Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Part 1: An Introduction to Street Photography
What is street photography?
Street photography is one of the oldest photographic fields.
Long before cameras had digital sensors that could capture incredible images of everything from the night sky to fast-moving athletes, photographers were shooting candid images in city centers.
In fact, the earliest known photograph of a person is a Paris street scene, shot in 1838 by Louis Daguerre.
Through the long and storied history of the genre, countless photography greats, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Vivian Maier, have emerged.
But street photography is about so much more than that. It's about emotion, about evoking the feeling of the human habitat. It's about capturing the collective feeling of being on the streets with others -- or alone.
Perhaps a photo will evoke a memory from childhood or the awe that you felt when standing beneath a skyscraper for the first time. Either way, the mark of a great photo is the feeling it creates for the viewer.
In order to create images that are deeply ingrained with feeling, though, you need a firm grasp on gear and settings.
Part 2: Street Photography Basics
Street photographers generally rely on their creativity to produce great shots, avoiding excessive investment in gear. But there are still choices to be made about focal length and your choice of camera.
Street photographers have traditionally shot with small, easily concealed cameras, but I would encourage you to choose your street photography camera with other criteria.
Photography is an art of compromises. Do you raise your ISO and trade noise for shutter speed? Do you trade depth of field for shutter speed? This pattern is most apparent when it comes to choosing your street camera.
Do you choose a miniature camera, purpose-built for street photography, like the Ricoh GR III Street Edition (Affiliate link), and give up optimal image quality? Or would you rather choose a larger, full-frame camera, that offers the best low-light performance?
It's a decision that only you can make, and it will define your street photography journey.
Your style will change immensely when you change cameras. You might find yourself coming closer to subjects. You might even find that your street photography shifts in style and mood.
If you're really unsure about what camera to choose, consider renting gear for a day or two and experimenting.
Which camera feels best in the hand? Which has the best image quality? These may all become deciding factors in your choice.
Your choice of lens will ultimately be determined by focal length.
Many street photography enthusiasts favor a 35mm lens, but 24mm and 50mm lenses are nearly as common, due to their value, availability, and small size.
The 24mm focal length is a favorite of documentary photographers - and with good reason. It provides a perfect compromise between wide-angle and the classic 35mm street photography lens.
It's a brilliant choice if you want to fill the frame with your entire subject, or if you want to take a low perspective. You can find some exciting and impactful shots with a 24mm lens that would be impossible to capture otherwise.
The 35mm lens has long been the most popular lens amongst street photographers, partly because it mimics the perspective of the human eye perfectly.
It presents a very natural and effective way of showcasing your street images. Find an interesting perspective for more engaging street photos - this is a commonly overused focal length, but unique images can still be made.
The 50mm lens is possibly the second most popular lens choice amongst street photographers. It allows for lifelike renderings of both full, 35mm-type scenes, as well as street portraits.
Also, there are near-infinite lens options around, and they are sold for very reasonable prices. 50mm is a very good way to go if you're on a budget.
Just as with gear, choosing your settings is something of a compromise when it comes to street photography.
When I'm shooting in direct sunlight, I will use an ISO of 400, an f/4 aperture, and automatic shutter speed.
In the ever-changing light of the street, I like to give my camera control over shutter speed. It simply shields my images from under or overexposure.
I also use similar settings for rainy-day street photography.
Things start to become harder in low light. I use the widest possible aperture on my lens, f/1.8, paired with ISO 5000 and automatic shutter speed. In street photography, it's important to prioritize sharpness over image grain.
Grain can be toned down in post-processing, but a blurry image can't be made sharp. Often, I like the effect that grain brings to my street photos, and don't feel the need to correct it.
Part 3: Street Photography Like a Pro
Practice your street photography
Every artist needs time to develop their own creative style and fine-tune their settings.
I'd recommend spending at least a couple of hours every week exploring your neighborhood and practicing your street photography.
Take lots of photos and look back on old 'keepers.' There's nothing like an old image to get a sense of how far your street photography has come.
Try to walk the same route every day, spotting small details and becoming familiar with your surroundings.
If you build up a mental map of the best street photography locations near you, you'll be able to plan and capture unique moments.
Street photography is a spontaneous genre, and it's sometimes hard to perfect your composition as you're shooting.
However, there's a compositional tool that is invaluable when it comes to capturing incredible street images -- the Golden Spiral.
Though it isn't as well-known as the rule of thirds, it provides a similar level of visual balance and is extremely effective in placing subjects throughout the scene.
All of the subjects in the scene above are framed within the spiral, which leads the eye into the frame.
The Golden Spiral will balance out your street images, but it will also add visual tension to your photography. I encourage you to try it.
Nothing in street photography is more important than light. It controls the emotion of your scene, and so you need to be very selective when planning a shoot.
I never use grey days for wider street scenes, preferring warm sun to capture the vibrance and energy of the city. Instead, I use the cloudy, diffuse light as an opportunity to capture portraits or shots of the urban landscape.
When there's bright light, I generally look for crowd scenes, or fire escapes like the one above. It's a great chance to inject some drama and contrast into the photo.
Try looking for haze, shadows, steam - anything that will add interest to your shot.
Historically, street photographers have used manual focusing, waiting for subjects to come into their field of view before taking a photo.
However, in the era of incredibly accurate AF, you can avoid zone focusing in favor of autofocus.
There's simply no point in spending ages perfecting the art of accurate manual focusing when your camera could do it all for you.
Set your camera, if it has this feature, to eye or face detection. Try fine-tuning its sensitivity in the menus until you're pleased with the results.
Subtle street photography
A common mistake amongst beginners in the field of street photography is the myth that all street photographers shoot concealed, 'from the hip'.
But there's no need to be secretive about the fact that you're taking photos, and there's no need to change your perspective in the name of disguise.
One of the largest issues with this technique is sharpness. The constant movement of your leg as you walk the streets can fool even the most advanced image stabilization systems, and focusing is hard, especially for the slower contrast-detect systems found on many DSLRs (and some mirrorless cameras).
This issue is only compounded by that of composition - almost impossible if you can't see the image you're about to shoot. I'd recommend simply conquering your fears and holding your viewfinder to your eye.
In fact, the same could be said for street photography as a whole. Get past the technicalities and the settings. Explore the genre and capture street photography that's about emotion, about evoking the feeling of the human habitat, about capturing the collective memories of our cities.