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.
Street photography can be approached generally in one of two ways:
- Go long – put on a long lens and sneak some shots without people knowing you’re taking their photo
- 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
#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.
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.
Honestly, 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.
#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.
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.
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.
Besides – you can have a LOT more fun this way too!
#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.
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!
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.
#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.
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.
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.
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:
- Paris Street photography – an interview with Valerie Jardin
- 4 Tips for Creating Better Travel Photos in Crowded Tourist Locations
- How to Avoid Travel Photography Failure