Street Photography Ideas

Hollywood, 2011

Dear friend,

Here are some street photography ideas, freshly pressed from STREET NOTES MOBILE EDITION.

1. Hands

Hands of a 92 year old woman. Hanoi, 2017
Hands of a 92 year old woman. Hanoi, 2017

There is a saying, “Eyes are the windows to the soul.”

My saying:

Hands mold your world.

Which means, we use our hands to manipulate external reality. We communicate with our hands (imagine the gestures of Italians), we work with our hands (artisans), we shake hands to say hello, and we use our hands to love (grasping someone with your hands and hugging them).

Therefore to me, while I do find someone’s face and eyes their most interesting bodily parts, I like to focus on just hands.

Hands show someone’s life story better than their face. And not only that, but hands are anaonymous and open ended. To me, hands of an old woman can belong to anyone– to your mom, your grandmother, or anyone else.

Not only that, but most people don’t mind having their hands photographed. A lot of people don’t like to have their face photographed.

Therefore when you’re shooting street photography and someone doesn’t want to be photographed, you can ask,

Can I photograph just your hands instead?

Most people will say yes.

eric kim hands paris black and white
Paris, 2015. Hands with permission.

When photographing hands, use a flash. This will help separate their hands from the background. If your camera has a “macro” close-focus function, use that.

Eric Kim / Downtown LA, 2011 / She didn’t want me to photograph her face, so I photographed her hands instead.

When shooting hands I get close and fill the frame. I shoot in P (program) mode, ISO 1600, and just ask my subject to hold out their hands.

Hanoi, 2017

Also when photographing hands, I like to get a simple or clean background. I will ask my subject to hold their hand against a simple white background or a simple black background.

2. Hand gestures

Sapa, 2017

Also when you shoot street photography, you can just capture hand-gestures. Like a photograph of someone gripping something, or giving you the middle-finger.

To me, hand gestures are good because they show more EMOTION and DYNAMISM in an image.

Therefore when you’re shooting street photography, be on the lookout for hand gestures. For myself, I don’t shoot if there is no hand gesture.

Common mistake in street photography: photographing someone just walking, doing nothing with their hands.

Ignore the faces of people, focus on their hands, and if they do any interesting hand gestures.

Interesting hand gestures:

  1. Shielding their face from the sun
  2. Hand on their face, deep in contemplation
  3. Hand on their hip
Sapa, 2017

Another tip: when you see a good hand gesture, get VERY CLOSE and shoot both their face and their hand gesture. The ultimate strong image: a HAND GESTURE and a FACIAL GESTURE.

Sapa, 2017.

3. Silhouette

Silhouette of Man at Hoan Kiem Lake / Hanoi, 2017
Silhouette of Man at Hoan Kiem Lake / Hanoi, 2017

To make better street photos, capture silhouettes. A silhouette (dark subject against lighter background) is interesting because it is mysterious. Mysterious photos are open-ended, which allow the viewer to come up with their own story in street photography.

Open-ended stories are what make street photographs interesting.

My favorite movies and books are open-ended, where I can “choose my own adventure” and fill in the blank spots with my own creativity and imagination. For example, in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” film, you don’t know whether Leonardo DiCaprio is living in a dream or not…the viewer is able to make up their own conclusion. This is what makes it fun and engaging.

Hanoi, 2017. Shot at a coffee shop.

To capture silhouettes, I recommend shooting in “P” (program) mode and using -1 or -2 exposure-compensation. Darken the image, which will help the silhouette of your subject pop out more.

Also, shoot high-contrast black and white RAW + JPEG to better visualize the scene on your lcd screen. And use free ERIC KIM LIGHTROOM PRESETS to process the photo (ERIC KIM MONOCHROME 1600).

4. Indoor street photography

Hanoi, 2017. Rooftop bar at Lotte Tower.

I love to shoot street photography in hotels and other indoor areas. Why? You can access a different sub-stratum of society. You can photograph more rich, wealthy, and otherwise “inaccessible” members of society.

For example, when you shoot street photography in a mall or any other “public-private” places, people are generally more relaxed. I like to shoot a lot in coffee shops, malls, hotels, and bars…both candid and with permission.

