Guide: Street photography

Shoe with yellow laces See camera and lens details
1/8000s  16mm  f/2,8

House with fire espaces See camera and lens details
1/640s  135mm  f/2,5

Man relaxing with Converse shoes See camera and lens details
1/250s  135mm  f/2

Maybe you are already used to street photography or are you completely new to the genre? Regardless, I hope that this article about street photography can give you some advice and tips along the way, as well as ideas and inspiration. After reading the article and looking at the pictures, I hope you are full of motivation to just go out there, walk the streets of your favorite or nearby city, have fun, and capture moments that become motifs for your next wall painting, exhibition or something that forever will be etched in your memory.

What exactly is street photography?

I do not think there is a generally accepted explanation, but I think that street photography is everything that can be taken during a walk, with the camera in hand, through a city or suburban environment. The motives can be anything, yes - really anything. Everything from how the city pulsates to how it lies deserted during the night. Who are the people in the city? What do they do? What are the characteristics of the people in that particular city? What people do meet on the streets and what emotions do they express? Which musicians perform on street corners? What food is sold at the square? When is the city most alive? Is there any activity in city at night?

Can I walk and photograph everything I want, without permission?

It is difficult to answer this in detail, but yes, as guidance you can say that you as a photographer have the right to photograph everything unless there are special regulations or you happen to photograph near a security-classified object (government building, etc.), but in those cases, it is always information and signs telling you this.

If you are going to a city on a holiday, do a quick research but I think you can assume that you can move around the city without any worries because in most countries it is no problem to walk around with a camera and take pictures of the everyday life on the streets and the strangers who walk there, in front of you. As with all photography, street photography is no exception, must always be done with respect for the individual. And maybe it's just this, the fear of being "intrusive" that often prevents us from letting go of creativity out there on the street. And letting go of this fear is key and once started you will quickly realize that you can practice street photography to the max without intruding on other people's privacy or making them angry.

So much joy - so much history

Street photography is one of the forms of photography that has given me the most joy over the years. Do not know why but going back and looking at some of the pictures I have taken gives me so much joy. I think my joy is related to the feeling of being a photographer that blends in, that is somewhat invincible and that is capturing an ever-changing environment where nothing can be directed. Your pictures will be photojournalism, illustrating everyday life in the city. Surely the idea of this is amazing? If you are thinking of older, really old, photographs - do you think the portraits or street photographs are most interesting? I love to see pictures from, for example, a 100-year-old everyday life as these pictures say and give me much more than the portraits that of often quite stiff. Street photography is journalistic as it often shows how we lived there and then when the picture was taken.

The first time you are going to take photos in your city

Imagine that you are the journalist who will document our time and our change as humans. If it is the case that you will return to that same city later in life, it might be interesting to choose a couple of places that you can return to for later visits. Wouldn't it be interesting to document everyday life around a certain street or intersection at few year's intervals? Imagine over time seeing how fashion changes, how the cars look different etc.

Easy to get started but difficult to master

To get started with street photography, you do not need expensive equipment and you can do just as well with your mobile camera as with more expensive camera housings and nice lenses. It's all about us always being surrounded by interesting motives and it is mainly your comfort and will that set the limit in succeeding as a street photographer.

As you practice street photography you develop yourself as a street photographer and slowly but surely your ability to be in the right place develops, see the motives that have always been there and then capture them technically. There is generally a lot to say about street photography but nothing is right and nothing is wrong. All street photographers develop their techniques and style and you will do the same. Maybe your actual city will make its mark on your photos as well.

A bigger city gives you more to photograph

Although it can be just as much fun to walk around a small town and take photos, there are of course some parameters that a larger city inevitably gives you as a photographer:

  • More people on the move
  • More buildings
  • More traffic
  • More anonymity

With that said, it does not necessarily mean that it will automatically be better to perform street photography in a larger city but thought it was worth mentioning here anyway.

Getting started

As mentioned above, there is nothing right and nothing wrong when it comes to street photography but however, but here are some tips along the way if you want to go directly to ideas for pictures and motifs when you take street photos, you can go here.

