Hey streettogs, if you want to learn some practical tips and techniques when shooting on the streets, check out the video above, or read more to see all 15 tips:
1. Work the scene
One of the common mistakes I see in street photography is that photographers only take 1–2 photos of the scene, and move on (because they are either too self-conscious, nervous, or impatient).
Try this instead: work the scene. Take multiple photos of the scene. Preferably 15–20 (more tends to be better).
Why? The more you “work the scene” the more likely you are to make a great photograph. Sometimes a subtle difference between what is happening in the background, the eye contact of a person, or a hand gesture is what makes the photograph.
Think of the analogy of baseball— the more times you swing your bat, the more likely you are to hit a home run.
2. Use your flash
If you’re like me (a lazy photographer) you don’t always shoot when the light is good (sunrise/sunset). So if you’re shooting in the middle of the day, in the shade, or indoors— try to use your flash to have your subject “pop” from the background.
I personally keep my camera on “P” (program) mode and use the automatic flash settings. Use the flash built into your camera (if you have it) or a small external flash if your camera doesn’t have a flash.
You can use a flash when you’re photographing a subject against the sun, or when they are in a poor lighting situation.
I used to shoot off-camera flash with a trigger like Bruce Gilden, but nowadays just shoot with an on-camera flash (because I don’t need any crazy flash angles anymore).
I also suggest to try to shoot with a flash during the day (people don’t notice it) rather than the night (when it can blind and scare people).
3. Get eye contact
There is a saying: “Eyes are the windows to the soul.” I feel that by getting eye contact in your photograph, the viewer feels a lot more connected to your image. It almost looks like the subject of your frame is looking directly at the viewer.
The stronger the eye contact, the more emotional, and more memorable the photograph generally is.
But how do you get eye contact when you’re shooting on the streets? My suggestion: get close to them, and keep clicking, until they notice you and make eye contact with you. The second they make eye contact, that is when you click.
4. Get low
Many photographers shoot from eye-level. The problem is that this is a boring perspective. We are always used to seeing the world from this perspective— try to get a unique perspective by getting low.
By crouching down and shooting your subject from a low angle, you make your subject look bigger than life. Things on the edges of the frame also get exaggerated (which look novel).
Not only that, but by crouching down and getting low— you seem a lot smaller and less intimidating to your subject. Imagine a knight bowing down before a king.
5. Capture the “unguarded moment”
We often talk a lot about trying to capture the “decisive moment” (the moment something interesting happens). However I also suggest to try to capture the “unguarded moment” (the moment when someone forgets about you, and drops their guard).
I like to ask to take photographs. What I try to avoid is having someone just look at me and pose for me with a peace-sign. What I try to do instead is to capture an “unguarded moment” — a moment when they forget me, forget about the camera, and show a little bit of their soul.
How do you capture the “unguarded moment”?
Well— you can either ask them open-ended questions like, “What are your plans for today? Where you from? How would you describe your personal style? What is your life story”? And then when people start to talk and get into “story-telling mode” — you can capture more authentic moments that aren’t as “posey.”
6. Direct your subject
If you ask for permission from your subject, know that you can also direct them. I generally ask them to stand against a simple background, and try to get them to do an interesting hand-gesture.
To get a subject to do an interesting hand-gesture, I ask them about their sunglasses, their hair, or even their watches. I will ask them “Where did you buy it?” and when they start talking, they make hand gestures— that is when you should shoot.
You can also ask your subject to loosen up by jumping up and down, by “working it”, by playing with their hair, or by “looking tough.”
But isn’t that “inauthentic” in street photography? For me, street photography is about creating your own version of reality, not “objective” reality (leave that to the photojournalists and documentary photographers).
One great photographer who was a “director in the streets” is William Klein. Even his famous photograph “Kid with gun” was captured because William Klein told the kid: “Look tough!”
7. “Can you do that for me again”?
Sometimes when you’re shooting a person, you see an interesting gesture, movement, or happening. I think it is fine to tell your subject, “Can you do that again?”
