Here are my top 30 street photography tips to get you shooting on the streets:
Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Mastering Street Photography
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1. SHOOT WHILE YOUR SUBJECT IS TALKING
It is a common misconception that you cannot talk or interact with your subjects when shooting street photography. In my opinion, by putting your soul into your street photos, your photos become more personal, and more meaningful/memorable.
2. PRETEND LIKE YOU SHOT SOMETHING BEHIND YOUR SUBJECT
One of the best ways to be invisible and stealth when shooting street photography is to not make eye contact with your subject, and to pretend like you’re shooting something behind your subject.
Therefore, when you see an interesting person– get close, and keep clicking, and keep your eyes locked on the background:
3. CROUCH LOW
Photography is all a matter of perspective. Figuratively and literally.
One of my favorite compositions in street photography is getting close to your subjects, and crouching down low, and shooting from a low-angle perspective. This will make your subject look ‘larger than life’, and also make for a more interesting and engaging photograph.
4. SHOOT IN HOTEL LOBBIES
Don’t just limit yourself to the streets in street photography. Shoot anywhere and everywhere. Preferably in public places, or even in ‘semi-public’ places (like hotel lobbies).
One of my favorite places to shoot street photography are hotel lobbies. Even Andy Warhol said that he loved to just hang out in hotel lobbies, to get all the upsides of the fanciness of a hotel lobby, without having to pay.
Anyways, I often step into hotel lobbies when just walking in the streets, to see if there is anyone interesting inside to photograph. And more often than not, there is:
5. DIRECT YOUR SUBJECTS
The photographer William Klein was like a director on the streets. He often interacted with his subjects, would egg them on, and ask his subjects to pose for him. Even in his famous ‘kid with gun’ photograph, he told the kid: “Look tough!”
Thus, don’t be afraid to ‘influence’ the scene. In-fact, influencing the scene, interacting with your subjects, and getting them to pose for you often makes for better photos.
For example in my kid with gun photo, I told the kid: “Pretend like you’re shooting me!”
Is this inauthentic? I don’t think so. To me, street photography is all about creating your own version of reality– not just about capturing reality as you see it.
## 6. FISHING TECHNIQUE
A good street photographer is like a fisher– and of men (insert Jesus reference here).
The most fundamental technique in street photography is the ‘fishing technique‘ — finding an interesting background, being patient, and waiting for an interesting subject to enter the frame.
And like every fisherman knows– it ain’t about catching the fish. It is about enjoying the zen meditation of waiting, being patient, and letting the fish come to you.
7. BE AGGRESSIVE
I think that a good street photographer (if you really want the shot) — you gotta be aggressive (at times). This will allow you to get more aggressive street photography compositions, and will also help you capture a moment that you like.
But how are you aggressive as a street photographer without being an asshole?
That means, approach your subject, get very close, shoot, and smile and say “thank you” afterwards.
8. ASK FOR PERMISSION
In my opinion, it is harder to ask for permission than to shoot candid street photography. Why? When you ask for permission, you put your ego on the line. You empower the subject to either say “yes” or “no.” With candid street photography, you just take the photo, and don’t need to interact with your subject. It is hard to interact with our subjects, and deal with the (possible) chance of getting rejected.
I would suggest the “10 no challenge“, to conquer your fears of rejection in street photography. Just approach a bunch of strangers and ask for permission to make their portrait. Keep asking for permission, until you get 10 people to say ‘no.’
The benefit of asking for permission is that you can get much closer– usually much closer than you could ever do without permission.
And also remember:
With physical proximity comes emotional proximity.
9. USE A FLASH DURING THE DAY
By using a flash in street photography during the day, you can light up the faces of your subject, and give yourself more opportunities to shoot street photography, even when the light outside is harsh.
I often shoot street photography with a flash during the day to create separation between the subject and the background, and also to make a better exposure:
Also another benefit of using a flash in street photography during the day: you create a better exposure in the sky.
Practical suggestion with flash in street photography during the day: use your integrated flash (if your camera has one), and just shoot in “P” (program mode) and use the automatic flash TTL (through the lens) settings.
10. SHOOT 25% MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU SHOULD
In street photography, when you think you got “the shot” — you haven’t. Therefore, when you think you got a good shot, keep shooting. Shoot 25% more than you think you should, in order to fully-extract the essence of a scene.
Even Henri Cartier-Bresson once said,
Sometimes you must milk the cow a lot, to get even a little bit of cheese.
I often don’t know a good photograph until I see it. Often interesting hand gestures and moments don’t occur until I shoot it.
Thus, you must keep shooting a scene, and “working it” — and the more you shoot, the luckier you get:
11. “DON’T SMILE!”
