Stepping Into the World of Street Photography

Stepping Into the World of Street Photography

Although I like photographing people, I never dared to step into the world of street photography. But recently I have tried it a few times, with mixed results. I would like to share my experiences and give some tips for those who like to try this for the first time also.

I always look in wonder at the amazing photos by famous and not-so-famous street photographers. Often these are presented in black and white and that does have a nice feel to it. Since I like black and white photography a lot, I tried that kind of street photography a few times.

Street photography is all about capturing life on the streets of a city. It’s not specifically about capturing people, but it can be a significant part of street photography. At least, that’s what I believe. But capturing people without their explicit consent is something that I find very difficult.

Lost in a smartphone. You can get real close without being noticed.

My regular camera isn’t the perfect camera for this kind of photography. A large DSLR or large mirrorless camera feels a bit obtrusive, and I always think strangers feel intimidated when I point my camera at them. After all, a large 50mm, 85mm, or 135mm lens is not that inconspicuous. The last thing I want is a stranger that reacts threateningly, something that seems to happen quite often nowadays.

The Equipment I Use

Street photography is where my small Fujifilm X100V comes in handy. It’s an inconspicuous camera that produces amazing images. It has a fixed focal length with a field of view similar to a 35mm on a full frame. This does mean I have to get close to my subjects. That has its downsides and upsides.

Sandwich decisions.

The upside is the connection you get with the subject and the moment you’re capturing. The downside is not being able to maintain my distance. It is almost impossible to shoot without being noticed. I could use my Canon EOS R5 with a longer focal length and keep my distance, of course. But somehow it doesn’t feel right.

I reviewed the Nikon Z fc a while ago. This is a camera that I find also perfect for street photography. It’s small, and with the standard zoom lens, it doesn’t feel as threatening as my larger Canon. I got some nice photos back then, and people were rather interested in that retro-looking camera instead of being bothered by being photographed.

Life on the South Banks of the Thames in London. The ICM technique turned out quite nice.

This is similar to what I encountered with my Fujifilm X100t. Just like with the Nikon Z fc, people believe you are photographing with film rolls. That makes it interesting, and suddenly they don’t seem to feel threatened anymore. It makes street photography a fun thing to do.

A Bit of Street Photography in London

Unfortunately, there is no real big city close to my home. There are some that almost fit the description, but these don’t have that real big-city vibe. The people living there are different from the big city folk, somehow. It’s something I noticed when I was visiting London a few days during the SWPA 2023 event for Sony. I use the free time I had to walk through the city of London, and I took my Fujifilm camera with me (sorry about that, Sony).

London awakens

I used the black and white film simulation profile while shooting in raw, and I used manual focus, set to the hyperfocal distance. This way there was no need to wait for the autofocus to lock onto something. I also played around with intentional camera movement, which was possible thanks to the built-in neutral density filter. Those few hours in the city of London were a lot of fun. Not for the impressive landmarks, but for life on the streets.

ICM technique is used to emphesize the busy streets of London

The results of my first steps into street photography didn’t produce any world-class photos. But that wasn’t my goal. I just wanted to get familiar with this kind of photography. I do like to think some of my photos are worth keeping. In other words, I am happy with some results.

Looking at Big Ben

Lessons Learned So Far

There are some lessons learned, for sure. I know the technique known as zone focusing is quite a useful way for street photography. Just use the hyperfocal distance of your aperture in combination with the focal length, or predetermine the distance you would like to shoot and set your focus distance at that setting.

Life in a small city. Nothing really happens compared to a big city like London.

Often, this only works for short focal lengths. If you want to use a telelens, focusing is mandatory. But when zone focusing is possible, it allows you to shoot inconspicuously from the waist, without ever looking through the viewfinder.

On route to the train station

Although I used aperture priority a lot, I believe it can be a good choice to set the exposure manually. Especially during the daytime, when the buildings produce deep shadows in the harsh sunlight. Since daylight doesn’t change in brightness that much, it becomes much easier to set the proper exposure once, and forget about it.

Aperture priority is also possible, but you need to keep an eye on the exposure compensation. If the sunlight gets regularly obscured by clouds, or if you shoot at the end of the day when the light intensity changes rapidly, aperture priority is much faster. But if it’s a sunny day, setting the exposure once will be enough. As long as the light doesn’t change.

Know the City and Its Inhabitants

There is one last thing I noticed when I was walking through the streets of London and along the South Banks of the Thames. If you know the city, it becomes easier to capture great photos. You learn where and when the light is at its best, and what the best locations are. This way you can be at the right location at the right time.

You will learn when the people are passing by and perhaps even notice patterns. You will be prepared. On top of that, if you can go back more often, you increase the chances of capturing unique moments, with great light, amazing shadows, and interesting people.

The city center of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. It seems to be an almost empty city

These are my findings with street photography. Take a look at the photos in this article to judge if I’m on the right track. I know I still have to learn a lot, but it always takes time to master a certain type of photography. The most important thing is having fun with it. And that’s what I had.

If you have tips or advice for street photography, feel free to share in the comments below. Perhaps it will help me to take another step in this interesting kind of photography.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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I love street photography but live in a country where written permission is required to publish someone’s portrait… what a bummer
So I shoot for myself. And the trick to shoot some great portraits with a high end camera and prime lens is tricky. And the following helps: in a crowd, I look for interesting people and try to follow them a bit. At some point they are likely to do a selfie… and that’s when I ask them if they want me to shoot them with their phone. Given the gear I have around my neck and shoulders, they think “this guy knows how to take pictures”. When I’m done, I ask if they don’t mind me shooting with my camera - and they typically agree. That’s how I got great shots and it really works well in certain countries (in Asia in particular!).

