digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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6 Street Photography Tips

In the travel photography class I teach I get a lot of questions about street photography, and in particular photographing people. I will do a more detailed article soon on people, but for today I wanted to give you a few general street photography tips to get you started.

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This is one of my favorite images from Cuba. The mom is right beside me and showed her the ultrasound from her Auntie. I asked if I could take her photo and she did this! Priceless.

Street photography can be approached generally in one of two ways:

  1. Go long – put on a long lens and sneak some shots without people knowing you’re taking their photo
  2. Go short – put on a wide lens and get closer, and interact with the scene and the people

I usually take the second approach. When I am using a longer lens it is because I want to blur out the background, but usually even then my subjects know I’m taking their picture. Do I ever do a grab shot? Sure! Sometimes I even “shoot from the hip” which is literally setting the camera to choose the focus, hanging the camera down near my hip, but aiming and shooting as you walk. It’s hit and miss to get anything actually in focus and in the frame but you can get some neat shots that way.

So, on with my 6 street photography tips . . .

OH these are all images from my recent Photo Tour to Cuba!

#1 BE PATIENT

Sometimes you can stumble upon a great scene, with great lighting, but it’s missing something. Some element that will complete the composition. I can’t tell you how many times my husband has to sit and wait for me while I wait for 5, 10 or 15 minutes just to get ONE shot. Waiting for just the right person to walk by, or the right car.

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We we watching these kids play soccer in the street and I waited until he came into the light, just the right moment

I get that this isn’t always possible, and you may have more impatient companions, but try going out on an organized photo walk, or on your own in our city. Find a good spot and then just sit. Don’t take the photo until it’s just right, and all the elements come together. This is what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment”. He was a master of street photography – if you’re not familiar with him or his work, get familiar! Google it, or go to the library. If you want to do street photography you need to master this concept.

In the images below, the two arched windows caught my eye.

Street phototography patience

But I wasn’t quite happy with it, I wanted a person right in the middle between the two windows. What happened next was a “happy accident”. I was watching the two kids come down the street and as they hit the middle I clicked the shutter – oops!

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I ended up with this giant head in silhouette right in front of the camera. But . . . it kind of works! I love the play of the shadows in this image. So bonus tip 1b) be patient and accept gifts when they happen!

Another example of being patient and letting the scene develop is the following series.

Street phototography scene development

I took the image upper left first, then moved around to just get the two men talking. As I kept shooting in that area I noticed the car in front so I crossed the street to include it for the bottom left image. But . . . still missing something.

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VOILA! To me the man with the bike completes the composition and gives it balance. You may not know what the scene needs, but if you wait a little while something will come along. Be patient!

#2 LOOK FOR THE LIGHT AND SHADOWS

If you’ve read any of my other articles you will know I am ALL about the light! In photography light is everything. Nail this one thing and you will come back with great photos every time.

Street photography tips 01
I LOVE backlighting, for me the shadow makes this image.

So what do you look for exactly? Good question!

The opposite of light is dark, or shadows. So look for the shadows. See where the light is coming from. Does it add drama and texture to your scene? Or is it flat and lifeless? Does it have too much contrast and you lose detail in your image, or is it spotty and dappled?

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The crazy colours caught my eye, the light and shadow kept my interest

There is no one right answer but what I look for is light that adds to the scene in some way. It either outlines my subject, separating them from the background – or it is directional in a way to add texture where I want it for added drama.

WRITE THIS DOWN: if there is NOT good light – I usually do NOT take a photo, even if it’s an interesting subject!

Why? Because light will make or break your photograph and you cannot “fix” it later in post processing. Like I said before – get this right and you’re cruising.

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#3 GET PAST YOUR FEARS – PHOTOGRAPH SOME PEOPLE

How do I know you have a fear of photographing strangers on the street? Easy, the majority of people in my classes put up their hands when I ask that question. If you have already conquered it, or have no fear – then you’re already that much farther ahead of the game. Stay with me.

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This is taken through her open window. She agreed when I asked to take her photo.

The essence of a place cannot be found in buildings or landscapes. While both of those can be stunning, the heart and soul of a place lies in the people. At least in my opinion. So if you are doing street photography, especially if you are traveling, get out and photograph some people.Street photography portraitsHonestly, most people really do not mind and most are actually quite flattered. You can ask permission even if you don’t speak the language. Just use hand signals and point to that thing around your neck with a questioning look on your face. Or just go ahead and start taking their photo, and if they object – trust me, they’ll let you know.

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Street photography tips 05

#4 BE AN OBSERVER – BUT GET INVOLVED IN THE ACTION TOO

Part of being a good photographer is being observant, that means you watch and notice everything around you. That’s great. But, sometimes it pays to jump in and become part of the action as well.

Street photography tips 03
I danced with this man, and even got a kiss on the cheek!

