The 7 Essential Rules of Street Photography

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At one point, street photography looked like it wasn’t going to be around as a mainstream genre for a long time, but in the past few years, things have changed dramatically.

More than ever before, people are taking street photos with just about every kind of camera they can get their hands on.

Sure, mobile photography has played a huge role in this and so has the ever increasing trend of retro-styled, rangefinder type mirrorless cameras.

It’s no longer just a game for expensive Leica’s or heavy DSLRs. We have so many amazing cameras that are perfected for street photography, that it would be a shame not to put them to good use.

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Image Credit: Linda Wisdom

But in this sea of countless street shots that are being taken and uploaded every single day, creating work that stands out is tougher than ever. Getting on a flight to New York and hitting the most famous “hot spots” is done.

If you want to create authentic work, you have to push yourself further and expand your vision to a point where you can capture the interesting aspects of life that others overlook.

You should also follow these seven rules, but at some point, you should be confident enough in your abilities to be able to break them for the sake of great results.

1. Overcome the fear

hajdutamas image Photo Credit: Hajdu Tamas

Unlike other types of photography, fear plays a big part in street photography. It’s one of the things that also makes it so thrilling. 

How will people react when I take out my camera and lift it to my eye to frame the shot? Will someone start asking questions if I take their picture? Is it worth the risk of possibly getting into a physical confrontation? 

All these are questions that will come to mind at one point or another, and they are completely normal.

SCOTT WYDEN KIVOWITZ: You can always approach street photography from an introverted photographer’s mindset. Meaning, not having to get close to strangers, in their faces, or even speak to them. You can do it from a distance, but changing lenses to a telephoto, a long prime, or a wide lens. Thinking outside the expected or norm can help you achieve really interesting images.

But overcoming fear and anxiety will make the difference between taking a shot that anybody else could have taken, and capturing a unique image that will never repeat itself again.

Be polite, respectful, and open if someone asks you a question, and you’ll pretty much be safe.

People are a lot more used to being photographed and captured on camera than they were in the early days of street photography, and this can be a huge advantage if you learn to use it in your favor.

lindawisdom2 image Image Credit: Linda Wisdom

LINDA WISDOM: There are these moments when you have taken a candid photo, but the subject has caught you out, maybe ask you what you are doing and why you took their photo, ask you to delete it, etc. You may panic and don’t know the right thing to say if you are unprepared for the situation. Arguing the facts of your rights as a photographer or getting aggressive is probably not going to help you. One way to get around these situations and turn the subject's negative reaction into a positive one, is to have 1-2 prepared compliments to use if appropriate, even suggest that you are just a photography student doing a project, and/or give them your card and say email you if they want a copy. More times than not, the subject will be reassured and walk away and even be flattered that you took their photo in the first place and will never email you.

2. Know your camera

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Street photography is about being fast and being prepared to release the shutter at the right time. Nine out of ten times you won’t have the luxury of a few extra seconds to adapt your exposure settings. 

This is why I recommend shooting in P mode

There is no room for being a “manual mode” snob here. While you check your settings, everything changes around you. Know your camera and trust it to do the technical part.

You should also have a clear understanding of the focal length you’re using because it will allow you to anticipate the correct distance you need to be from your subject.

lindawisdom3 image Image Credit: Linda Wisdom

SCOTT WYDEN KIVOWITZ: If you want a nice middle ground then I recommend trying either shutter priority or aperture priority. For street photography, aperture priority might be a better choice. Basically, the camera will choose the shutter speed for you based on the aperture you pick. That way you can control the depth of field of your street photos, but not worry about other settings.

The act of looking down at your LCD usually dispels any concern by the subject that you are taking their photo and simply looks like you are just chimping through photos you have already taken.

LINDA WISDOM: Another suggestion to add here is to use your flip out LCD screen instead of using your viewfinder in close range situations where you feel you will be seen holding the camera to your eye. 

3. Shoot in bursts

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I must admit, I do feel a little nostalgic about the all manual days when you could only shoot one picture because of the manual film advance (kids these days will never know).

But the fact of the matter is a lot of shots were missed exactly because you could take only one shot. 

Today’s DSLRs and mirrorless camera have an average burst speed of 5-6fps. Use it, but don’t mistake it for a machine gun.

Switch to continuous high only when you are in an interesting spot or when you feel the opportunity is nearby (you will develop that sense after a while). Mirrorless cameras have digital shutters which are silent, so if you want to burst away silently, select the electronic shutter.

SCOTT WYDEN KIVOWITZ: I recommend using continuous low if your camera offers it. Sometimes continuous high is too fast and causes additional blur, depending on your shutter speed.

4. Know the law

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Generally speaking, shooting in public spaces is legal. But you do need to make sure, however.

Don’t assume anything and don’t hit the streets without prior research. The last thing you want is to end up in legal trouble because of your creative endeavors.

Sounds romantic, I know, but believe me, it’s a lot more unpleasant then you would tend to think.

SCOTT WYDEN KIVOWITZ: In the United States it’s legal to photograph anyone in public. However, in other countries it can be a privacy legal issue. 

5. Mind your framing

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Image Credit: Hajdu Tamas

There are usually two approaches when it comes to street photography compositions. You either lift the camera to eye level and quickly frame with the viewfinder or shoot from waist level.

It goes without saying that shooting without proper framing means leaving a lot to chance. It’s a two-edged sword.

Yes, provided the composition comes out the way it should, you will get a much more interesting perspective than eye level, but expect to miss a lot of shots and having to cope with frustration.

But the randomness of it all is part of the magic. Even if you do frame using the viewfinder or LCD, everything happens so quickly that you’ll barely have the time to make minor adjustments.

It will come to you with practice, though, and the more you shoot, the easier you’ll be able to anticipate these minor adjustments.

SCOTT WYDEN KIVOWITZ: Don’t worry if your composition isn’t jumping with joy. Mistakes and errors are bound to happen. Photography is an ongoing learning experience. Learn from your mistakes, and try again.

6. Get good with one lens

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Better yet, try to develop your skills using a single focal length. This is all part of developing your personal style, and consistency is the key here.

Some photographers prefer shooting from a distance with a longer lens; others like to get up close and personal with a wide angle lens.

Go through multiple focal lengths and pick the one that gives you the most satisfying results. Needless to say, you most likely won’t have the time to change between lenses once you spot an interesting subject.

SCOTT WYDEN KIVOWITZ: My favorite go-to street photography lens is the 35mm. It allows me to get in close and also achieve fantastic wide photos. It’s also the closest focal length to the human eye.

7. Always Explore

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Street photography is a lot like fishing. Once you find a few spots with high potential, you keep going back to them.

But don’t make the mistake of limiting yourself to those streets. There is so much that can be written about the fun and the excitement of urban exploration.

Once you get to a place you’ve never been to before, all your creative senses start tingling and so much around you looks interesting. It’s a unique feeling, but that’s not the only reason why exploring is important.

Even something as diverse as the non-stop show of the streets can bring creative ruts and turn into a routine if you let it. Be adventurous, travel, or just go the parts of your city you know very little about.

SCOTT WYDEN KIVOWITZ: In addition to the mental health you get from exploring new places, it’s also physically healthy. The movement of walking, getting down low, and back up on your feet again, has more obvious health benefits.

Just keep in mind all the rules above, and use them to improve your street photography.

Granted, rules are meant to be broken, so once you've got these rules down pat, see what happens when you break the rules! You might find you get even more compelling photos.

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