A General Guide to Street Photography

The objective of street photography is to capture subjects doing regular and candid activities in public settings. This style has two, rather opposite, approaches. The first is that photographs taken this way present society in an aloof way. It follows the concept of straight photography where the photographer tries to be as objective as possible in documenting the subject in the scene, using no in-camera effects or manipulation that might affect its reality. The other approach is very personal in the presentation of the subject. The photographer tries to show through the image his or her impression of the culture of society, and an interpretation of moments of interaction or disconnection between people in their environment.

It is one thing to take photographs of subjects in a studio or at home where you are comfortable and where all the elements are controlled by you, and quite a different experience to be out in the street among strangers in an environment where you do not have much control. Practicing street photography, where you have little control over the surroundings and the people, can be both a nerve wracking and an exhilarating experience for the beginner photographer.

As you walk the streets looking for subjects, there are a few things to keep in mind:

Be inconspicuous – do not go out and stand in the middle of the sidewalk to shoot pictures of people. Aside from obstructing traffic, majority of people will not like their picture taken, especially not without warning and permission. Instead, try to blend in with the scene. You do not have to try to hide behind a tree or a telephone post. That is just as bad because people will still notice you and think you are crazy.

Know your light sources – sunlight is usually the main light source in street photography. The light changes depending on the hour so the same scene can appear different. The area you might want to shoot might be very well lighted in the morning but might appear very dark in the afternoon when it is hidden in the shadow of the nearby huge building. At night, there are a lot of light sources that can create mood and tension such as a bright moon, lamplights, street signs, and lighted windows.

Know the effect of time of day – as mentioned earlier, the light changes at various hours. But aside from that, the street scene itself may also change. The surroundings will look different in the early morning when only a few people are up and about compared to lunch time when it is rush hour and there are crowds of people milling and resting in the shade.

Ask permission to shoot – some people appear so interesting that you really want to take a closer shot of them. If you ask nicely enough, some people might consent to having their pictures taken. This solves the problem of you trying to get a good shot without letting yourself be noticed. Be relaxed and friendly when you approach them, and be genuine and sincere in your intent. Strike a conversation to make them (and you) relax. Listen to their answers and stories as you take your shots, do not pretend to be interested by nodding your head every few seconds at everything they say.

Travel light – bring as little gear as possible so you can move more flexibly as you roam around taking photographs. Aside from weighing you down, they will draw more attention to you.

Enter the side streets – there is much to be seen in the less travelled areas where tourists rarely enter. This is your chance to show what goes on behind the main thoroughfare.

Use different angles – break away from your usual viewpoint when you shoot the scene. Climb one floor of a commercial building and shoot the scene from the high vantage point, or sit on a bench and tilt the camera upwards.

Attend street events – parades, street performances, rallies, and the like would make great points of interest. The everyday street scene transforms into a stage and these occasions are a splendid opportunity to capture the richness of society’s culture.

Get a model or property release if needed – if you are planning to use your photos commercially by selling them, you will need model releases for recognizable faces and property release for structures showing in the images. Some places have anti-photography laws prohibiting you to take pictures. Know the legalities of the area to avoid any issues that might occur.

Black & white or color? – the impact of an image changes when presented in monochrome as compared to colored. Some scenes convey more meaning in black and white and there are others that are more striking when in full color. The advantage of digital photography is you can always shoot in color and convert to monochrome in post processing. 

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