The most beautiful thing about street photography is that you don’t need a specific camera to shoot with. You can shoot street photography on any camera. In-fact, I know many talented street photographers who only shoot with smartphones.
What camera do I need to shoot with in street photography?
Generally I prefer smaller cameras when it comes to street photography. Larger DSLR’s tend to be big, awkward, obtrusive, loud, and annoying to carry around with you everywhere you go. The most important rule in street photography is: always have your camera with you. The best street photography opportunities always come when you least expect it.
However having said that– it doesn’t mean you can’t shoot street photography with a DSLR. In the guide below, I will give some general tips and guidance in terms of shooting street photography (with whatever camera you own).
There is no “ideal” camera in street photography. There are all pros and cons with each camera. The tip is finding the camera which best suits your personal needs.
Compact Cameras for Street Photography
I’m also a huge fan of compact cameras for street photography. Hands down I would recommend the Ricoh GR II. It has a large Aps-c sized sensor, a fixed 28mm lens (there is a 35mm crop mode), and it fits in your pocket.
As I mentioned earlier, the most important thing in street photography is to always have your camera with you. With the Ricoh GR II, you can simply slip it into your front pocket or toss it into your handbag. You will never miss another street photography opportunity again.
One downside (can be an upside) is the camera only had an LCD screen. Personally I don’t have any problems shooting with an LCD screen in street photography (in fact, it can be better, as people don’t notice you taking photos). If you want an external viewfinder, you can purchase one for it. But frankly speaking, I don’t know many people who use the external viewfinder for the Ricoh.
You can read my in-depth review of the Ricoh GR for street photography here: Review of the Ricoh GR II for Street Photography >>
DSLR guide to Shooting Street Photography
Let’s start off shooting with DSLR’s. Most photographers I know who start off in street photography generally have DSLR’s.
Pros and cons of shooting with a DSLR:
- Accurate framing
- Very responsive (no shutter lag)
- Quick buffer/processing times (you can take many photos in a row without having your camera freeze)
- Great battery life
- Loud shutter sound
- Difficult to carry with you everywhere you go
- Moderately fast/accurate autofocus
DSLR Lens Recommendations in Street Photography
When it comes to street photography, I recommend using prime lenses (lenses that don’t zoom).
Why not zoom lenses? Don’t they allow you to get close to your subject without disturbing them?
Well I first believe that as well. But there is a saying in street photography: “Creepiness is proportional to focal length.” Therefore the longer your focal length, the creepier you generally look.
Not only that, but zoom lenses make you lazy. The best street photographers move their legs quite a bit– getting close to their subjects, moving to the left, to the right, crouching down, and experimenting with different angles.
The benefit of prime lenses is also that they are smaller, lighter, and force you to get to know one focal length really well. This will better help you quickly frame street photos. For example, I have shot with a 35mm lens for the last 6 years, and I know my framing even before I bring my camera to my eye. This allows me to take my photos in the street quickly and efficiently.
The prime lenses I recommend in street photography are the following (full-frame equivalent):
If you have a crop-sensor DSLR (1.6 crop) the lenses roughly translate into:
- 24mm (equals roughly 38mm)
- 17mm (equals roughly 27mm)
- 35mm (equals roughly 56mm)
Breakdown of lens recommendations (remember if you have a crop-sensor, choose the closest focal length to the full-frame equivalent):
35mm (#1 choice)
I generally recommend a 35mm lens for the majority of street photographers. Why is that? I find it is the ideal focal length in terms of not being too wide– or being too close. Apparently the focal length of the human eye is around 40mm, so a 35mm comes close to our natural field-of-view.
When choosing your 35mm lens, you don’t need a fast aperture (like f/1.4). I generally shoot most of my street photography at f/8-f/16 so you can settle with a f/2 or f/2.8 lens. Whatever is cheaper or more compact for your camera.
- If you have a full-frame Canon DSLR, I can’t recommend the Canon 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens enough. It is super compact and an ideal focal length for street photography (and quite close to a 35mm lens).
- If you have a full-frame Nikon DSLR, I recommend the Nikon 35mm f/2 lens.
- If you have any other DSLR camera system, just get the closest to a 35mm with an aperture of f/2 or f/2.8.
28mm lens (#2 choice)
I also like 28mm lenses in street photography, as they allow you to get close to your subjects, fill the frame, and make you feel like you are “really there.” Telephoto lenses compress the scene too much, and feel very impersonal (both in terms of how close you get to your subjects, and ultimately how the photograph looks).