Turn off Netflix or YouTube

Yes, it must be said. Whether you are living in or visiting a larger city; we all (myself included) consume lots of digital content via eg TV, Netflix, and Youtube. It is comfortable and it keeps us entertained. Instead of lying in the hotel bed or sinking on the sofa at home and watching all these movies and series, or clips on Youtube where photography is discussed - turn off all that for a while and go out and take pictures, create magic! Maybe you are only in New York, London, Berlin, Paris, or New Delhi once? An inner voice of bad conscience and lack of character often calls for me to urge myself to make something of my time and control my agenda instead of letting others' creativity completely devour me. Is it the same for you? Can you make street photography prevail over your convenience?

Dare - Just do it

On top of the convenience and laziness is precisely our barrier and fear of standing out, of becoming a little uncomfortable or questioned, the biggest factor that prevents us from evolving from a good photographer to also a good street photographer. You need to go out there and start defying the feeling of being a little uncomfortable. You might be thinking:

  • But, what if they look at me?
  • What will they think when I come with my big camera?
  • It feels like I squeeze into their everyday life, is it even allowed?
  • Are there enough motives in the city you live in?
  • I probably do not know all the rules for the city I am going to, do I dare to go out?

Every time you pick up your camera and for every picture you take, you will slowly but surely come across the threshold, your threshold, that this is OK to do. And you will realize that the inhabitants of the city often completely ignore you. Some might even smile back at you, I promise.

Start at a small scale

Start by heading out to the central parts of the city, where the city pulse is at its highest, with the camera hanging over your shoulder. Walking up and down the streets, pick up the camera when you have at least a few people around you and try to see the city through your viewfinder. Take a picture. Take another picture. Did it go well? Yes, of course, it did! You see quickly that street photography does not have to be linked to feeling uncomfortable and you can continue to capture those amazing everyday images. Wonderful!

Say "thank you" with a big smile

Again, imagine that you walk through the city, taking pictures of people in the middle of their hectic everyday life. Of course, someone might notice that you took a picture of them, and yes if someone notices that you photographed them - smile big and maybe say "Thank you". All to de-dramatize the situation. Are you starting a conversation, maybe you can even offer to send them the picture when you get home?

Street photography gives you exercise

For every kilometer and mile you walk, with the camera in hand, you have also exercised. This may not be related to how you become a good street photographer, but since street photography can mean long walks, you should make sure you have walking shoes.

Do not let (lack of) equipment stop you

Do not think that you need the latest camera or the most expensive lens to succeed as a street photographer, because you don't. Many times, it is more liberating to have a smaller and lighter camera and lens, or maybe even just your mobile phone then, than to have a full-size camera body and a heavy professional lens. It is your ability to see situations, motives, and people that is the main key to becoming a good street photographer - not your equipment.

Maybe you are on holiday in ex. London or New York and just have your cell phone with you? If so, challenge yourself and test and see what you can achieve with, for example, only your iPhone. I remember being in New York once with my wife. Both of us had an iPhone 4 at the time and we had so much fun capturing the city during that week.

If you want to increase the camera size and quality a bit, many people think those compact cameras are perfect for street photography since they are easy to handle and rarely attract attention either, thanks to their size.

Those who want to bring a camera with interchangeable lenses can choose any camera and the flora of lenses that are suitable for street photography is gigantic.

Camera selection

May I choose, then I choose a "real" camera in front of the compact camera or the mobile phone - every day of the week. For me, it has always been different and more amusing to use a viewfinder in a camera than a digital screen on a mobile phone. If it was me who would walk around the streets of your city tomorrow, I would like to use a system camera, but it would not have mattered so much which model it was. I have photographed a lot of street photography with models like Nikon D80, Canon 40D, Canon 5D Mark II and Canon EOS 1D Mark III and have appreciated them all.

Weight matters

If you are going to spend long days on the streets, you will appreciate gear that is as lightweight as possible. And then I mean not only the weight of the camera body but the total weight where both the weight of the camera body and the lens are summarized.

Best lenses for Street photography

Now I understand that it feels strange that I mention this - "Best lens for street photography?" right after I have talked about that equipment does not matter, but you who read this probably think that photography and lenses are fun so why not also give some feedback on which lenses are the most suitable and extra good for street photography?

