How Do You Become a Street Photographer

written by: CLARKE SCOTT 
Turkish veteran smiling at Anzac parade

Street photography is an accessible and evocative art form that invites photographers to capture the essence of everyday life and human conditions in public spaces.


Unlike other forms of photography that require elaborate setups or controlled conditions, street photography is about embracing spontaneity and the unpredictable nature of the streets. I immerse myself in my surroundings, seeking out interesting moments, characters, and interactions to frame stories that unfold on the pavements and alleyways.

I have learned that becoming a street photographer starts with a fundamental understanding of what constitutes the genre. It involves not only the technical aspects of handling a camera but also developing a unique perspective that distinguishes my work.

It’s a pursuit that demands patience, an eye for detail, and the ability to anticipate moments before they occur.

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of blending into the environment to capture candid scenes, all the while being mindful of the legal and social nuances that come with photographing in public spaces.

Key Takeaways

  • Street photography is about capturing spontaneous moments in public spaces.
  • It requires technical skills as well as the ability to observe and anticipate.
  • Street photographers must consider legal and social aspects when shooting.

Understanding Street Photography

Before diving into the technicalities, it’s imperative to grasp what street photography truly entails and to appreciate its rich history. It’s about capturing the essence of everyday life and human behavior in public spaces – telling a story through spontaneity.

Defining the Genre

Street photography is a genre that documents humanity in its natural urban habitat. The core lies in observation and candid capture, where I train my lens on unsuspecting subjects in their moment of truth. Unlike other forms of photography where I control the setting and pose, street photography is spontaneous, which makes it both challenging and rewarding.

Key Characteristics of Street Photography:

  • Spontaneity: Capturing unposed moments as they unfold.
  • Public Spaces: Shots taken in streets, parks, and other public places.
  • Human Element: Although not always featuring individuals, human presence or implication of such is a common aspect.
  • Storytelling: Each photograph narrates a story about its subject and setting.

History and Influential Photographers

The history of street photography is entwined with the evolution of portable cameras. It chronicles human life and culture, serving as a visual history book. Becoming aware of this history is fun and I encourage you to look into it.

Evolution of Street Photography:

  • Early 20th Century: Candid photographs of urban life begin to appear.
  • Post-War Era: An increase in personal freedom and the golden age of photojournalism.
  • Contemporary Scene: Digital photography and social media have democratized and expanded the reach of street photography.

Through understanding these fundamentals, I lay down a foundation to delve deeper into the practice of street photography.

Getting Started with Street Photography

Before diving into street photography, I focus on selecting the right equipment to suit my needs. This involves choosing a camera that allows me to capture scenes inconspicuously and a lens that gives me the flexibility to frame life as it unfolds on the streets.

Choosing the Right Camera

When starting street photography, the camera I choose is vital to my experience and the quality of my images. My preferences lean towards mirrorless and DSLR cameras for their balance of size, image quality, and manual controls. However, many street photographers appreciate the discretion and portability of a point and shoot camera or even a smartphone, which also allows quick sharing to social media. For enthusiasts of an analog look and process, a film camera offers a classic feel. In contrast, digital cameras provide immediate feedback, which can be essential for learning and improving.

Camera TypeProsCons
MirrorlessCompact, less intimidatingShorter battery life
Point & ShootPortable, inconspicuousLess manual control, smaller sensor
SmartphoneAlways with you, connectedLimited quality and control, small sensor
FilmTangible medium, unique aestheticExtra cost of film, no immediate feedback

Understanding Lenses

Choosing a lens for street photography is about finding the right balance between focal length and speed. A prime lens with a wide aperture like f/1.8 or f/2.8 allows me to shoot in various lighting conditions. A common focal length I use is 35mm or 50mm, which closely resembles the natural field of view of the human eye, making the scenes look as if I am part of them. In some cases, I may choose a lens with a bit more reach, like a 85mm, to capture intimate details without intruding on personal spaces. For versatility, a zoom lens with a range like 24-70mm can be helpful, but it’s typically larger and draws more attention.

Lens TypeProsCons
PrimeGreat image quality, fastFixed focal length, less versatile
ZoomVersatile focal lengthsOften larger, may be slower (aperture)

By understanding the strengths and limitations of my equipment, I can better prepare myself for the spontaneous nature of street photography and develop my own style.

Technical Mastery

In the realm of street photography, achieving technical mastery is critical for capturing shots that resonate with vibrancy and authenticity. I’ll guide you through understanding camera settings, mastering composition, and making the most of lighting to elevate your street photography.

Camera Settings

Aperture: For street photography, a smaller aperture (higher f-number) keeps more of the scene in focus, which is advantageous for capturing the spontaneity of street scenes. Shutter Speed: A fast shutter speed is essential to freeze motion and avoid blurriness. A rule of thumb is to set the shutter speed at least as fast as the reciprocal of the focal length of your lens. ISO: Keep your ISO as low as possible for the best image quality, but don’t hesitate to increase it when necessary to compensate for low light conditions.

