Complete Guide to Street Photography for Beginners

Street photography is one of the most popular genres of photography and the good news is that it’s quite easy to get started with street photography.

You don’t need a lot of equipment, it’s relatively easy for you to learn to set up your camera and yes, it’s legal to take pictures in public almost everywhere in the world.

Our complete guide to street photography for beginners has all you need to know to get out shooting on the streets, today. 

What Is Street Photography?

First things first. Street photography is not pictures of streets. 

Yes, we know, you’re going to find some people arguing that they have “redefined” street photography and photos of streets are what it is – they haven’t and they’re not. 

Street photographs are photographs of people (and occasionally animals) in candid situations in public. 

So, a street photograph can consist of a person (or people) on a street. 

But it can also be of people in church or in a shopping center. 

But it must have a subject and that subject must be alive. 

That’s why photographs of streets are not street photography. 

And to those who whine about “gatekeeping”? 

It’s not gatekeeping to use an established principle to define a school of photography. 

Nobody moans about portrait photography being pictures of people, for example, because it’s clear that a picture of an orange isn’t a portrait. 

And yes, you’re still free to take photos of empty streets to your heart’s content, just don’t be surprised when the Facebook street photography groups expel you for sharing them. 

What Makes For A Good Street Photograph?

What Makes For A Good Street Photograph?

Taking good street photos is challenging and social media, sadly, all too often celebrates bad street photography. 

We’ve even seen groups celebrating photographs of the backs of people’s heads. 

In nearly all cases, a photo of the back of someone’s head is a bad photograph. 

Good street photos are those with clearly defined subjects, that use the standard rules of photographic composition as needed, and which tell stories. 

And yes, they should contain people’s faces or animals’ faces where possible too. 

Though this rule can be broken if you’re still conveying some form of emotion and story. 

The best street photos are candid, that is they are taken in the spur of the moment and document an authentic interaction. 

However, we will concede that a posed street photograph, while not as good, can be a good way to get started with things as you work up the courage to take candid shots. 

What Are The Ethics And Legal Basics Of Street Photography?

There seems to be a new found compulsion for people to mislead or even lie to others about the legality and ethics of street photography.

Street Photography Is Legal

Street Photography Is Legal

Firstly, there is no Western nation that forbids street photography and European data protection laws do not make it illegal to take street photos either. 

Commercial Use Requires Consent

There are some countries in the West which limit how you may publish photos taken in the street but the vast majority don’t have any limits except for one – a photograph of a person may only be used in an advert with their permission (for this you need a model release form). 

But only in an advert. In all other contexts the use is considered non-commercial. 

So, if you want to fill a gallery with street photos, in most places, this is completely legal and you don’t need anyone’s permission to do it. 

There Is No Right To Privacy In Public Places

Secondly, with a handful of exceptions globally (such as South Korea, North Korea and Japan), there is no expectation of privacy in a public place.

There Is No Right To Privacy In Public Places

That is, you can take pictures anywhere in public and nobody has any right to complain about it or do anything about it.

Now, we know that for some people this isn’t good enough and they will argue that ethics dictate you seek permission for photographs but this isn’t true either. 

The Ethical Quandary?

You can set your own ethical code in which you always ask to take a photograph, but there is no such universal code of ethics. 

And, in fact, if you want to shoot candid street photography, asking for permission instantly stops a shot from being candid. 

Thus, you are free to take photographs in any public place.

And while you may, occasionally, have to deal with someone who thinks that they have the right to photos in which they appear (and they are mistaken – only the person pushing the shutter button has the right to an image), nobody can stop you from shooting.

We’d also note that while in a private place, they can ask you to stop taking pictures and you must do so when asked by a relevant authority  – they cannot take your images away from you, either. 

The Last Word On This

Shooting street photos is both legal and ethical. 

You are free, however, to determine your own ethics and whether street photography falls within them. 

The law, on the other hand, is clear – street photography is legal nearly everywhere. 

Getting Started With Street Photography

Getting Started With Street Photography

OK, now that’s out of the way, let’s look at what you need to get started with street photography and you’ll be pleased to know that it’s not much. 

Equipment And Traveling Light

Generally speaking, the smaller and lighter your camera setup, the better for street photography. 

Small Cameras, Wide Lenses?

Small Cameras

A small camera is less noticeable and somehow, less threatening when you point it at someone on the street.

And while there’s no “standard lens” for street photography, most street photographers prefer wide lenses in order to fit more of the scene into each shot.

Popular camera choices for street photographers who want to buy new cameras are the Ricoh GRiii and the Fujifilm X100V. 

Both of which are fixed lens cameras with wide-ish lenses and which are small and discrete. 

Minimal Other Kit

Then all you need is some spare batteries and a waterproof bag to put the camera in when it rains. 

We’d also recommend buying a good pair of shoes – street photographers tend to cover a lot of ground when they’re out shooting, be kind to your feet. 

Camera Settings (Closing Up Your Lens)

Camera Settings

For the moment, we’re going to assume that you’ll use your camera’s autofocus features and it’s best to set the autofocus to a single point, so that you can point and shoot quickly. 

