you might photograph local landmarks or well-known and visually appealing buildings or scenes. While these types of street photographs may appeal to tourists because they are easily accessible and photogenic, these types of shots may be considered by some street photographers as “safe”.
Creating "safe shots" is a great way of gaining confidence if you initially feel self-conscious, particularly when you're not used to photographing in a public space. This way, you'll learn to feel comfortable being outdoors with a camera in hand. Eventually, your goal should be to create images that depict how you see the world around you and how you relate to it. This will result in photographs that are unique to your style, vision and personality.
Finding purpose for your street photographs will also help you maintain motivation and passion for what you are doing. Your purpose can be as simple as seeking out shots that capture various forms of light in the city, a repeating colour, candid shots of people in different trades, people carrying an umbrella, or even the contrast between affluent and run down neighbourhoods.
Once you find a common idea or theme for your shots, you will find it easier to then focus on becoming creative in your compositions and post-processing. This will also make it less likely for you to become overwhelmed when faced with so many possible photo opportunities, which can sometimes have the opposite effect of resulting in you going home from a shoot empty-handed.
The beauty of street photography is that anyone with access to a camera can do it and you are not required to invest in expensive equipment as you would in professional photography.
Modern smartphones are capable of producing good quality images even in low-light situations. You can also use the in-built camera app or your phone or download a more advanced one that will allow you to be in control of the camera settings. Doing so can turn your smartphone from a simple point-and-shoot to an advanced piece of photographic equipment that allows you to use manual settings and more.
Furthermore, smartphones are light, discreet and easy to carry, which is ideal for many shooters, especially those who are not yet ready or interested to invest in purchasing cameras and lenses. However, you will still have the option to add accessories to enhance your shooting experience. You can do that by purchasing mobile lenses which attach over your smartphone’s camera lens for additional shooting capabilities, such as wide angle, macro, telephoto and more.
Smartphone is convenient and light, ideal for shooting on-the-go. Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
Using a smartphone for your street photography is also a great way to learn more about post-processing by using editing apps straight after taking your shots. There are many free and paid apps that give you a mobile editing suite with tools, such as, tone curve, white balance, vignette, lens blur, hue and saturation adjustments, double exposure, and others. These tools mirror those you would use in a more advanced editing suite, such as Photoshop, so it is an accessible way for you to learn the basics of post-processing.
Most smartphones already have a built-in default editing tool or app that can process basic actions, such as cropping, adjusting brightness, adding various colour filters, and several other tools.
Initially, it may seem arbitrary to use film cameras for fast-paced and modern street photography shoots. However, when it comes to entering the street photography scene as a beginner, film cameras may be an affordable way into photography.
You can pick up inexpensive film cameras and lenses from second-hand marketplaces online, such as, eBay, Facebook Marketplace and other online hubs that allow sellers to post listings of their items, either as an auction or as an instant buy. If you prefer to handle the equipment first, you can find film cameras in charity shops, garage sales, local auction houses and camera shops. You might even have a family member who already owns a film camera that they can pass onto you.
Regarding finished products, your budget will determine where you are able to purchase and process your film. You will not need to pay for any equipment or software to edit your photographs unless you choose to digitise them but you will need to be mindful about storing and looking after your negatives if you want to keep them safe for the future.
Shooting street photography with a film camera is also going to be a more mindful process. Most film cameras are fully manual. This means that you will (hopefully) take more time to consider and learn about the actual process of creating a photograph as you combine the appropriate camera settings with choosing the decisive moment when you will press your shutter. It is a slower process than shooting with digital cameras or smartphones because you will not be tempted to overshoot.
If you want to learn more about using film cameras in street photography, you can find advice, tutorials and tips on YouTube, join a local camera club that supports film photography, book a place on a group workshop or hire an experienced photographer to tutor you on a one-to-one basis.
The market for digital cameras and lenses is so broad that everyone will find a suitable piece of equipment to work with. The downside is that digital equipment comes at a higher entry cost but it does also offer various benefits. The actual shooting process is a lot faster, especially for beginners, because most digital cameras allow you to shoot in automatic modes that decide the appropriate settings for you, such as the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. So, all you’re left to do is to choose your composition and the right moment before pressing the shutter.
Would you prefer to shoot digital or film? Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
Digital cameras and smartphones may appeal to those who simply want to start shooting immediately, or who want to learn more about camera settings along the way during their photography journey. You have a choice of purchasing a camera with a fixed lens or one that is interchangeable. The former often comes lighter and smaller, however, the downfall is being stuck with having to use the same focal length all the time. Meanwhile, the price is sometimes on par with similar camera systems with changeable lenses.
Certain benefits of digital cameras for street photography include tilt screens that some camera models have. This allows for a subtler way of shooting as you can lower the camera and shoot by looking down at the tilted screen. Or, equally you can use a tilt screen to compose shots that are close to the ground without requiring you to look through the viewfinder. Instant connection, such as built-in WiFi or Bluetooth, allows you to immediately send shots to your smartphone where you can edit and use them. Another tool that can be helpful when using digital cameras for street shots is being able to shoot continuously. This will produce several consecutive shots in situations where the scene is fast paced and you want to make sure you have got the right shot.