Mastering Composition

The golden rules of composition hold true for street photography. Rule of Thirds: Imagine your image is divided into nine equal segments by two vertical and two horizontal lines. Place your subject along these lines or at their intersections to add balance and interest.

  • Leading Lines: Utilize lines within your environment to lead the viewer’s eye toward your focal point.
  • Framing: Find elements within your scene to frame your subject, depth and context to your image.
  • Patterns and Colors: Search for repeating patterns and contrasting colors to create visually striking images that stand out.

Understanding Lighting

Quality of Light: The softness or harshness of light affects the mood of your image. Overcast days provide soft, diffused light which is often ideal for street photography. Direction of Light: Be mindful of where the light is coming from; side-lit scenes can create dramatic contrast and enhance textures. Shadows and Highlights: The interplay of shadows and highlights can add a dynamic element to your photos. Harness strong lighting contrasts to emphasize form and structure within your compositions.

Developing a Street Photographer’s Eye

To excel in street photography, I focus on honing my observational skills and finding a style that resonates with my creative vision. Capturing the essence of the streets demands a keen eye for detail and a deep understanding of the nuances of moment and design.

Finding Inspiration

I seek out inspiration by immersing myself in diverse environments, from bustling markets to quiet backstreets, observing the interplay between light, shadows, and subjects. I take note of works by established street photographers, allowing the blend of their technique and subject matter to influence my perspective while ensuring my voice remains distinct.

  • Examine iconic street photographs to understand composition and moment.
  • Explore various cultural settings to broaden my thematic choices.

Observing Your Surroundings

Critical awareness of my surroundings is vital. I train my eyes to anticipate the decisive moment when an expression, gesture, or scene culminates into a compelling story. This requires patience and a mindful presence, allowing me to notice subtleties often overlooked.

  1. Spend time in different locations to understand the rhythm of the street.
  2. Anticipate interactions between people and their environment for candid moments.

Developing a Style

My style is an amalgamation of the design elements I choose to include and the subjects I am drawn to. By consistently shooting and reflecting on my work, I craft a unique visual language that conveys my interpretation of street life.

  • Experiment with different photographic techniques to find my signature approach.
  • Focus on consistency in themes and presentation to establish my distinctive style.

The Art of Candid Photography

In my experience, capturing the essence of the streets through candid photography revolves around two core principles: how I approach subjects and the respect and ethics I maintain throughout the process.

Approaching Subjects

When I approach subjects for candid shots, my aim is to preserve the natural state of the environment.

It’s important to blend in — essentially becoming a part of the scene. I use discreet equipment and observe the surroundings carefully. My interaction with the scene is minimal. Sometimes, it’s necessary to position myself strategically: I look for a spot where I can capture the flow of life without being intrusive. If I sense that my presence is altering behavior, I reassess my approach because my goal is always to document authentic moments.

When deciding whether to interact or ask for permission, it’s a case-by-case decision. If the moment feels intimate or private, I might move on or, if suitable, I prepare to seek consent after capturing the shot. This enables me to secure the candid nature of the photo while also respecting the subject’s privacy.

Maintaining Respect and Ethics

As a street photographer, maintaining respect and ethics is non-negotiable. I always:

  • Keep a respectful distance when possible
  • Avoid photographing vulnerable individuals without consent
  • Delete any photos if the subject expresses discomfort, even after the fact

I believe in the importance of photographing with integrity. This means understanding the impact of my images and how they portray the subjects and the environment. Permission plays a crucial role in certain scenarios. If a subject notices me and seems uncomfortable, I’ll ask if they’re okay with me taking their photo. If not, I respect their wishes without question.

My practice is also guided by local laws and cultural norms which can vary significantly from place to place. I make it my responsibility to be informed about these aspects before I start shooting. The ethics of candid photography demand not just a good eye, but a conscientious heart.

Building a Portfolio and Sharing Your Work

To become a respected street photographer, it’s essential to showcase your work effectively. I’ve found that curating a strong portfolio and leveraging social media and websites are pivotal steps in reaching an audience.

Curating Images

When I create my portfolio, my aim is to display the breadth and depth of my work. I focus on a few key steps:

  • Selecting a Theme: My portfolio is thematic, which means I select images that relate to each other in some manner, be it style, subject, or storytelling.
  • Quality Over Quantity: I include only my best work. Each image must stand on its own merit and contribute to the overall portfolio.
  • Physical and Digital Formats: I ensure to have both digital files ready for my website or social media and high-quality prints that I can showcase in galleries or turn into photo books.

Using Social Media and Websites

Social media and personal websites are tools I use to reach a wider audience:

  • Instagram: This platform is particularly beneficial due to its visual nature. I share my latest work, connect with other photographers, and engage with my followers through regular posts and stories.
  • Consistent Posting: I maintain a steady presence online, which helps in building a following.
  • Engagement: By actively engaging with my audience, I foster a community around my work.
  • Personal Website: A professional-looking website serves as the hub for my online portfolio. Here, I can showcase the best of my street photography in a curated, customizable way. I use website builders that offer gallery features and e-commerce capabilities for those interested in purchasing prints or books.