Try it !

Do you live in Quebec? Here is my view. Back in the 1990’s a CEGEP student had her image published in a college paper. She was reading a book, looking down, but her face was still visible. It was not a particularly good photo. She resented having her image used without permission, and took her beef all the way to Quebec Superior Court, and won. This redefined editorial use in Quebec.Citizens had a right to their own image in a public space.

30 years later, photography has become ubiquitous. Everyone carries a super computer in their pocket. Children and grandparents have become content creators. Strangers walk the city streaming LIVE video. Video is used to shame people. An era of deep fakes is only beginning.
The anonymous capture of individuals without their permission is epidemic. We are living in a surveillance state.

Street photography is still innocent, regardless of its practice of anonymous capture of people, in comparison to any of the above.

Well street photography is not just taking pics at ppl on the streets, like these photographs here

I personally don't like the term because it has become synonymous with taking photos of people.

I've always been reticent about taking photos of people in public (public photography?) because I'm not crazy about having my own photo taken though I've started doing it more recently. I've started not taking good photos because people are standing in the right place with the right light....staring at their phones! It's already become a cliche! Ugh. (The other one that I don't like is photos of people taking photos.)

Totally agree about taking shots where people are staring at their phone. I try to avoid those as much as possible. I am also not a fan of those shots taken walking behind someone. It's clearly a lot easier than trying to take shots of people facing towards the camera and avoids confrontation but almost as cliché as shots of people staring at a phone.

Personally, I like to look for interesting places that I think would make great photographs, I frame my shot and wait for a person (persons) to walk into the shot. You can usually avoid confrontation if you don't look like you're trying to take someone's photo (no direct eye contact) and maybe even raise your camera just before taking the shot as some people might see you and wait for you to take the shot as they don't know you want them to be the subject. I only use street photography as a loose term as I often shoot photos without people in them. I use a manual lens and zone focus or pre-focus (when I wait for the perfect shot) and I use manual mode plus often but not always auto iso - sometimes I need complete control of exposure such as the midday 'expose for the highlights' shots. I tend not to walk around taking candid shots of people which is where I think a lot of street photography anxiety comes from. Also 'Know the City and Its Inhabitants' is the key to great photography.

I would say of your photos, nice to see you experimenting with movement and blur. There are plenty of well established street photographers who don't embrace a slow shutter or deliberate movement and capture everything in a still moment.

I used to do a lot of street photography in New Orleans. It's a great city for it because every third person is taking pictures. I've been in the Quarter with 5DIII and a 70-200 and nobody paid attention. I did have one person ask me what lens I had. I do mention that most of my street stuff was done with a 35mm lens, however. The 70-200 was for the riverfront catching a passing ship on the Mississippi.

Now in Winnipeg, I do almost no street stuff. I've been downtown taking architectural shots and can say that in two or three hours, I didn't see another person taking pictures. Different city, different culture.

I would add that, as mentioned above, find a nice spot and sit. There's a great chance that you'll have terrific moments just happen.

Thanks for your article as it reawakens my questions about what is good ‘street photography’. I like your first and last photo. I see very good composition and a bit of mystery in the first and a sense of place in the last. I can see these hanging on a wall. I cannot say that about the rest. If you really want to share your experience tell us what you see in “London Awakens”, for instance. I see a crowded scene, maybe a travel photo taken by a visitor to the city. I don’t see anything I would want hanging on my wall. These comments are not directed to you as much as my frustration with my own compositions and what could be considered a good photo. SR

"Life in a small city. Nothing really happens compared to a big city like London"

Plenty of things happen in small cities!

I recently started experimenting with streets/people photography. Urban environments tend to present more interesting subjects. Finding the right subject, the right moment, takes time and patience. I get the best results when I get out of the car and walk around or sit still. I keep my eyes open and sooner or later the right subject and the right moment appears. There were a few times that I was so entranced by the moment that I forgot to take the picture.

So far I've only had one bad experience. Taking a picture from across the street with a telephoto lens as an interesting gentleman walked past an equally interesting business establishment.

I was only there for a brief moment. I took the picture and the guy that ran the business establishment came walking out of the shop and across the street towards me with a WTF look on his face and a WTF attitude in his demeanor.

As he approached closer he asked me what I was taking pictures of. He then pulled out his cell phone and started taking pictures of me, my car, my license plate, the bike I had hanging on the back... He kept walking around and around continuing to take pictures and muttering. I calmly explained to him that I liked the front of his building and was sure that it appears in hundreds of people's photos in the course of any given year.

I then got in my car and cautiously drove away without further incident.

Sounds to me like that guy was spooked by your telephoto lens. For all he knew you could be paparazzi or a private investigator.

I have always felt that street photography is best done in B&W. The images are much more powerful and dynamic in B&W. It brings out so much character in peoples' faces and just hits home stronger to me. Of course, there are other situations when color would be more justified. The day of colors in India, there's a name for that day that I can't remember. Carnivals in Rio and others I
am sure many of you can name. But for everyday, life in the streets....B&W is it for me.