Whether you're shooting content out-and-about, in venues, at events, or even in a studio, knowing your your way around your equipment is paramount. So, how to build up that skill – fast? The best and most accessible method to my mind is shooting on the street. It is the perfect place to hone your camera skills.
Some suggest that street photography emerged as a distinct discipline when the war photographers of the 60s took to the streets between foreign assignments to keep themselves sharp. "The Street", meaning any space where unsuspecting passers by can be observed is a fertile ground for interesting images, but crucially it's unpredictable and rewards presence of mind and camera skill. Whatever the true origin of the practice, succeeding at street photography is tough. It requires practice, speed, keen anticipation, an eye for story and mastery of your equipment—but there's no more easily accessible venue that will get you up to speed faster.
Things move surprisingly quickly on the street, compositions come and go in the blink of an eye, even if only the result of the combined speed of people moving at walking pace. There is often intense light and deep shadow to account for. It takes a reading of the movement around you, and anticipation of what might be about to happen. It takes a kind of fearlessness too. Nothing compared to the sangfroid of the war photographer of course, but you have to break down your own fears and inhibitions when it comes to invading a random human's personal space with a camera at close range.
Some photographers take this to extremes. Bruce Gilden springs to mind, or Dougie Wallace shooting so close as to startle people. But full-frame street photography is typically shot with a 'standard' (for full-frame) 50mm or a 35mm for more confined spaces. These focal lengths get you close to your subject but no so close as to be truly obnoxious. Certainly close enough to be noticed and reacted to though, so capturing candid shots requires speed and anticipation. You need to catch your subject unawares. Get the shot before your presence alters the scene in front of you.
Some work with longer lenses, but to me this isn’t really street photography. Capturing people across the street with 200mm seems more like a Safari, too safe.
While by no means a super-accomplished street shooter (some examples of my street work here), I’ve learned from experience a few moves that make the process go more smoothly for me and these I’ll share with you now:
1) Get rid of your standard-issue strap. The neck strap that came with your camera has to go. Firstly it likely has the make and model of your camera emblazoned on it in high contrast lettering. A great advertisement that any camera thief will find very handy. Keeping the strap also suggests a degree of naiveté. That perhaps here is a person who isn’t a battle-scarred pro, but in fact a nice soft target. Don’t be this guy:
Instead, I either use a hand strap, or no strap at all. If using a heavy DSLR, a hand strap it gives me the much needed ability to rest my hand without letting go of the camera, and it keeps the camera connected to me, to guard against it getting snatched, which can happen, particularly in an unfamiliar city. A hand strap is better than a sliding strap in this environment because a sliding strap can easily be cut from behind, and sliding straps mean you have to wear your camera in plain sight behind you or to your side. This always makes me nervous. But, in a permissive environment like a commercial shoot, sliding straps like these examples from Black Rapid and Peak Design can be extremely useful. With no strap, I hold the camera inside a side-bag, at the ready.
2) Ditch the camera bag. Nothing says ‘expensive camera and lenses’ quite like black cordura and velcro. So leave the camera-specific LowePro at home. For the street you need something small and unobtrusive that just fits your camera with a fast prime, one other prime lens and a maybe a flash. Your street photography bag should be a side-bag, not a backpack or sling bag. A basic open-top messenger is acceptable, or an old beach bag with a cross body strap. Anything random enough to not look like it contains a camera, and not too big that it gets in the way. You need to be able to walk with your camera hidden until you need it, and it can provide a little shelter when changing lenses too.
3) Ditch the telephoto or kit-lens Many DSLRs ship with a 'kit lens'. These typically give a massive zoom range, 18mm (extreme wide-angle) to 200mm (decent telephoto) for example. But they do it at the expense of large aperture capability. And they will force the aperture smaller (to a higher Fstop number letting less light in) the more they are zoomed. They will also produce quite a bit of distortion at wide angles. They're not bad, but if you're seeking to improve beyond the basics quickly, using a fixed focal length, or 'prime' lens removes one more factor that will slow you down – the need to adjust your zoom. Primes are also smaller, lighter and produce sharper images. They are also typically 'faster' than long lenses in that they let more light in. They produce beautiful crisp images with very little distortion and they encourage you to zoom with your feet. Being forced to move yourself into position quickly to capture a shot builds your ability to anticipate and compose quickly. Working with nothing but one or two primes is a great way to level-up fast.
4) Ditch your lens caps. A disconcerting habit of professional photographers is we often don’t bother with lens caps. The rationale being that a neutral density (ND) filter (not a useless “UV” filter) will protect the front element of your lens well enough, a lens cap will slow you down and speed is crucial on the street. Clean with a cloth every day, carry a spare ND filter in case you break one.
5) Switch off the beeps. If your camera has beeping as default, go into your menus and switch it off. No beeps means less to attract the attention of your subjects.
6) Use ‘silent shutter’ mode or similar. Usually not at all silent on a DSLR, but a little quieter than full shutter slap. Plenty of street shooters favour mirrorless cameras or rangefinders for the quiet actuation and unobtrusive size. I think the low noise of these cameras is a definite benefit but camera size is more of a hindrance in your own mind, the way I see it. The bigger your camera, the more self-conscious you feel, but get over it. If someone sees you pointing a camera at them, it doesn’t matter what size it is. Either you’re being too slow anyway, or what difference does it make? A camera is a camera if it’s pointed in your face.
