Street photography can be quite the scary thing for many. It doesn’t have to be, with these 17 insightful street photography tips, you can start making your own stunning images.
You can classify these street photography tips into composition, mindset, approach and execution. There is no particular order to these 17 street photography tips, they are just random, so don’t look at the numbers as an indication of importance.
17 Street Photography tips
Here’s an overview of the street photography tips below. After the table of contents, let’s get into each.
- 17 Street Photography tips
- 1. What painters know that street photographers don’t
- 2. The most powerful visual principle
- 3. Embrace happy accidents
- 4. Street Photography Doesn’t start in the streets
- 5. The trick to turning fear on it’s head
- 6. Use the photographer’s “paint”
- 7. Watch out for Steve McQueen in your background
- 8. Use the “karma” principle
- 9. Set up your trap shot
- 10. Zone out, hone in
- 11. Not everyday is a good day
- 12. Post Process before making the image
- 13. Complacency is your enemy
- 14. Beware of distractions
- 15. Use this simple design principle
- 16. Look for reflections
- 17. Don’t get close
If you are looking for more specific, there’s also tips for:
- For beginners
- Black and white tips
- Color tips
- Flash tips
- Night tips
- Portraits tips
- 28mm lens tips
1. What painters know that street photographers don’t
The world is a very complex place. But at the same time, everything is built out of simple atoms. It’s both complex and simple at the same time.
There’s a similar concept in SP too, while the world is visually complex, it can also be reduced to simple shapes. Everything in the world can be simplified to 6 basic visual elements, and one of them is shapes.
So out first of many street photography tips is: Learn to see in terms of shapes.
When you are out, look out for the simple shapes that end up being the “skeleton” for your images. These are the foundations of your image, and just like foundations of houses, it determines the overall look of your image even before getting into the subject.
Painters have a leg up on street photographers when it comes to this. My friend Don and I coached streetshooters a few years back, and one of them was a painter. Their work was above those who came out of nothing because they understood that everything visual in the world can be simplified in to simple visual elements.
You will also want to think about how your shapes are perceived because shapes have psychological meanings attached to them. Your camera is your paintbrush!
2. The most powerful visual principle
Next of the 17 street photography tips: What if I told you there is one thing, if you put it in your images, it would immediately make them more compelling to look at? There us such a thing, and that “thing” is contrast. Contrast is the difference between two things, like tall vs short, big vs tall, saturated vs unsaturated.
It is contrast itself is not that compels attention. It is the energy between two extreme points that makes something compelling to look at. So use contrast in your your photos!
There are many ways you can use it, but to start, focus on the contrast between light and dark. See this image here:
The original image is on the left. For all intents and purposes, the whole image is pretty dark but the man sitting down is light. On the right I pixelized the image and you can see in a clearer manner how contrast works.
3. Embrace happy accidents
If there’s something specific about street photography it is probably that unlike other genres you can have pure luck shots, aka happy accidents. But these images also come with their dose of good old fashion guilt. It’s like you made the shot but it’s almost like you didn’t so you feel guilty.
Well, don’t be. Do you know the image below?
It’s by street photography Henri Cartier Bresson and arguably one of the most famous street photographs of all time. Here’s the rub.
In a street photography documentary , he tells of how he put his camera in a whole that was so small he couldn’t see anything. He just clicked without looking.
“It’s always luck” Bresson said. I agree to disagree with this, as luck is only part of it but in this case? Pure. Luck.
Ironic, no? It’s the image associated with the decisive moment, and yet he didn’t really do anything. Even Bresson felt uncomfortable when they started analyzing this shot, how the foreground also contains a jumping figure and so on…..
But the point remains the same: In Street Photography, sometimes you get lucky. Once you do, all you need to do is appreciate, in any case you needed to be there at the right time anyways. Happy Accidents are ok, even iconic ones.
4. Street Photography Doesn’t start in the streets
This is one of those street photography tips that has to do with location. What happens before you even reach your destination? Before you hit streets, there’s usually a mode of transportation to get there. That can be a bus, a car, whatever. The thing is, never assume the shoot starts at your destination!
This is how I got this great shot below in the bus to Miami:
Most of my Haiti body of work like below were taken from a car:
So what to shoot exactly? It depends, the real trick is never to assume that your best shot will be when you arrive to your Street photography location. So have your camera ready in the bus, train and even in the plane. It’s really about training your brain to be turned on always and stop thinking that it is only when you arrive that you will find something to shoot
A lot can be done in just a bus, there’s photographic opportunities:
- At the bus stop
- Shooting people outside from the bus
- Shooting people inside from inside the bus
- Shooting from the outside looking at the bus, etc
If you live in a big city like NYC, Philly, LA or other big city, you are in heaven.
Public Transportation is where you will find the best characters. Be safe tough, don’t shoot shady characters….or they will make you an offer you can’t refuse.
5. The trick to turning fear on it’s head
If you fear when you shoot street photography, read on: There’s a way to reframe your thinking. This is one of the best street photography tips to turn fear into your ally.
