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6 Steps to Effectively Tackle Street Photography

While nothing can beat pure experience and time spent photographing, there are many strategies and techniques that can help you shoot street photography more effectively.

Most street photographers shoot in slightly different ways, but here are a few of my favorites tips that I think will help you improve.

Editors Note: James Maher is a photographer and teacher based in New York City. I work with him as one of the writers over at Digital Photography School. His style is documentary in nature, like many of the old masters. His images showcase everyday life, for ordinary people like us – and that's important. Recently, he shared tips for setting up your camera for street photography. In this next article he continues where he left off and give you six steps for tackling street photography – actually getting out and doing it.

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Explore the works of master street photographers
Before you get started, do your research.

I have heard photographers say more than once that they do not want to be influenced by other photographers, but I do not think that this is the correct way to learn.

Let yourself be influenced by as many photographers as possible.

Create a list of your favorite street photographers, and try to find ones that have shot in areas similar to your own or that have a subject matter that you would like to capture. Seek out photo books for your collection, and pay attention to their narratives and sequencing.

Self education is just as important as shooting frequently and editing well.

You do not want to copy these photographers outright, but you want to take your favorite elements and ideas from each of them, and incorporate them into how and what you shoot.

The more you look at the works of great photographers, the better your eye will become.

In addition, it’s inspirational, particularly right before you walk out the door. You can sometimes go awhile without getting a great shot in street photography, and enjoying the works and books of other photographers can keep you inspired while you seek out your own great shots.

Black and white photo of woman carrying a Dior bag on the streets of New York

Some street photographers to start with

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson
  • Garry Winogrand
  • Lee Friedlander
  • Robert Frank
  • William Eggleston
  • Helen Levitt
  • André Kertész
  • Josef Koudelka
  • Daido Moriyama
  • Trent Parke
  • Alex Webb
  • Martin Parr

Keep in mind, that while this is not a short list, it is just a small portion of the great street photographers that you can and should study.

Try a prime lens and small camera
A lot of beginner street photographers will have an SLR and a mid-range zoom lens to use. That’s a fine way to do this type of photography and how a lot of street photographers began, including myself. But, you should consider investing in a smaller prime lens or a smaller camera system, such as a mirrorless or micro four thirds system.

Smaller cameras are not only less intrusive, but they are much easier to take around with you on a daily basis.

Street photography can be done anywhere, anytime, and because of this, you will find that you will come across a lot of images over the course of your daily life, as opposed to just on weekends when you go out with your SLR.

A small camera system that you can keep in your bag or car, will allow you to shoot much more frequently.

In addition, it will feel more fun to do because of the ease, and you will notice that not everyone is staring at you, as they most likely did with that large SLR and 24-70mm tank of a lens.

Street photo of a woman wearing a polka dot dress and pink shoes

If you cannot afford a smaller camera system (and I don’t blame you if you can’t), invest in a smaller sized prime lens, such as a 35mm or a 50mm (or the equivalent of a 35mm or 50mm lens on a cropped sensor).

Prime lenses will significantly lighten your camera, and will make it look much smaller than a typical zoom.

Prime lens help improve your photography

In addition, the constraints of a prime lens can actually help to improve your photography.

The world of street photography typically moves quickly. Sometimes a moment will pop in front of your face briefly and you will have a split second to capture the image before it’s gone.

Using a prime lens consistently allows you to learn to see the world in that specific focal length. You will become faster, and more intuitive with it.

You may not be able to capture that detail in the far background or across the street, but you will learn to use your feet to zoom and get closer to your subjects. For every shot you will miss by not having a zoom, you will make up for it with another shot due to the ease and simplicity of using a prime.

Shoot frequently and close to home
Most photographers restrict themselves to full days, or half days of shooting, in the most interesting areas that they can find. This is so important to do, of course, but it is not the only thing to do.

While these photographers are very dedicated, if they restrict themselves to this way of shooting, they are still cutting out a majority of the time that they have to come across great scenes.

Street Photo of an imac on a crosswalk

Consider shooting a little bit each day, even if it is only for five minutes at a time.

Carry a small camera with you daily, or use an iPhone if necessary.

Be disciplined and do not worry about where you are, but also make sure that you are having fun.

The point of this all is to have fun with photography. Figure out how to capture an interesting photograph in the most uninteresting of areas.

Go for a walk around your neighborhood. Experiment in all different types of places.

This practice will make you improve more than anything else, and it is quite fun. You should still go out for those epic days and nights of photography, and you should get away from home and explore as often as possible, but try not to forget about it during the week.

Use photography as a quick escape from the routine.

A single rose grows in a sidewalk crack in the East Village

Walk slowly and pick locations
Photographing people candidly is intimidating, especially at first.

If you are walking quickly from place to place and are constantly moving, it makes it even tougher.

Slow down when you shoot, and take your time.

Wander, instead of going directly to a destination. Do not disregard your surroundings, no matter where you are.

If you start thinking about how boring an area is, stop and force yourself to figure out a way to capture an interesting image there.

The best photographers have a knack for taking interesting images wherever they go, and part of the reason is because they do not disregard their surrounding.

