For some people half the fun of a trip lies in taking photographs of the journey. But if you are tired of the average holiday photos, like posing in front of the Eiffel Tower or saving the Leaning Tower of Pisa from tumbling over, how can you make your images extraordinary?
Many travellers are turning to street photography to capture the essence of their authentic travel experience. So what is street photography and how can you use it to turn your holiday photos into the sort of shots that will impress friends and family, and make them look twice?
Focus On Your Surroundings
Street photography aims to capture the human condition in public spaces. Photos are often shot in urban surroundings like a mall, a park or the beach - and, obviously, the street. It offers an authentic representation of society, because subjects are going about their daily business unaware that they are being photographed. However, you don’t need humans to interpret human nature and there are many ways to take creative street shots without people as subjects. Some photos focus on the impact people have on the landscape, and images can include anything from domesticated animals or people’s belongings to unusual vehicles.
The Decisive Moment
Since you want to capture fleeting snippets of human nature, timing is the most important aspect of street photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the first street photographers, famously called that brief second when the perfect shot comes along and you manage to capture it the “decisive moment”. Being able to spot some of these moments on your trip is what will help you take a unique and original collection of pictures.
Ever think that you don’t have an eye for photography or that your equipment simply cannot measure up? The good news is that equipment isn’t everything and that you can improve your eye. How? Practise, practise, practise and then practise some more. And the nice thing about photography is that you can fit it into a busy schedule. Set yourself a goal like taking one photo every day. Hit the streets for twenty minutes during lunchtime - that’s when most people are out and about anyway - and snap away. This will help you improve your technique and the angles you use. It will also help you build your courage to get closer to your subjects - a very important aspect of taking authentic photographs. As you become more relaxed and confident, you will spot those special moments more easily.
When you are starting out, a portable point and shoot camera is perfect. Even professional street photographers opt for small cameras to stay inconspicuous. You can also remain unobtrusive by using a telephoto lens when taking photos of people. Opt for a wide-angle lens for landscape shots. A wide-angle zoom or even a standard lens will grant you flexibility. Be well prepared, always make sure your battery is charged and take an extra memory card with you; you don’t want to run out of space at a crucial moment. Carry your camera everywhere you go; keep it around your neck or in a bag in front of you, so you can keep an eye on it, but also be able to reach it quickly so that you don't end up missing those perfect moments.
Remember: great gear can improve the quality of your photography, but before you worry about that you need to grasp the basic principles of street photography and allow your eye and instincts to develop.
Tips And Tricks
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s look at some of the aspects you need to consider when taking street photographs.
Look for themes in the urban landscape that can be linked to people going about their daily business. Using posters of people as a background has been done many times, but we all have to start somewhere, and looking for posters or artwork is an easy way of getting used to relating the landscape with the subject. Use a standard lens to focus on people in context of the landscape. When you have decided on your background, experiment with angles and see what looks best. Try crouching to capture more of the scene and background. Sometimes it is good to lie in wait and see who makes their way into your line of sight. If you find an interesting area, go back to the same place at different times, since there may be diverse people who move around the same area at various points during the day.
Confidence and authenticity
Don’t take portraits of individuals smiling directly at the camera; in most cases it takes the authenticity away. Many street photographers think that you shouldn't interact with subjects, however, eye contact can be important, since it will lend an intimacy to your shot. A nod or a smile is never wasted if you want to move into people’s space. Every person and place will be different, and that is part of the excitement, but often some acknowledgement, either before or after the shot, will put people at ease. Images of people looking inattentive and natural are ultimately what you are aiming for.
If you like to get close to your subjects use a wide-angle lens. If you choose to keep your distance use a long-focus lens. Zooming in or getting closer is a great way to draw attention to detail. Robert Capa aptly claimed that, “If your pictures aren't good enough, you’re not close enough.”
Once you have your shot, move on, don’t linger and make people feel uncomfortable. You do need to learn to be confident though, because street photography is not just about being an impartial observer, you have to interact with the world you are hoping to capture in your shots.
Shooting From The Hip
Shooting from the hip, when your camera is situated somewhere near your waist or hip, is an important technique in street photography. Not using your viewfinder means you can shoot inconspicuously. Keep your elbows tucked in when shooting. You can look away from or even behind your subject, so they think you are focusing on something completely different. Wear dark clothing, it will help you blend in. You will probably take a few thousand photos with this technique before you start getting the hang of it. These days, with digital photography, it luckily won’t cost you an arm and a leg to hone your craft.
You will need to set your camera up properly to use this technique. By experimenting you will find out what works for you. When you get confident enough to approach your subjects, set your focus to 5 or 6 feet in front of you. That way you will always know how far away to stand from your subjects. Lenses between 30 and 50mm are ideal, since it creates the illusion of being in near proximity to your subject. A fast shutter speed will help you avoid blurring photos. Play around with your ISO setting. A higher ISO can result in well-defined images. Pre-program these settings, since if you keep changing exposures while on the street you will miss great shooting opportunities.
Shadows and Light
Remember you are supposed to be having fun. Experiment and play with shadow, light and reflections. As evening approaches, interesting shadows will emerge that will help you capture amazing shots.
There are many interesting characters out and about in the evening, so this time should not be neglected. The light is also completely different at night, and the high ISOs that come standard on many cameras these days are your friend. Artificial light shouldn't hamper you; use street lights and electronic signs as light sources for your photos.
If you want to bring out the textures and shapes on your photo instead of having the viewer only focus on the colour, then play around with black and white compositions.
Find a route and take your time
Restlessness is not your friend; you need to cultivate patience. If you move around too much, you won’t be focusing on the world around you and you will miss excellent photo opportunities. When you are walking, stop occasionally, and have a look around. Wait to see if something interesting comes along. If you find an interesting area, go have a coffee or a beer at a sidewalk table - perhaps some interesting people will make their way past.
Even though you should learn to wait for the perfect shot by being still, capturing movement can result in some exciting images. Shoot from a pedestrian bridge or a balcony for an elevated perspective. Use your travel tripod or simply stabilise your camera on the railing of the bridge or balcony. You can use the same trick on the street for stability by resting your camera against the side of a building.
A few last things
Remember the classic composition techniques of photography still apply, like remembering that the rule of thirds is an easy way to help balance your composition. Also look for lines that will draw your viewer into the photo. These basic rules will help you take good photos, whether they are stylised or spur-of-the-moment street shots.
Most people don’t mind being photographed, but if they seem uncomfortable, ask for permission. It is, however, not good etiquette to take photos of beggars. If you want to sell your pictures you will need releases, but if you are just taking photos of your trip to show your friends and family, this is luckily not something you need to worry about.
Remember, be vigilant and don't get so distracted by your new skill that you are not aware of your belongings.
Most importantly: have fun, and enjoy viewing the world in your own unique way and finding moments that will amuse and astound your viewers.
Last Updated: November 2013