7) Back button focusing. If you haven’t discovered how to back button focus and are still focusing by half pressing the shutter release, now is a great time to delve into Google to find out what maze of selections you have to make in your camera's settings to enable it. Back button focusing allows you to control how you focus and compose much more speedily than half-pressing. Normally, you would choose to set your camera to either Single Servo or the equivalent for still objects, then half press to focus and then move the frame to recompose. Fine if your subject is behaving itself. To shoot action, you then have to change the settings on your camera to select your preferred flavour of Continuous Auto Focus and then shoot away. Change settings again to go back to single servo… Not ideal! With back-button focusing you set your camera to your choice of continuous auto (choose between Auto, centred, 9 or more focus points, 3D etc) and leave it be. Then simply press-and-hold the AF button on the back of the camera to continuously auto focus, let go of the button and the focus locks (like single-servo) and then you can re-compose. In short, it's a quick way to move between a still life and an action method of focusing. It takes a day or two of shooting for it to become second nature, but once you make the switch you should find you like it.
8) Ditch the auto modes – (except one). Say no thanks to aperture priority, shutter priority or full auto. You need to be in control of how you choose to represent motion (shutter speed) – and how you choose to isolate your subject with depth of field (aperture). It’s mastering these controls in a hurry that street photography is such a great proving ground for. Especially because you can find locations anywhere and make interesting photographs – or fail dismally 99% of the time without it mattering at all, there’s always another "street" to photograph. I’m not exaggerating by saying 99%. If you get one keeper in a hundred throwaways, you’re doing just fine and nothing a bit more practice won’t improve.
9) Embrace Auto ISO. This is the auto mode I would recommend keeping for street photography as you learn your craft. Set auto ISO to only go to a level of 'noise' that you’re comfortable with on your camera, say ISO2000 or ISO3200. Set the minimum shutter speed to a level that works with the lens you’re using, so no less than 50/sec with a 50mm as a rough rule of thumb. Auto ISO works brilliantly to ensure most of the shots you take are properly exposed. Or at least with a much larger margin of error, allowing you to hone your skills in selecting the correct shutter speed and aperture for the shot you’re trying to achieve. This is where anticipation comes in – not only are you anticipating the movement of the actors on your stage, but you’re anticipating the shutter speed and aperture too. Putting in the hours honing this skill will make you an immeasurably better photographer, and street photography is an entertaining and crucially, easily-accessible way to do it. Once you've mastered setting your shutter speed and aperture manually, then start working on manually setting your ISO too.
10) Stop wandering around. This is a great tip for street photography and one I wish I’d cottoned onto sooner. I’d assumed that street photographs were taken as you meander with the crowds, shooting as you go. But doing it that way dramatically increases the difficulty. Instead, finding a place to pause and observe is an excellent approach that gets results. Find a spot that interests you, that you imagine might work for whatever reason. Take some time to figure out the light, the shadow, your exact position, the camera settings, the flow of people, the objects and props that may be around. Instead of participating in the hustle and bustle, step out of the flow and become a true observer. You will still need to think on your feet and anticipate. You will still need to move your feet and adjust your settings on the fly, but limiting your shooting arena is a good way to improve quickly until you're more relaxed about moving around. Once you've exhausted the possibilities of your location, find a new spot.
11) Don’t be afraid to use Flash. Street photography can produce awkward lighting conditions. I mentioned having space in your random non-camera bag for a Speedlight above, never mind that it looks big and obtrusive on the camera or how annoying you think you're probably being. The first time you see how you threw light into someone’s face under a rainy umbrella or hat brim and you’ll realise what a great tool it can be on the street.
12) Do your legal homework. Well, homework is too long a word, but take a few minutes to familiarise yourself with the legal standing you have when photographing on the street. In short, you can photograph someone on the street without their permission, the reasoning being that when a person steps out of their home into a public space they have a reasonable expectation of being seen by others. That logic holds true even if your photograph is shared on social media—the person is simply being seen by more people. You only get into the weeds if you're making money selling images of people that are posing for your photograph but you haven't obtained permission from them in the form of a model release, this doesn't apply to Street Photography but worth being aware. You can photograph corporate buildings or employees as long as you’re standing on a public highway—no matter what the security folk may say. The police if called will back you up. Be aware though, that some city spaces that appear public are in fact privately owned, and then you do not have the rights you would on a public pavement. Always be polite and charming when challenged, you might not get your way immediately but there’s no need to be be needlessly awkward, indignant or confrontational. Let people do their jobs, and be sure of your rights so that you can do yours.
13) Smile. A simple smile has a disarming effect on most people. Security guards are just doing their jobs, passers-by will usually pay you no mind if you exhibit some friendly charm. Most people will forgive you for stealing their soul the instant they see that you’re not frowning, lurking or skulking about being creepy. And get ready for that follow up shot, candid is probably what you’re after on the street, although sometimes you can catch a banger from a fully aware subject.
14) Lastly – get out there and practice. The street isn't too far away for most of us. It's that accessibility, lack of cost and the sheer range of difficulty in shooting moving subjects that makes it the ideal place to rapidly develop camera handling skills that will soon feel second nature. Skills that will stand you in good stead whatever shooting environment or content assignment is thrown your way.
If you'd like to see examples of my photography head over to www.jazkilmister.photography or connect with me on social media. I always value comments and feedback.