Aperture Settings

Then you want to close down your lens a bit. 

While you may have a lovely F1.4 or F2.8 lens for bokehlicious portraits, the object in street photography is not to blur the background but rather to get as much background in focus as possible to set the scene. 

This is good because if you do shoot with an interchangeable lens camera, you can normally buy the cheapest prime lens for your preferred field of view.

Your ideal aperture setting for most street work will be F8 or even F11. 

Shutter Settings

Shutter Settings

You’ll also want a fast-ish shutter speed to freeze the motion of people around you. 

Aim for 1/250 in the shade and if you’re in the sun, 1/500th. If the area is particularly dark, you might need to go as low as 1/125. 

ISO Settings

Then hand over control of ISO to the camera. 

Set it to auto iso and if your camera allows set a maximum ISO of 3200 or even 6400 to keep the grain to a minimum. 

Now, you should be able to get the exposure you want at the click of the shutter button. 

Basic Compositional Ideas

While some street photography is done “on the fly” and involves simply pointing and shooting at a scene of interest as it arises before your eyes, many street photographers seek out interesting scenes and then allow someone to wander into the scene as they take the shot.

Treating Street Photography Like Landscapes

Treating Street Photography Like Landscapes

It can be useful to treat this exercise in a similar kind of way to composing a landscape.

Sure, the tree might be a fire escape and the mountain an interesting figure in a shop window, but the principles of composition remain the same.

The Decisive Moment

Creating the frame in advance cuts down on the possibilities of boring photos and it allows you to focus more on the “decisive moment”. 

The decisive moment is a concept coined by one of the earliest street photographers, Henri Cartier Bresson in his book The Decisive Moment, and it refers to the exact point at which a body in motion is at its most interesting within a scene. 

Know Your Light

Know Your Light

You also want to be aware of the light in the scene, where’s it coming from, what’s it reflecting off of and where’s it going? 

This will allow you to make better decisions about where to stand in relation to the scene and the subject. 

To Flash Or Not To Flash?

One of our favorite street photographers is Bruce Gilden and he’s a hugely controversial figure because he gets very close to his subjects and then illuminates them with a bright flash.

This is wonderful for separating the person from the background, but it does have the unfortunate side-effect of coming across as quite confrontational.

(How would you feel if someone leapt out at you on a street and blinded you with a flash?) 

So, it’s a very personal decision to use flash or not and at this moment? 

We think the majority of street photographers tend to avoid flash most of the time. 

Where To Stand

To start with, you’re going to feel most comfortable capturing bigger scenes with a few people in them and not getting too close to any of them. 

In time though, if you want your street photography to progress, you’re going to need to learn to get closer to your subject. 

Progressing With Street Photography

OK, if you’ve been out taking street photos for a little while and want to improve your street photography then we’ve got a couple of tips that should help. 

Overcoming Fear – Getting Closer To Your Subject

Overcoming Fear - Getting Closer To Your Subject

There’s no getting away from this. The closer you are to your subject, the better, Robert Capa (a war photographer) said; “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not getting close enough.”

Capa was at Normandy and he stormed the beaches with the American marine corps, except he did it without a rifle, just with a Leica for company. 

His rule for war photos applies to street photos too and the good news is, nobody is likely to shoot you for getting too close with a camera to them on the street.

Yes, we know it feels creepy but the truth is? 

Most people don’t care and if they do, you can normally placate them by deleting the image or if you’re feeling bolder, by asserting your legal right to take the image calmly and with some compassion. 

Practice Makes Perfect

And the only way to overcome your fear is to practice. 

Now, if your camera has a flippy screen? 

You can easily practice by pulling the screen out and looking down at that as you take your shot, when you’re not looking directly at the subject? The subject tends to be less aware of the photographer.

However, over time, you should try just taking photos without pulling out the screen. 

The wide angle nature of most street photography lenses often allows the photographer to look in a different direction while taking the shot that they want. 

Zone Focusing For Street Photography

Zone Focusing For Street Photography

Another thing that you’re likely to notice over time is that autofocus doesn’t always deliver the images that you want it to. 

That’s because the camera has to guess what you’re focusing on, guess right and then change the focus of the lens. 

Many street photographers find that they get better results from zone focusing.

That is they set their lens to manual focus, then they switch to F8 or F11, and focus so that everything between, say, 2 meters away and 5 meters away is perfectly in focus.

Then, all they have to do to capture the shot is point the camera in the right direction and hit the shutter button because the “zone” of 2-5 meters is always in focus. 

Final Thoughts On Street Photography

The biggest challenge in street photography is getting close enough to your subject to give your photos sufficient emotional impact. 

Otherwise, it’s quite simple to get started with street photography, all you need is a camera, some simple settings for that camera and the motivation to go out and take pictures. 

And never forget, no matter how much somebody else insists otherwise, street photography in public places is completely legal and only you can decide if it is ethical for you to take a photo.

If you’d like to learn a little bit more about street photography may we recommend Vivian Maier: Street Photographer and Bystander: A History of Street Photography

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