If I had to say a couple of lenses which I had chosen for each manufacturer, it would probably have been these:

Canon EF 135mm f/2 L USM Canon EF 135mm f/2 L USM
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2,8 L USM Canon EF 16-35mm f/2,8 L USM
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2,8 L USM II Canon EF 16-35mm f/2,8 L USM II
Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L USM Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L USM
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2,8 L USM Canon EF 24-70mm f/2,8 L USM
Canon EF 24mm f/1,4 L USM Canon EF 24mm f/1,4 L USM
Canon EF 28mm f/1,8 USM Canon EF 28mm f/1,8 USM
Canon EF 50mm f/1,2 L USM Canon EF 50mm f/1,2 L USM
Canon EF 50mm f/1,4 USM Canon EF 50mm f/1,4 USM
Canon EF 85mm f/1,8 USM Canon EF 85mm f/1,8 USM
Nikon AF-S 105mm f/1,4 E ED Nikon AF-S 105mm f/1,4 E ED
Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2,8 G ED Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2,8 G ED
Nikon AF-S 16-35mm f/4 G ED VR Nikon AF-S 16-35mm f/4 G ED VR
Nikon AF-S 20mm f/1,8 G ED Nikon AF-S 20mm f/1,8 G ED
Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/3,5-5,6 G VR IF-ED Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/3,5-5,6 G VR IF-ED
Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/4 G ED VR II Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/4 G ED VR II
Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2,8 E ED VR Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2,8 E ED VR
Nikon AF-S 24mm f/1,4 G ED Nikon AF-S 24mm f/1,4 G ED
Nikon AF-S 24mm f/1,8 G ED Nikon AF-S 24mm f/1,8 G ED
Nikon AF-S 28mm f/1,8 G Nikon AF-S 28mm f/1,8 G
Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1,8 G ED Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1,8 G ED
Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1,4 G Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1,4 G
Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1,8 G Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1,8 G
Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1,8 G SE (Special Edition) Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1,8 G SE (Special Edition)
Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1,4 G Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1,4 G
Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1,8 G Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1,8 G
Nikon AF-S DX 18-140mm f/3,5-5,6 G ED VR Nikon AF-S DX 18-140mm f/3,5-5,6 G ED VR
Nikon AF-S DX 18-300mm f/3,5-5,6 G ED VR Nikon AF-S DX 18-300mm f/3,5-5,6 G ED VR
Nikon AF-S DX 18-55mm f/3,5-5,6 G VR II Nikon AF-S DX 18-55mm f/3,5-5,6 G VR II

Dare to prime lenses without zoom, especially if you happen to have two cameras

Above I listed both zoom lenses and fixed lenses (where the possibility of zoom is not present). These fixed lenses can be an incredible challenge - but a fun challenge - because when you will walk around, it is not always that you can stop and slowly compose your image by, among other things, zooming in and out. You sometimes need to act lightning fast and if you add to that the challenge of not being able to zoom in and out, but for example being stuck with your 50mm focal length - it can be a wonderful challenge. The prime lenses often provide you with great image quality as well as nice aperture values of f/1.4, f/1.8, etc. which can be useful.

A discreet telephoto lens can make it easier

Above I also listed telephoto lenses. Many telephoto lenses are heavy and bulky, which can also attract a lot of attention. One of my absolute favorite lenses is the Canon EF 135mm f/2 L USM which with both its low weight (750 gr), neat size, and aperture f/2 makes this lens a completely magical lens to have in your camera lens lineup when taking the streets. If you are shooting with Canon, I - from the bottom of my heart - really recommend this lens.

Make sure you have purchased everything before the trip

Maybe you are going to a larger city on holiday and plan to start photographing immediately upon arrival. If so, make sure you have bought everything you need before departure. In general, the equipment list for street photography looks like this:

  • Camera bag
  • Extra battery
  • Extra memory card
  • Cleaning cloth
  • Comfortable shoulder strap

Well, it is the truth - you do not need more than that. Sure, the camera bag can also contain more camera housings and more lenses, but the lighter the weight, the better.

