Street photography is incredibly difficult to do at a high level. You have to know how to use your camera technically, develop an eye for light and composition, and photograph consistently.
However, when you get it right, it feels like the most rewarding thing in the world. So in this article, we’ll take a look at eight reasons street photography is hard, and I’ll give you some tips to help you overcome the obstacles.
If you’ve been frustrated with your results in street photography at times and you don’t quite know why here are some of the roadblocks that I’ve encountered throughout my years of practicing it.
Getting a handle on what makes street photography so difficult has helped me stay sane, motivated, and focused. I hope my experience helps you overcome the challenges as well.
#1 – Lack of control on the street
The first thing that comes to mind for me when considering why street photography is hard is how you have zero control over many aspects of it. You’re taking candid photos of people who have no idea what you’re doing and are just going about their day, so they’re not going to pose for you or do what you expect from them.
This aspect of street photography is in stark contrast to other types of photography. If you compare it to studio portraiture, for example, where the lighting and direction of your subjects are within your control, there are a lot more variables with street photography. You’re not choreographing anything, so people are constantly moving in and out of your frame, and the light can vary and change in any given place throughout the day.
This lack of control may be uncomfortable for some photographers, especially if you’re coming from another genre where you have a lot more control. However, I recommend that you embrace the chaos. It’s also what makes it so impressive when you create a good composition out of such street situations.
Street photography is a challenge. But if it wasn’t difficult, the results wouldn’t be as impressive.
TIP: Learn to love the chaos and be ready for anything. Spend time just watching the studying the activities on the street before you take any photos. Read: Street Corner Exercise – Photography Challenge
#2 – Unpredictable lighting
The lighting on the street can change frequently, whether you point your camera in a different direction or if the light from the sun changes direction or intensity.
I like to work in manual mode to dial in my exposure as accurately as possible. But if I know I’m in a situation where the exposure is going to vary a lot, I’ll use some form of automatic mode on my camera. Usually, that will be aperture priority, but also *Tav (essentially ISO priority) or shutter priority when appropriate.
*Note: Tav is a shooting mode on Pentax DSLRs.
One nice thing about camping out in one spot on a street corner and waiting for people to walk into your frame is that the lighting isn’t going to change too much in that one spot. Compare that to walking from place to place, your exposure will fluctuate a lot more.
Regardless of how you deal with changing lighting conditions on the street, you need a strategy for making sure your exposures are good enough to get usable images.
TIP: When in doubt, my go-to for street photography is aperture priority combined with a minimum shutter speed to freeze movement. I usually use a small aperture around f/8 and the fastest possible shutter speed for the situation because I want deep depth of field and minimal motion blur.
From there, I’m fine with the camera choosing the ISO because I don’t particularly care how much grain (noise) is visible in my street photography images.
#3 – Location
There are exceptions, of course, but street photography requires you to photograph on the street, typically with human subjects. Many people live close to a large urban area, but that doesn’t always mean there are many people actually on the street.
In the United States, there are many relatively large cities but seemingly few people in them. That’s because our infrastructure is so geared toward the car and car culture. When everyone is in cars, you see few people on foot. This doesn’t apply to the few walkable cities in the US, such as New York or San Francisco, but it is the case in many mid-sized and even larger cities in the US.
On a similar note, if you live out in the suburbs, it makes street photography a lot harder. Technically, you can do it, of course, a la William Eggleston, but if you want to feature people in your photos, the opportunities will be scarce. Additionally, when you take photos of people in low-trafficked areas, it’s usually a lot more obvious that you’re taking a photo of someone, which can be awkward.
Note from Darlene: It doesn’t have to be. Just make eye contact and be upfront about taking their photo. Don’t go for the sneak attack.
It’s easier said than done because many people live close to their family and friends. But if you want to take street photography seriously, I think it’s worth considering moving to a city where you can practice it. You’re much more likely to actually DO street photography if you can just walk out of your home and start taking photos immediately, rather than having to drive to the downtown area from the suburbs.
I also lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for three years. Below is an image from Rio. Can you see the difference between the two scenes in the images above and below?
What I’d like to point out about these photos may be obvious to you: there are fewer people in the photos from Kansas City. Therefore, when photographing there I have to find ways to create layers that contain street elements other than people because there are simply fewer people on the street.
In a walkable urban area such as Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, for example, it’s an understatement to say that it’s a lot more common to come across street scenes with multiple people. I don’t think this is talked about a lot, but I sincerely think it’s something to take into consideration if you want to be a street photographer.
TIP: Plan a day trip or choose your travel destinations and go to places where there are lots of opportunities for street photography. New York City, Havana (Cuba), any city in India, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hanoi, and Mexico’s large cities are just a few ideas for you.
#4 – It can be scary
Let’s face it, street photography can be intimidating! Particularly when you’re just getting started in this genre or haven’t done it in a while.
You might fear how people will react if you take photos of them. The thing is, people can react negatively and if you practice street photography long enough, you’ll eventually run into an issue. However, it usually amounts to nothing, a non-issue.
