If you’re reading this, you are probably either an aspiring street photographer, or a street photographer with some miles under your belt looking for some inspiration, direction, or motivation.
To the best extent of my abilities, I have outlined my top street photography tips below. This is a culmination of the last 10 years I’ve been shooting street photography in earnest. All of these are just “tips” and “suggestions”— none are rules.
So feel free to pick and choose with what resonates with you, and throw away the rest.
In-fact, there are multiple possible “decisive moments” in every scene.
A decisive moment might be the moment when your subject makes eye contact with you. A decisive moment might be the moment when your subject throws back his head in frustration. A decisive moment might be the moment your subject jumps on the train before it speeds off.
I used to think the “decisive moment” was a universal moment. However, if you sit and observe a person or a situation, be patient. 5, 10, or even 100 “decisive moments” might occur in a scene.
Furthermore, you never really know which moment is “decisive” or not until after-the-fact. By taking many different photos at different times in a scene, you have a higher likelihood of capturing the “best” decisive moment.
I feel in street photography, your social skills are more important than your photographic skills.
Meaning, as a street photographer— you need to have the right social communication tools. You need to have the confidence to approach a stranger to approach them with (or without) permission. You need to be able to interact with your subjects to calm them down (in-case they get upset, are confused, or just need an explanation).
If you shoot street photography and you feel bad, guilty, or dirty — you’re doing something wrong.
I feel that when you shoot street photography, you should feel an affirmation for life. You should feel more connected with people on the street. You should feel more empathy for people on the streets, and feel connected with them on a deeper emotional level.
I often photograph strangers without permission, and then once they stare at me and give me a “what the fuck” look — I will wave at them, say hello, sit down and have a chat with them. I then end up making a new friend, rather than just snapping a photo and running away.
A lot of aspiring street photographers I meet are very socially shy and awkward. If you don’t feel comfortable in social situations as a human being, focus on building your social skills before your street photography skills.
As photographers, we filter reality through our own perception and eyes. We decide what to photograph, and what not to photograph.
Generally I find that our own emotions and life-experiences color how we see the streets.
For example, if you’re optimistic— you will generally look to photograph optimistic or happy people on the streets. If you’re more pessimistic and moody, you might identify more lonely, isolated, and solitary people in the streets.
Therefore the street photos you shoot are self-portraits of yourself. Your street photos aren’t objective of a place or an area. It is merely a reflection of your own inner-mental state.
So don’t forget, every time you take a photograph of a stranger, you’re really taking a photo of yourself.
In the West and America we usually say “take” photos. However in Europe and other countries, they say “make” photos.
If you say “take a street photograph” — it sounds forceful. Like you’re stealing the soul of your subject. However when you say “make a street photograph” — it sounds more personal. It sounds like a collaboration between you and your subject to make art.
The change of terminology will change how you approach your street photography. Rather than feeling like a creep and a thief, you’re an active participant on the streets. You engage with your subjects, and bond with them on a deeper emotional level.
Even when I approach strangers, I always ask them “Excuse me sir, I love your look. Do you mind if I make a portrait of you?” instead of saying “Do you mind if I take your photo?”
“Make” sounds more creative and inclusive. “Portrait” sounds more professional and considered than “photo.” It sounds more artistic, and less creepy.
As a street photographer, your most important asset are your legs. You will probably walk and trek for miles, hours on end, and the strength of your legs will determine how likely you are to get good street photographs.
Some of the best street photographers I know can walk for nearly 10–12 hours straight in a day. While I’m not shooting street photography, I try to keep my legs fit by practicing lunges, squats, deadlifts, and 1-legged “pistol” squats.
Trust me, when I’m in America, I barely walk. I take my car everywhere. And when I do shoot street photography, my feet and legs get sore after just an hour.
So as a practice, try to keep your body fit. Not just your legs, but your upper-body too. Do pushups, chin-ups, go to the gym and try other strength-training exercises (bench-press, dips, etc).
When you build up your body physically, you build yourself up mentally as well.
If you are physically strong, you will also be mentally strong. Which brings me to the next tip…
I feel that street photography is 90% mental. I’ve hesitated taking photos on the streets, because I let nervousness, self-consciousness, and fear get the best of me.
How many potential street photographs did you not photograph, because you felt nervous about the consequences? Did you ever get worried that your subject might yell at you, call the cops, or even worse— punch you in the face?
Build mental resilience. Train your body physically, but also train your mind.
How do you train your mind?
Personally, I have found studying “stoic” philosophy from Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus to be my greatest teachers. They have taught me mental exercises to always imagine the worst case-scenario, to not fear the future, and to always think about death. I usually read stoic philosophy once or twice a day — in the morning to prime my mind to stay strong, or to relax me in the evenings before I sleep.
Starting off, I recommend reading “Letters From a Stoic” by Seneca, or “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius.
Train yourself to be a little less fearful everyday. Everyday, try to push yourself a little outside of your comfort zone. Photograph what you’re afraid of, and channel your fear into excitement.
When you’re shooting street photography, your positioning is crucial. As a tip, I recommend trying to remove clutter from your background, by walking on the side of the curb and shooting towards the storefronts on the sidewalk (a tip I learned from my friend Charlie Kirk).
If you’re walking in the middle of the sidewalk, and shoot forwards, you are likely to have distractions in the background — random heads, and other people.
If you’re walking in the middle of the sidewalk and shoot into the streets, you will get distracting white cars, plastic bags, and telephone poles.
However by walking on the curb-side of the sidewalk and shooting towards the store-fronts, you are more likely to have a simple and minimalist background. You will cut down clutter, and also have the chance to make an interesting “juxtaposition” (contrast) between your subject and the background.
As a practical tip, when you’re photographing your subjects walking, try to get their legs fully-spread in a “V” formation. Why? It looks more dynamic, as their legs make 2-diagonal lines, or a little triangle.
If you do the “fishing” technique in street photography (look for an interesting background, and wait for your subject to walk into the frame), wait until their legs are split in the “V”.
