Street photography is incredibly difficult, so it's easy to make a lot of mistakes. Some of the practices involved are so counterintuitive to what you may have been taught in other fields that it can be very difficult to figure out what is right.
Street photography is a spontaneous, rewarding, and sometimes nerve-wracking form of photography where anything can happen and you can capture images that nobody will be able to reproduce. Here are some newbie street photography mistakes to avoid as you work to improve your work in this genre.
1. Using a low ISO
It used to be common knowledge that using the lowest possible ISO was always the best strategy, and this is still taught today. However, this is not always true. Digital cameras have improved significantly at high ISOs over the last 10 years, where it sometimes no longer even makes a difference.
Of course, if you are photographing landscapes, anything that is not moving, or if you are using a tripod, it makes sense to use a low ISO because you will not need a fast shutter speed. In these situations you do not have to make any compromises, settings wise, to achieve a great picture.
However, with street photography, you will need both a fast shutter speed (I recommend 1/250th of a second) to freeze motion in people, and often a small aperture (such as f/8, f/11, or f/16). The reason for using a small aperture is because street photography is so spontaneous that it helps to have a large depth of field in case you miss the focus on the main subject. In addition, context is very important in street photography, and a large depth of field will allow you to capture subjects at different depths that are both acceptably sharp.
2. Letting fear dictate how you shoot
The toughest aspect of street photography, when learning it for the first time, is the fear involved. Fear can make it so difficult, and even when you get to the point of being comfortable photographing strangers, the fear can make you tentative enough to just miss the shot.
If you are afraid to photograph on the street, you need to deal with this issue right away. Start by asking strangers to take their street portraits. Put a smile on your face, tell someone you're doing a portrait project and think they look great. You'll likely make their day. This will help you to get comfortable and have fun out there. Make sure to go out regularly so that you become more comfortable with your surroundings over time and that the people recognize you. Feel like you belong.
Go to a busy area and don't hide. Go out right in the middle. The closer to the middle you are, the less that people will think that you could possibly be doing anything wrong. Forget about taking a good photograph, composition, lighting, or anything of that stuff. You can deal with all that later. For now, just people watch and snap some pictures without worry. Get used to the hand-eye coordination involved. Stick to the people that look like they are happy. If someone seems a little disturbed or upset, you don't have to take their picture.
If you get caught, smile, and tell the person you are doing a class or personal project on interesting people in the area and you thought they looked fabulous. Flattery is key. If they then seem anxious, kindly offer to delete the photograph and tell them you did not mean to make them uncomfortable. This will diffuse most situations very easily, and when you realize you can do that, it will make you more confident in how you photograph.
3. Walking too fast
A lot of new street photographers walk really fast. It's like they're constantly looking for the next location, thinking that something magical will be around the corner. But in thinking that way, they're disregarding so much around them. There's a reason that the best photographers can create good photographs anywhere. They take the time to look.
Pick a spot and wait there. This will allow your senses to be heightened as you focus entirely on your surroundings. In addition, people will come toward you and enter your personal space, so it makes taking a photo of them much easier.
If you notice yourself immediately disregarding a location as boring, I want you to go out of your way to figure out how to get a good shot there. This is a great lesson. Try not to disregard anything.
Then, when you do walk, walk at a slower pace. A fast walk will make it harder to both notice things happening and to get into position when they do. Take your time as you meander, with frequent stops along the way.
4. Not getting close enough
Get close and try using a wide-angle or mid-range focal length lens. If people are across the street or tiny in your image it can only be so good (mediocre at best). You want to be able to see the expression on their face, the emotion, and sometimes even the wrinkles. Shots from far away can be great depending on the image, but also try to get as close as you can.
Picking a location in a busy area and waiting there can be a big help to getting close-up candid images, as the people will be entering your personal space while you already have your camera ready.
5. Focusing too much on a single person or object
Shots of single things can be great, and it's a big part of what you want to be looking for out there. But try not to do only that. You don't always need to hyper-focus in on one subject. When you notice someone interesting, look around and see if you can combine them with something else that is interesting. Maybe it's another person that is about to intersect or an interesting background. Combining elements together into complex scenes is difficult to do, but it is at the heart of street photography, and it is something to which you'll want to pay attention.
Similar to this idea is to avoid always using a shallow depth of field. Images shot with a wide aperture are very good and important to do in street photography, but this technique also limits you. If you are blurring the rest of your scene away, there is no context or background, and it makes it impossible to combine elements together. Try shooting with both a shallow (big aperture like f/2.8) and deep depth of field (small aperture like f/11), because they are both important.
6. Looking through the viewfinder too much instead of using your eyes
Because of the speed at which the street moves, keeping your head in the viewfinder too much is a rookie mistake. Take your eyes off the camera and look around. Your eyes are the true viewfinder and you will be much quicker at noticing potential moments if your eyes are unencumbered.
Keep your situational awareness high and look around until you notice something about to happen, then go to the viewfinder. You will find that your instincts will work much better and quicker this way.
7. Removing the camera from your eye when you take a shot
Ideally, you want to be as candid as possible in street photography, and while this is not always possible, it will make your life much easier if you are good at it. One of the biggest ways to avoid being noticed is when you stop doing what I call the camera snap.
The camera snap is something that most photographers do when they take their camera away from their eyes immediately after taking a photograph. This is what tips off the subject that you have taken their photo. Instead, keep the camera up to your eye and let the person walk through. They will think that you were taking a photo of the background and that they were just in the way.
Similarly, if you are photographing in an area without a lot of people, you can aim your camera up or to the side of your subject like you are photographing a building. Then at the last second, bring your camera over, take the shot of them, and move on.
8. Lack of patience
Street photography is not for everyone, and that is because it takes so much patience. It is similar to fishing. You throw your reel out there over and over and if you come back at the end of the day with one huge fish, then it was a good day.
In street photography, you might take 100 images and only one is really good. You have to learn to love the hunt, to enjoy just being out there and observing, and to have the keepers be the bonus. The keepers aren't the cake itself; they're the cherry on top.
So where do you go from here? Well, I hope you can learn from these mistakes and avoid them by using the tips provided. If you can do that you will see improvements in your street photography and you'll probably enjoy it more too.
You can see two more of James' articles on street photography here:
Some of the images in this article were taken on same route as the NYC photowalk with Darlene. You can see some of her images here and how different photographers can see totally different things on the same street.
See more “mistakes” articles here so you can avoid them:
- Top 14 People Photography Mistakes to Avoid
- 5 Mistakes Beginners Make Using a Wide-Angle Lens and How to Avoid Them
- Avoid These 9 Beginner Photography Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Images
- 7 Deadly Processing Sins That Could Ruin Your Images
- Video: 15 Photography Mistakes and How to Correct or Avoid Them
- 6 Tips For Overcoming Common Photography Mistakes
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
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