There are, of course, risks in street photography, but any serious threats to your safety are unlikely, so safety shouldn’t hold you back from doing it.
TIP: Read this to help you overcome your fears: 6 Tips for Overcoming Fear in Photography
#5 – Confrontation
The section above on fear in street is not completely unfounded. People can confront you on the street in anger. I’ve experienced it on a few occasions.
It’s unfortunate that this happens, as I’m never trying to make anyone look bad or do anything sketchy with my street photography.
But inevitably, some people will jump to conclusions as to what you’re doing and get angry. Luckily, it’s not that frequent, but you will likely have to deal with this type of behavior from time to time.
One thing I like about modern digital cameras is that you can use the back LCD screen to compose your shots (so the camera is down, away from your eye), which makes it less obvious that you’re taking photos.
TIP from Darlene: Another approach to this is to just ask people if it’s okay before you take the photo. That can often be done just by pointing at your camera and a head nod, no words even need to be exchanged.
I have rarely had anyone get mad at me – I can only recall one incident where a guy gave me the finger. BUT I was using a long lens, from across the park, taking a sneak photo. THIS is why I prefer a wide lens and eye contact. There is less of a chance of upsetting your subject because you aren’t sneaking around.
#6 – You have to photograph a lot
There’s just no getting around the fact that street photography is a numbers game to a certain extent. You have to put in the work. Not every photo is going to be a masterpiece, even for the best street photographers in history.
A great book that illustrates this is Magnum Contact Sheets, which shows proof sheets of some of the greatest street photographers ever. You get to see the photos leading up to and after their most iconic photos. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at their thought process and you see how many frames they took before they got the ones worth keeping.
It takes a lot of mental fortitude to keep getting out there on the street, especially knowing you may come home empty-handed for the day. I personally find street photography very freeing, relaxing, and enjoyable, at least after warming up and getting in the zone.
I let myself enjoy the process and take in the sights, sounds, and smells (the good ones coming from restaurants anyway). I appreciate the fresh air and having a passion for an activity and art form that encourages me to be active and not sedentary. I truly believe that you need to enjoy the process of street photography to excel at it.
TIP: Think of street photography like making an omelet that you have to crack some eggs to make (i.e. take bad photos until you get the good ones). So start cracking some eggs! The more you practice, the more your images will improve.
#7 – It requires discipline in the editing process
You have to be brutally honest with yourself when it comes to editing your street photography and culling images that don’t make the cut. It can be really difficult to let go of street photos. After all, you bought all that expensive gear, and you trudged out into the world on public transportation — you may have even gotten rained on!
But get this: nobody cares! That’s right, nobody cares about the trouble you went through to get an image — and neither should you. If you’re going to keep photos (for publication, your portfolio, or even for social media), what’s important is that it’s a powerful photo.
I want the photos that I keep for my portfolio to have strong compositions, good light, and evoke a feeling (emotion and storytelling). If an image doesn’t have one of those things, then the others better make up for it (i.e. if the light is bad, it needs good composition and emotion).
I’ve been doing street photography for close to 10 years now and I’m just as guilty as the next guy of lackluster editing.
TIP: So it’s something that you always have to be vigilant about because you should only be showing your best work. I don’t have a photo editor (or mentor) who I can collaborate with (yet), but if you can get access to that, I would imagine it helps immensely to get a second pair of eyeballs on your photos.
#8 – Many People Don’t Understand Street Photography as Art
Street photography is a bit of a niche interest. There are a lot of people who have never seen street photography and don’t even know what it is. There are others who may have heard of it but don’t consider it art or appreciate it.
So when you candidly photograph someone who doesn’t know what street photography is, they can react negatively. I think with some people it’s confusion and the fear of the unknown. They’ve probably never been photographed like that before, have no idea why you would be doing it, and their mind starts racing as to why.
People who fall into this category will often give you the benefit of the doubt if you give a reason for what you’re doing. I like to say something along the lines of “I do street photography, and I document interesting things and people on the street”. Everyone loves a compliment, so saying something nice about someone’s outfit or telling them they look wonderful can open the door too.
Unfortunately, some people are just angry and look for any reason to lash out. You may be dealing with a person like this if you’ve politely explained what you’re doing and the person insists on being confrontational.
NOTE and TIP from Darlene: If that is the case, just wish them a good day and move along. You can also show them you are deleting any photos you took of them (and really do it). It’s really not worth making a big scene over.
The good thing is that the majority of confrontations about doing street photography end peacefully, and you can go about your day. The fear of confrontation is a bigger factor in your street photography than actual confrontation. So don’t overplay it in your head.
Street photography is difficult, and out of the countless photographers who have tried their hand at it, there are really only a select few that turned their practice of the genre into greatness.
The challenge of street photography is part of what makes it so fun and addicting. Once you get some great photos, it makes you want to get back out there and make more.
So if you ever go through tough times in your street photography, just know that failure is an inevitable aspect of street photography. What’s important is that you enjoy the process and don’t give up.