I got this tip from Martin Parr:
“Look into the lens, and don’t smile.”
Parr often prefaces it by calling it a “dignified portrait.”
The reason I like to ask my subjects not to smile is that the photos generally look more genuine and interesting.
And also remember the power of photography to lie. Like in the picture below of a man in a bus in Istanbul, he looks scary and mean:
But in truth, when I first took the photo, he was smiling. I asked him:
“Don’t smile! Look serious! -_-!”
Then he stopped smiling a bit, and by the third shot, I got him looking serious:
You can even try to do this when shooting portraits of your friends, family, and loved ones. Ask your subjects not to smile, and I can bet that the photos will look more interesting.
12. KEEP SHOOTING UNTIL YOUR SUBJECT NOTICES YOU
This is part of the ‘lingering’ technique in street photography. Identify an interesting subject, scene, and stand and linger around– and keep shooting. Wait until they notice you, and sometimes they will do an interesting hand gesture, or have an interesting facial expression:
13. LOOK AT THE BACKGROUND
Many of our street photographs fail because we get ‘tunnel-vision‘ and only look at the center of the frame. Rather, I suggest you to try to simplify the background, and also look at the edges to get a good background:
For example when photographing this stylish man in New Orleans, I shot 112 photos of him in different compositions and framings. The best photo was the one with the orange and blue background, and the shadow of the gate above his head.
The reason why this shot was the best: the simple and colorful background.
The orange-blue wall also follows color theory (orange and blue are good contrasting/complementary colors).
14. MINUS -1/-2 EXPOSURE COMPENSATION
A simple way to make more dramatic street photographs is to ask your subject to stand in front of a bright light source, and use -1 or -2 exposure compensation. Of course, you can also do this with candid street photographs as well.
By using -1 or -2 exposure compensation, you totally darken the background, and ‘crush the blacks.’
This will allow your subject to pop out from the frame, and make for a more engaging image:
15. “THE CHERRY ON TOP”
A keeper photo often has a ‘cherry on top‘ — a small detail in the background, which transforms an ordinary photo into a great photo.
For example, the ‘Pinocchio nose shadow’ of the woman below. I noticed the ‘cherry on top’ of her nose-shadow while shooting.
Lesson: Sometimes you see the cherry on top while you’re shooting, sometimes you notice it afterwards when you’re looking at your photos on your computer.
16. SHOOT WHAT YOU’RE AFRAID OF
We often don’t know what will make an interesting photograph, but we usually know what scares us.
Therefore as an assignment in street photography:
Only shoot what you’re afraid of.
And remember– you can ask for permission as well.
For example, when I saw this man in Venice at a bar, I was deathly afraid of him. But I knew I would regret not asking for permission. Therefore I mustered up my courage, took a step forward, complimented him, and asked to make his portrait.
Life Lesson: Often the people who look the scariest are often the nicest/most friendly.
17. LEADING LINES
If you see leading lines, be patient, and wait for someone to enter the scene, and be positioned at the end of the leading lines.
Why do leading lines work? Because they direct the eyes of your viewer– and tell your viewer what to look at.
All of composition is about creating balance and harmony in your frame, and also by creating a “visual scaffolding” to direct the eyes of your viewer to what you want them to look at.
Almost all of street photography (and photography) is rooted in Henri Cartier-Bresson, who studied surrealism, and was the ultimate surrealist photographer.
Surrealism is hard to do in street photography. A simple way to do it: find interesting posters, and add the cut-off legs or limbs of real people in the frame.
Some of the most interesting people and photos I’ve made are in elevators. But also the scariest.
If you see someone interesting in an elevator, ask for permission. Or shoot candidly, and avoid eye contact.
The benefit of shooting a photo in an elevator– simple backgrounds, and it gives you the opportunity to conquer your fears in street photography— because you have nowhere to run away.
Also as a tip: photograph people while they are about to enter the elevator, or photograph them while they’re exiting the elevator.
The elevator is an interesting example of a “liminal” space (an in-between space) in which people aren’t really paying attention to their surroundings. Thus, it is a good opportunity for you to make photos while people are in a dazed-like state.
If the weather isn’t good outside (too cold or too warm), just shoot at the mall. I love shooting street photography at the mall, because a lot of people congregate there, I can get some good walking in, and you can shoot street photography (even with a flash) and pretend to be a dumb tourist.
Thus my strategy is shoot at the mall and pretend like you’re just a tourist. Pretend like you’re shooting the surroundings, store fronts, and if a security guard asks you to stop, just apologize, and move on.
A practical question you might be curious about– “Are you allowed to shoot in a mall?” Technically no, but at times I believe in life it is better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.