In terms of camera settings, either use burst mode of single-shot. I know some people who have more success in burst mode, while other street photographers prefer the precision of the single-shot mode. Of course, it also depends on your camera.
What is the difference between a good street photograph, and a great street photograph?
For me, it is the “cherry on top” — a small detail which elevates an image.
For example, you might capture a pretty good street scene. But without a small detail or a happening which is unique, it won’t be great.
The “cherry on top” can be many different things. It can be a kid doing a backflip in the background, it can be someone’s reflection in a mirror, or it can be a certain gesture or emotion in someone’s face.
I generally don’t identify the “cherry on top” of a street photograph while I’m shooting. Instead, I will identify the “cherry on top” after I’ve taken the photograph.
In street photography, you can’t control the light, what your subjects are wearing, and whether you will make a good photograph. Much of street photography is luck — being at the right place at the right time.
So you might get certain photos that are “almost” — except a small detail which ruins your photograph.
A lot of street photographers will settle for “good enough” — but I say aim for your personal best.
You can’t control whether you will make good street photographs or not, but you can control what photos you decide to share (and what photos you decide not to share).
Street photography is the most difficult genre of photography out there. You need skills in terms of composition, timing, physical endurance, mental courage, and assertiveness. To make a great street photograph is really hard.
But still, my suggestion is to only show your best work. People will judge you by your worst photo. Less is more.
There is no “ideal” focal length for all street photography. However I have found for most street photographers, a 35mm lens (full-frame equivalent) is ideal.
It is wide enough to capture most things in the scene, and yet close enough for portraits. It is the ultimate versatile focal length.
However I still encourage you to experiment with different focal lengths. But realize the wider your lens is, the more difficult your street photography is. For example, with a 28mm lens, you are more likely to get more clutter in the scene.
How about a 50mm lens, like what Henri Cartier-Bresson used to shoot with? I find it is generally too close for most situations in the streets, but if you find it a focal length you like, stick with it.
“Chimping” is looking at your LCD screen while you’re shooting. Try not to “chimp” when you’re shooting on the streets.
Personally, I have missed thousands of potentially good street photos because I “chimped” while shooting on the streets. The problem with “chimping” is that it kills your flow of shooting on the streets.
When you’re shooting on the streets, only focus on shooting. The second you look at your LCD screen, you will get distracted, and no longer be in the “zone” or “flow” of shooting street photography.
Also whenever I look at my LCD while I’m shooting, I lose sight of another scene which might be even a better photograph.
I generally find the two types of street photos that are the most interesting are the ones which are shot at two different distances:
When you take photos in the “middle distance” — they tend to be a bit awkward, and lacking in intensity and intent.
If you shoot very close to your subject, you feel physically and emotionally intimate with your subject. This also conveys similar emotions to your viewer.
When you shoot very far from your subject, it looks intentional. You get more of a sense of the background, context, and scene.
The problem that many of us do in street photography is that we settle for a “middle distance” — which isn’t close enough to feel intimate, yet not far enough to look intentional.
What exactly is a “middle distance”? For me, a middle-distance is around 5 meters. I find a good close distance to be from .7–1.2 meters. I find a good “far” distance to be from 10–20 meters.
I got this tip from my friend Satoki Nagata — if you want to overcome your fear of shooting street photography, pre-focus your lens manually to .7 meters, and only shoot at that distance for a month.
Why? It will force you to get unusually close to your subjects. And you can ask for permission, or shoot candidly.
Most of us are uncomfortable with close distances in street photography. But the more we practice shooting at this close distance (.7 meters is roughly 1-arm length away), we will get used to it.
When I first started to shoot street photography, I thought there was only one “right” way to shoot — like the master Henri Cartier-Bresson. I wasn’t allowed to talk to strangers that I photographed, I had to be as stealthy as possible, and not leave behind a trace or “influence” the scene.
I now realize that is all a bunch of B.S. You want to photograph according to your personality, not how other photographers have shot in the past.
For example, Henri Cartier-Bresson was an introvert. He shot according to his personality. Me on the other hand, I’m an extreme extrovert. I like to talk to my subjects while I’m photographing them.
The summation of all ancient Greek philosophy is, “Know thyself.” Similarly — seek to know yourself in street photography.
Do you prefer to capture “decisive moment” photos when you are patient and wait for hours for a good moment? Or are you more restless, and prefer to “hunt” on the streets for a good moment? Do you prefer to have nice compositions in your street photography and focus on layers, depth, and geometry? Or do you prefer faces, gestures, and emotion?
There are many different technical ways to shoot street photography. But I feel the easiest is to just set your camera to “P” (program) mode where your camera automatically chooses your aperture and shutter-speed. Why? It allows you to focus on fewer technical settings, and more about you framing, overcoming your fears of shooting street photography, and capturing the right moment.
In terms of my camera settings, I prefer “P” mode, center-point autofocus, and ISO 800–1600 (ISO 800 during the day, ISO 1600 indoors or when it is a bit darker outside).
Many accomplished street photographers I know use similar settings. Nobody cares if you shoot fully-manual in your photography. The most important thing is your image, and whether you caught the right moment, emotion, energy, and dynamism in your frame.
One of the best places to shoot street photography is at bus stops. Why? People waiting at bus stops are generally stationary, not going anywhere, and you also get a good mix of people. You get subjects ranging from young to old, and people from all different walks of life — sitting together, patiently.
When I’m shooting in a busy downtown area, I always walk by bus stops, and check out the scene. I generally try to walk into the street, and shoot towards the bus stop. This allows me to capture more faces in my street photography. And I will sometimes pretend like I’m just photographing the advertisement of a bus stop in order not to draw too much attention to myself.
The problem I made when I first started to shoot street photography was that all of my subjects were boring. They weren’t doing anything — just walking, with their hands by their sides.
If you want more engaging street photos, look for subjects who are doing something with their hands, or body language. Look for people walking in the bright sun, covering their eyes with their hands. Look for people pointing in certain directions. Look for people putting their hands on their hips.