First things first, you have to understand that fear doesn’t exist by itself. What do I mean? Consider this: A tiger is on the road and someone looks at it petrified by fear. Where is the fear? Point it out. You can’t. Because fear is in YOUR head.
So the work has to be done in YOUR head. (besides removing the object of fear that is. Like that creepy E.T. the alien doll in my cousin’s house, but I digress))
I’ll share with you a trick. It is this: Fear beats fear. You can use another fear you have to push trough the smaller fear of shooting. So what is greater then the fear of shooting strangers in the streets?
The fear of losing the shot FOREVER.
So when you are feeling a bit tense about shooting, focus your mind on the fear that if you do not shoot, you will lose that opportunity forever. The feeling of losing a shot forever is usually enough to push you trough the smaller fear of shooting.
This is one of the most powerful street photography tips to banish fear on the spot that I know.
6. Use the photographer’s “paint”
One of the more subtly of the street photography tips is about the definition of the word. In the word “PAINTer” you hear “paint”. It makes sense that a painter needs to know his materials in order to paint, right? They need to know what paint looks like when it’s mixed, it’s qualities and more. What about photography? It literally means “painting with light” so you need to know light just like a painter knows paint.
There are techniques you can do to start noticing light like a pro, but as a beginner, make it a point to notice light around you. Look at it’s qualities and it’s effects. Look at how different it looks depending on the time of day. Besides composition, nothing will have more impact on your images visually then the light that is in it.
Light can make or break an image, and nothing makes the difference between a masterful street photograph and a snapshot than light. Excellent photographers can recognize great light, and mixed with good composition it makes for some really stellar images. So start noticing light all around you.
7. Watch out for Steve McQueen in your background
One of the street photography tips that really needs your attention. Ever seen “The Magnificent Seven”? it’s a movie where a bunch of cowboys rescue a town. Here’s why it’s important for you to know: In it, Steve McQueen wasn’t the lead actor, Yul Brenner was, but he did something so sneaky he stole every scenes he was in. How did he do it? He detracted the viewers eyes by doing things like playing with his gun or making movements to lead their eyes away from the main actor towards him.
What does this have to do with photos? Once you figure out what you want to capture, aka your subject, the most important element becomes your background. Why? Because the background either attracts or it detracts, and just like Steve McQueen. Pay extra attention to your background, work your angles and ask yourself if it adds or takes away from your subjects.
In the image above, I was going in Miami when this drunk guy started to develop a liking to me because we both are from Haiti, and he just couldn’t get enough of the fact that I looked more Asian than anything. When picture time came, I wiggled a bit right and left until I saw that nothing in the background was detracting from him and made the capture above.
Then the guy on the left just gave me that stare, and I just made the shot. Sure he detracts a bit from the main guy, but he adds to the photograph. Good thing my camera didn’t bring attention to itself. A good camera really let you slip in situations incognito.
8. Use the “karma” principle
When you watch TV, look at any ad. Ever noticed how all the people in them are smiling to the moon? What these advertisers want to do is try to trigger what’s known as mirror neurons in your brain.
Just like it sounds, you have a tendency to mirror what you see. That is why if you are in company of someone who is depressed, it kind of rubs off on you.
What does hat mean for you who wants to capture ? Simple: The streets react to you, and the way you are. If you look and act suspicious, people will react accordingly. If you put out confidence, people will react accordingly and leave you alone. If you are grumpy, people will tend to grump back. In the streets, it’s human nature and people tend to reflect what you put out. Nothing magical or woo-woo, simply mirror neurons.
This is one of the street photography tips that happens all in your mind. So next time you are in the streets, put out friendly vibes, and what do you know, it goes right back to you.
9. Set up your trap shot
This is one of the more practical street photography tips. Unlike other genres like fashion photography, you cannot make the shot the way you want it, you have to work with what you have in front of you. So if you go somewhere and you can feel there’s something there but not quite, set up camp there for a few minutes. Very often the location, scene and light are perfect for a whot, it’s just that the subject is not quite right.
And since you can’t direct anyone to walk in your image’s view, you will have to be patient. Patience is a street photographer’s best friend. So when you are in the streets and not getting the shot you want, simply be patient and wait for a better subject to walk in the frame. A lot of street shots you see, while it could be the one off shot, often enough it’s one in a series of shots with various subjects coming in and out of view.
10. Zone out, hone in
We all deal with lots of “stuff”. Bills. Job. Coworkers. etc.
All of this does one thing: Take you out of the zone that you need to be in order to shoot street photography. So when you go out, make it a point to completely tune out your problems and worries, just like you check them out at the door when you go in a movie theatre.
I personally recommend listening to music, it gives my mind something to chew on. So instead on focusing on all that’s going on in my life, it focuses on what’s playing, and at some point, I will forget about the music and be able to focus on photography. Plus music makes you feel surreal, in your own world, floating in the streets.
When you shut up your mind to all the stuff that’s going on in your life, you allow it to focus on what’s important in the moment: Photography.
11. Not everyday is a good day
One more of the many street photography tips dealing with the mind. Imagine being a prospector during the gold rush. You are with your bucket and take in the streaming water, from time to time there’s a few gold nuggets floating in making it all worth it.