Some of my best photos are shot at malls, like this photo of a woman while I was on an escalator:
21. DUTCH ANGLE (TILT YOUR CAMERA)
When you are walking up stairs, or see any diagonals, tilt your camera to the extreme left or right, to create more dramatic street photographs.
You’re never certain when a “decisive moment” will occur (in street photography or life)– so always be prepared before the moment happens.
Often I see a scene and an interesting thing hasn’t happened yet. Thus, I will hang around, and linger, and wait for something interesting to happen.
I will often hang around in a scene, and just start clicking my camera. And then sometimes I catch a good moment, and sometimes I don’t.
Another reason why the lingering technique is good: by waiting and lingering longer, and continuing to shoot– something even more interesting might occur that you might have never expected.
For example in the scene below, I photographed a boy interacting with his mother, and caught this scene.
I continued to ‘linger’ in the bus stop, and then made another nice composition of these people at the bus stop:
23. TRIANGLE COMPOSITION
One of the best compositions in street photography are triangles.
Triangles add balance, form, and harmony in a frame.
You can shoot triangles by looking for people placed in a triangle composition, by identifying two “anchor subjects” (two subjects that aren’t moving), and then adding the final person who enters the scene.
Some examples of people you can use as “anchor subjects”:
- People smoking a cigarette, not moving
- People checking their phones
- A face in a poster
Try to connect these three elements, to make a dynamic triangle composition:
24. CHILD-EYE LEVEL
As adults, we always see the world from our own eye-levels. We never get low, and shoot from the eye-level of children.
To me, it is good to crouch low, and shoot from eye-level. It makes the photos more intimate, and gives you a unique perspective of the world–seen through the eyes of a child (something I strive for).
Shooting head-on with a wide-angle lens makes the photographs more dynamic– it makes it feel like your subjects are about to collide head-on with you.
What I often do when shooting super-close is to crouch down, shoot, and pretend like I’m shooting the skyline, and simply move on.
Also shooting head-on works when shooting layers in street photography. I will get lost in the sea of people, and shoot head-on to get the energy and vigor of a scene, and of the people:
I often take the subway, and rather than shooting, I will read a book or check my phone.
Remember shooting a subway is the perfect opportunity to shoot street photography. Juxtapose and contrast people against the background, or just find nice moments.
27. SIMPLE BACKGROUND
I think street photography is about capturing the soul of people, and you can only do this by shooting with your own soul.
I often think backgrounds are distractions. I am more interested in people, than their surroundings.
Thus, I try to photograph people against simple backgrounds, to better highlight the facial expressions and emotions of the subject.
Also in composition, this follows ‘figure to ground‘ — putting your subject (figure) against a simple background (ground).
28. HOLD YOUR CAMERA HIGH, SHOOT DOWN
Remember: photography is all a matter of perspective. To make more interesting perspectives, and also to simplify your background, shoot from a high angle (preferably with your LCD screen), and shoot with your camera pointing down.
This will also work well when shooting street photography on your phone:
29. DECAPITATION TECHNIQUE
The best photographs are the ones that invite the viewer to make up their own story about the scene.
Therefore, seek to make open-ended and mysterious street photographs. One way you can do this is by decapitating or cutting off the heads of your subjects.
This also works well when you ask for permission, and they say “no”. You can then say, “Do you mind if I just photograph your hands instead, and not include your face?” Most people will then say “yes.”
One good photographer to study the decapitation technique is Mark Cohen.
30. FATHERS AND CHILDREN
I am drawn to fathers and children, perhaps from the scars of my past.
I think that you have a power as a street photographer to create a cultural shift. You can make photos that preset a new version of reality, which is empowering and positive.
For example, we are often told that fathers are dead-beats, all they do is gamble, and don’t care about kids and family. Yet, many fathers are very loving– even the tough looking ones.
When I see fathers and children I will say,
“Excuse me sir, you look like a great father. Do you mind if I made a portrait of you and your son/daughter?”
Most men will say yes:
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS on STREET PHOTOGRAPHY
Remember, there are no rules in street photography. You can shoot street photography however you like.
This is why I like to write street photography tip articles. Because I know that everything I share is just a “tip”, an idea, or a concept. I don’t want to force you to shoot street photography like me. With all these tips, take what resonates with you, and leave the rest.
Ultimately I think the most important thing in street photography is to keep your passion alive until you die. Trust me, I have fallen into moments of “un-inspiration”, when I lose my passion for shooting.
The best solution has been to have an open mind, to shoot like a child, and not put any limits on myself. Even now, I don’t just shoot street photography — I shoot everyday life photography. I find beauty anywhere and everywhere I go, whether at home, whether shooting friends or family, or on the streets.
No limits, only opportunities and possibilities.
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