For example, when I was in Downtown LA and photographing this man, his partner started to wipe the sweat from his forehead. I saw that interesting gesture and asked her, “Oh— can you do that again? Can you keep wiping his forehead?” She listened— and I ended up making one of my favorite photographs (that looks candid, but was actually with permission).
8. The “fishing” technique
This is one of the most classic techniques in street photography – identify an interesting background, and wait for your subject to enter the frame.
You can either look for an interesting background, billboard, leading lines, and create a juxtaposition with your subject who walks by it (or somehow interacts with it).
The reason why it is called the “fishing technique” is because in fishing— sometimes you can cast out your rod and catch no fish for hours on end. Sometimes you catch a lot of fish. You never know—but the skill to have is patience.
9. Shoot head-on
Another common mistake I see a lot of beginner street photographers make is that they don’t shoot head-on. Rather, they shoot from the side.
If you want to make photographs that are a lot more engaging, full of energy, and dynamic— shoot head on. Sometimes you might accidentally bump into people, but this is important especially if you’re shooting with a wide-angle lens. When you’re shooting with a wide-angle lens and head-on, the photographs make the viewer feel that they’re really there.
So the way you can do this is walk down a crowded street, stop somewhere in the center, and wait for people to walk head-on towards you. Then after you take the photos, play dumb, and move on.
10. Create layers/depth
If you want more engaging photographs with more depth and complexity, try to incorporate layers/depth.
What I suggest is putting your camera to manual focusing, and pre-focus to the background (whatever is furthest away, between 3–5meters). Shoot in Aperture-priority mode, keep your camera at f/8 to get more depth, and a high-ISO like 1600 or 3200.
Then try to incorporate more subjects into your frame— the foreground, middle ground, and background.
A good photographer to study is Alex Webb, who does this extremely well.
11. Look for lines/patterns/texture
If you’re not in the mood to photograph people, know you can do more conceptual street photography without people that focuses on lines, patterns, and textures.
I do this a lot when I’m shooting “urban landscapes.” I feel that by finding lines, patterns, and textures of old buildings or places— you add more character and emotion into your photograph.
12. Embrace negative space
I am more of a minimalist and prefer having negative space in my photograph. Why? Negative space allows your photograph to “breathe” and for your viewer to focus more on the single subject in your photograph.
Where to add negative space? My suggestion is to just use it intuitively — if your frame feels too crowded, add more negative space.
Furthermore, you can add more negative space to your photograph by capturing dramatic shadows. Shoot either at sunrise or sunset, or shoot in the bright light with –1 or –2 exposure compensation. In post-processing increase the “blacks” and contrast of your image.
A great photographer to study who uses minimalism, negative space, and shadows well is Rinzi Ruiz (also goes by “Street Zen”).
13. Minus exposure compensation
This is related to the prior technique. The idea is to put your subject into the bright light, and set the exposure-compensation of your camera anywhere between –1 and –3. This is a technique I learned from my friend Neil Ta— which can add dramatic shadows in the background (even when you’re shooting in the middle of the day).
14. Leading lines
Leading lines can be found anywhere— from alleyways, to street poles, to parks, or even drive-ways.
An easy way to incorporate leading lines is to first identify the leading lines, and then wait for the right subjects to enter the frame. You can pair this with the “fishing” technique.
15. Subtract from the frame
The last tip is remember: what you decide not to include in the frame is more important than what you decide to include in the frame.
So when you’re shooting, think to yourself, “What is superfluous in my frame? What is a distraction at the edges of my frame? What should I decide to keep, and what to ditch?”
Keep subtracting from your frame, until there are no distractions left, and you are left with the essence of your image.
These are some practical tips and techniques to use in street photography, but know that this isn’t a full-list. Try a combination of these techniques, or if you want to practice, just focus on 1 of these techniques in a day.
The more tools you add to your street photography toolkit— the more prepared you will be for certain shots.
Even though we all have different styles and approaches, trying something outside of your comfort zone will help you grow and develop as a photographer (and human being).
So be brave friend, go forth, and make beautiful photos!