That could mean dancing with a random man in a bar (or ladies at a gas station), buying something from a street vendor, showing interest in an artist, accepting an invitation into someone’s home (safety first always), or taking a photo for someone else.

Street photography tips 17
Yup bought some of his tasty treats. He claims he baked them himself, I’m guessing there’s a woman involved somewhere.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’ve done all those things. When you participate, the barriers go down. You become one of them, instead of the person with the big camera. When you buy something, they are a LOT more willing to pose for you because now you are a paying customer. Sometimes I will buy a thing I don’t even want, and later give it away – just to support the vendor, and take their photo.

Street photography tips 27
I saw this teacher taking a photo of his school group and I literally ran from my chair at a cafe and offered to take it for them so he could be in it. Of course they were super grateful and let me take one for myself too!

Besides – you can have a LOT more fun this way too!

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These ladies were partying hard at about 2pm in the afternoon, at a gas station! We stopped for a bathroom break and I got into the mix dancing with them. We were fast buddies!

#5 BE ON THE LOOK OUT FOR THE UNUSUAL

Following along with being observant, is being on the look out for anything unusual or out of the ordinary. Not, depending on where you are at the time that could vary greatly. You’ll know it when you see it, IF you’re looking.

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Guy on a motorbike with a cake in his hand? No problem. Family bringing home their new mattress on top of the taxi? Sure why not! You see all kinds of things. Right up there with being observant so you notice these types of things, is being ready. If your camera is shut off, or the lens cap on – you’ll miss this stuff!

Street photography tips 02

A man walking down the street carrying an owl, a lady sitting on her stoop in curlers, or how about a tiny kitten in front of a painting of a naked lady? Yup, yup and yup! This all my be commonplace for Cuba, but not things I see where I’m from on any given day.

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#6 KEEP SHOOTING AFTER THE SUN GOES DOWN

In the night photography classes I teach, and even on this Cuba tour – so many people are surprised when the sun goes down and I keep shooting. Crazy, I know. But keep two things in mind.

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Shot just after sunset during “blue hour”

First, right after golden hour and the sunset comes “blue hour”. This is the time in the evening when the sky shows up a gorgeous rich blue colour. Not long after this period the sky will show up black in your images. Take advantage of the time right after sunset, and keep shooting.

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Secondly, often a city comes to life after dark. Make sure you are safe, that is number one priority. Once you’ve established that, capture the nightlife.

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To wrap this up I hope you’ve gotten some ideas to get your creative juices flowing, and some inspiration. Just a reminder that all of these images were taken on my recent Photo Tour to Cuba, which we will be doing again in 2016, likely end of January or early February. Make sure you are sign up for email updates so you don’t miss any announcements, or new articles.


For more on travel and street photography you can check out these:

Cheers,
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  • Belinda Keller

    Darlene, Congrats on a super website! The article is fantastic, and photos too 🙂 I am #3 all the way — scared to death to take people-pics, but your info gives lots of inspiration…. maybe I’ll give it a shot. ha- no pun intended 🙂

    • cool I’m so glad, it’s WAY less scary than you imagine it to be, trust me

  • Budi f. Japadermawan

    Thank you so much Darlene for sharing the valueable tips for us, appreciate it .

  • Pleasingperson

    Hi Darlene, Greetings from India. Thank you so much for this wonderful article,extremely useful for a beginner like me.The very thought of street photography that too photographing a stranger was intimidating to me.Thanks to you I am taking the plunge now. Wish me all the best.

    • Thanks! I’d love to come and do some photography in your country and will do that one day soon. Good luck, you can do it!

  • Dayalan Padayachy

    Hi Darlene, thanks for these tips. Your photos are fantastic and each one tells a story. You have really captured the essence of Cuba. Thanks for sharing.

  • David Bloom

    Hi Darlene, Thanks for the enlightening comments for street photography. Could you add also some of your settings? Do yo keep the camera on auto? I’ve lost some photos because of bad settings. HELP PLEASE

    • I most often shoot in Aperture Priority mode. I choose my ISO based on how much light there is. For most stuff outdoors 200 or 400. I choose usually a large aperture and the camera will choose the shutter speed for me. Make sure you check what metering mode you are using also – spot metering can through you off. I suggest evaluative or Matrix depending on what your camera model calls it.

  • Brian Lewis

    Hi Darlene.
    Just read your article and thought you might enjoy these.
    2 days ago my wife and I were walking down the beach at Legian, Bali when 100 or more girls, ages 13 to about 16 came storming onto the beach, obviously a school field trip. They spotted my blond hair, blue eyed wife and were immediately taken with her fair complexion. One of them (photo one) was dying to take a picture of my wife but was nervous and shy. So I brought my T4i with the 300 mm lens up to my eye and pointed at her. She immediately got it; go ahead and take a picture was what I was telling her. The attached photos tell the rest. It was 10 minutes of absolute inter cultural fun and joy; Calgary meets Bali on the beech.
    Brian Lewis, Calgary AB

    • Hi Brian – the photos did come across in the comment. You can add them directly into the comment by using the little photo icon in the bottom left corner of the comment box. Just click on it to add images to your comment.