Why capture hand-gestures? Because often hand-gestures show more emotion. Furthermore, gestures are more engaging than people walking with their hands by their sides. 90% of human communication is through our bodily gestures. So for a street photograph that cannot talk, the hand gestures and bodily language in a photograph do all the talking.
When I started street photography, I would always put a lengthy description of the back-story behind my photos. The problem is that by doing so, it took away all the mystery and fun behind a street photograph.
The most engaging photos are the ones in which the viewer can make up his/her own story of the frame. If you give away what you’re trying to say in a street photo, or try to “explain” it, it no longer becomes interesting to the viewer.
Furthermore, sometimes we try to salvage “so-so” street photographs by adding an epic story behind the image. But that does nothing to prop up a weak street photo.
A great street photograph should be able to stand on its two legs, without a fancy description.
Nowadays, I just caption my photos by the city and date, such as: Los Angeles, 2016.
If you want to be stealthy in your street photography, don’t immediately drop your camera from your eye after you take a photograph.
Why? It gives you away.
Rather, try this: if you’re shooting street photography with a camera that has a viewfinder, hold your camera up even after you’ve taken an image. Take a few photos, pause, take a few more photos, pause, and hold your camera up to your eye. During those awkward few seconds, people will assume you’re photographing something else, and just stop paying attention to you.
But if you take a photo of someone, immediately drop your camera, and keep moving — it will be pretty obvious that you’ve made a photograph of them.
To build upon this idea, it is called the “video camera technique” — hold up your camera to your eye (or waist-level if you’re shooting with an LCD screen), and walk around like you’re recording a video. Instead, you’re taking street photos. But if you pretend like you’re recording a video, everyone will ignore you.
If you wanted me to define street photography, I would say it is: “Documenting humanity.”
Now if you document humanity, you don’t necessarily have to photograph people. You can photograph buildings, places, or things — that somehow shows a sense of “humanity.”
Technically anything can be a “street photo” — the question is, whether your street photo is engaging, interesting, or emotional.
I like to shoot street photos of urban landscapes— buildings made by humans that show emotion, decay, or some sort of personality.
I like to shoot street photos of things I see on the street— discarded gloves, trash, or other objects that reflect humanity.
Just know that there is no ultimate definition of “street photography” — simply define it for yourself.
The problem most street photographers have is that they have too much clutter, subjects, and information in their frame.
If you’re starting off, try to just start with single-subjects. With just one person in the frame. Try to make as simple of a background as possible, with no overlapping figures in the background.
By starting off with a single-subject, you will be able to focus on one interesting person or moment in a frame. By starting off with simple compositions and mastering it, then you can work on creating more complex scenes— with more subjects, layers, and gestures.
Many street photographers crop their images too much, because their edges of their photos are too messy.
A good solution: focus on the edges of your frame while you’re shooting, and make sure they are clean. Throw your subjects somewhere in the middle, and don’t worry about them so much.
By focusing on the edges of your frame, you will frame your scenes tighter. You will be able to get closer to your subjects, and have fewer distractions in your photo.
Generally as street photographers we do a good job of identifying interesting subjects. But we always disregard the background.
So no matter how interesting your subject is, if the background isn’t interesting or simple, the photo doesn’t work.
I had the misconception in street photography that I was only allowed to take 1 photo, and had to move on.
My suggestion: “work the scene” and milk the scene for all its worth. Because once you move on, you will never see that same exact scene ever again.
If you study the “contact sheets” (behind-the-scenes photos) of the master street photographers, you will see that most of them took far more than just 1 photo of a scene to capture a good moment. Some photographed 5 photos, 10 photos, 20 photos, or even 36 photos for just one photo! Some more contemporary masters of street photography (like Alex Webb) have been known to shoot 300 photos of a single scene (on film) to capture that one “decisive moment.”
In today’s age with digital technology — why settle for just 1 photo? Don’t be scared or timid. Ironically enough, the longer you hang around and “work a scene” — the less awkward it will be. Also don’t feel bad talking to your subjects while you’re shooting. Or you can just pretend like you’re shooting something else in the background.
By also taking multiple shots of a scene, you can later have more options to choose the best version of the scene. Even a half step to the left, to the right, or a moment a second before or after can make all the difference.
Sometimes street photos are more interesting when you cut off the heads of your subjects.
By not always showing the faces of your subject (and instead, showing just their hands, bodies, and legs) — you create a photo that is more open-ended, that has more mystery.
Experiment with this technique. Try to look only for hand-gestures, and focus on that. Or someone’s legs or feet. Practice with different angles and perspectives (experiment photographing someone’s legs by putting your camera on the ground).
Or you can even just photograph someone by showing just their teeth (and not their eyes).
Think of other ways you can chop up the frame and your subjects, to make more dynamic and mysterious shots.
This is a tip I learned from my friend Thomas Leuthard— try to get eye contact in your photos.
The technique is this: you walk close to someone, bring up your camera to your eye, and keep taking photos, until they notice your presence. Then the second they make eye contact with you, keep clicking. Then choose to say hello, and chat with them, or avoid eye contact, and keep moving.
There’s a saying that “eyes are the windows to the soul.” I feel street photos with strong eye contact are generally more alluring and engaging.
But sometimes it isn’t. That is the beauty of this technique— you can get both photos with and without eye-contact. And afterwards, you can choose the shot you prefer.
When I’m looking at my street photos and trying to figure out whether to keep them or not, I usually make the mistake of only looking at my subject.
My suggestion is to do the opposite— start off by looking at the background of your street photo and the edges, and then move inwards.
A great street photograph should have an interesting background and an interesting subject. Often we have the interesting subject, but no interesting background.
Or often our backgrounds are messy and cluttered. But if we have a photo with an interesting subject, we tend to excuse ourselves— and settle for “good enough.”
Never forget the importance of a good background in street photography.
What is the difference between “street photography” and other forms of photography such as photojournalism and documentary photography?
