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Calling the Shots

<h2  class="streetclear" align=center>A Guide to Street Photography</h2>

I'm often asked questions about streetshooting.  Lacking a short answer, this is my attempt at explaining what streetshooting is to me, why it's good to do for photographers and all the details you need to get started.  I am not an expert, but I think I've learnt the basics and have come to understand some of the issues that are important.  The text should be a light read for anyone who know basic photographic terms, but also carefully spiced with some tweedy analysis, which might interest more experienced streetshooters.  I have tried to find good examples to illustrate the text whenever possible.  The detailed technical stuff will be kept as appendices for those interested.

Special thanks to bzed, crazy1ady, creativehouse, darkkavenger, iamkatia, knuta, Obliviou-S, OlovPhotopov, panopticum, pebaline, varjag and zort for inspiring me, letting me use their eminent photos as illustrations and/or proof-reading for me.

<h2  class="streetclear">TABLE OF CONTENTS</h2>



<h2  class="streetclear">WHAT IS STREET PHOTOGRAPHY?</h2>

A common myth is that street photography is taking pictures of more or less empty streets.  Let me kill that myth first of all.  Street photography is not about streets. 'Street photography' is just a term that got stuck. Two ways to describe it that together make sense might be 'moment photography' and 'social photography'.  Street photography is quite simply about human society, our shared moments, our environments and our history.  It's "photos of people in their habitat" as my friend Eugene coined it.

Different street photographers focus on different things.  Some capture funny moments, some capture the people, some capture the daily life, some study the murkier sides of society, some find the beacons of hope in the hopeless shanty towns, some shoot high society, and you can shoot what you want to shoot.  Many street photographers love to use humorous or witty moments to share their perspective of society, share an atmosphere, and share a mood.  Some shoot candid scenes, some arrange scenes and some do a bit of both.

<h2  class="streetclear">WHY SHOULD I CONSIDER STREET PHOTOGRAPHY?</h2>

If for nothing else, it's excellent training of your photographic eye, your camera-handling, ability to compose quickly and your skills to read and capture situations and 'moments'.  Moments and situations appear and then disappear in a split-second, it's the photographer's job to capture that 'decisive moment' (to use Henri Cartier-Besson's famous term).  These are all important skills that come in handy in all other photographic disciplines.

Another reason is that it's a lot of fun, you learn a lot about your town/city, you learn about people, you meet people who might change your life and how you approach life, and you will get a great kick those times you manage to capture those precious moments on film.

However, keep in mind that you will never get rich off street photos, nor will you be able to carve a living out of it.  You will be treated like a leper or ignored by most photographers.  Your ratings at will plummet, you will be scored down at dpchallenge and you will hardly get a favourite on deviantart.  Street photography is something you do for yourself. It's something of a thankless hobby and passion for pro photographers, amateurs and others with a keen interest in how we live our lives.  Street photography's main claim to fame is that it's fairly timeless, we can all relate to streetshots and a good streetshot is remembered far longer than most other genres can hope to.

And the most important thing is that streetshooting is all in the photographer's mind as opposed to many other genres.  Street photography is a lot about guts, biting ones lip to go ahead and take pictures of strangers.  It's excellent for building self-confidence, and you will get a lot of leverage if you take the self-confidence with you.

<h2  class="streetclear">WHAT DO I NEED TO DO STREET SHOOTING</h2>

  • There is nothing more important for a streetshooter than genuine respect for other people.
  • Second most important: clean clothes and shoes to keep you warm.
  • Patience, persistence, ability to laugh at yourself when you freeze your butt off just to get that single shot and then some more patience to actually get the shot.
  • No camera at all Some people claim that you need a camera.  Cameras are overrated.  All you need is four fingers for a 3:2 or 4:2 frame and then move the finger-frame back and forth from your eye to change focal length and framing.  Say 'KLICK' when you have framed your moment.  This is all it takes to learn, and it's cheaper than using film.  The lesson is simple, you learn to read people and situations and time when to 'KLICK'.  Instead of using fingers you can use an empty slide holder.
  • Any camera Truth be told, you probably want a camera. And mark my words: Any camera can be used for street photography. There is just one camera that is useless for street photography, the camera you left at home.  Always bring at least one camera with you.  Any camera will do.  But see the appendix for strengths and weaknesses of different cameras.


