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Street Photography Dos and Don’ts

written by: CLARKE SCOTT 
two girls walking past a window looking at a skinny model

Street photography presents an exhilarating opportunity for photographers to capture the essence of daily life and human behavior in public spaces.

As an engaging form of art, it allows us to document the world around us, crafting stories through spontaneous and often unposed moments. Whether roaming the bustling streets of a metropolitan city or the quiet sidewalks of a small town, street photographers pursue the goal of immortalizing the fleeting interactions and serendipitous events that unfold before their lenses.

The charm lays in the unpredictability and the challenge lies in capturing these moments while navigating the delicate balance between being unobtrusive and creating impactful images.

Understanding the fundamentals of street photography is crucial for success. This includes not only mastering the technical aspects of the camera but also honing the skills required to compose a shot with aesthetic appeal and narrative power. The art of street photography is as much about technique as it is about intuition and the ability to anticipate the decisive moment. It’s important to remember the ethical considerations and legal limitations associated with photographing in public spaces, as they play a significant role in the practice. The interaction with the subject and the conduct of the photographer are equally pivotal elements, often shaping the authenticity and legitimacy of the photographic work.

Key Takeaways

  • Street photography captures the spontaneous essence of public life.
  • Mastery of both camera technique and image composition is essential.
  • Ethical considerations and photographer conduct are fundamental to the practice.

Fundamentals of Street Photography

man in a newsletter stand not wanting to be photographed

In street photography, we document everyday life and humanity, capturing spontaneous moments that tell a story. It’s essential to respect the ethics of the genre while mastering our gear and camera settings to produce truthful, compelling images.

Understanding the Genre

Street photography is an art form that requires us to be observant and deliberate in documenting the human condition. Here are the key aspects to consider:

  • Ethics: We must always be respectful of our subjects and consider the moral implications of our photographs.
  • Truthful representation: Our goal is to capture genuine moments, presenting an unaltered reflection of society.

Essential Gear and Settings

The gear and settings can vary, but there are some common choices that suit street photography:

  • Camera: A reliable and inconspicuous camera helps us blend into our surroundings.
  • Lens: A standard to wide-angle lens affords a broad view of scenes, making it easier to capture subjects on the fly.

We need to understand and adjust the following settings swiftly:

SettingPurposeCommon Choices
ISOAdjusts the camera’s sensitivity to light. We increase it in low light to avoid using flash.ISO 400-1600
Shutter SpeedControls how long the sensor is exposed to light. A fast shutter freezes motion in bustling streets.1/250 sec or faster
ApertureDictates the depth of field and the amount of light entering the lens. A wider aperture lets more light in and blurs the background, which can help isolate subjects.f/2.8 – f/8
RAW formatCaptures all image data, allowing for greater post-processing flexibility.Always shoot in RAW
Manual ModeGives us complete control over the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.Preferred by experienced photographers

We opt for camera settings that allow for quick reflexes and adaptability, ensuring we’re prepared for the unpredictable nature of the street. Utilizing manual mode can be advantageous, but it’s important to know how and when to make swift adjustments to capture the fleeting moments that define this genre.

Composition and Technique

In street photography, our ability to compose a scene and manipulate our camera’s settings can make the difference between a snapshot and a memorable image. We focus on the scene’s geometry, the interplay of light and shadow, and the decisive moment when all elements come together. Let’s break this down further.

Click here to better understand why your street photography photos are not sharp.

Framing the Perfect Shot

Turkish veteran smiling at Anzac parade

When we frame a shot, we look for natural lines and borders that can guide the viewer’s eye toward our subject. Key elements such as leading lines, the rule of thirds, and frame within a frame can elevate the composition. We also consider focal lengths; a wide-angle lens can capture a broader scene and add depth of field, while a telephoto lens can isolate subjects and create compelling bokeh effects.

  • Leading Lines: These direct the viewer’s gaze across the photo, often to the subject.
  • Rule of Thirds: Dividing the frame into thirds both horizontally and vertically helps us place important compositional elements.

Mastering Focus and Exposure

To capture a sharp photo, mastering autofocus or zone focusing is crucial. In busy streets, autofocus with a fast reaction time enables us to catch fleeting moments, while zone focusing allows us to predefine a focus area. When considering exposure, we assess the light and adjust our camera’s ISO, shutter speed, and aperture accordingly.

  • Zone Focusing: Set your lens to a predetermined distance where you expect your subject to be; anything within that depth of field will be in focus.
  • Exposure Triangle: ISO, shutter speed, and aperture must be balanced to achieve the correct exposure. An overexposed photo loses detail, while an underexposed one hides it in shadows.

Ethics and Legality

Within the realm of street photography, we contend with the delicate balance between capturing candid life and respecting individuals’ rights. It is our duty to ensure we are ethically sound and legally compliant.

Respecting Privacy and Boundaries

In public spaces, the expectation of privacy is reduced, yet we must always maintain respect for individuals’ personal boundaries. When photographing, it is paramount to:

  • Assess the situation: Gauge if the subject is in a vulnerable position or if photography could invade their privacy.
  • Seek permission: When possible, it’s considerate to ask for consent, especially if the subject is the main focus of the image.

Navigating Legal Considerations

The laws governing street photography vary widely, but common legal frameworks share some similarities. Our adherence to legal standards involves:

  • Understanding public space laws: We can typically photograph anything in plain view when we are in a public location.
  • Model releases: If we intend to publish images commercially, a model release is often necessary to protect against legal issues. This falls outside of street photography generally speaking but if you are doing travel photography and working for a client such as a tourism board then you will need permission. If you need people in the scene for the shots simply hire models to act a people.

Interaction and Conduct

In street photography, how we interact with our subjects and handle confrontations is as crucial as capturing the moment. It’s our responsibility to be both respectful and confident in our approach.

Engaging with Subjects

When we approach people for street photography, we must do so with a friendly demeanor and a smile to create a comfortable atmosphere. If we decide to interact with individuals or a group, it’s about balancing the need for a candid shot with the person’s comfort level. Here’s a checklist for engaging with subjects:

  • Respect Privacy: Always be ready to respect a subject’s desire not to be photographed.
  • Communicate: Offer a smile and a polite greeting to ease anxiety.
  • Intuition: Pay attention to body language to gauge if someone is open to being photographed.

Dealing with Confrontation

Not every interaction will go smoothly, and sometimes people express frustration or fear regarding their photo being taken. Our approach in these situations should remain calm and understanding:

  • Stay Calm: Keep a neutral tone and apologize if necessary.
  • Explain Your Art: If asked, explain your purpose in a way that signifies respect for their feelings.
  • Withdraw if Needed: If someone is adamant, it’s best to move away and avoid escalating the situation.

Through these methods, we maintain a considerate and ethical practice in street photography.

Further Reading