I think street photographers don’t have the same ethical dilemmas as photojournalists/documentary photographers. Street photography is all about documenting your version of reality— rather than documenting an “objective” version of reality.
Therefore know that if you want to make good street photos, you want to be a good liar. Try to capture a certain moment which isn’t faithful to “reality” — rather, is a moment which you find interesting and unique.
The camera lies. It only captures a split-second of reality. Not only that, but you decide what to include in the frame, and what to exclude from the frame.
So be biased. Be personal. Be opinionated. Photograph only what interests you, and don’t photograph what doesn’t interest you.
Another common mistake a lot of beginner street photographers make is that they always try to shoot wide-open (f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2) rather than shooting “stopped-down” (f/8, f/11, f/16).
The benefit of shooting at a smaller aperture with more depth-of-field (like f/8), is that you are more likely to capture your subject in-focus. Furthermore, by shooting at f/8, you will show more of the background and context of your frame.
It is easy to find an interesting subject and just photograph them at f/1.4. But the photos of a blurry background just get boring after a while. I like to see more context in a street photograph — where is your subject, what is going on in the background, and what is your subject’s connection with the environment?
Also technically speaking, if you always shoot wide-open (and your subject is moving), you will be less likely to capture your subject in-focus.
Also I recommend keeping your shutter-speed high (at least 1/250th of a second) to not have motion blur in your photograph. You can do this by increasing your ISO to 1600, 3200, or even 6400+ (if your camera allows it). I’d rather have a noisy photo than a blurry photo.
But what about these epic “panning”, “motion-blur” photos you see of people on bicycles online? Honestly those photos are just boring, we’ve seen them all a million times before. I’ve done it when I started off— so just do it to get it out of your system, but I find that capturing sharp photos that are in-focus as a lot more interesting.
Okay this is going to sound a bit counter-intuitive, and this is kind of a more advanced street photography tip.
The idea is that as you want to build more layers and depth in your street photographs, focus on the subject furthest away from you (not closest to you).
For example, let’s say you have a person in the extreme foreground of your frame, in the mid-ground, and the background. Put your focus all the way in the background, and intentionally have the person in the extreme foreground out-of-focus. This will give your eyes the illusion of depth— and lead your eyes through the frame (from the closest subject, to the one furthest away).
For this technique, you can shoot in aperture-priority mode (A/Av mode), at f/8, ISO 1600, and manual-focus (while putting your focusing at around 10 meters).
To study layered street photos, look at the work of Alex Webb, David Alan Harvey, and Constantine Manos.
Another fun street photography composition tip is to look for triangles when you’re out shooting street photography.
A simple technique: look for 3 different subjects in your frame, and place them equally-distant from one another in the frame, until you create a triangle-like composition.
For a multiple-subject photograph, 3 subjects tends to make a nicely-balanced frame. And there is enough interest, and subjects to take your eyes around the frame. And 3 subjects tend to balance a frame.
Triangles are tricky to capture in the streets, but with enough practice and diligence, you can get a few good ones.
I know a lot of great street photos that have wonderful compositions, but no emotion. To me, these photos are dead.
If you want to make a truly memorable street photograph, you need to imbue it with emotion, soul, character, and charm.
Emotional street photographs hit us in the heart, and embed themselves into our memories. Emotions are what make humans tick, and a lot of our memories are formed through emotions.
So when you’re shooting in the streets, shoot with your heart. Try to capture a wide-gamut of emotions. Look for misery, sadness, isolation, happiness, a sense of longing, joy, excitement, and euphoria.
If you look at your own street photos, and they don’t stir you in any emotional way — you should probably ditch it.
Some of the best street photo opportunities happen indoors— in places such as malls, shopping centers, grocery markets, subways, and stores.
I think shooting street photography indoors is more difficult, because it is scarier. It is more difficult to run away if you’ve upset someone, or scared someone.
But shooting street photography indoors is one of the most untapped places to shoot. We see millions of photos shot in random streets and sidewalks, but how often do you see a compelling street photograph from inside a Costco or Walmart?
If you’re out in a somewhat public place, know that every opportunity can present street photography to you. It just matters how clever or inquisitive you are.
One of the things I wish I knew in street photography is how important having good light is when you’re shooting in color.
Why? When you shoot color photography in poor light, the color often look washed out and icky.
My suggestion: if you shoot color street photography, stick to shooting during “golden hour” (sunrise and sunset) when the light is the nicest.
Another tip — if the light isn’t good, use a flash. A flash will fill in any disagreeable shadows, and also will saturate your photos and add contrast.
One of the best photographers to study who use a flash in color is Martin Parr.
If you’re starting off in street photography, shooting in black and white or monochrome is generally easier.
When you’re shooting in black and white, you don’t need your light to be as good, and even if your exposure is a bit off — it looks more forgivable in black and white.
Furthermore, black and white allows for more simplicity and minimalism. When you’re shooting in color, you need to worry about the colors. With black and white, you can focus on the mood, composition, framing, and emotion of the scene.
I recommend shooting JPEG+RAW in street photography, and you can set your JPEG images to a black and white preview. This will help you better visualize when you’re shooting in black and white. And sometimes the Black and White JPEG files look better than any RAW photos you could process yourself.
Also as another tip, if you shoot in JPEG+RAW and use Adobe Lightroom, by default Lightroom only shows the RAW files. Therefore it will display your JPEG photos (as a preview), and then actually revert them into color RAW photos. The solution is to add a generic black and white preset to your images upon import. You can download my free Lightroom presets to use.
I recognize “street portraiture” as another sub-genre within “street photography.”
Generally when you shoot “street portraits” — you’re more interested in a subject, their face, and expression instead of the context of a scene.
However one of the big issues when we shoot street portraits is that the photos look too posed when you ask for permission.
My suggestion: try to capture the “unguarded moment”—the moment when your subject drops his/her guard.
You can do this by asking open-ended questions to your subject like, “What is your life story? What is your dream in life? What are you up to today?” And while they’re talking— take photos. The more comfortable they feel around you, the more natural a moment you will capture.