People don't like to have their picture taken, they will get mad at me, crush my camera, beat me up and then kill me with a plastic teaspoon and dance macarena on my mother's grave.

In general, people accept to have their pictures taken in public places, in fact many people are happy that you shoot them.  Some people actually dress up for people to take pictures of them, you've all seen them (and if not, look for them), especially at weekends.

Treat people with respect, be gentle and smile a lot and you will be fine.  I am not kidding.  90%+ are indifferent and most of the remainders are happy that you take their picture.  I will go into details later in the text, but conflicts are very very rare, and most people are either happy you take pictures or indifferent. I am still alive, am I not? I'm even out of the breathing machine.

'Street photography' has to be black and white.

It doesn't.  The classical street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson (HCB), Robert Frank and Elliott Erwitt and many others use and used black and white.  There are two reasons for this:

  • Black and white was the only medium available, but they learnt to master it. And like we all hope to do, they put their knowledge to good use.
  • Sometimes colour can be distracting to what you want to show. If people's eyes go to the woman in red who isn't important in the scene, the colour works against you.

More recent photographers have used colour to great effect in their street photography, an example is the british photographer Martin Parr who has documented so much of british society the last 30+ years.  Although Parr also masters black and white, his depiction of the british would be incomplete without showing the horrid use (some) brits have put colour to.  What medium, camera, film, sensor, filters, focal-lengths, ...  your use is up to you and what you want to tell, there is no right or wrong.

The reason most of the illustrations in this article are black and white, is to make it easier for people to print it on the bw office printer.

I have to live in a big city, like New York, Paris or London to do street photography.

I've done street photography in London and Paris, and they're great for street photography and people are friendly and don't mind cameras.  I hope to add New York to my list as well.  But truth be told, my best shots have been done in other cities and towns.  As we mentioned above, we can call it 'social photograpy' or 'moment photography' and there is most certainly social life and moments happening in small towns and anywhere people, pets and others gather. Many of the most famous streetshots were done far away from streets, yours can as well.  In fact, most of the shots in Robert Frank's famous 'Americans' book were done in little towns and places throughout the United States.

'Street photography' has to be as-is, no posing, arranging or asking permission before shooting.

Many street photographers live by this code of ethics and they do it well.  They capture ordinary, extraordinary and legendary moments this way.  "It's real because it happened and there's photographic evidence."  Garry Winogrand loved unposed shots, but described photos as "imitations of life" or "the illusion of a literal description of a piece of time and space".  Mark his words, because your choice of style, equipment, approach, your skills and plain old luck defines your photo and what you tell.  Many of Robert Doisneau's shots were posed, but were they less real than Winogrand's Animals?  It doesn't really matter, we love their photos.  Just like poets carefully choose their words it's up to you to choose your approach, and you can change whenever you like.  You'll be judged by your shots.

Different countries have different laws.  Check your local laws, and learn what exactly is off-limit to you, figure out what are the grey zones in the law, and learn when you have to ask permission.  An advantage of a digital camera is that you can show people what you just shot and they can give permission right there and then.  Just remember that what you shoot is your property, and the people in your shots may object to your later use of the picture, but they can never demand that you delete your shot or hand over your film.  And always be friendly, especially to police officers.

I've shot streets for a few weeks now, no shots close to the quality of Erwitt, HCB or Winogrand yet, what am I doing wrong?

Patience, my friend.  Erwitt, HCB and others shot for many many years to create their collections of streetshots.  They didn't shoot it all in a few weeks, and they certainly didn't make their corpus in their first weeks of streetshooting. It takes a while to master the camera, train the eye, learn to read situations and find out what it is you really want to shoot.  And they kept cameras with them at all times for decades, ready to shoot within seconds.  Just to get those shots we all love or hate.  Patience is the key, as well as good warm clothes, while you wait for the right people to walk into your composition or walk the beat looking for special moments or moods.

All of us want to have the wit of Erwitt, HCB's ability to spot and combine patterns, and the gentle qualities of Doisneau in our shots.  But they did their shots, you don't have to do their shots.  While I recommend looking at their stuff, I strongly encourage you to shoot what you like.  Being in accordance with oneself is all we can hope to do.  It's your camera, do your shots.

