A Simple Guide to Street Photography

Street photography is easy. It isn’t complicated and you can do it, today even—right now, in fact.

Ask 100 photographers what street photography is and you’ll probably receive 100 different answers. To me, street photography is making images anywhere outside. Street photography can include people or not, but it should always be a genuine moment—never posed.

Madrid, Spain
Camera: iPhone 7

I’m going to share some tips with you that will hopefully boost your confidence and inspire you to do street photography.

One of my first introductions into street photography was while working as a photojournalist for different newspapers. It taught me a super valuable lesson:

Tip #1: Photograph for a Reason

One of my first introductions into street photography was as a photojournalist working for daily newspapers. My assignments would have me taking my large DSLR into the streets to photograph whatever the assignments for the day were.

In photojournalism, the objective is to almost always to include a person or people in the photo. The idea behind this is to add visual interest to an image.

Since photojournalism can’t be posed or staged, I’d either wait for someone to enter my potential photographic scene, or I’d be forced to photograph a found moment quickly. The extra challenge to working as a photojournalist is that if someone is recognizable in the image, it’s the photographer’s job to try to get the name of the person or people in the image, to add to the photo caption later.

Traverse City, Michigan
Camera: Canonet QL17GIII

This all took a LOT of practice and it continues to take practice as a photographer can and should continuously grow as an artist, rather than staying in a creative holding pattern.

Photographing strangers became easier in time and it completely surprised me. The thrill of photographing a real moment and capturing it in a visually pleasing way made me excited then and continues to do so. It didn’t take long for me to dissect my approach and realize what I was doing.

It was the photographic assignment that caused me to be out taking pictures of strangers. I was determined to make the best possible image I could. If someone asked what I was doing, I’d reply that it was for a newspaper story. This is a super valuable lesson: I was photographing for a reason and I was honest.

If nobody asked me what I was photographing them for, everything was good. If someone did ask my why I was taking their picture, I was honest with them and told them it was for a story. This would sometimes lead to a short or long conversation but the important thing is that I had a purpose to be photographing and I wasn’t awkward or lying.

Never act suspicious or dishonest. This applies not only to street photography but to life as well.

Oftentimes, I’m doing street photography just because I enjoy it. I’ve recently become highly into architectural photography. I’ve really enjoyed making natural of images of people using architecture because it combines my love of photojournalism with my love of architecture. It’s like architectural street photography.

Traverse City, Michigan
Camera: Canon 6D

Architectural photography is new for me so I’m not usually photographing structures and people for assignments or newspapers. But, I do have reasons for photographing—strong ones: I’m photographing for my portfolio, because I’m a photographer and because the light is nice, for example.

Always have a true list of reasons you’re photographing something, just in case someone asks. If you photograph someone and they ask “why’d you photograph me?” You’d better have as many honest reasons as possible ready at your disposable or else you’ll appear suspicious.

If you believe in yourself and the reasons you’re photographing—and are respectful and polite—you’ll be fine during almost any encounter with people.

This brings me to my next tip:

Tip #2: Practice a Style

Sure you could wander down the road and photograph people and things with reckless abandon. You know, it might even work for you! Either way, the best way to find out which street photography technique(s) works for you is to practice.

Outside of that, I have a few approaches that have been more successful than others.

One method that has worked well is to simply be confident in what you’re doing. This was a technique I learned while working at newspaper. I’m 6’4″ and while carrying a big DSLR I didn’t have a chance of remaining inconspicuous. What I found though is that if I worked confidently and smoothly, people would realize I was a serious photography and often wouldn’t care what I was doing.

If you’re going to get into street photography, you’re going to have to realize that people are smart. They’ll be able to tell if you’re scared or confident. Be confident, the rest will follow.

Copper Harbor, Michigan
Camera: Canonet QL17GIII

Another street photography technique that works well is to pick out a scene and wait for a person, or people, to enter the scene.

I learned this at a workshop I took with National Geographic photographer Sam Abell. He emphasized the importance of finding a scene you like, and simply waiting for people. It’s a fantastic, simple technique and the more you try it, the better your images will become.

Another street photography style is to move quickly with your feet and your shutter button. To do this you’ll need to be completely in tune with your camera and your photographic vision. I should say: to do this WELL you’ll need these things.

Once you’re comfortable with how your camera works and what the finished photo will look like, depending on the lens/film/etc. you use, you’ll benefit from an intuitive approach where you can visualize your final image before making it.

Tip #3: Street Photography Doesn’t Have to Include People

If you’re a little apprehensive of photographing strangers and it’s just not your thing, fear not! Street photography can be anything you encounter while making images out and about, and the photos do not have to include people. There are tons of photographers whose photographic styles are based on color, pattern, form, etc.

Traverse City, Michigan
Camera: Leica M6

The most important aspect of photography is that you’re photographing what you enjoy and what fulfills you.

That’s it. These are three simple steps that should put you well on your way to enjoying the exciting world of street photography.

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