Often when I’m traveling (especially in touristy places), I try to photograph in the opposite direction from where the tourists are shooting. Often this means photographing the tourists themselves.
I think to build a good vision as a street photographer is to have a contrarian view of the world. To see what others do not see.
So photograph in places that other people disdain. Whenever I travel to foreign countries, I avoid touristy landmarks like the plague. Instead, I try to figure out where the locals hang out, while also wandering in the city without a destination in mind.
Let serendipity and randomness guide your journeys in your street photography travels.
One of the most difficult things in street photography is to capture a simple and a clean background.
When you’re shooting in crowded areas, one of the easiest ways to simplify your scene is to crouch down very low, and photograph people against the sky.
I generally like to do this by shooting vertically, as you don’t include as much clutter on the left and right side of the frame.
One of the benefits of crouching low in street photography is that you look smaller, and therefore are less threatening. Also people simply assume you’re photographing the buildings behind them, not them.
One of the best ways to create more dynamic and “edgy” street photos is to use a flash.
You can use the flash that is integrated into your camera, or a small external flash.
The benefit of the flash is that it helps freeze your motion, helps add contrast and fill the shadows of your photos, and also give it a distinct “look” that heightens the drama of a photograph.
There are a lot of famous street photographers who utilized flash in street photography, including Weegee, Bruce Gilden, and Garry Winogrand.
If you’ve never shot street photography with a flash before, I recommend just using the default settings, in “P” mode. Just point and click, and let the automatic settings do the trick.
I generally recommend using a flash in street photography when you’re shooting in the shade and shooting close-up to your subjects. Furthermore, use a flash if the sun is behind your subject’s face (causing their faces to be dark). You can also use a flash indoors if you want to create a dramatic “pop” in your photographs.
I’d only caution using a flash in street photography at night — because if you’re shooting in very dark places, it can scare the crap out of people. Therefore if you’re shooting with a flash in the evening, I recommend doing it in touristy places, or places that are already well-lit. I generally find that I’ve never had issues using a flash during the day, as people barely notice it.
If you want to blend in when you’re shooting street photography, I recommend wearing dark-clothing. For example, I wear all black, and use a black camera. Therefore when I bring up my camera, my subject is less likely to notice me (and my camera).
Realize how you dress will change how you are perceived by others. You can take two strategies: either dress to look like a local, or dress to look like a tourist.
The benefit of dressing like a local is that you won’t stick out as much. The benefit of looking like a tourist is that people might not give you as much crap, as you just look like a “stupid tourist.”
For example, some of my friends who live in NYC wear a “I love New York” hat to look like a tourist in their own city. Some other street photographers I know intentionally try to stand out— wearing neon green shirts, and magenta-colored fanny-packs.
My suggestion is just dress whatever is comfortable to you.
If you’re interested in street photography, you are most likely a unique individual. You have empathy for your fellow human beings, the human condition, and you want to capture life as you see it.
The problem is when we get too obsessed within this tiny genre of “street photography.”
Remember— you don’t only need to shoot “street photography.” Just let street photography be another tool in your photography kit.
Be flexible according to your environment.
For example, if you live in the suburbs, you don’t need to always drive downtown to photograph the locals. Photograph your close friends and family, and try to do it in a “street photography style” — integrate candids into your work, and try to create dynamic compositions.
Let’s say you go hiking and you see a nice landscape. Perhaps you can make it more interesting by adding your own shadow in the foreground, or by tilting the horizon a bit, or even using a flash. Try unorthodox strategies in your photography, by still retaining a bit of your “street style.”
If you want more interesting composition or framing in your street photography, look for a “frame in a frame.”
For example, if you see someone’s arm on their hip, that can be a natural frame you can shoot through, to frame someone else.
Or perhaps you’re walking and see a barbed-wire fence. Photograph in-between the barbed wire fence, to photograph a subject in-between.
There are many other different frame-in-frames you can find. Shoot in-between someone’s legs while your camera is on the ground. Shoot through the backs of chairs. An easy one is photograph people in windows.
The whole world can be your frame.
One of the mistakes that a lot of street photographers make when they’re trying to shoot close is that they shoot too much from the side— what my friend Charlie Kirk calls “oblique angles.”
If you’re shooting with a wide-angle lens, and if you want a dynamic and edgy shot, you want to shoot head-on. If you shoot from the side, it won’t have the same compositional impact as a photo that is framed head-on.
But how do you shoot more head-on? Try to walk in crowded streets, and bring up your camera at the last section, while people are about to walk into you. Then after taking a photo, you can say “sorry!” and walk around the people.
Realize this technique takes some finesse. You might accidentally bump into people while you’re shooting this close head-on.
Another technique I learned from my buddy Charlie is the “cut-off technique” — when you see someone interesting, walk in a diagonal line towards them. And the second you are in front of them, take a photo very close head-on.
When I started to shoot street photography, I was very timid. I mostly shot the back of peoples’ heads— so they wouldn’t notice me.
However the problem is that the back of peoples’ heads is never as interesting as their faces.
Therefore, try to photograph people’s faces as much as you can.
I know it is scary, but try to do it by walking around your subject, and waiting for them to come close to you. Then bring up your camera and photograph them moving towards you, and keep your camera up to your eye, and let them pass you.
Or you can do the “360 degree” technique — where you see someone interesting standing on a street corner, and you start off by photographing from their back, take a step to the right, take another photo, and keep circling them, while shooting photos. You keep doing this until you get a shot of them head-on.
When you capture more faces in your street photography, your photos will have more vigor, energy, and dynamism. You will show more emotions and expressions in the face of your subject, which will resonate more with your viewer.
Another good way to overcome your fear of shooting street photography is by smiling and saying “thank you” after you’ve taken someone’s photo.
This is what usually happens: you take a photo of a stranger without permission. They stare at you, either confused, or with a “what the f*ck?” look. Then you make eye contact, give them your biggest grin, and say “thank you!” in the most enthusiastic voice you can. 99% of people tend to smile or grin back, and will either say “you’re welcome” or just keep moving.