<h2  class="streetclear">HOW TO START</h2>

As mentioned above, streetshooting is all in ones mind, in realising that people don't mind being shot, but it always comes back, even to experienced streetshooters "what if ...", and the evil "but ..." thoughts.  If you feel that way, it's ok, we all have that.  Some of us are really really shy, but we bite our lips, curse enough to avoid a first-class ticket to heaven and then get that shot.  Every streetshooter has his or her methods to combat their shyness, but it's a neverending struggle and sometimes shyness wins.  In a way, streetshooting is about breaking mental barriers.  Some award themselves with a something nice, like a box of chocolate, a photobook, or a nice lunch if they break barriers.

<h3  class="streetclear">The first times</h3>
city of love
by darkkavenger

The first times you do streetshooting you might want to go with a friend, and if the friend is also a photographer, even better.  Then you can encourage each other.  If you're really nervous, go to a place where many others have cameras, e.g a touristy place, a public event, or something similar where people will pay no mind to an extra camera.  Weekends are good because people are more relaxed then.  Start shooting what others do, try to find better angles than the others, and then gradually change angle to shooting people.  People are the basics of this genre. Either shoot those active in the public event, spectators or maybe try shooting your fellow photographers. Photographers usually don't mind being shot and tend to be so unphotogenic that the shots easily become funny. The lesson is to get familiar shooting in a public place and shooting people. Don't expect frames to be good, just be out snapping away.  You might be lucky though, beginner's luck is allowed in this game.  Repeat this lesson as many times as you feel you have to.  You can do it.

<h3  class="streetclear">How to behave?</h3>

Let me make this clear first: conflicts are really really rare. Very few streetshooters have problems with other people, and I doubt you'll be in anymore problem than previous streetshooters.  And by following a few simple guidelines you can avoid even those very few episodes which have the potential to turn nasty.

First lesson is to be in good mood, smile a lot.  You may be an unhappy puppy, we all are at times, but put on your sweetest fake smile in that case.  Don't sneak or look dodgy, you are allowed to shoot in public places, you're not doing anything bad or criminal at all.  If it helps, put your mp3-player on some peppy cheery tunes to keep your mood up.  Earplugs will make people not approach you as easily, so you will get a bit more space. If you're still approached you can pull a Garden State and "You gotta hear this one song, it'll change your life, I swear." or just be as friendly as you can.  Be that lovable kid that your grandmum liked. However, keep a low profile if possible. Be chill, mate.

If  people seem angry  and approach  you, don't  run. You're not  doing anything illegal  or bad,  remember?  If  the person looks  a bit too  nasty for  your liking,  smile and  walk away  (in a determined pace)  with a  shrug or whatever  you feel  is appropriate. Most  cranky people will  not bother  following you  (and if  you have earplugs you can feign not hearing  shouts) and they just give up.  If it's  police officers,  for gods  sake don't  run or  walk fast away.   Be sweet  and friendly  with police  officers and  people.  If police want  to see ID, let them,  you have nothing to  hide.  If they want to  see the shot (and it's  not bad) on your  digital camera, why not?  Just remember  that nobody can force you to  delete any shots or take out  the film of  your camera.  And  yes, remember I told  you to check  local laws,  if  you're in  the  grey, plead  ignorance, be as harmless as possible.  Dressing as Hell's Angels or a someone straight outta Compton  might not  help with police  in certain areas,  so wear ordinary clean clothes  and good shoes.  With good  shoes you can also walk a lot longer. Patience and mileage is king.

<h3  class="streetclear">Reading situations</h3>

Public events are good for practicing. Especially since people expect cameras to be present, and just about everyone have a camera with them (in the western world at least).  You can easily change angles from what others shoot, and then shoot people, situations and other moments as nobody would mind your camera.  If there is something happening, (sometimes) just stand back and watch for the small signals that come before important happenings, you'll see that most events follow a plan.  If you learn how things work you can get in the right position before it happens.  It's important to learn to read these (invisible) signs, because you will need them.  An alternative is to be able to spot the people that run the event and just go talk to them about what will happen.  Getting on their good side might help you get better access, so some people-skills are handy. You will need both.

It's also useful to do 'people-watching'.  Just sit down in places and watch how people move, react and express themselves in body-language and how to read emotions.  Learning to predict these is helpful, and something you'll see after awhile. If you're unsure what I mean, check Winogrand's work.  But basically, just watching "people in their habitat" is something you will have to do and you will enjoy to do it, and notice the little things that make it all so fun. At some point you'll also ponder on how to frame these things.