They stay patient, and they look.

If you pick a location and wait, it also makes it much easier to capture people. Instead of you entering their personal space, the people will enter your space. It changes the dynamic of the entire encounter, and makes it much easier to capture candid images.

Try to notice people from far away, set up your shot as they get closer and intersect with you, so that they are not fully aware of what is happening.

Street scene of the Lower East side at night

Portraiture and shots without people
Street photography is the art of capturing candid situations of culture and life. This does not have to include people though. You can, and should, capture street images that do not have people in them.

Just because a person is not in the frame does not mean that the photo can't portray an aspect of humanity and culture.

There is a whole world of street images that go beyond shots with people in them, and it’s something that is very fun to explore, so take advantage of this idea.

In addition, while portraiture is not considered as typical street photography, you can include portraiture in a street photography project, or group of images. The narrative is often what is most important, and portraiture can be a great way of pushing that narrative.

It is also a fun way to meet people and get comfortable with your surroundings.

The camera is a great excuse to introduce yourself.

Ask people for their portraits and see if you can capture them in a candid moment, or expression within a quick session.

Street messenger on his bike waits with taxis for the light

Edit and sequence your images
Editing is so important to the final product. Particularly with street photography, it can be easy to go out and take a deluge of images trying to get that one spectacular moment. It is easy then to become overwhelmed while editing, which causes some people to procrastinate, while the mountain of images quickly grows every time they shoot.

Be ruthless with editing, and use a starring system for your photos.

Use three stars for every decent image, or ones that you are not sure about, and five stars for the spectacular ones.

I do this every time I shoot.

Suddenly, hundreds of images becomes two or three, and months of shooting become just a small set.

You will feel better and more confident about your archive, and editing will become much more pleasurable.

The first step of the organization is the hardest, so do it right away and then come back for the fun.

Shadows in Grand Central Station

You should also consider grouping and sequencing your images.

Lightroom allows you to use its system of collections to group photos together into folders, without changing their physical location on the computer.

Create themes and ideas with your images.

Group images in a way that tells a story, or fosters an idea or feeling.

The better you become at this, the easier it will be to find complementary images when you are out photographing.

Editing is half the battle. It is where you first start realizing what it is that you are capturing, and it helps to inform you while you are out shooting and trying to be instinctive.

Now go out and have some fun. Be dedicated and be consistent, but the most important idea is to get lost in the process instead of worrying about the end result.

James Maher Photographer Signature


James_Maher_bio
James Maher is a fine art, street, and portrait photographer. He is also a lifelong New Yorker and is unsure if that is a good thing or not.

He is a terrible driver and cook, as most Manhattanites are, but he can walk for very long distances and is an excellent navigator.

James credits his inspiration for photography to his love for the city and its endless supply of diverse and unique personalities and stories to capture.

He has worked with many local and national companies, including the New York Daily News, and has been featured around the web and in print magazines.

He authored the ebooks, The Essentials of Street Photography and Street Photography Conversations and loves to write about photography and the history and architecture of New York.

If you want to read more about street photography check out James' ebook: The Essentials of Street Photography & Street Photography Conversations. Click here to view more details

Get $5 OFF the regular price by using the discount code: DPM – special for Digital Photo Mentor readers!

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  • Thomas Lavery

    Great tips for shooting. thank you

    • My pleasure Thomas – glad you enjoyed it!

  • Dee Dee Werner

    I love shooting street photography but what about model releases?

    • Check out the local laws depending on where you live. In the U.S., you do not need a model release to use the images for art purposes. You cannot use them for commercial or advertising purposes or to insinuate something about the person in the image that is not true. But selling as prints or displaying as art purposes in the U.S., it is legal.

      • vgig

        Selling as prints or art purposes… Wouldn’t that be commercial if selling? Please give example. Thanks

        • Commercial means helping sell a product or promote a company, or to use the photo in any way to promote something commercial.

          Selling an art print is considered a pure artistic purpose and not commercial.

  • Gordon Wales

    Great, appreciate the advice, got me right where it counts. No mention was made of JPEG or RAW, was that intentional? Would you suggest that getting out and shooting is more important than worrying about the format you use?

    • Hi Gordon – Jpeg vs. RAW is a whole other issue on it’s own. You should definitely think about the format that you use. I shoot RAW because the flexibility and quality is the best, and the ability to tweak the images and the color balance is very important to me. That can be useful in street photography where you are constantly changing lighting.

      That being said, JPEG is a good format. If the settings are correct or close to correct when the image is taken, the quality is fantastic. But RAW is clearly better, particularly for those tough images.

      • Gordon Wales

        Thanks James – appreciate your reply. I also now only shoot in RAW, but I have a number of photos from when I used JPEG and was wondering about post-processing them into B&W. I know it’s a personal decision, but do you think they should be left alone, and not spend time altering them into monochrome as their qualities may be compromised? Thanks, again.

        • It’s okay – you can turn them into black and white. Whatever you think will look best as a print!

  • Chris Tygesen

    If you shoot Canon DSLRs, the 40mm f2.8 “pancake” lens is excellent for street photography.

    • Love this lens Chris! Makes the camera so light.

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