Sometimes you get scraps, sometimes you get a nice nugget, sometimes none at all. That’s photography. Sometimes you come at the right time with your camera and get a nice gold nugget of an image. And sometimes you get garbage.
Well that happens, and it sucks because you might be going out expecting some great shots. Some days are not your days, and it’s ok. It’s important to keep in your mind that not every day will be positive. Not to think that just because you don’t have great images when you go back home that you’ve lost your mojo or that you suck.
There’s plenty of factors going into an image, and one of them is luck. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t. So if you are having a bad day, just move on. Great images from the subsequent days will make you forget about the bad one.
12. Post Process before making the image
The advantage film photographers had is that they knew their film, they knew what they would get before even shooting their frame.
This is a bit hard in the digital world because most cameras offer filters and more right in camera, and while jumping from one filter to the other is fun, the downside is, you have no familiarity with any.
Most of the black and whites on these page have been processed with these in Lightroom, and since I’ve been using them for years consistently I know exactly what I am going to get.
Now before I shoot I know exactly the outcome. So as a street photography tip, keep using one lens, one preset, one way until you have mastered it. Until you know and are capable to previsualize your shot.
This makes it so that your process will eventually be part of your eye. In the image above, the monochrome shot is exactly how I intended it to be. No surprises. So keep being familiar with your gear and more until it is second nature.
13. Complacency is your enemy
More of the street photography tips dealing with approach. Complacency, Enemy…If it rhymes it must be true! But more seriously tough, complacency is a sweet siren song in Street Photography, especially if you are used to shooting the same place over and over again.
I make it a point, especially when I go out to a familiar place, to throw out any preconceptions I have of the place and throw it out to see the place afresh.
It’s not the same place, might be the same physically, but not the same because the people are different. It’s human to become complacent, just think of your camera. When you first got it, it was ecstasy, but a month down the road you are already used to it. The Streets can get boring if it’s the same place, but I always challenge myself to keep finding new ways to enjoy shooting there.
14. Beware of distractions
Yet another one of the street photography tips that has to do with mindset. Do you know Winogrand? Bresson? Kertesz? Good. Let them be them and let’s focus on being ourselves. I’ve found out that there is nothing more detrimental to one’s own Vision than shooting another person’s Vision.
Remember that the streets is where you find yourself, your own Vision, and it’s not about doing what everybody else does….It’s about doing things and seeing things your own way.
As much as the Master Photographers are great, I believe too much time is spent looking at what they did instead of what we ourselves are doing right now. Being yourself means truly shooting your heart out, not trying to please anybody but yourself.
15. Use this simple design principle
This is one of the best composition street photography tips after using contrast. Nothing will upgrade your street photographs more than putting graphic design principles in them. There are 8 in total and they are like “grammar rules” for photographs. If there was no grammar, you would have no idea what I am saying!
Here is one of the 8 graphic design principles to know. It is one of the easiest ones, the principle of repetition.
I’ve said above to use basic shapes. One way to compose easily is to simply repeat those shapes. Have you ever walked down the streets and see a couple with matching clothes? Your brain went “Zing!” and it made the link between the two people. This is the same thing that will happen when you repeat elements in your picture. You are not limited to two, you can repeat 2,3, 4 times, etc.
16. Look for reflections
This is one of those simple street photography tips you can use instantly. I’ve said above to go for simple shapes in your frame. Then I suggested you to use the simple design principle of repetition. What if I told you there was one subject in the streets that did all of that easily? The subject is simply reflections. Reflections make for interesting, graphical images because the reflections repeat part of the picture.
So look for reflections wherever you are. There are way more reflections than you think in the streets, but since you’ve probably never looked for them, you’ve never found them. Also look for semi-transparent surfaces, surfaces that half reflect but also let you see through them, aka windows. These not only make reflections they also create a cool effect that makes for a graphically rich image.
This is one of the more instantaneous street photography tips: Look for reflections.
17. Don’t get close
Ever seen “The incredible Hulk” at the movies? Before they made him smart and able to talk, all he knew was mostly two words “Hulk!” and “Smash”. Those two words and yelling was all of the extent of his vocabulary. There’s a lot of streetshooters that are like Hulk, all they know in terms of street photography tips is “Get close”.
Because somehow, if you got closer to your subject, it would make for a better photograph.
Nonsense. Get in close enough for sure. But just because you’ve inched closer to someone doesn’t make it a good street photograph. I mean, how close do you need to get to make a pile of crap look good in a photo? A bad picture is a bad picture, taken from afar or close. So instead of getting close (physically), get emotionally closer to your images.
Yes, this goes against most of the street photography tips you hear about getting closer to your images.
Really get in close and familiar with your work. Feel it, question it, work it. This is the kind of closeness that will work wonders, rather than infringing on someone’s personal space.
I hope you have enjoyed these street photography tips. Don’t try to apply them all at once as it will lead to overwhelm. Take one tip at a time and come back to this article to see which other ones resonates with you and want to apply. If you are interested in a street photography course, here’s mine here. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.