Going off the prior tip, compliment your subject. If you photograph a stranger, there is probably a good reason why you are deciding to photograph them. You probably find something unique, beautiful, or special about them. Therefore don’t be afraid to tell your subject.
Sometimes when I see someone interesting I want to photograph (with permission), I will approach them and tell them what I find interesting about them. Then ask permission to photograph them. Generally most people say, “Yes” — once I’ve complimented the detail about them which I want to photograph (their sunglasses, their fingernails, their lipstick, their necklace, their tattoo, or the expression of their face).
What you can also do is compliment your subject after you’ve taken their photo without permission. A simple thing I do when I’m shooting in NYC is go to Wall Street and photograph men in suits, and say something like, “I like your suit!” after I photograph them. Why would they feel upset after you compliment them?
The tricky thing is you want to compliment your subject in a genuine way. Don’t give out false compliments. For example, if you see someone down on their luck — don’t just say that “You’re beautiful!” It might not come off as genuine. I might rather say, “You look really strong and like you’ve been through one hell of a life journey.”
I feel that no matter how people look, there is always something you can compliment them on.
If you’re shooting street photography in a busy downtown area, try to shoot street corners— where you have a crosswalk, and people coming at you from 4 different directions.
By camping out there, and waiting for your subjects come to you — you will conserve your energy, and also find a more interesting mix and combination of people.
I learned this tip from the photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who would shoot the street corners of NYC, taking a step back, and capturing dramatic photos of the flow of street life.
Also as a general tip, I think it is better to go to where the action is, and let people come to you — rather than always running around the streets while wasting your energy.
There is no “best” camera for street photography. But based on my personal experience, the smaller your camera, the happier you’ll be. The more likely you’ll carry it with you for long distances, you’ll always have your camera with you, and you will be more stealth when shooting on the streets.
The bigger your camera is, the more attention you will draw to yourself.
So try to make your camera as small as possible. I generally recommend using cameras that have non-interchangeable lenses, or small camera bodies with compact wide-angle prime lenses.
As of 2016, the cameras I recommend for street photography include the Ricoh GR-series cameras, the Fujifilm X100-series cameras, as well as the Micro 4/3rds cameras. They are the best combination of compactness, image quality, and performance.
If you want more dynamic compositions in your street photography, look for leading lines. You can find leading lines in alley-ways, from street signs, or curves in the road.
You can also pair leading lines with the “fishing technique” — look for an interesting leading line, and just be patient for your subject to enter the frame.
By adding leading lines to your street photos, it will be easier for your viewer to find the subject in your photograph. Furthermore, the lines will draw your eyes through the frame, and give the photo direction and energy.
I have a rule for myself in street photography: if I see a scene I’m afraid of, I must photograph it.
I can walk for miles, and find nothing interesting or new to photograph. But every once in a while, I see a scene or a person which makes my heart thump. I feel my heart rate raise, sweat go down my back, and I feel nervous.
This is a sign that my body is telling me, “Hey Eric — this might be a good street photograph.”
Therefore rather than exterminating my fears in street photography, I let my emotions channel my shooting process. I ry to channel my fears and anxieties in a positive and creative way. I let my fear point me into knowing what to photograph (and what not to photograph).
So try the same thing. Photograph what you’re afraid of. And if you do that, you will learn to live with fear in a positive way.
If you start getting bored in street photography, it is because your photos are too simple for you.
To keep street photography fun, continue to build complexity in your work.
Try to add multiple subjects, layers, and emotional depth. Try to add different gestures in your frame, dramatic light, or the use of an external flash.
You can also build complexity in your street photography not just by focusing on single images— but working on longer-term street photography projects.
Perhaps you can document a certain part of your town, or work on a certain theme or concept.
Keep increasing the intensity of the challenge of your street photography, and you will constantly grow.
I got this tip from Bruce Gilden. When you are looking through your photos as small thumbnails (contact sheets), choose the photos that “pop off the page.” These are the photos that generally have strong compositions, and strong emotional content.
When I used to look through my street photographs, I would go through each photo one-by-one in full-screen mode. Nowadays I look at my photos quickly and scroll through them as thumbnails, and choose the ones that pop out to me.
There are many benefits to this method — you save time by not looking at all your photos. Furthermore, you are able to judge your compositions easier when they are small thumbnails (because you don’t get distracted by the subject-matter of a photograph).
If you shoot on film, this means looking at your “contact sheets.” If you shot digitally, it means looking at your photos as small thumbnails.
Also as a tip, Henri Cartier-Bresson used to flip his photos upside-down to better judge his compositions. You can do the same.
If you’ve ever gone fishing you know that some days you catch a lot of fish, some days you catch none.
No matter how skilled you are at fishing, there is a degree of luck. You want favorable weather, or you want the fish to be in one spot.
Don’t be easily disappointed. Most fishermen go out for the thrill of the hunt, for the tranquility of the fishing-process, and to be at one with the water.
Treat your street photography the same way. Shoot street photography to be out on the streets, to enjoy your walk, and the excitement of the process.
You might go through dry spells where you don’t make any good street photographs for a long time. And that is okay. Just be patient, and enjoy the journey.
When we start in photography, we are often told not to put ourselves into our photos.
However in street photography, I recommend you do the exact opposite— intentionally try to put your own “selfie” into the photograph.
For example, try to get a self-portrait of yourself in the scene via your shadow, your reflection, or presence.
Try to get your shadow in the photograph in the bottom of the frame to fill your photo. Try to get a reflection of yourself in the camera in a mirror, just how many Renaissance painters would “secretly insert” themselves into their paintings.
By putting your “selfie” into your street photograph — it feels more personal. It puts the viewer into your shoes. It gives your photographs more authorship, fills in dead spaces, and also adds a voyeuristic element to your image.
For street photographs who have done a great job putting themselves into the frame, I recommend looking the self-portraits of Lee Friedlander and Vivian Maier.
One of the most difficult things is to make eye contact with strangers, and especially our subjects.