As for the camera strap, the original straps are not always the most comfortable for longer periods. I used straps from a company called Black Rapid which gave me a comfortable strap in neoprene and a solution to quickly get the camera up to the eye when the opportunity came.

Do not carry the camera in your bag

No photographs are taken while the camera is in the camera bag, so always try to have the camera easily accessible, in the hand or over the shoulder. In street photography, the motifs appear in a flash, and during a walk, through the city, will be no exception. Be prepared!

Camera settings - File format

Shoot in color and in RAW format if possible.

To have the best possible conditions to process the image afterward, always try to shoot in raw format. This gives you greater opportunities to process the image in applications like Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop and has more creative freedoms to work with.

Camera settings - Autofocus

Photographers can have very different settings for their autofocus, but I liked to always separate the autofocus and shutter so that the shutter on the camera was only used to take the picture and had nothing to do with the autofocus. No matter what settings you prefer the important thing is that you can quickly and accurately control the selection of the autofocus, and perhaps also select exactly where in the picture you want the focus point when the subject suddenly appears.

Camera settings - Shutter speed

If you know that you will be photographing people in fast motion, it can be good to use the camera in Shutter mode, where you specify the desired shutter speed, and the camera can then adjust the rest. For example, if you know with yourself that you will photograph people walking towards you at a pedestrian crossing, use for example 1 / 500s as a starting point and see where you need to go from there.

Inspiration on what to capture

In a town there are tons of things to shoot. Here is some inspiration along the way:

Homeless person at Canal Street Station See camera and lens details
1/100s  11mm  f/10

Young boy walking in the middle of the street See camera and lens details
1/125s  35mm  f/7

Man is looking at colorful door See camera and lens details
1/500s  135mm  f/2,2

The people

In street photography, of course, nothing is more interesting and more photographed than the people of the city. What is everyone doing? Who are they? What personality types are there? Where are they going?

Soon she will arrive to her dream destination See camera and lens details
1/2000s  12mm  f/4

A young guy finally gets to experience a big city See camera and lens details
1/800s  50mm  f/1,4

Capture the dream

We all carry dreams. Maybe the dream is coming to exactly the city you are in right now. People or situations that point to a dream come true can really leave an impression.

Girl is arguing with parents See camera and lens details
1/500s  16mm  f/7

A frustrated Traffic Officer See camera and lens details
1/320s  135mm  f/2

A trio of ladies with very different facial expressions See camera and lens details
1/125s  135mm  f/2

Emotions

Joy, sorrow, fear, and frustration are just some of the emotions that can be captured as a spectator in a city. Dare to stop, watch and listen to the people in the park. Maybe these emotions and your next motive are there?

A man is sittning outside of a restaurant See camera and lens details
1/400s  20mm  f/2,8

Two gentelmen that living different lives See camera and lens details
1/50s  82mm  f/2,8

Girl is looking at girl with a coffee cup See camera and lens details
1/1600s  50mm  f/2,8

Different living conditions

Although we often hear that everyone was created equal, it is, unfortunately, the case that many later in life have very different conditions. In many cities, there is widespread poverty, with homelessness and begging as a result. These situations can give very strong impressions on the picture, but as I described earlier in the article, you should take these pictures with finesse because even though many stories need to be told, they must never be done at the expense of the weak.

Woman stops buy an older camera guy See camera and lens details
1/250s  135mm  f/3,5

Personal meetings

Everywhere in our cities we interact with other people. Maybe it is two old friends who are finally reunited? Maybe it is a family debating which issue should be given priority. Maybe it is an old lady who needs assistance across the street. In all these meetings, there is much to capture.

Two guys taking pictures at opposite directions See camera and lens details
1/320s  270mm  f/4,5

Guy taking a picture outside of a bank See camera and lens details
1/250s  16mm  f/2,8

Tourist taking picture of his wife dressed as Statue of Liberty See camera and lens details
1/1000s  270mm  f/4,5

Photograph photographers

Maybe there are more tourists than you in the city you are visiting? Maybe there are more of you who stand and take pictures of the same buildings and sights. Try pointing the camera at those who also take pictures and see if you also get something typical with just that city in the picture (ex. New York has its skyline, skyscraper, Central Park, Times Square, etc).

