Many aspects of street photography can greatly benefit from a sound knowledge of photography fundamentals. Most importantly: understanding light as captured by the camera; good composition; an element of interest. It is also how I chose to structure this article. In the introduction I will describe general techniques and how I personally approach street photography. After that I will dive into the three How-To’s and a note on image editing/manipulation.
It is good practice to know your equipment like it is part of yourself. In many articles, it is often loosely mentioned as “go on a stroll and see how your camera works.”
From personal experience—and this is after taking pictures for more than 20 years—it takes about one year and 10k to 20k pictures in the bag (3x-4x more actual taken) to accomplish this. You can speed this up—after being modestly comfortable with your camera—by photographing demanding work under pressure like festivals or weddings.
A technical understanding of lenses, aperture, zone focusing, etc., can be helpful. As I am almost exclusively using a 50mm f1.4 and a 21mm f2.8 on a full frame camera for shooting street, slightly different handling might apply in your case.
I never use the 50mm in zone focus as it is my personal challenge and aesthetic goal to shoot street wide open (that is with very large aperture, usually at f1.4). I focus manually (the only option on the Leica M) and found it to be better suited for street photography than autofocus. The latter is proven to be faster and more accurate in laboratory conditions (and to be honest, most practical applications, also), but from personal experience compared with my pro DSLR I tend to capture more frequently shots in situations where I have no time to confirm the focus I intended and reframe my picture.
The 21mm on the other hand, I exclusively use in zone focusing mode, that is, presetting the aperture to f5.6 or f8 and pre-focusing between one and three meters to sharply depict all main objects.
See the Light
Cameras have a similar contrast bandwidth to the human eye in the physical sense. Our optical system, however, is equipped with quick adaptation (iris, perceived as instantaneous) and slow adaptation (pigments, rebuilding time ˜15 minutes). Included in the whole package is some very sophisticated image manipulation software done in both our synapses and the brain.
Especially the quick adaptation gives the impression that we can see everything in a high contrast scene—from details in deep shadows to nuances in bright blue or cloudy skies.
A camera sensor (or worse even, film) has much less dynamic range. Identifying what photographers call the *quality of light* needs lots of shooting to train the eye.
Judging quality of light is applicable to any type of photography, yet can be a major factor in creating an impactful picture.
Subtle differences in lighting are registered by the sensor and afterwards perceived by the viewer as stronger than when seen in real life.
If you are beginning with photography, first know the common guidelines of composition, what works and what doesn’t, before trying unique ones. My upcoming article will deal with the art and science of composition, but a quick search for “rule of thirds” and “golden triangle” will cover the most effective practices.
An after the fact look at my pictures, I see a lot of negative space, putting main subjects well beyond the frame’s thirds. In other instances, the foreground and background play together into a balanced composition.
As we transform a three dimensional scene into a two dimensional picture, I like to describe my set of approaches to get a certain look.
First, I anticipate a composition shortly beforehand. It is not my style to wait at a location for something to happen, but to react when an opportunity presents itself. For that I have to understand how the scenery changes when I move to take the picture. With a camera in my hands, I’m always aware of my surroundings and how objects relate to each other in space.
Second is finding the right framing and point of view to create the perception of movement and a dynamic picture.
Lastly, the large aperture creates depth and an aesthetic that is characteristic of the lens I’m using.
Element of Interest
In street photography, this is usually a person or group of people in a candid moment. Unique postures, an interesting formation of people, eye catching clothes, and colors are elements that I look for.
How to approach photographing people is a personal choice. I like to get reasonably close and include some context of the surroundings or the situation. It doesn’t agree with me to get too much “up in people’s faces” and these pictures usually also don’t speak to me.
The choice of gear is less relevant, but one should be aware of the effect of, for example, long telephoto lenses or very wide-angle lenses. Telephoto lenses isolate objects against the background, which can be blurred easily and is compressed (objects appear closer to each other). Wide-angle lenses have much wider depth of field, isolating objects is more difficult, and object size differ greatly depending on the distance (closer objects appear disproportionately large compared to distant ones).
Editing Your Images
Much as street photography is not clearly defined, there are no conventions with what is and isn’t allowed. It comes, again, down to personal choice. I’d like to give my philosophical approach to this matter.
I’m neither a purist, nor into heavy editing. After decades of using different graphics software, both pixel and vector based, I believe I went through many “phases” of editing—including model retouching of skin, eyes, and teeth; layer based photo editing and manipulation; HDRI. Since a few years I limit the editing of all my photos to what was mostly possible from the early days of photography in the darkroom: crop, straighten, adjustments in exposure, contrast, highlights, and shadows (the only exception here would be spot or dust removal).
Very rarely do I remove distracting elements from my pictures.
An important mindset, I find, is to aim for perfection while photographing. Once the notion of “I can edit that out later” creeps into the process, one aims for mediocrity. Then again I don’t see it as hypocritical when actually doing an edit on the picture shot. Just don’t make it a habit ?
Tips by D. Moritz Marutschke
Identifying and balancing multiple elements is difficult enough for static photos. I hope the points above about understanding light, anticipating a composition, and identifying interesting elements help to capture fleeting moments.
There are many suggestions about Do’s and Don’ts around and I’d like to address two of those that I disagree with.
First is the mantra “don’t photograph people’s back.” I suspect many street photographers regard this as a lazy or cowardly shot. My answer is: Let your pictures speak. If the above criteria are met, take the shot; you might miss a great photo opportunity otherwise.
The second thing I come across sometime that goes along the lines of “Street photography: If you’re offending people, you’re doing it right.” This shouldn’t be a source of pride. On the contrary, getting extraordinary shots without disturbing your surroundings is what I see as the true mastery of street photography.