<h3  class="streetclear">Snapshooting and streetshooting</h3>

Photography tends to favour simple, elegant and clear compositions. The mantra is that the simpler a shot is, the easier it communicates the idea, moment or situation.  Given how we now deal with 'people in their habitat', we have to realise that the combination is harder than the clear-cut styles of portraits and architecture, ie 'people' and 'habitats'.  A combination will often lead to more clutter in the pictures, and sometimes that adds to the mood, feel and perception of reality in the photo.  And the perception of reality or the 'illusion of a time and space' is something we often wish to convey, and then 'too posed', 'too elegant' and 'too simple' shots can work against us.

Kissing with Liszt
by pebaline

Snapshooting is a related discipline to photography and for streetshooting it may have something to contribute.  Snapshooter estethique favours spontaneity, moment and the snapshooters' instinct and quick reaction.  Converting quick ideas and glimpses into photos or snaps is the name of the game.  These are things that feel familiar to how many tend to get streetshots; you need quick reactions, sometimes composition is just instinct and spontaneity hand in hand with luck often gives worthwhile results.  The problem is that this typically comes at the expense of deliberate compositions, waiting for the right available light or rigging special light, and the many other things we know makes a good photo.  The snapshot esthetique provides something essential though; because of it's direct and blunt manners it may come across as a more credible capture of time and space than the carefully executed photo.  It doesn't pretend to be anything else than a snap that caught the eye of the photographer.  The line between snaps and streetshots can sometimes be blurry though, and what you call your shots is up to you.

If we assume for the sake of argument that a streetshooter wants to tell something of the real world and of a real world situation, he or she can consider snapshooting.  Some street photographers don't even raise their cameras to their eye, they tend to shoot from the hip and hope to get something good, this is helped by autofocus cameras and digital cameras that keep costs down, because
quite frankly good shots are rarer with this strategy.  Some shots can  be pretty good, and if you have a digital you might want to try it.  Especially digital compacts excel at this because they tend to have everything in focus.  But for those that want to shoot more deliberately, we should try to identify what makes snapshots seem credible and see if we can use some of their characteristics.

<h2  class="streetclear">THE SEVEN VIRTUES OF STREET PHOTOGRAPHY</h2>

<h3  class="streetclear">Basic eye-catchers</h3>

Streetshooting is not just about people, it's "people in their habitat" so pay close attention to background, environments, atmosphere and light.  To communicate a situation you often need to
communicate something about the place and atmosphere as well.  This can be difficult, as too much environment means that moments and situations may drown in it.  Sometimes the environment is key to it all though.  If you're just starting out, you might be on the lookout for:

  • Advertisements, posters on walls, buses, etc as they can  sometimes be combined with people for funny moments
  • Statues in various emotional states might also easily be  combined with nearby people
  • Signs that also combine well with situations for funny effects  is also good
  • Patterns, lines, decorations, flowers, colours and other things  that help enhance things is also helpful
  • Graffiti, drawings, etc all can be used for effect.

<h3  class="streetclear">Natural framing</h3>
by zort

Natural framing is also important in other photography genres, e.g in nature photography it's often important show natural environment around an animal, bug or bird.  As we mentioned earlier, street photography can be seen as 'people in environment' so we also need to show this environment.  Streets are not surprisingly a typical place to do street photography, and we often need to show that a street is busy and teeming with life.  So how can we show a busy street?  We use one of the hallmarks of a bad snapshot, people accidentally moving into a frame or even partly blocking the view.

This also allows us to say something about busy people, passing situations without noticing and losing moments. A classic example of using natural street-framing for a posed streetshot is Robert Doisneau's shot of 'Le Baiser de l'Hotel de Ville' which demonstrates also how to combine a location (see background) to a moment. This is slightly related to framing a decisive moment, but in this case this gives the shot a geographic place as well. If nothing else, it can help you sell your shots.

<h3  class="streetclear">Contrasts</h3>

For many streetshooters, contrasts is the most important way to express things. And streetshots along with photojournalism, benefit maybe the most of all genres from efficient use of contrasts. Very few things can touch us as the contrasts between rich and poor, darkness and light, strong and weak, fast and slow, old and new, ... Looking out for contrasts is one of the cleverest things a streetshooter can do, and some of the most legendary streetshots are exactly that, contrasts and parallells. Sometimes contrasts make us laugh, smile and sometimes even cry. Sometimes it's just left to the viewer how they'd react.  Remember that when telling a story with a series of shots, arranging the shots with contrasts work equally well.  Robert Frank was very good with contrasts, as was HCB, but Erwitt has also had a great eye for contrasts.