Even a street performer is tired after a days work See camera and lens details
1/500s  135mm  f/2

Two girls are frightened by street performer See camera and lens details
1/1000s  270mm  f/4,5

Street performer is jumping over his friends See camera and lens details
1/2000s  110mm  f/2,8

Capture what is happening around a show

In some cities, there are various forms of street entertainment. Maybe it is musicians, gymnasts, or magicians. There are always interesting motives around these gatherings. Who will perform in your city this weekend?

Guy at phone booth and a extra pair of eyes See camera and lens details
1/1000s  135mm  f/2,2

An asian couple regrets not taking the English class See camera and lens details
1/2000s  32mm  f/2,8

Naked Cowgirl reveals a bit too much See camera and lens details
1/200s  135mm  f/2,2

Have fun and it will show

If you have fun as a photographer, it will also be reflected in your photos. Often there are also an incredible number of fun elements just around you when walking around a city. Fun signs, encounters, and situations are all around you. They are often difficult to predict so it is important to be on your guard and always have the camera ready.

Nepalese Book Store See camera and lens details
1/2500s  16mm  f/5

An electronics sales man See camera and lens details
1/1600s  21mm  f/4

Street vendors

Are there any street vendors in your city? Do they offer something interesting? Is their presentation of the products or the people around them of interest?

Man is resting on subway See camera and lens details
1/800s  50mm  f/1,4

Gentleman is sleeping on subway after a working day See camera and lens details
1/40s  18mm  f/4

Man is reading book and drinking coffee on the subway See camera and lens details
1/60s  50mm  f/1,8

Public transport

In a city there are always different forms of public transport. It can be the subway/metro, train, and bus. On board these, we humans stand or sit close together and suddenly you get very close to other people. Maybe there are interesting motifs in the seat opposite you?

Worker in jeans and Caterpillar boots See camera and lens details
1/1600s  135mm  f/2,5

Old lady in fancy shoes with cane See camera and lens details
1/640s  135mm  f/6,3

Dare to look up or down

Sometimes we are so focused on just looking and moving forward that we can completely miss what is on both the right and left but also at ground level or above us. To succeed as a street photographer requires that we will be present, here and now, and dare to stop to capture the greatness of the small things.

A blurry Yellow NYC cab See camera and lens details
1/125s  135mm  f/2

Cinema Entrance Lights at night See camera and lens details
1/2000s  135mm  f/2,2

City Lights and Empire State Building in the background See camera and lens details
1/250s  135mm  f/2

Play with focus

Not all images need to be sharp. Deliberately taking blurry images can, for example, cause light sources to have a completely different appearance. Play around with it?

Sign in yellow that says 'Bags 10 USD' See camera and lens details
1/800s  50mm  f/2

Cardboard with yellow tape See camera and lens details
1/800s  50mm  f/2,8

A cool guy in the subway, all dressed in yellow See camera and lens details
1/80s  135mm  f/2,5

Project: Yellow

When the imagination runs out, it can be good to come up with a project. On a trip to New York, I spent several days photographing things containing the color yellow. It turned out to be an incredibly fun gallery to show off upon returning home.

Nepalese gentleman with colorful clothing See camera and lens details
1/100s  115mm  f/10

A woman in red See camera and lens details
1/1600s  50mm  f/10

Guy with garbage can wears red and smokes See camera and lens details
1/3200s  18mm  f/2,8

Play with colors

There is a lot of color around us. We love color, right? See if you can walk around the city and catch some of the colors red, blue, green, and yellow. Give it a go!

Man is pulling a heavy cart while smoking See camera and lens details
1/1250s  135mm  f/2,5

Guy that smokes is looking at a lady that also smokes See camera and lens details
1/320s  135mm  f/2,2

Find other projects

In addition to taking pictures of colors, you can, for example, focus on signs, shop windows, rubbish, buildings, entrances, people in hoodies, people talking on mobile phones, or people smoking. It is possible to make small mini-projects of everything.