The difficult thing about a 28mm is filling the frame without having too much negative space around the edges of the frame. This means you have to be quite close to your subjects when photographing them (around 1.2 meters or closer, which is 3-4 feet or closer). Not only that, but you have to shoot quite head-on (as the perspective of the 28mm lens is quite awkward with people when you shoot from the side).
Once again, get the closet lens to a 28mm lens either f/2.8 or above. You don’t need a fast f/1.4 lens (which are generally too big and heavy).
There are also 24mm lenses available, but I personally wouldn’t recommend them. They are generally too wide for most people (28mm is the widest most street photographers I know can effectively utilize). But if you are confident in getting close to your subjects and filling the frame, you can shoot with a 24mm lens. Anything wider than a 24mm is too wide in my opinion, and creates distortion which is too distracting for my taste.
50mm lens (#3 choice)
Henri Cartier-Bresson (the Godfather of street photography) shot mostly with a 50mm his entire life. The benefit of a 50mm lens is that you can create very clean compositions with them, and it is a superb portrait lens.
However the downside I have personally found with a 50mm lens is that it is a bit too tight in most situations. I find the 50mm cramps the frame a bit too much in street photography. Therefore I feel that a 35mm is more ideal, as it is slightly wider without being too wide.
However a 50mm is still definitely useable in street photography– and some people prefer it. It allows you to have a little more distance from your subjects, and create cleaner compositions. A 50mm is also a great lens for taking portraits of people on the streets.
Once again, you don’t need a super-fast lens (like a 1.4 lens) in street photography. I’d opt for a 50mm f/1.8, which is the ideal size, weight, and price. The lenses I recommend:
Or any other camera brand you own, just get a 50mm f/2.
DSLR Technical Settings in Street Photography
When it comes to shooting with a DSLR, there are generally two modes I recommend shooting with:
If you don’t like fumbling around with technical settings, I generally recommend shooting in “P” mode, using autofocus, and ISO 800-1600 during the day and ISO 1600-3200 at night.
Why these settings– and what do they do?
“P” mode stands for “Program” mode– which is essentially auto mode (except you can choose ISO, which affects your shutter speed).
“P” mode will automatically choose your aperture and shutter speed for you. It also does a great job balancing having an “ideal” aperture (which has a relatively deep depth-of-field, meaning most of what is in the frame will be in focus) and shutter speed (which means your subject won’t be blurry, but sharp).
I recommend using an ISO of 800-1600 during the day (depending on how bright it is). On a super-bright and sunny day (if you live in Los Angeles or the Middle-East) I recommend using ISO 800. If it is during the day and a bit cloudy and overcast I recommend ISO 1600.
Why these settings? Well, if you increase your ISO it will increase your shutter speed and f-stop. Rule of thumb: you generally want at least 1/250th second of a shutter speed when in the streets. This allows you to freeze the motion of people who are walking.
Why not use Auto-ISO? Well, the problem is with Auto-ISO is that the camera will automatically choose the lowest ISO possible. Meaning, if it is a bright sunny day, your camera might choose ISO 100 (which will cause you to have a slower shutter speed, or a smaller f-stop). This might cause your photos to be more blurry.
When I shot street photography on a Canon 5D I generally shot in “P” mode, ISO 1600, and with center-point autofocus. Why? I like to focus on framing my subjects, composing well, and sometimes interacting with my subject. The last thing I want to do is fumble with my settings. With my camera I simply like to “set it and forget it.”
Pros of “P” mode:
- You don’t have to think about your settings
- You might capture more moments because you aren’t fumbling around with your camera
- You can focus more on composition, framing, and shooting
Cons of “P” mode:
- You have less control how a photograph “looks” (the difference between shooting with a deep depth-of-field versus shooting with a shallow depth-of-field)
- You might miss some moments if your camera has slow autofocus
There is another technique in street photography called “zone-focusing.” Pretty much the concept is you pre-focus to a certain distance (let’s say 1.2 meters or 3-4 feet), you set your aperture to a high f-stop (I prefer f/8), and you shoot manually.
Before autofocus cameras were invented, most street photographers and photojournalists shot with zone-focusing on rangefinders and SLR’s, because it allowed them to capture the moment quickly (while having a sharp and in-focus image).
If you are shooting street photography on a DSLR, here are some settings I’d recommend you to use to effectively zone-focus with your camera:
- Aperture-priority mode (A or Av mode)
- Aperture: f/8 (it is a good balance between having a deep depth-of-field and allowing in a good amount of light)
- ISO: 800-1600 (during the day), 3200 (when it is darker)
- Shutter speed: In aperture-priority mode, your camera automatically chooses your shutter speed. Generally you want your shutter speed to be at least 1/250th of a second (if your shutter speed is slower than 1/250th of a second, increase your ISO)
- Manual focusing: You can pre-focus your lens to around 1.2 meters or around 3-4 feet.
