31 Street Photography Tips and Tricks: Part 1

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

When my father was alive he used to tell me the hardest feat in sports was to hit a 95mph fastball.  I am not sure I agree but it certainly takes an immense amount of coordination.  The equivalent feat in art might be street photography; more difficult than painting, writing, dancing, even music.  Anyone can hit a single once in a while but it requires combining a lot of skills & techniques to “hit” for average as well as home-runs.

Photographing strangers is a challenging undertaking.  Being confronted with the moral dilemma of “stealing” a picture of someone without their permission or to engage them, alter the reality &, therefore, lose all veracity, is comparable to juggling several balls in the air.  At the same time trying to fashion a reasonable but provocative image, is almost existential.

"Street photography is an age-old tradition, and also a solitary undertaking. It has been elevated by such luminaries as Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.
Street photography is an active, confrontational art form where the objective is to see and react to life around you. It is ground zero. No rules".

Street photos are small, quixotic segments of a larger urban landscape.  They are bits of a city—metaphors.  You are developing small narratives with little beginning or end.  Equipment is usually minimal.  Rather it is the heart & mind behind the camera that makes compelling street photographs.  Traditionally we have seen examples by Robert Frank, Eugene Atget, and Andre Kertesz but a new wave is represented by Alex Webb, Martin Parr & Constantine Manos who have changed it forever.

The most adept have so many things to consider every time they point their cameras at something.  As said before it is like juggling.  Besides shutter speed & aperture, you are balancing light, composition, momentum, emotion, etc.  And as you get better you add more balls.

In many places there is a de facto “war on street photography”.  There is a lot more pressure on us.  It is a wonderful tradition but suspicious minds attach some kind of perversion to it.  So as practitioners we have to be more capable to deal with all these factors.

31 Tips And Technique for Street Photography

1.  Observe
 This may seem like an obvious thing but good street photographers are students of human behavior & body language.  They window the exceptional from the ordinary & document it.  They see through the fog of ordinary life.  Pay attention & see differently. 

2.  Work Fast
With people around, you have about three seconds before you are detected & everything you see changes.  That is an eternity.  Learn to act quickly & decisively.

When you move through a crowd at a marketplace or a church or political rally, the “shockwave” of people’s awareness of your presence precedes you.  Your greatest ally is the confusion that you can hide behind.  Your biggest enemy is everyone warning everyone that you are approaching.  They think it is funny.  You have to be quicker than they are.

3. Be Prepared
Like the Boy Scout motto—be ready.  If you get distracted you miss opportunities.  Life can be fleeting.  Photographs—more so.

4. Know Your Equipment
The corollary to working fast & being prepared is to have such a good working knowledge of the dials & controls so you are not fumbling around wasting time.  The motion of bringing a camera to your eye, aiming, focusing & composing should be second nature.  It is Zen-like.

5. Use Automatic
Since things change so quickly you are allowed to use automatic exposure to speed up your process.  Especially in changing light, use programmed mode or another automatic mode so you don’t have to waste time with a light meter.  Simplify.

    Despite the fact that you are taught that “real photographers” make manual changes to exposure, there is nothing macho or sacrosanct about it.  Utilizing all the conveniences afforded you by expensive cameras makes your job easier & faster.

6.  Take It Now
So often we pass up photographs because we think we will return later to take the shot.  Seize the opportunity.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle dictates that something will change as soon as you observe it.  People will move, light will fade, a truck will drive between you & subject.   They may knock down the building if you wait too long.

 7.  Learn To Anticipate
This is similar to backgrounds but more complex.  The meaning may depend on divergent elements being in close proximity.  Combining anomalies in the same frame can be humorous, ironic or just odd.  If you think something picture-worthy is about to unfold, try to get in front of the action both in time & physically.  I have often wondered, when you see photographs in National Geographic of climbers cresting a mountain, why is it always from the vantage point of the photographer shooting down as the others are still coming to the top?  Try to determine how & where an event will evolve & be ahead of it when it does.

8.  Move Slowly
This may seem the opposite of work fast but you can be efficient in your movements so as not to make people nervous.  No herky jerky motions.  That draws attention & is scary in unfamiliar circumstances.  Be unobtrusive.  Keep your elbows in.  You can almost become invisible if you work at it hard enough.  If you are doing it right subjects will look right through you.

    On one of my CODELs to Nicaragua I documented a high level meeting with US Congressmen & Daniel Ortega, then president of the country.  I skulked around for hours.  I was inches from everyone in the room.  That night one of the politicians asked me if I had been there.

9.  Go To The Light
In real life lighting is bad.  At least not ideal.  In contrasty situations, expose for the bright light.  If possible shoot from the shady side of the street into the sunny side.  You are hidden, less obvious & your pictures have more drama.  So even if there is only a small piece of light, find it.

10. Get Close
Don’t expect effective street shooting if you rely solely on a telephoto lens for sneaking pictures.  Have your wide angle at the ready & interact.  Robert Capa, the famous war photographer, said “If your pictures are not good enough, you’re not close enough.”

11. Find Gatherings
Seek out crowds.  You have greater chance of finding interactions where there are more people: fairs, rallies, celebrations, parades.  People are less self conscious & personal space goes out the window.

12. Be Conscious Of Backgrounds
You can elevate a good photograph to great if you maneuver yourself into position that includes a better background.  The background can be as important as the primary focus.  It adds context.  It adds scale. In street photography bad backgrounds are just average portraits.
Roxbury mural with woman & man walking by)

13.  Lines Don’t Have To Be Straight
In street photography content supercedes everything else.  No need to have things straight in the frame.  In fact Dutch angle can add psychological tension.  But more importantly you have a chance to improve composition.  By tilting the camera you emphasize important things &/or exclude distracting objects.  “Getting it wrong” may lead to additional revelations.

14. Revisit Good Locations Or Events
Return to interesting places during better weather or more opportune times.  Although spontaneity is a major factor, you may be able to combine background, juxtaposition, etc. in more familiar surroundings.

15. Find A Good Location And Wait
When you discover a special place, wait for something to happen or someone to come along & enhance the composition.  Be patient.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 with even more Tips on Street Photography.

*Updated*   Check out Part 2 of the series Here...


Christopher King May 21, 2012 at 3:59 AM  

Yes yes yes to all of the above. The background piece resonates with me... this one with children passing before Frederick Douglass I caught with a $400 super zoom actually. It worked out okay.


I met one of your students last night, she recommended I look you up and I am glad that I did.


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Unknown January 10, 2015 at 8:42 PM  

Hi, Your pictures look SO amazing! Even with a lot of practice, I doubt mine would ever look that good! I have a question: how much was your camera? I’d like to get a professional camera like yours. Anyways, thank you! If anyone want to learning from yourself to figure out your unique photography style then check photography Tips

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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.