Man with crutches walking inside a park See camera and lens details
1/25s  17mm  f/11

Girl running around Central Park See camera and lens details
1/2500s  30mm  f/5,6

Have patience

Just as with your general development in photography, nothing comes for free in street photography either. Sometimes it takes time and many turns back and forth along the main street to get that special picture you were looking for. If you have a picture idea, be prepared to put in some time and extra energy to make it happen. When you finally get the desired picture it is incredibly nice and you will forever be able to carry the warming reward every time it is shown.

Nepalese gentleman is looking out of window See camera and lens details
1/400s  73mm  f/4

Looking at the people across the subway tracks See camera and lens details
1/100s  35mm  f/2,8

So close but yet so far See camera and lens details
1/800s  270mm  f/4

Is there anything that can frame the picture?

Sometimes you get help from the environment in creating a background or framing of the image. Dare to play and be creative with what you get for free. If you see an interesting frame or background, move to where it feels optimal and wait for the right picture moment. Patience, as I said above. Patience.

Typical New York food stand with pretzel See camera and lens details
1/250s  135mm  f/2,2

Business man drinking a Diet Coke See camera and lens details
1/1250s  16mm  f/2,8

Candy for sale See camera and lens details
1/2500s  50mm  f/4

Unique food?

Maybe there are special food stalls in your city? What kind of special food do the people of that city eat, and what do the tourists eat? What sweets are sold and what drink is consumed? Street photographers often want to bring a feeling that the spectator himself is walking around the city and what could be better than bringing the food and maybe even scents through the screen or picture?

A cow is laying among garbate at a Kathmandu street See camera and lens details
1/25s  50mm  f/2,2

Animals in the city?

In many cities, animals live among us, free to move as they, please. The animals often leave an impression, so see if you can capture the animals where it is clear in which environment they were.

Busy crossing at 5th Avenue and E 58 Street See camera and lens details
1/640s  270mm  f/5

The traffic is busy at Times Square at night See camera and lens details
1/4s  16mm  f/22

Times Square at night See camera and lens details
1/80s  16mm  f/5,6

A city has a pulse

Some cities sleep in the evenings. Some cities never sleep. But all cities are busy and have people in motion and it can be really interesting to try to capture this pulse.

The classic yellow NYC cab, with yellow background See camera and lens details
1/30s  35mm  f/3,2

Ladder 54 to the rescue See camera and lens details
1/30s  35mm  f/3,2

Traffic is part of our cities

When you are in a larger city, you hear sirens, trucks, and mopeds all night long. Traffic is a part of our urban lives and thus also a part of the cities' DNA. Which sounds and vehicles are most typical?

The side of a building is covered in glass See camera and lens details
1/8000s  135mm  f/2,5

House with fire espaces See camera and lens details
1/640s  135mm  f/2,5

Siluette of a typical New York building See camera and lens details
1/100s  135mm  f/4

No city is complete without buildings

What would a city be without its buildings? Nothing, of course. Many buildings offer fantastic architecture and shapes. The most famous building - what is it? Is it possible to get a different picture of that building? Maybe you can take pictures of people where the building is shown in the background, even maybe a little blurry? Maybe there are details on the building that are a little extra exciting?

Electricity network in Kathmandu See camera and lens details
1/250s  16mm  f/6,3

What is amazing about the city?

Above picture is some parts of the electrical network in Kathmandu which, several years later, still makes me smile a bit. Imagine being an electrician there! When you go out to the streets, really think about whether there are any interesting and amazing things to capture. But let's hope that the electrical network in your city of yours is better than in Kathmandu, hehe.

Guy with crutches taking a break See camera and lens details
1/50s  16mm  f/2,8

A couples feet in the subway See camera and lens details
1/25s  30mm  f/2,8

Place to read the papers See camera and lens details
1/160s  135mm  f/3,5

Street photography loves black and white

Or vice versa, that black and white love street photography. Because yes, there is love between them. There is something about the black-and-white scale that is particularly appealing when it comes to street photography. Maybe it is because our world is so full of colors and impressions that the black-and-white scale brings out the simplicity of our streets. I do not know, but no article on street photography is complete without some black-and-white photographs to wrap it up.

I truly hope that this article on street photography has given you a lot of joy, ideas, and tips. So, time to leave the sofa and hit the streets. Enjoy!