How to Shoot Street Photography on a DSLR

Seoul, 2009 / Canon 5D
Seoul, 2009 / Canon 5D

If I started shooting street photography on a DSLR all over again, this is the advice I would give myself:

I started to shoot street photography on a small digital point-and-shoot camera, then graduated later to a DSLR (because that is what all “pro” photographers used).

I found it to be a blessing and also a curse.

There are a lot of benefits of shooting street photography on a DSLR. Here are some:

  • More responsive
  • “What you see is what you get” (what you look through the viewfinder is accurate)
  • Easy to change settings quickly

Some downsides of shooting with a DSLR:

  • Bulk, weight, cumbersomeness
  • Loud
  • Stands out like sore thumb

Yet if you shoot street photography on a DSLR, here are some tips I’ll give you:

1. Make your camera as small as possible

Santa Monica, 2009 / Canon 5D
Santa Monica, 2009 / Canon 5D

It is true the bigger your camera, the more you will stick out. However you have control to make your DSLR as small as possible.

That means removing your tripod mount, removing your battery grip, and not using huge zoom (or even big prime) lenses.

I generally recommend investing in “pancake” lenses (very small and compact lenses) for DSLR’s. The aperture tends to be quite fast— most of them are at least f/2.8 (which is more than enough for street photography).

2. Get an ergonomic strap

Downtown LA, 2011 / Canon 5D
Downtown LA, 2011 / Canon 5D

One of the toughest things about shooting street photography on a DSLR is the weight. Try to lessen the weight or strain of your neck or wrist by investing in a strap which is comfortable and ergonomic for you.

That can mean having a soft neoprene strap you wear on your neck, or if you prefer a wrist strap. Or a shoulder-sling strap.

Try to figure out what is most comfortable for your DSLR in street photography. Don’t care whether it looks “cool” or not — just optimize for comfort and convenience of use.

3. Technical settings

Downtown LA, 2011 / Canon 5D
Downtown LA, 2011 / Canon 5D

Most DSLR’s aren’t very good in terms of autofocus. Therefore even with DSLR’s, I recommend trying to use “zone-focusing.”

The concept is pre-focusing to a certain distance, using an aperture around f/8, using a high ISO (1600-3200), while using a pretty wide-angle lens (28mm-35mm), in aperture-priority mode.

The idea is you pre-focus to a certain distance in manual-focusing mode, and you just click at that distance.

By using “zone focusing”, you are less likely to miss the “decisive moment” when you’re shooting on the streets.

If you find these settings too complicated, just shoot in “P” (program) mode, ISO 1600 (to have a fast shutter speed), and center-point autofocus. These are the settings I use when shooting digitally.

4. Focus on the edges and background

Seoul, 2009 / Canon 5D
Seoul, 2009 / Canon 5D

One of the best benefits of shooting with a DSLR is “what you see is what you get.” You can frame much more accurately with a DSLR than a rangefinder.

Therefore when you’re framing and composing a scene, focus on the edges of the frame, and the background. Try to reduce clutter and complexity from the frame, rather than adding complicated subjects to your frame.

As humans we cannot see 100% of the frame at the same time. We generally get tunnel-visioned into the inner-30% of the frame.

My suggestion: throw your subject somewhere in the center of the frame, and focus on getting clean edges and background of your photo.

And if you really want to improve your composition, try not to crop your photos for a year or so.

5. Look like a tourist

Santa Monica, 2010 / Canon 5D
Santa Monica, 2010 / Canon 5D

A lot of street photographers with DSLR’s feel self-conscious, because they stick out.

My suggestion: purposefully stick out. Look like a tourist.

That might mean putting on some shorts, a neon-green shirt, and a hat. Buy a shirt that says, “I love [city]” (that corresponds to where you live/shoot).

Don’t try to act sneaky and slick. Literally pretend like you’re a tourist, just taking snapshots, and nobody will give you any flak.


Downtown LA, 2009 / Canon 5D
Downtown LA, 2009 / Canon 5D

Ultimately, don’t worry too much about your camera in street photography. Martin Parr shoots all his photography on a DSLR, and is still able to get really close to his subjects, and shoots with confidence.

Another tip is to pretend like you’re focusing on something else behind your subject. This is what Martin Parr does to prevent people from noticing him.

Anyways, your confidence is more about your own emotions— not what camera you use. You can be the most confident street photographer in the world with a DSLR, or any other camera.

And know that if you’re tight on funds, buying a new smaller and slicker camera won’t make you a better street photographer. It might make it easier to carry with you, but I always think that investing money on travel, workshops, books, and education is a better bang-for-the-buck.

What if I want a smaller camera?

SF, 2015 / Ricoh GR II
SF, 2015 / Ricoh GR II

If you’re sick of carrying around a big and bulky camera, just try to use a small compact camera or just using your smartphone camera.

I prefer having my smaller camera, but I look back at a lot of photos I shot in 2009-2011 (on an original Canon 5D) and the photos still look fantastic.

There are a lot of benefits to a DSLR: they are built like bricks, can take a beating, have great image quality, and are customizable. They are responsive, and take photos when you want to.

So just be grateful for whatever you have, and just hustle hard, and shoot to your heart’s content.

See you on the streets,

Learn more: Street Photography 101 >