We are taught in society not to look at strangers, because it can be seen as an aggressive mood.
However if we don’t know how to make eye contact with others, we tend to seem more passive, introverted, and nervous.
My suggestion: practice making eye-contact with others (without feeling nervous).
You can start very simply by making more eye-contact with your friends and family when you talk to them. Then when you talk to a barista, a waiter, or someone in the service industry. Then when you’re commuting via public transportation, try to look at strangers, and make eye-contact with them. If you make eye-contact with them, don’t immediately look away. Just look at them gently, smile, and nod your head.
If someone gets upset at you for making eye contact with them and says something like, “Are you looking at me!?” Then smile back and you can say something like, “Oh — I thought you were someone I knew.” and then avert your gaze.
Once you can master making eye-contact with strangers, you will be a lot more bold and fearless in your street photography, hesitate less, and your confidence will fill the streets.
I also recommend trying to master the art of “small-talk.”
We often frown down on “small-talk” because it feels shallow and superficial. However I think that small talk is crucial, especially when you meet strangers. Because if you can master small talk, then you can have your subject warm up to you. Then you can ask them deeper, more personal questions, which allows you to connect deeper with them.
Practice making small talk with strangers at dinner parties or at bars. You can talk about the weather, about current events, or what they did that day. Try to practice transitioning into talking about more serious topics, or more personal topics.
Then once you are more comfortable with small-talk, then you will find you can apply the same technique to your street photography. You can take a photo of a stranger, then engage them afterwards with small talk, which will make them feel more comfortable. Or you can start off by doing small-talk with a stranger, and then ask them politely to make their portrait afterwards.
I’ve also found that if you’re comfortable making small-talk, you’re also more comfortable dealing with strangers who get angry at you. Rather than panicking, you can learn how to simply apologize for taking a photo of someone without permission, and to calm them down.
I learned this tip from my buddy Chu Viet Ha, a street photographer in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Whenever he finds a place interesting that he wants to shoot, he visits there a few times first (without a camera), and talks with the locals. Therefore they start to feel comfortable with him, and treat him more like a friend than a stranger.
Then after several visits, he brings his camera, and when he wants to make photos, people feel comfortable around him, and just ignore him.
Similarly you can do this in your street photography. Visit the local cafe a lot, and talk to the baristas before you shoot the neighborhood. Then people will know you as a friendly person who is “cool” — and if someone ever gets upset at you, you will have people in the neighborhood defend you.
Furthermore, if you get to know locals in a certain part of town, you will be able to photograph them candidly and without permission, without having them be upset at you (or pose for you).
Building a sense of trust with a local community is crucial, if you plan on shooting street photography in a certain neighborhood regularly.
Street photography is all about patience, and predicting the future.
Another tip I learned from my friend Charlie Kirk is how to “linger” in a scene. You might walk to a certain situation, and find interesting characters, and get a sense that something interesting is about to happen.
Instead of taking out your camera and start shooting senselessly, pause, and linger around. Mull around and blend in, by checking your smartphone, or just looking around.
Then when you see something interesting about to happen, bring out your camera and start making photos. Because after you bring out your camera, you will probably give yourself away, and the magic might disappear.
I’ve found that if I have my camera in my hand (not in my bag), I see more potentially good street photographs.
I think this is because when you feel the weight of the camera in your hand, your body subconsciously knows, “Okay— time to start looking for good street photography opportunities.”
I generally recommend small cameras, and either having a neck strap or a hand-strap. The secret is having your camera always on you, and ready to shoot.
I used to just give the recommendation of always having your camera with you. But that isn’t good enough — when my camera is just hanging out in my camera bag, I don’t see as many scenes.
So always have your camera ready (and keep your lens cap at home).
My mistake in street photography is that I get over-confident. I see an interesting scene, and I take a few photos, and I think I’ve already got the shot.
But when I go home, I realized I should have made more photos and “worked the scene” more.
Therefore as a practical tip, when you think you’ve got the shot, shoot 25% more than you think you should.
What often happens is when you shoot street photography or a person or a scene, you feel a bit awkward, weird, and shy by a certain point. When you hit that wall, push further, and take 25% more photos. Often when you shoot a bit more, you force yourself to be more creative, and get even more unique photos than in the beginning.
One of the great things about digital photography is that whenever we click the shutter, it doesn’t really cost anything. Whereas with film, we had to be a lot more conservative with shooting (each shot costs money).
The only way you can innovate and create great images is by taking risks.
You can take risks by making certain photos that you think might not work. Tilt the camera, practice shooting flash with a long shutter-speed, shoot at really low and unusual angles, and take photos into crowds which might not work.
If you play it safe in street photography, you will never make exciting photos.
I wish someone told me this when I started street photography— that I wouldn’t magically become a better street photographer by traveling to Paris or New York City.
I recommend traveling for many reasons— to learn more cultures, to step outside of your comfort zone, and meet new strangers.
However it is hard to make any improvements in your photography while traveling.
Because inevitably everything will be interesting when you’re shooting in an exotic country. And when you go home, you will feel jaded, because your own home isn’t as interesting as the place you’ve traveled to.
Furthermore, it is always easy to shoot street photography in a foreign place, because you either look like a tourist or you don’t fear anybody recognizing you.
What you want to learn is to build confidence to shoot street photography near your own home. You want to be confident enough to photograph locals (without worrying that your neighbors will think you’re weird), and photographing not from the perspective of a tourist.
A tip I have instead is photograph your own hometown like you were a tourist.
Everyone thinks his/her hometown is boring (even if you live in NYC, Tokyo, Paris). Because if we live anywhere long enough, it becomes commonplace— and we become adjusted to it.
So try to think of your own city or neighborhood from the perspective of a tourist. If you live in the suburbs full of SUV’s and strip malls, what would a tourist from a developing country find interesting about where you live?
Sometimes it also takes an outside perspective. Whenever my friends visit me, they always find a lot more interesting things to photograph than I do. So perhaps invite some friends from out-of-town, and ask what they find unique or interesting about your own home city. And then try to embrace their perspective.