<h3  class="streetclear">Habitat</h3>
by panopticum

Architectural photography tends to be about shooting buildings and buildings details.  It's a genre that is bread and butter for many photographers, although real estate brokers with digi-compacts are reducing the income for architectural photographers.  What identifies the genre though is that it's usually devoid of people.  Well, given that street photography can be seen as 'people in their habitat', it's certainly of interest for us to take an interest in how people live, how people organise their lives in buildings, cities and other shared environments.  So where some architectural photographers want shots devoid of people, we want them in the shots.  Combining an eye for architecture with how people act and use architecture can give very rewarding results.

<h3  class="streetclear">Social settings</h3>

Also of primary interest is to seek out places where people gather, as public events, restaurants, bars, pubs, shops, etc. This is where we interact with other people and the interactions naturally give plenty of room for moments. But as the example to the right shows, even the lack of interaction in a setting where we meet others, can be a special moment for that reason. Shooting at bars, pubs or restaurants can be dark, so fast lenses and high-speed film or high digital iso can be useful. Or you might go wild with infrared flash and infrared film and use flash which noone sees.

Social settings also have plenty of different codes of conduct, which can also be interesting to capture on film. Some places are very expressive, think of teary goodbyes at trainstations or happy welcomes at airports. And expression of human emotion is key to getting shots that we as fellow humans can relate to.

<h3  class="streetclear">Movement</h3>

Typically you want sharp pictures of your subject, and just the right amount of depth-of-field.  Typically you want to freeze and capture a moment, like HCB captured the man jumping off the ladder. But also notice in HCB's shot that the man is moving, and this movement also expresses things we want to show about energy, vitality and sometimes how we hurry along and are busy.

Adding energy and vitality to our shots can help them stand out and excite the viewers, it can also help us connect to the vibrancy of a situation.  Typically our eye will seek to the sharpest object in a scene, so that's why we tend to keep the most important subject sharp in a scene.  But due to humanity's prior history as hunters, our eyes are also trained to seek movement, so a moving slightly-blurred subject will also attract attention in a scene.  Using this can add much to otherwise static streetshots.  To slightly blur movement of people you typically need a shutterspeed of 1/15s or slower.

<h3  class="streetclear">Non-literal streetshots</h3>
by pebaline

While most of us seek literal descriptions or literal illusions of time and space in our streetshots, that isn't the only way to do it. You can do partial shots of a scene and let the viewer fill in the rest, you can use symbols, use lines and geometric shapes, shadows, reflections, colours, water, movement, panning and many other effects to communicate your message. You're responsible for what you shoot and you're the one that puts the messages and meaning in your photos, so leave no stone unturned.

<h2  class="streetclear">STREETSHOOTING ETHICS</h2>

Ethics (or lack of ethics) in photography is always hotly debated, sometimes even by photographers.  Street photographers are not rated much higher than papparazzi or crime photojournalists by the general public, and the frequent use of candid shots and frequent lack of approval from subjects doesn't really help the reputation.  The candid nature of street photography can give very unflattering pictures of people and some of the "funny" moments captured can easily be at the expense of others.  What is seen as 'ok' or 'good' by the street photographer may not be perceived as such by the "subjects".  We all work differently, some are more aggressive than others, some more shy than others. There isn't really any right or wrong, getting the shot has to be balanced with courtesy and respect.  Sometimes the hunt for the perfect shot will drive people to extremes, just like in photojournalism.

In later years people have grown more and more hostile towards photography, both governments and ordinary people.  The politicians' fear of terrorism (and their heartfelt love of photographers) increasingly means new restrictions for photographers.  The fear of pedophiles drive people to attack pediatricians because it's spelt almost the same way, and photographers who happen to include kids in their shots may also be treated as suspect.  Privately owned "public places" like shopping malls, cafés, clubs, etc introduce new rules banning use of cameras, even parents will be told not to shoot their kids sometimes.  The advent of sneaky mobile phone cameras doesn't help the situation either.  While we as photographers may feel disgust at the whole thing, we have to find ways to work with it.