The advantage of using zone-focusing is that you should never miss another photograph again because of your autofocus being too slow. However the downside is that you can’t use zone-focusing at night, unless you use a flash. This is because if you keep your aperture at f/8-f/16, it will be too dark and your shutter speed won’t be fast enough.
Of course you can zone-focus using fully-manual settings. But if you have a camera with A or Av mode, I’d just stick to it. It will make your life a lot easier, and if you want more precise exposures you can either use +2/3 exposure compensation when shooting in the shade, and -2/3 exposure compensation when shooting in the bright sunlight. Make sure to always shoot in RAW to recover blown highlights or dark shadows. You don’t always need a hyper-precise exposure when shooting street photography in my opinion. Focus on capturing the emotion, composition, and framing of the scene.
Another thing to note is that not all lenses have distance markings on them. If your lens doesn’t have distance marks on them, you can simply pre-focus on a tree or a mannequin when you’re out on the streets. Determine how far you are generally from your subjects, and set your pre-focus and shoot.
With zone-focusing with a DSLR, know that if you’re shooting at f/8-f/16 your focusing doesn’t have to be 100% precise. This is because with an aperture of f/8-f/16, you will have a deep depth-of-field and most of everything in the frame will be in focus (even if it looks out-of-focus in your viewfinder). Also the wider your lens, the more depth-of field you have. If you’re shooting with a 35mm or a 28mm lens, you will have a lot more depth of field than if you’re shooting with a 50mm.
What about shooting wide-open?
I don’t recommend shooting street photography wide-open (at f/1.4-f/2).
Why is that? Well although shooting wide-open is a good way to isolate your subjects when photographing portraits– I feel that it isn’t ideal in street photography for two of these main reasons:
1. It is difficult to get your subjects in focus
If you are shooting wide-open (and your subject is moving) it will be very difficult to get them sharp and in-focus. While you don’t always have to have your subjects sharp and in-focus, I think generally it is best to do this to capture gestures, emotions, or the “decisive” moment.
2. You lose context of the background
If you shoot wide open, the benefit is you blur out the background. But the downside of shooting wide-open is that often you want context from the background. A great street photograph includes both an interesting subject and an interesting background. You generally want both in perfect harmony to make a compelling image. By shooting wide-open, you lose that context.
Of course I don’t want to impose rules and restrictions in your street photography and creativity. Experiment shooting wide-open in your street photography and if it works for you– that is great. But based on my personal experience, I wouldn’t recommend shooting wide-open. Almost none of the really great or memorable street photographs I have seen were shot wide-open.
However if you are shooting at night and don’t want to use a flash, you have no other option but to shoot wide-open.
Micro 4/3rds guide to Shooting Street Photography
If you want the fastest and most reliable autofocus camera for street photography, I highly recommend the Olympus OM-D series. They are a very popular camera for street photographers, as they are small, relatively inexpensive, have interchangeable lenses, and insanely fast and accurate autofocus. There are of course other excellent Micro 4/3rds cameras out there, but the OM-D is the best value for the money in my opinion.
In terms of the technical settings, I’d just recommend “P” mode and ISO 800-1600 (depending on how bright it is). ISO 800 for bright days, and 1600 when it is slightly darker.
I don’t recommend zone-focusing with the Olympus OM-D camera, as the autofocus is hyper-quick and accurate already. But they do have some excellent lenses like the 17mm f/2 (~35mm full-frame equivalent) and the 12mm f/2 (~24mm full-frame equivalent) which have distance markings which makes it very easy to zone-focus.
I’d recommend experimenting with both settings and see which one works best for you.
Pros and cons of shooting with a Micro 4/3rds camera:
- Accurate framing
- Very responsive (no shutter lag)
- Image quality not as good as DSLR or APS-C equipped camera
Fujifilm X-Series guide to Shooting Street Photography
One of the best bang-for-the-buck options in street photography are the Fujifilm X-series cameras. These include X-100-series and the X-Pro series. They are all ideal cameras for street photography for their great image quality (APS-C sensors), ergonomics (size, handling, and weight), as well as price (affordable).