Nowadays with modern smartphones and fitness-trackers, it is easy to see how many steps we make in a day.
I’ve found that the more I walk, the more likely I am to shoot street photography. And the longer I walk, the more street photo opportunities I will see.
So as an assignment, try to hit 10,000 steps in a day. Try it for a few days, for a week, or even a month.
If you’re a typical American like me, you will find it hard to make 10,000 steps. So perhaps that means trying to walk to work, take public transit, or walk around during lunch (instead of eating in front of your computer), or walking a bit after work before you drive home. Or in the evening walking around your neighborhood.
Go on your 10,000 steps with your camera-in hand. I guarantee you will end up finding more photo opportunities and luck.
If you are stuck in a car for many hours a day, use that to your advantage.
I saw a great photo book called “Drive by shootings” in which a taxi driver shot street photography from his driver seat, after decades of driving around NYC.
Other photographers have attached their cameras to tripods, and photographed fellow commuters on the highway.
Some street photographers keep their cameras in their passenger seat or cupholder while they’re stuck in traffic, and take photos (carefully).
Another project I was inspired by was from Lee Friedlander, who would use the frame of his car as a natural frame while doing a road trip across America. All of his photos were shot from the vantage point of his driver’s seat.
So if you’re stuck in a horrible commute, or spend a lot of time in your car, see how you can shoot street photography this way. Or if you want to be safer, have your friend drive you around (while you shoot out of the car window from the passenger seat, something Garry Winogrand did towards the end of his life).
I’ve discovered that the more pressure I put on myself, the less likely I am to make a good photograph.
A tip: when you go out and shoot, don’t call it “street photography” — call it “going on a walk with your camera”.
This means you have no pressure or expectations, and you are more open to photo-opportunities.
I got this tip from my friend Jack Simon. He often commutes into SF and goes to the “Mission” district and walks around with his camera, enjoys a cup of coffee, and checks out the street art. If he doesn’t make a single good photo in the day, he doesn’t get disappointed— because he enjoyed a nice cup of coffee and a walk anyways.
I also see street photography as a good way to “zen out” and relieve stress. I love to walk, let my mind wander, and not worry about the stresses of day-to-day living. Even when I had a 9–5 cubicle office job, I would go on brief walks during my lunch break with my camera, just to clear my head. If I made a good street photograph, it was a plus. If I didn’t make any photos, I enjoyed the walk regardless.
I’ve spent a long time studying the masters of street photography. I am very grateful to have learned the history of street photography, and the wisdom of the masters who paved the road in street photography.
However the problem is that we should only be apprentices for so long. After we feel like we’ve mastered the fundamentals and basics, we need to learn how to cut the umbilical chord— and kill our masters.
I’ve obtained a lot of knowledge about street photography over the years, which has helped me when I started off. But I’m at the point where all this information is starting to crowd my head, which causes me to enjoy the process of shooting street photography less. I have too many concepts, theories, and contradictory ideas in my head now.
So everyday I try to unlearn one thing I’ve learned in street photography from the masters. Instead, I’m starting to incorporate what I’ve learned with my own “rules”, “tips”, and observations.
Be grateful for the masters who paved the way in street photography, but know that a certain point you need to create your own rules for yourself.
This is a tip I got from Joel Meyerowitz— approach the streets with the grace of a ballerina, but with the aggressiveness of a boxer.
What ballerinas and boxers both have in common is that they are always on their toes. Positioning, movement, motion, fluidness, and grace are important attributes.
So when you’re out shooting street photography, don’t keep your toes planted, or you’re going to get knocked out. Move around. Move left, right, dodge, parry, bob and weave— all while being graceful. Blend in, and don’t fall over or stumble.
I studied sociology in university — which is about studying fellow humans, society, and communities.
I also happened to pick up photography when I entered university. I soon discovered that by combining my passion of sociology and photography, I discovered street photography.
Instead of being a traditional sociologist (using a notepad and pen) to jot down my observations about my fellow humans, I used a camera as my research tool instead.
So you can think of yourself also as a “street sociologist.” There is a lot of psychology, cognitive science, anthropology, and other humanities-related fields which mesh with street photography.
I feel that street photography is a way for us to better connect with those around us, and understand the human condition.
Study the humanities and liberal arts, and see how you can mesh these perspectives with your street work.
If you’re shooting the streets later in the day and the sun is setting, follow the light.
Follow the light where you get nice strips of light in-between buildings. Set your exposure-compensation to minus, so you can get dramatic shadows, with your subjects well-illuminated in the strips of light.
Or even when you are shooting at other points in the day, go to where the light is the best. It is hard to find good light if you’re shooting in a big downtown city with huge skyscrapers.
Another tip — look for light bouncing off the glass windows of buildings. This will add a dramatic spotlight, which will make for beautiful street photographs with lovely exposures.
Street photography should be fun. Imagine yourself like a child in the streets, just wandering around with a camera. You’re not making photos to potentially make money, to gain fame, or more social media followers.
You’re photographing because the act of photographing is fun in itself. You’re photographing because you love to play with reality, and re-combine these shapes and forms into novel ways. You’re photographing because it allows you to explore the world, meet new strangers, and expand your knowledge about the streets.
I gain the most inspiration in my street photography from children. Give any kid a camera, and watch them wander. See how curious, fearless, and brave they are. And see how much fun they have. They are photographing for intrinsic reasons (for themselves), rather than extrinsic (for the approval of others).
Always try to channel your inner-child in your street photography, then you will never be bored, always have fun, and always stay curious for your entire life.
I hope some of the tips in this article have sparked some new ideas in your street photography.
I know a lot of the information presented here has been presented elsewhere, but consider this as an evolving page, where I will continue to edit into the future (adding content, removing content).
Don’t follow this list of tips in a linear order. Skip around randomly, and let one of the tips of ideas spark some creativity.
Have fun with your street photography, and make your own tips, and share them with others.
See you on the streets,