Shooting several shots in a sequence is great for fast moving subjects. Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
You can also use your smartphone in conjunction with your digital camera. Many cameras now support smartphone apps that allow you to shoot remotely, which can also be helpful for street photography. This can be done by controlling your camera settings via your smartphone, setting up timer function or using your smartphone to compose and take the shot.
Each digital camera will have its benefits and quirks – there are too many to name! It is worth considering your budget first and then researching which camera and lens combination will suit your shooting style – whether it is a second hand entry-level DSLR or mirrorless, or a high-quality luxury camera, such as Leica, or somewhere in between.
For most people, street photography may appear to be daunting. It can seem invasive and creepy but there is so much more to documenting the streets than raising your camera and pointing it at strangers in close proximity. Doing so may not only invite confused looks but can also create unnecessary aggression. Even if the law permits photographing in public places, it does not mean that everyone will respond positively to it. The good thing is that you can learn to become a more considerate shooter and minimise the risk of creating any confrontation or denting your own confidence as a consequence of an unpleasant experience.
If your focus is primarily people-based photography, especially street portraits, then you need to learn to “read” people whom you approach. A friendly smile goes a long way, especially if there is a language barrier. If you are travelling abroad and don’t speak the local language, then you can prepare a leaflet or a business card with translated information that briefly explains what you do and asks the subject if you can take their photo. This works well for more controlled shooting, such as when capturing local markets, tradesmen, people in cafés and so forth. I have used this approach in Paris when I was photographing people and the local café culture for a joint exhibition. Although most people will respond positively, this approach does not always create truly candid images as people will be more camera-aware.
My friend and I asked permission to take their photo; while they were laughing and talking I caught this candid. Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
If someone makes it clear that they don’t want their photograph taken, then don’t pursue it because you will find plenty of photo opportunities elsewhere. You don’t want street photography to become a bitter experience for yourself or others, so there is no reason to be persistent when your subject has clearly refused to be photographed.
Photographing minors in public is something that requires photographers to analyse each situation on its own merit. For example, photographing crowds in the street, such as non-violent protests or public concerts where parents might bring their children along, is easier than focusing on an individual, whether it is a child on their own or with a parent. For various reasons, many parents object to having a candid photo taken of their child, so you will need to use common sense and ask yourself whether it is worth the risk of upsetting the parents, irrespective of your own feelings. The issue stems from the uncertainty and not knowing each photographer’s motives or where the images might be used.
Use your best judgement when you include minors in your street shots. Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
I have experienced this situation myself in Milano Duomo, a well-known tourist area in Milan, where I was photographing the crowds. A mother approached me and asked me if I had taken a photograph of her daughter, and if I had, she requested me to delete it. Although photographers have various ways of concealing this, such as, deleting the image while a back-up copy of the file might remain on the second memory card if your camera has dual-slots, you also must analyse each situation individually to find a solution that fits your moral standing and ethics code. The same applies to issues concerning photographing the homeless, street performers and anything else that may be considered exploitative. Use your judgement to determine the best course of action.
Most street photographers do not use aggressive approaches to photographing people. However, even if that is not your way of shooting, there are a few steps you can take to become even more discreet.
Visually larger cameras may appear more intimidating, so opting for a smaller one will not only allow you to shoot more discreetly but it will also make it easier for you to carry it with you in your pocket or your bag. At the end of the day, the best camera is the one we have with us. Smaller cameras will make it easier for you not to miss interesting shots you might see on the way.
Some photographers also learn how to shoot from the hip. This requires plenty of practice so you can begin to judge how your focal length and chosen camera settings will affect your shot and composition. Shooting from the hip can also produce unexpected candid images without you having to raise the camera to your eye. Similarly, by using a tilt screen, the Live View function or simply controlling your camera with a smartphone app, you'll be able to engage in a more subtle way of shooting.
You can also sit down at certain places that give you a potential for creating shots around you. You don’t always need to be on-the-go to create street images. Choosing a good location to observe can be just as fruitful as walking through the city. This helps you to blend in with the background and most passers-by may not even notice you.
You can be discreet and still create interesting shots while sat down. Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
It’s very likely that at some point in your photographic journey, you will be approached by a member of security, either private or national. It’s always handy to familiarise yourself with laws of photographing in various areas so you will be more prepared if anyone starts to question you. You might not even realise that certain areas are private land, so it’s best to be informed about laws that apply to where you are shooting, even if it means printing applicable ones out onto a piece of paper that you can put in your bag and refer to if required.
Unless you are in a hurry, it can be beneficial to come up with a brief project that will kick-start your street photography and give you a reason to go out, a purpose to shoot and a result to work towards. There’s nothing worse than trying out a new style of photography but being too overwhelmed and not knowing where to begin!
Light is the one subject that we will always have no matter where we go. Nonetheless, it is a subject that many photographers don’t even consider shooting because we are more likely to gravitate towards photographing objects or people.
