Getting Close – Street Photography 101

"Hustling" - Chicago, 2010

"Hustling" - Chicago, 2010. This was taken with my 24mm on my 5D and I was practically a foot away from them.

Something that is imperative to street photography is to get close. Street photography is not only about documenting life, but being an active participant. Therefore in order to capture the true essence of a scene, use a wide-angle lens and get really close to your participants to capture the scene and the mood of a scene. Wide-angle shots allow the viewer to be immersed in what you are shooting and “see it from your eyes.” Furthermore by shooting with a wide angle lens, you are able to capture more of a scene which gives your images better context and life.

But if I am shooting with a wide-angle lens, doesn’t that mean that I have to get close to people? That definitely is true. This may be uncomfortable to many people, but often the most interesting images are created when the subjects that you are capturing are aware of your presence and react. Getting the looks of shocked people looking straight into your camera can create images that captivate your audience—making them truly feel that they are a part of your scene, rather than a voyeur merely looking in.

"Waitress" - Hollywood. Another image taken at 24mm.

"Waitress" - Hollywood. Another image taken at 24mm.

Although I advocate using wide-angle lenses when it comes to street photography, I am not stating that it is the only way to participate in street photography. I know a great street photographer named Tom Kaszuba who uses telephoto lenses to isolate his subjects and get great candid portraits of them in moments of contemplation. These can make effective images which are nearly as moving. However I would avoid using telephoto lenses when shooting in the street merely because you are merely “afraid” of taking photos of people. I have noticed through my experience that it is much more awkward to get “caught” pointing a huge lens straight at a person, rather than getting caught shooting a portrait of a person right in front of their face with a wide-angle lens. The reason being is that because you are so close, people will assume that you are taking a photo of something behind them.

"Years" - Tom Kaszuba

"Years" by Tom Kaszuba. A great example of a street portrait with a telephoto lens.

If you are still a bit timid of shooting wide-angle portraits of candid people in the streets, practice on your friends and family. If you don’t have a wide-angle prime lens (such as a 24mm or 35mm, which I use) but a wide-angle zoom lens, practice shooting pictures of people really close at your widest setting. This will typically mean that you are standing only 3 feet away from that person. Note how wide-angle images of people will capture their essence while pulling the viewer into the images themselves.

What are you waiting for? Get close! Don’t be afraid, and see what happens.

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  • Sue

    Hmm, but I suppose if you use a long lens you could say you were shooting something else behind or near the subject if the distance is great enough since it’s hard to tell :) Did you ever get caught, and how did you deal with your subjects once they questioned you? I’d often to look away and scurry off somewhere but I realized that makes me more conspicuous.

    • Eric Kim

      It is funny– in all my 3 years of street photography I have never been approached by people. However, I have many people “catch me” taking photos of them. After taking the photo, I pretend like nothing happened and walk away. Then they go back to their own business–assuming that I didn’t take a photo of them (or so I think).

  • Tom K.

    Important advice Eric. The great masters of street photography followed the same path as the one you described in this post. Garry Winogrand was the master of the street shooters frequently employing a 24mm lens. His work speaks for itself.

    • Eric Kim

      Thank you for the comment Tom. I didn’t know about Garry Winogrand before–but after looking at his pictures his works indeed speak for himself.

  • Courtney

    Good advice. I did a lot of street photography when i was younger (and fearless) and was looking for ways to get back into it. Guess I just have to jump in!! –Court

    • Eric Kim

      Definitely! The best thing about street photography is that you don’t need crazy gear or anything like that. Just jumping in is often the best way! :)

  • james rock

    Some great tips Eric,

    Your tip was given to me by one of the great Magnum photographers, Martin Parr about 30 years ago (see ).

    Martin also suggested a 24mm prime on a 35mm camera, which is about the same as a 17mm on a normal digital camera. At first getting to within 3ft of your subject feels really close – invading your own space as much as theirs – but after a while it becomes comfortable.

    I now use a 35mm prime as standard on my camera in the street and adjust position to fill the frame as required – it makes you think much more about the shots…

    thanks for your 100 other tips too…


    • Eric Kim

      Hi James,

      Glad that you liked the tips! And I checked out Parr’s work–and he is definitely a genius in his own right. Thank you for taking the time to leave your comment… I am glad that my thoughts are aligned with his as well :) Hope to see you around!

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