FACING THE STREET

When it comes to street (or urban) photography, one of the most asked questions is what exactly is street photography? It’s a difficult question to answer because this photographic field is all-encompassing. It can involve architecture, landscape, portraiture, black and white, long-exposure and even macro.

However, not just any photograph taken on the street, off the street or from the street counts as urban photography.

Let me explain.

Landscapes are not street photographs, and neither are studio portraits, for example. Urban photography takes into account specific compositional guidelines, the speed of photo taking and also different camera equipment. It covers a very wide range of styles and subjects while embodying its own technique.

No other area of photography is so diversified. The public space is an ever-changing environment and it needs a wide range of themes to capture it.

WHERE DO YOU START?

As a starting point, look for the following subjects when you’re in the field. They may be the “basics” of street photography, but they will help you discover your own vision and open your eyes to the enormous potential that exists to capture the human element – the core of street photography.

More technical considerations include ISO sensitivity, dynamic range and auto focus speed. A camera with a lag in autofocus will leave you with a day’s worth of blurry shots of moving subjects.

Features like LCD screens, continuous shooting speed, lens’s focal length, aperture and on-board flash are also important considerations.

OVERCOMING THE FEAR

Starting out in street photography can be quite an overwhelming experience. A lot is happening all around you all at once. You don’t really know what you should capture and what you shouldn’t.

So, if you haven’t had much time to earn your street cred yet, or you’re unsure what the process or techniques are to help you get over your fears don’t worry – there are many steps you can take to make it easier on yourself from the very beginning.

STEP 1: TRY STREET PORTRAITURE

Street portraiture is when you ask someone to take their portrait on the street. It’s simple, it’s quick, and it’s easy.

Start off by picking someone in a flashy outfit. People in flashy outfits generally want to be seen and want to be photographed, so they are great to start with. Then, move on to more regular people.

What you will learn is how truly excited most people will be when you ask them. You will become the most interesting moment of their day and the story that they will tell when they get home at the end of it.

STEP 2: PICK A SPOT AND LET PEOPLE COME TO YOU

Pick a spot with a lot of foot traffic or an interesting background and wait for people to come to you. This way, your subjects will come into your space. You will feel much more comfortable photographing them and it will also be less likely that they will notice you.

STEP 3: USE A SMALL, WIDE-ANGLE PRIME LENS

Zoom lenses are heavy, large, and are the most noticeable element of your camera. Attach a light, tiny 28mm prime lens which is a little more inconspicuous – people won’t notice you and the speed at which you will be able to manoeuvre your camera will make you bolder.

STEP 4: SHOOT FROM THE HIP AND ZOE FOCUS

Shooting from the hip is when you photograph without looking through the viewfinder. It is easiest to do with a light, wide-angle prime lens where you are used to the perspective, so that you can frame correctly without looking. Zone focusing, or pre-focusing to a specific distance, is necessary for shooting this way.

Generally, shoot from the hip with your camera right below your neck. It’s the same frame that your eyes see, just ever so slightly lower so that it doesn’t look like you’re taking a picture. In addition, if you are not in a crowded area then it can help to keep your camera strapped to your wrist at your side and out of view until you need to take a shot. This will keep people from noticing your camera from a distance.

STEP 5: RAISE YOUR ISO

Street scenes move quick – some of the best moments will appear and disappear in front of you in an instant. To offset this, you have to set your camera to be able to catch these fast-moving scenes. The most important setting is your shutter speed. It should be around 1/250th of a second, which will guarantee that your subjects will be sharp.

At night you can go slower, to 1/160th or 1/125 in order to let in more light, but slower than that will introduce motion blur. But unless you are shooting in direct sunlight, the only way to use a fast shutter speed and a small aperture is to raise your ISO.

Typically, you can use ISO 400 in sunlight, ISO 800 in light shade, ISO 1600 in dark shade, and ISO 3200-6400 at night. Keep in mind that Shutter and Aperture Priority modes can be very dangerous in situations where the lighting is a variable.

STEP 6: LOOK CONFIDENT

This is the true key to not being noticed. When you look confident, like you know what you’re doing, then people will ignore you, even if you’re weaving your way through the concrete jungle.

Even if you don’t feel confident, act confident and bold.

STEP 7: CHOOSE YOUR SUBJECTS WISELY

The old street photography axiom goes: “Be careful who you shoot; they may shoot back.”

This is probably the most important tip. You need to choose your subjects wisely. If you see someone that looks unfriendly or unsafe, then photograph them. If you pick your spots right, then you will not be as afraid because you know that you won’t get into an altercation.

The times you do get caught will turn into friendly affairs, where you tell people what you’re doing, show them the photograph with an enthusiastic smile, give them your card, and offer to send it to them. 

Getting caught taking someone’s photograph is not that bad, so get rid of the fear and go out and get caught – rip the fear away like a band-aid. 

When you first venture into street photography, don’t get too hung up on your fear and the definition. Instead, record street life from your own unique perspective. Experiment with different focal lengths until you find one that resonates with you. Play with light and how it illuminates your subjects. But most of all, have fun.

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