If you are out shooting on a sunny day, it will be easy to notice areas where the light falls and creates shadows. Look for compositions that showcase this contrast between light and dark, such as on building walls, in alleyways, corners of the street, on the pavement, and so on. You can shoot this in an abstract way or by including subjects, such as people walking into a pool of light at the right time, bikes or bicycles passing by.
Look for contrast between light and dark; introduce people in your composition for additional visual interest. Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
Shadows created by various objects in the street will also lead to interesting shots. Harsher light will produce many photo opportunities but due to the stark contrast between light and dark, you may need to shoot in manual mode or by using the exposure compensation setting on your camera to produce a shot that replicates what you have envisioned.
On a cloudy day, you will have a soft and diffused light. In this case, you can use the long exposure technique to capture the sky and the beautifully soft light with a building or an object also added to the composition. You will need a steady tripod for this method and potentially a neutral density filter, which will allow you to shoot longer exposures, depending on the available light.
Soft light is great for capturing architectural shots in the streets. Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
Colour is a simple but engaging project theme that can be adjusted to your liking. When shooting colours, make sure you compose your shots in a way that isolates your chosen colour. You can also incorporate colour by shooting long exposures of neon lights or displays and trail lights. Choosing monochromatic backgrounds, such as white, grey and black, will make the colour stand out.
The moment you start looking for something very particular, you will begin to focus more on your composition and being creative instead of wandering around the streets and being unsure about what to photograph.
Neon signs and lights is just one of the possibilities to capture. Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
If you’re out and want to come up with an idea on the fly, take a look around and find one common denominator that can connect your shots that day based on where you are and the weather conditions.
If it’s rainy, then you can use umbrellas as a theme. If you’re out after the sun has gone down, then try looking for interesting shots of neon lights and patrons as they are enjoying a meal or drink at cafés, restaurants and bars. If you want to focus more on photographing people, then perhaps look for couples as a theme or tourists as they congregate in more popular areas of a city, taking shots of themselves or their friends, looking at maps, and so forth.
Why not document animals you see in the streets? Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
As with all other projects, the trick is to focus on one idea that will cultivate your creativity and inspiration as opposed to shooting everything and anything around you while hoping to get a successful shot. It is a process that relies heavily on you enjoying it and having the motivation to pursue it, so don’t put your expectations so high that you will struggle to reach them, resulting in disappointment and loss of interest.
If you are a regular visitor to a local coffee shop, then you can easily incorporate street photography by photographing it every time you go. You can photograph indoor café details and still life shots, its visitors or passers-by, depending on where you choose to sit. You can even create a project that encompasses different cafés that you visit throughout your travels, creating a collection of shots that are not only visually appealing and interesting but which document the places you have visited.
Cafes are great places to photograph because they attract people from all walks of life and have differently styled interior and exterior. Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
Whether you need to regularly commute or not, early mornings in cities have a special atmosphere. The city is waking up and waves of commuters travel in and out of it, giving you plenty of opportunities to create a variety of shots. If you are a commuter yourself, all you need is a camera small enough for you to bring it with you regularly or just your smartphone. If you don’t need to commute, then you can use the early hours of the morning to watch the crowds. Try experimenting with a combination of portraiture, wider shots of the environment, abstract details or compositions and movement shots so that you can create a collection of images to be proud of.
Make your commute more interesting by creating shots that document your journey. Photo by: 'Yerko Lucic, Unsplash'.
When it comes to developing a project of your own, we advise opting for a simpler theme rather than one that is more complex and difficult to shoot. This way, you can expand on your creativity and vision when interpreting it, composing and post processing your images. Consider your own interests, personality, schedule and location when you put a project together. It needs to be stimulating enough for you to maintain motivation to do it but also not too hard that you beat yourself up if there are days when you don’t feel like shooting at all.
All in all, street photography is a great hobby for beginners and professionals alike. As we primarily shoot street photography for ourselves and our own enjoyment, there are no expectations and also no limits to what you can plan and shoot. Street photography carries a great appeal for people who enjoy travelling and who want to capture more interesting shots of the places they visit. It can also appeal to those who like the experience of enjoying the city and watching moments unfold around them. There are many ways to express your personality and creativity in street photography.
Find what makes streets interesting to you and enjoy the process. Photo by: 'Anete Lusina'.
When choosing your equipment, consider your budget and what type of street photography you enjoy. If you already pursue other types of photography, then you can get started right away with your current equipment. If you don’t, then consider using your smartphone. It's a user-friendly tool to give you an insight into street photography without the commitment of purchasing a camera.
If you are looking for any additional inspiration, consider listening to interviews of street photographers and their thought processes, watching documentaries on the history of street photography and flipping through photographic books. Give yourself a simple theme or idea when you go outdoors to shoot and you’ll be able to focus more on your compositions and creativity. At the end of the day, the main goal of pursuing street photography should be to enjoy it, from the places you visit and people you encounter to the end result of going over your finished images.
Have you ever tried your hand at street photography? What did you find easy and which aspects were more challenging? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!