      Thanks for sharing it’s a great story!

    • Brian Lewis

      Something didn’t work. I used the image icon in the bottom left of the comment box to upload the photos. Will try again.

  • Kelley Candee

    Hi Darlene, thank you for the tips and the beautiful photos. The “blue hour” photo
    is one I am most curios about on how you shot that. From the car to the stars in the sky is pretty amazing!

    • Kelley, you need a tripod for that kind of stuff that other than that there’s nothing special no tricks.

      • Kelley Candee

        Thanks Darlene…your photos have definitely inspired me.

  • JonasEdison

    Thanks a lot to share with us your wonderful time and opportunities you had
    – Trust me ! you have inspired me so much_ be blessed

  • Sky Bee

    Beautiful work and excellent suggestions Thank you!!

  • Betty Hodges

    Thanks for this article on street photography. I’ll have to work on #4 – being a participant. I initially found it a challenge just to be on the street with my camera, even in a tourist zone. I hope I’ve utilized some of what you were trying to convey. A recent trip to Seattle gave me an opportunity to practise some shots and I posted them on my blog referring to this article: http://wp.me/p3McZk-92

    • Hi Betty thanks for linking to the article and for giving it a go! My comments would be yes – the people are very small.

      In #2 is the “anonymous” or hiding their identities about protecting them, or does it speak more about you? Is that your preference? Is that about your issues and fears?

      I notice you seem to do a lot of HDR, like every image. It’s a great technique which can produce stunning results – with two caveats. #1 when it’s done well. #2 when it’s used for the appropriate scenes and lighting conditions. You might find this article humourous and intersting

      http://digital-photography-school.com/10-steps-every-hdr-photographer-goes-through/

      I know I’ve gone through most of those stages myself and now I use HDR only sparingly when I want to do tone control on a contrasty scene. Have a read, see what you think.

      • Darlene, thanks for taking the time to have a look at my attempt at street photography. I confess, I don’t think I quite ‘get it’ when it comes to that medium, but I was curious enough to give it a try, in my limited way. Since that experience, I’ve been looking around at what a variety of street photographers have produced and I guess I’m still curious enough to give it another go at some point, but I don’t think it will become my main forte.

        As for HDR – thanks for pointing out the article at Digital Photography School. I think the author hit the nail on the head, and, I loved his delivery. I had a good laugh at my own expense. But, in my defence, HDR is something I’ve been intrigued by for some time. I’ve only just purchased the software and I purchased it in stages – Photomatix Essentials and when that didn’t give me enough control over the halos and too dark clouds I upped it to the Pro version. I’m probably not done with HDR yet as I’m not satisfied that I have ‘mastered’ the technique, and like a dog with a bone, I’m reluctant to give up in defeat. I can say that although I bracketed almost every shot while on vacation, I have discovered that not all translate well into HDR, but, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and at least I still have a well exposed image to work with. Thanks for your gentle reminder that there is life after HDR. Speaking of over processed… I’m fascinated by High Key photos. Could be my next obsession. 😉

  • tim

    excellent article! who knew that most (or all) of us are scared and a bit self-conscious to take street photos? i certainly am. it’s hard to get past, but i know that the rewards are great. thank you again for this article.

    • Thanks for that Tim, yes it’s very common. I’d say photographing a stranger is a fear right up there with public speaking and the dentist.

  • Great tips

    IMHO the shot with the bike would have been better with the complete shadow, off course its not always possible

    • I totally agree but I noticed that after this shot and by then he had moved and it was gone

  • David Corito

    Good tips and I have used some. Be patient is a big rule. While in key west I waited a while for this shot. The street was clogged with cars and a beer delivery truck. I just waited hearing laughter from a couple sitting at an open bar behind me. Then I saw my opportunity and fired away. Walked back to that couple and had them look at my LCD screen, they offered to buy me a beer.

    • Nice job, how was the beer? 😉

      • David Corito

        Good and cold like it should be on a hot day

  • Roel Jigs

    nice shoot..(Y)..good tips

  • Nicholas Fulford

    One technique I have played with is using an infrared converted camera and infrared flash. (You make your flash infrared by taping an R72 filter on front, and for extra blocking add some developed unexposed negatives. Grab some electrical tape, make it light tight, and you’re off to the races. You’ll be surprised how much reach you can get with your “invisible” flash.) The joy is that for street you really can get some very candid shots at a variety of distances without being noticed at night.

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