12 Tips for Outstanding Street Photography
Opportunities for shooting street photography abound, but few people know how to capture evocative images of everyday life. Our 12 simple tips cover everything from lenses to privacy laws, so you'll be ready to hit the streets like a pro.
Credit: Juanita Hong
Wait for the moment
A classic technique for shooting street photography is to compose your image and wait for the action. Instead of hunting for the perfect shot, choose a visually interesting spot and wait for a subject to enter your frame. Henri Cartier-Bresson, an early master of street photography, was known to wait hours for what he called "the decisive moment."
Credit: Marvin Orellana
Choose the right lens
The easiest way to take candid photos without making people feel self-conscious is by shooting from afar with a telephoto lens, but it can backfire if someone spots you. It's not a good feeling to glance up and see a huge lens pointing at you from 50 feet away. Most street photographers prefer to get close to their subjects and shoot discreetly with a wider lens (typically 20-50 mm). As the famous photojournalist Robert Capa once said, "If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough."
Credit: Lacey Johnson
Shoot from the hip
A popular technique used by street photographers is shooting from the hip. Holding the camera low while not looking through the viewfinder is a great way to photograph people without being noticed. Classic film cameras like the Hasselblad and Rolleiflex were specially designed with large viewfinders on top, making it easy to see from waist-level. Some digital cameras have an LCD screen that flips out, which can also be useful for framing shots while not looking through the camera. The easiest way to shoot discreetly with a smartphone is to pretend you're texting – just be sure to silence the shutter first.
Ask for a portrait
If slyly photographing strangers isn't your thing, simply ask for a portrait. Well-known street photographers like Diane Arbus, Bill Cunningham and Vivian Maier all asked random people to pose for their cameras. Try approaching local shopkeepers, street performers and other interesting characters you encounter. If you're traveling abroad, learn how to politely ask for a portrait in the local language.
Credit: Lacey Johnson
Keep your camera handy
The beauty of street photography is that life is constantly unfolding around you. If your camera isn't easily accessible, you're guaranteed to miss the moment. Many photographers choose to leave their bulky DSLRs behind in favor of smaller, lighter cameras that are more convenient to carry (mirrorless cameras are a good option). A professional photographer used an iPhone to snap this fleeting image of a dog hanging out a car window.
Credit: Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan
Explore side streets
Often, the best photos can be found on quiet streets, just off the beaten path. Make a point of exploring residential areas and alleyways, in addition to bustling thoroughfares.
Look for the quirky and unexpected
The best street photographers are always scanning their surroundings for candid images. Keep an eye out for funny details - like this photo of a rickshaw driver's feet poking out from his cab - and clever juxtapositions that most people tend to overlook. Opposites and parallels make great subject matter, too, as seen in this photo of a construction worker striking the same pose as the model in the advertisement behind him.
Cats, dogs and even birds can be excellent subjects for street photography. Documentary photographer Elliott Erwitt is famous for his pictures of pet dogs on the streets of New York City and Paris. If you're in a developing country, you'll likely encounter plenty of stray animals that will happily pose for the camera.
Credit: Lacey Johnson
Children are fun to photograph because they're usually less inhibited than adults and enjoy getting their picture taken. Make an effort to be friendly and unassuming, so people are less likely to perceive you as a threat (especially if you're a man). Also ask parents for permission if you can find them.
Shoot through windows
As long as you're standing on public property (such as a city sidewalk), it's legal to photograph people who are clearly visible through windows. This means couples having dinner in restaurants, children peeking out of cars and cats perched in window sills are all fair game. However, it's never OK to probe more than a few feet inside someone's private residence or business with your camera. According to U.S. law, if someone has "a reasonable expectation of privacy," you can't take their photograph without permission.
Experiment with shutter speeds
People on the street rarely hold still. As a general rule, we recommend shooting at a minimum of 1/250th of a second to prevent motion blur. Still, there are occasions when it pays to shoot at slower shutter speeds. If you want capture a passing car or bicycle against a blurred background, you can try "panning," which requires shooting between 1/15 and 1/125 of a second while following your subject with the camera. You can also use a tripod and long exposure to create a motion-blur effect as pedestrians pass by, like in this photo of a woman begging in the street.
Credit: Howard Wilson
Keep calm and know your rights
If you shoot enough street photography, you're bound to be approached by someone who doesn't want his or her picture taken. The surest way to end a confrontation is to be polite and offer to delete whatever photo you may have taken. Nevertheless, you are well within your rights to photograph people in public places without their consent, so long as you aren't harassing them. Several countries, such as France, have stricter privacy laws, so it's worth doing some research if you plan on shooting abroad.