10 Techniques to Make You a Better Street Photographer
By Andy Christian Castillo
The best moments of my life come in shutter releases. The Sunny 16 rule lets you shoot quickly and capture everything in focus.
My first ‘real’ photograph was on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts –- I was 19 when I realized that taking pictures could be more than just documenting the family vacation album; and I was hooked.
After that experience, I began to see photography as more than a few converging lenses; my eyes were opened to the beauty of life, and I was immersed in a perpetual state of artistic wonder.
The camera was the key that unlocked my emotional expression – more than that, it was a gateway to adventure, travel, and experiences that I never would have had otherwise.
Click: I’m on a rooftop chimney in Vienna, with the city stretched below me and the wind at my back.
Click: A million fireflies surround me in a field of white flowers – billowing clouds flicker with lightning and rain pours down.
Click: Beautiful faces smile up at me, and tiny hands grab my shirt, at a home for boys in Mexico.
Click: Wheels shake the ground as the subway rushes away from a platform in New York City. The air is putrid with burnt decay, and bodies press past me as if I don’t exist.
Click: I squint against the reflecting sun and hurry through a group of Bahraini taxi drivers before they can make their sales pitch.
Use the 10 Foot rule to capture moving objects in focus. Moments like these are seared into my brain forever; to me, the camera captures more than light, it immortalizes experiences.
Many of my favorite images have come on foreign streets, at times when I had little time to react. I learned that great street photography requires fast reaction time and a lot of guts; I learned to be quick on the trigger and throw caution to the wind.
But it wasn’t always like that; at first, taking pictures of strangers on the street was terrifying. I learned to shoot-on-the-sly from-the-hip with techniques like the ‘sunny 16′ and the ’10 foot rule,’ before I was brave enough to brashly capture human behavior around me.
Learning these techniques has greatly enhanced my travel images, and emboldened me to interact with new cultures that I otherwise would be afraid to approach. So whether you’re an amateur or a pro, or you’ve never held a camera in your life, I hope that they’ll do the same for you, and take your travel photography to the next level.
1. First rule of street photography: you’ve gotta be fast. That means you can’t waste time fiddling around with dials and displays: put your DSLR camera in manual, get your settings right, and leave ’em be as you wander the streets. Don’t use automatic mode or even aperture or shutter priority: adjust your settings for the mood that you want to capture. Learn to read light and adjust by instinct without looking at the camera; that means, shoot often and carry your camera everywhere you go: even just around the block to the gas station and back.
2. 35mm. There’s a reason why the 35mm lens is considered the journalistic lens. It’s a happy medium between wide angle, and telephoto: you can capture portraiture, landscapes, and everything in-between. It’s a little bit wider than the average human’s focal length, but doesn’t have too much lens distortion. Basically, it’s perfect for street shooting.
3. The Sunny 16. This one is simple: on a sunny day, set your f stop (aperture) to f16, and your shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO. So that means, if you want your shutter speed to be 1/400 second, put your ISO at 400. Or, if you want to shoot at 1/1000 of a second, set your ISO at 1000. It works, every time.
The f16 allows enough depth of field that you don’t have to worry too much about your focus, and the relationship between the shutter speed and ISO makes adjusting your settings on-the-fly a breeze! Often it’s difficult to shoot at mid-day – street photography makes playing with harsh shadows enjoyable (just remember to expose for the highlights, and let the shadows fall as they will).
4. 1/125. As a general rule, try not to let your shutter speed go below 1/125 second; anything less, and you’ll struggle with motion blur and won’t be able to catch a sharp image. That being said, all rules are meant to be broken; but just make sure that you understand the concepts before you break them.
5. The 10 Foot Rule. When I was in high school I worked at a local supermarket for a little while; there was a giant poster up in the break room about the ’10 foot rule’ – basically, the rule was to say hi to every person when they were 10 feet away. The same rules apply to photography, just in a different language. Set your focus to 10.
Sometimes the best way to shoot, is from the hip feet, and snap away when you’re 10 feet from a subject. Leave your camera hanging around your neck, or pinned to your hip, set your focus, and fire away without looking through the viewfinder.
6. Hipfire. The best way to capture human interaction is unaware. People act differently when they know they’re being observed – so shoot slyly; but not shyly. Don’t be bashful (I was incredibly shy when I first started) when you’re taking a photograph, but at the same time, understand that the best photographs sometimes come from-the-hip.
I use a long strap that allows the camera to hang inconspicuously low, so that I don’t bring attention to myself as I casually fire away. Also, check and see if your camera has a silent shooting mode (that can come in handy).
7. Shutter Speed is Key. Contrary to other styles of shooting, where the ISO should be left as low as possible to reduce digital noise, and the shutter speed is adjusted to maintain the aperture, leave the shutter at a fixed position; adjust the aperture and ISO appropriately, for the right exposure.
If you have to shoot at a higher ISO and lose image quality, so be it. When it comes to street photography, the most important factor is capturing the image – you can’t afford to risk a blurry image.
8. Less is More. Leave all your fancy gear at home, except for your camera and a 35mm (or something similar). Try to blend into the environment as much as you can. Dress casually, and don’t bring attention to yourself. When it comes to street photography, it’s better to be light and inconspicuous than weighed down by gear that you won’t use.
9. Compose in Your Head. Because of the fast-paced nature of street photography, piece together Compose images in your head, before you pick up your cameraimages in your head, before you think about the camera.
While you’re walking, be aware of light and shadows (especially stark contrast from buildings), reflections in windows, billboards, and moving objects. Suddenly, the world becomes a canvas; the people, actors; the streets, a stage; you become the artist, and it’s up to you to freeze all the elements in the perfect place (don’t forget about the rule of 3rds, and other compositional guidelines like using lines to lead the eye).
10. Be Bold. When in doubt, ask: if you see an interesting person on the street, ask him or her if you can take a portrait – the worst that can happen is they’ll say no, and the best that can happen is you’ll capture the best image of your life.
People are less apt to look at you funny or ask questions if you boldly display your camera, than if you try to hide it and take photos when they’re not looking. In many ways, photography has brought me out of my comfort zone, and made me more confident around strangers – when I first started, I was petrified by the thought of photographing someone on the street; today, I’ll walk up to anyone, stick a camera in their face, and let the shutter loose.
As far as choosing a good camera for street photography, I would recommend Fuji’s X100t – check out our article here for more info.
Get into the habit of carrying your camera everywhere you go, so when the perfect moment comes, you’ll be ready.