I would break-down the pros/cons of the following Fujifilm X-series cameras as following:
FUJIFILM X100 Series for Street Photography
- Optical viewfinder + Electronic viewfinder
- Compact range-finger styled design
- Great image quality
- Insanely quiet shutter (you can barely hear it go off)
- Moderately-accurate and quick autofocus
- Manual focusing is difficult
- Fixed 35mm lens (I actually find this to be a pro, but some people prefer to have a interchangeable lens)
Fujifilm x100/X-Pro guide to Shooting Street Photography
If you have an x100s, x100, or an X-Pro series camera, I recommend shooting it with zone-focusing mode.
Assuming you have a 35mm lens on it, I recommend shooting it at aperture-priority mode, choosing the aperture at f/8, ISO 800-1600, and pre-focusing at around 1.2 meters (3 or 4 feet). Because the autofocus of the x100 and X-Pro camera isn’t as quick and accurate, by shooting in zone-focusing mode you will miss fewer photos.
Rangefinder / Leica guide to Shooting Street Photography
One of the most classic cameras for street photography are rangefinders. Most master street photographers including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, William Klein, Joel Meyerowitz, Bruce Gilden, and many more have shot with a film Leica camera.
What is the benefit of shooting with a rangefinder? I’ll break down the pros and cons below:
- Unobtrusive (looks like an old-man’s camera)
- Very quiet shutter
- Easy to adjust aperture and shutter speed very quickly
- Viewfinder doesn’t black out when you’re taking photos
- You can see outside of the frame
- Parallax error (when you’re photographing a subject closer than 1.2 meters, your framing isn’t accurate. What you see isn’t necessarily what you get.
- Expensive (if you want to purchase a digital Leica)
You can buy lots of different film rangefinders which are generally quite affordable (Bessa, Zeiss, Leica). However the only digital rangefinders are available from Leica (Leica M, Leica Monochrom) which are quite expensive.
How to shoot with a rangefinder/Leica in the streets
Pretty much the only way you can realistically shoot street photography with a rangefinder is using zone-focusing. You can take nice portraits with a rangefinder/Leica shooting wide-open, but it is pointless shooting wide-open when on the streets. Rangefinders were designed to be shot at f/8-f/16, as it allows you to focus quickly and capture “the decisive moment” easily.
One of the great things about shooting with rangefinders is that with most lenses (the Leica and Voightlander lenses) are that they have a focusing tab on the bottom. You can use the focusing tab on the bottom to get a feel of how far your focusing should be.
Generally with most Leica lenses, you will have three main positions:
- Middle distance (the tab is smack dab center at 1.2 meters). This is the default resting position I recommend. Also rule of thumb: 1.2 meters is around two-arm lengths away.
- Far distance (the tab is turned 45 degrees to the right, which is around 5 meters). This is around 3 arm-lengths away, and assuming you’re shooting at f/8, almost everything in the background should be in-focus.
- Close distance (the tab is turned 45 degrees to the left, which is around .7-.8 meters). This is pretty much minimum focusing distance, which is around 1-arm length away. You will only use this distance when working at extremely close distances or shooting portraits.
Over time what you want to achieve shooting street photography with a rangefinder is being very good with your focusing and distances. So by looking at your subject, you know exactly how far away they are, and how much you need to rotate your focusing tab to the left or the right.
I have been shooting with a Leica the last 3 years and now I am extremely accurate with the focusing. I am quite good at guessing distances, and my finger will intuitively know how much to turn to the left and right when photographing on the streets.
If you have a lot of money and prefer shooting with a rangefinder in street photography, I would recommend the Leica M. However if you don’t have $10,000 in spare cash lying around– I don’t recommend buying a digital Leica and lens for street photography. I would recommend starting off with a film rangefinder, the Leica M6 is the best bang-for-the-buck camera out there for street photography.
Leica lens recommendations for street photography
For street photography (if you have the money), I would recommend the Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH. It is the best balanced Leica lens for street photography in my opinion. The Leica 35mm Summilux f/1.4 ASPH FLE is generally too big and heavy for street photography (and you don’t really need f/1.4 in street photography). If you prefer shooting wider, the Leica 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit is the most affordable Leica lens. If you want a closer lens, the Leica 50mm Summicron f/2 is lovely (but unfortunately doesn’t have a focusing tab).
The best bang-for-your-buck lens in street photography is the Voigtlander 35mm f/2.5 lens. It is super compact, sharp, and ideal for street photography.
How to shoot street photography on a Leica
- Leica Street Photography Manual
- A Guide on How to Shoot Street Photography on a Film Leica (or Rangefinder)
Learn more about street photography equipment
Check out my newest and up to date recommendations on cameras for street photography here: Recommended equipment for street photography >>