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How to Set Up Your Camera For Street Photography

When looking at the work of great street photographers, it can sometimes seem easy – you just have to be in the right place at the right time.

While that last part is true, the reality is much tougher than it might seem.

Ultimately, the content of your images is most important, but when shooting street photography, people quickly find that their photos come out nothing like what they see in the moment.

A major reason for this is because they were not taught that setting up their camera for street photography can be quite different from most other types of photography.

Any technical talk about street photography starts with light, and this is where many photographers get confused.

You need to be able to see and understand the light, before you are able to choose the right settings. You should particularly focus on how strong the light is, and where the main light sources are coming from. After you evaluate this, then you can look to your camera to choose the correct settings.

Editors Note: This is a guest article from James Maher. James 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. See what he has to say about getting ready to do some street photography – set up your camera first.

Street scene at Prince and Broadway, New York City

2 broadway and canal

A lot of street photography is based around moving subjects. Not all of course, but a significant portion of it.

Sometimes, the perfect person will appear suddenly and move through your scene. This makes your shutter speed vital.

If you want to freeze the motion of a subject, you need a fast enough shutter speed to do so. It is for this reason that I usually shoot in shutter priority, with a shutter speed of 1/250th or 1/320th of a second. These are my go-to settings to freeze motion in people.

If the light is very dark, I will go down to 1/160th or even slower, which will add a little blur, but will still be beautiful. When shooting in sunny areas, I will go to 1/400th or 1/500th.

3 selfie spring and broadway

The next step is to raise your ISO.

You might have been taught differently in the past, but cameras these days can shoot at much higher ISOs, with more pleasing results than they could have, even five years ago.

Do not be afraid of ISO 1600 or 3200. The newer high-end cameras can even do 6400 well.

Raising your ISO will add more noise/grain into your image, but it will allow you the ability to shoot with a faster shutter speed, and a smaller aperture, in less than ideal light. Suddenly, you will be able to shoot handheld in lighting situations that you would normally avoid. You will also notice that your images will look technically better, despite the added grain.

For portraiture or pure landscape photography, I will shoot at lower ISOs, but street photography is a much different situation.

8 D G

Unless it is very dark out, a higher ISO will allow your camera the ability to shoot with a smaller aperture (f/8 to f/16) to achieve a larger depth of field.

This is a matter of taste of course, and images with out-of-focus backgrounds can be very beautiful, however there are some considerations.

Three reasons to shoot a small aperture

  1. The first is that you often do not know when your subject and moment will suddenly appear, and these moments will be fleeting. So if you are shooting with a shallow depth of field and miss the focus, your image will more often than not be ruined. You will have more leeway to screw up your focus and still get a sharp shot using a small aperture.
  2. The second reason is for the situations where there are multiple subjects that are equally important in the scene, and at different depths. With a small aperture it will allow you to get them all relatively sharp.
  3. Finally, the context of a scene can be very important to a street photograph. Background, settings, and small details can be just as important to the image as the main subject, and blurring them can lessen their impact. With a large depth of field, it can allow even the smallest of details to have a large impact.

4 prince and broadway

Work hard to master the technical tips shared here and eventually it will feel like the camera is not even there.

This is when you will be able to best capture the fast moving scenes in street photography and be able to focus most on the most important thing, which is what is happening in your image.

5 sample sale greene street

6 selfie soho


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.
James Maher Photographer Signature

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!

James-ebook

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  • Lisa

    Thank you for this. I enjoyed the article and tips!

  • Terry Brown

    Would love to read your thoughts on the focus and metering settings to add to these tips.

  • Nicholas Fulford

    I don’t pretend to be a great street photographer, but here are a few things that I have found helpful.

    1) Finding the right scene and waiting for something to happen is a great thing to do. You can figure out all the technical stuff up front – preset the camera to full manual so there are no surprises and take some test shots for focus, exposure, et cetera. Then sit back as part of the scenery and wait.

    2) For walkabout during the day, and especially if the light is relatively static on a near cloudless day, set the f-stop to f-8, turn off auto-focus and preset focus for 8 – 10 feet (for a 50 mm on full frame). Fix your speed between 1/200 and 1/400 and allow the ISO to float. Test expose and if necessary dial in -ve exposure compensation if blowout is an issue. If using a wider lens you will want to dial back the focal distance because you will be tending to be closer to your subject when you hit the shutter.

    3) Practice – a lot. Getting comfortable taking pictures of strangers without giving off bad vibes takes practice, and it is about your mindspace as much as anything. If you feel “creepy” you can be sure that your subjects will pickup on that. Like any animals, people have a fear radius, and the bigger your gear is, the bigger the fear radius. Try using a phone camera until you can take candid shots of strangers without feeling uncomfortable. Only step up to a bigger camera as you become super comfortable with the phone. For whatever reason, big pro cameras make people much more uncomfortable, so stay as small as you can. (Oh I would love a Sony A7 – for the best of both worlds – small and pro.)

    4) A super cool thing for those of you who have an IR converted camera is night photography with an IR flash. To turn a regular flash into an IR flash you need to put an IR filter in front of the flash and sure it is light tight to the flash head. I also have some old unexposed but developed E6 film from my old medium format days, and that add another layer of IR filtration. At full output through the filter, the light is all but invisible with only the very slightly deep dull red being visible if you pay close attention. Put that on your IR camera and you are as close to invisible as it gets for night time street photography. This is one of those preset the focal distance moments with a preset f-stop – like in the walk about example in point 2). Because you are using flash, don’t worry about the shutter speed other than insuring that it is no faster than the maximum synch speed for your camera. For greater distance shooting, pop up the ISO. Take some test exposures and you are off to the races. Attached is an example of an IR night shot in which the subjects did not know they had just been photographed.

  • KP Karunakaran

    Hi I was about to post a question after reading the article (street photography is what I like best) but you have some answers already Nicholas, thanks!

    I have a Sony A7R2 which is great but because of the high MP, quite sensitive to shutter speed (even with camera stabilisation) so blurry well exposed pictures are not uncommon. I used to have an aperture priority bias but now am thinking about using shutter priority (say 1/125th which is safe). I have auto ISO set with max at ISO 6400. Do you know how the camera picks aperture and ISO with shutter priority? Which one first? Or do you recommend manual and set 1/125 and say f8 and don’t limit ISO, let it “float”.

    I know it all depends on lighting and situation and all, but want to concentrate on composition in street photography. As it is , I have missed many moments as the camera takes a while to write on to cards if cards are not super fast (due to size of files) so want to shoot without fiddling too much. Have never used “program” mode as am not sure how the camera picks the variables. Maybe “program”. Comments, suggestions? KP

  • AB

    What about lenses, are 28-70 (or equivalent) ok?

  • DuLaurence Duke Miller

    For a recent, 6-day Paris Street Workshop I had much success with a Sony RX100 that I purchased just for the workshop, because I wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible. The trick I employed was to set a memory bank for my ideal situation: Shutter Priority 250, f/8, 35mm equivalent on the zoom, and Auto ISO. Then, I never had to worry about settings. If I did change them for some reason or another, I was immediately able to return to prime shooting mode by recalling Memory Bank #1. Simple.

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