With these strategies, my portfolio becomes a dynamic testament to my work, and I establish a presence both offline and online in the world of street photography.

Legal and Social Considerations

When I approach street photography, I recognize it as not just a creative endeavor, but also one that entails specific legal and social responsibilities. My work must align with the rules of the public spaces I operate in and respect the individuals I capture through my lens.

Understanding the Law

Public places often allow photography without explicit permission, but the laws can vary significantly by location. In my experience, it’s critical to know the local regulations that govern public photography. For instance, some areas may have restrictions on the use of cameras near government buildings or military installations. Here are key points I adhere to:

  • Public vs. Private Property:
    • I can typically take photos without repercussions in public places.
    • On private property, I need the owner’s permission to shoot.
  • Legal Restrictions:
    • Always check for local laws pertaining to photography in the area.

Navigating Public Spaces

Interacting with people in the spaces where I shoot is an equally important part of street photography. Here’s how I ensure that I maintain respect and consideration for the public while navigating these spaces:

  • Seeking Permission:
    • When possible, I obtain verbal consent from individuals.
    • If I’m asked to stop shooting by property owners or their agents, I comply.
  • Respect Privacy and Dignity:
    • I avoid causing distress or invading privacy.
    • I aim to portray individuals and scenes with dignity.

Advanced Techniques and Concepts

In advancing street photography skills, it’s crucial to master different lighting conditions and convey compelling narratives through imagery.

Night Street Photography

To excel in night street photography, I consider the type of equipment to use. Prime lenses with wide apertures (i.e., f/1.4, f/1.8) are usually preferred over zoom lenses because they allow more light onto the sensor, which is essential for capturing sharp images in low-light conditions. I also pay attention to the focal lengths; a 35mm or 50mm prime lens often strikes a good balance between field of view and low-light performance.

Working with artificial light sources also becomes part of the storytelling process. Street portraits taken at night can reveal different facets of the urban landscape, juxtaposing the stillness of a portrait against the vibrancy of the city life. I typically increase my ISO settings while balancing noise levels to ensure clarity. A stable footing or a tripod is handy when dealing with long exposure times to minimize blur, which can be useful for portraying the movement and dynamism of night scenes.

Storytelling Through Images

When I use street photography to tell a story, each image becomes a chapter of a narrative. I select focal lengths that contribute to the story I want to tell; wide-angle lenses (e.g., 24mm) for capturing sprawling street scenes, or telephoto lenses for zeroing in on the emotions and actions of individuals. Prime lenses can sharpen the focus on a subject and help isolate them from busy backgrounds, while a zoom lens offers versatility to quickly adapt to changing scenes.

Moreover, composition plays a pivotal role; I employ techniques like leading lines or framing to guide the viewer’s eye and add depth to the narrative. I constantly move around to find unique angles and perspectives that reveal something new. Whether it’s a capture of daily life that speaks volumes about societal norms or a candid shot that encapsulates a fleeting moment, each photograph is a considered attempt to convey meaning that resonates with the viewer. I strive to create images where the subjects, the environment, and the moment coalesce to narrate a potent, visual story.

Frequently Asked Questions

In my journey as a street photographer, I’ve encountered numerous questions that seem to recur among enthusiasts of the craft. These address the essentials of starting out, technical settings, popular techniques, monetization, notable figures, and tips for honing your skill.

What are the essential elements to begin with in street photography?

To start with street photography, I believe the essentials include a reliable camera, a good understanding of light and composition, and a keen awareness of your surroundings. The goal is to capture candid moments that tell a story or evoke emotion.

Which camera settings are generally recommended for urban street photography?

For urban street photography, I typically recommend a fast shutter speed to freeze motion, a moderate ISO to balance light sensitivity and minimize grain, and an aperture that provides a good depth of field while allowing for quick shots. Experimentation is key to understanding how settings influence your results.

What are some common street photography techniques used by successful photographers?

Successful street photographers often use techniques like the ‘fishing technique’—waiting in a spot where interesting scenes are likely to occur—and ‘layering’—composing images with multiple subjects at different distances. I’ve found both to be effective in adding depth and interest to my photographs.

How can one legally and ethically make money from street photography?

Making money from street photography legally and ethically involves selling prints, offering workshops, or publishing books. I ensure that my practices respect privacy laws and ethical standards, such as asking for consent when appropriate and being mindful of the impact my work might have on subjects.

Who are some of the influential figures in the history of street photography?

Influential figures in street photography include Henri Cartier-Bresson with his ‘decisive moment’ philosophy, Vivian Maier’s rich portrayal of mid-century American life, and Garry Winogrand’s candid depictions of American social issues. Their work has guided and inspired my approach to the genre.

Can you offer any tips for someone trying to improve their street photography skills?

To improve your street photography skills, I suggest practicing regularly, studying the work of masters, and always being ready to capture the fleeting moments. Pay attention to light, patterns, and expressions, and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone for that unique shot.

Further Reading