Hanoi, 2017. In hotel lobby.

Don’t just shoot in the streets. Try to shoot at the mall…especially if you live somewhere hot (Asia, Middle-East).

5. Talk to your subjects while photographing them

Hanoi, 2017. I photographed this 85 year old woman while talking to her for about 10 minutes in my (broken) Vietnamese. She loved my company.

Street photography can be shot candidly or with permission.

If you ask for permission, talk with your subject while photographing them. You will often get much more interesting images.

When you talk with your subject while shooting then, you will get more natural expressions, with them dropping their guard.

Fuck this notion of the “detached” and “objective” street photographer. You are not a colonialist, or zoo or safari photographer. You are an ACTIVE PARTICIPANT in your street photos.

Bare your soul to your subjects, and let them bare their soul to you.

Ask them about their life story. Their dreams, hopes, fears. Connect with them. Make a connection with them, not just photos.

6. Take 25% more photos of the scene than you think you should

If you see a good scene, try to take at least 10 photos. I personally will shoot up to 100 photos of the same scene if I find it interesting. Just check out my CONTACT SHEETS.

It is rare you see a good subject or scene. Don’t be shy and just take one or two shots and run away. Rather, “work the scene”.

eric kim new orleans
New Orleans, 2016. You don’t see guys like this that often. He loved the attention and was very cooperative. I asked him to stand against a simple colorful background for this photo.

eric kim contact sheet new orleans street photography portrait orange

eric kim contact sheet new orleans street photography portrait orange

Often my best street photograph is at the very end.

1-hanoi lake eric kim street photography contact sheet
Best shot at the end.

Also, you often don’t know what kind of photograph you want in street photography until after you’re done shooting a scene.

For example in my Laughing lady photo, I didn’t expect her to laugh. She just started to laugh because she said,

You’re crazy for taking so many photos! Hahahaha!

Then I got the photo. I was lucky. But the more I shoot, the luckier I get.

Sometimes you don’t know when you will get an interesting reaction. So keep clicking when in doubt. Contact sheet for “Laughing lady, nyc”
Laughing lady. NYC, 2016
Laughing lady. NYC, 2016

7. Evoke laughter

Eric kim street photography laughing ladies NYC hanoi

There are too many depressing photos in the world of pain and suffering. Why not shoot more positivity and joy?

Paris, 2016. I loved his teeth and asked him to laugh for me.

To get people to laugh, tell a bad joke. Or just start by laughing yourself.

Laughter is contagious.

halmunee-grandma-eric kim photography seoul-0003562-2
My grandma laughing; I want to forever remember her like this.

8. Ask people to show you their tattoos

I was teaching a street photography workshop in Venice with Adam Marelli– and a couple of us were having drinks and dinner at a bar there. I saw this tough looking guy sitting at the end of the bar, and I thought he would make a great subject. I approached him (a bit tipsy) and asked if I could take a few portraits of him as he looked great. At first he started laughing and he refused, but I persisted. I then started to snap a few photos, and saw he had an interesting tattoo under his shirt. I asked him to show me the tattoo, and to my surprise– he started to take off his watch and started to unbotton his shirt. I then took a few photos, and this one being the most interesting to me.

Don’t be shy. A lot of cool folks with tattoos love to show them off.

If you see someone with an interesting tattoo, just ask them:

Can you pull down your shirt so I can see your tattoo better?

Almost everyone says yes.

Photographing a man with tattoos in Downtown La

Also, often the scariest looking folks are the nicest.

I like to say,

Excuse me sir, do you mind if I make a few portraits of you? Your tattoos are badass!

They almost always say yes.

Downtown LA, 2012. Leica M9 x SILVER EFEX PRO 2
Downtown LA, 2012. He was super friendly.

Also, ask your subjects to move a little into or out of the light.

Downtown LA, 2015

Note how I “worked the scene” in this photo, shot at -2 exposure compensation. I asked him to stand in the bright light.

contact sheet side tattoo eric kim
Note how I worked the scene, to get the man to have the dramatic light on his face.



Ultimately there is no right or wrong way to shoot street photography. Define street photography for yourself, and have fun.


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Tokyo, 2012

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Prague, 1968. Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos
Prague, 1968. Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

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