As said above, there is no right or wrong, but there are some things we must remember.
  • We are allowed and it's our right to take photos, we are not violating any laws or doing anything criminal.  We are not terrorists. We should not let governments or paranoid people make us feel like we're doing anything bad.
  • Profound respect for the people must come first, and without it, there are no ethics.  We all make mistakes and err in our judgement.  Sometimes badly so.  But there must be a will of going the right way and doing the right thing.
  • We must support each other and help each other.  If we're unsure whether it's ok to publish or use a photo we've taken, we are allowed to ask others and let them assist us.
  • We are usually part of the society we take pictures of, and have a certain responsiblity to it as well.  We're allowed to care and be touched emotionally by what we see, and we're allowed to act when we want to.  

We all have different approaches, and streetshooters through the times have had different approaches.  There is a big difference between the more passive observer role of HCB and many Magnum photographers, and e.g that of Mary Ellen Mark who gets very close and connects with the people she takes pictures of.  Some streetshooters/"social photographers" are social workers first and use photography as a way to communicate fates, stories and images to the rest of society and also to those they help.  For some it is easier to relate to ones own situation when you can see it as a photo, because the belief that "a photo never lies" is still fairly strong.  Most streetshooters are not social workers though, but many streetshooters are touched by people they meet.  They learn more about themselves and others through their pictures.  Some streetshooters use photography as their own therapy, sometimes with camera as a shield and sometimes as a way to connect with others.

Especially when facing the grittier and the seemingly hopeless sides of society it can get very depressing and hard for many photographers.  Most realise that there is something beyond the photo; there are person, with a history and a future.  Some never connect, some stick to having a variety of change ready in the pockets, some stop and talk, some buy food, some make a more long-term effort to help, some become full-time social workers.  It is important that we each consider our role beyond taking and publishing the photos.  We are allowed to help, become touched and change our own ways.  But as we all are from different background, have different experience and are in different photographic phases and shoot different things we are all bound to make different choices.


<h2  class="streetclear">WHAT CAMERA SHOULD I USE?</h2>

I knew you weren't happy about the finger-framing, even if I was serious. Most of my good shots were finger-framed and I have them stored in my mind. The short answer is however that all other cameras have advantages and  disadvantages. I'll try to explain why.

<h3  class="streetclear">COMPACT 35mm or DIGITAL COMPACT CAMERA:</h3>

Very popular cameras and they're pretty automatic, they're small and most of the time deliver very good results.  Generally a lot of a scene is in focus with such a camera, so they're really easy to use.  Some have fast autofocus or fixed focus, so you just compose and click.  They're small and you can shoot unnoticed from the hip or hidden, and especially digital compacts are seen everywhere these days so you'll blend in.  The quality is also very good and easily printable as A4/Letter.

Their advantage is however their disadvantage, the ability to keep everything in focus may leave some photos cluttered where you want a more specific focus.  They also perform relatively badly in low light, and will react with flash sooner than you might expect, and flash might not be what you want when you want to keep a low profile.  Many of them lack the manual control/overriding of more high-end cameras, which you might want.

Another "issue" with compacts is that you'll look like a tourist or a beginning amateur in most places, which might be what you want or might not.  They are also quite restricted if you want specialty lenses, filters, etc.  You might want to have a backup compact in addition to the other cams listed below though.

<h3  class="streetclear">35mm SLR or DIGITAL SLR:</h3>

Camera of choice for most amateurs and professionals, especially press photographers.  They exist in most sizes and weights, but are generally bigger and bulkier than compacts or rangefinders, but typically lighter than most medium format cameras. The main advantage of an SLR is that they're fairly small, incredibly flexible and are filled with sophisticated technology these days.  You look through the lens when you focus and compose, and what you see is what you get, roughly.  They tend to have very fast autofocus, pro or zoom lenses and the latest of everything.  If you need a whiz-bang feature, some SLR has it, whether it's eye-tracking focus, or programmed use of complex flash systems.  They also in general support full manual control so you're the boss if you want to be.

Their advantage is however their disadvantage.  All the whizbang features can get complex and all you want is to take good pictures.  Aperture priority is usually a safe and fairly automatic bet for street shooting though.  You look through the lens, so you can't see things outside the field of view suddenly entering into the frame.  You look through the lens at maximum aperture, and the least depth-of-field, so what is  out-of-focus is sometimes so out-of-focus that you can't really see it clearly.  Focusing can also be hard in low light, also with top-of-the-line autofocus.  But the most important disadvantage is that they can be bulky and attract attention on a street, especially with long telelenses.  You can also in my opinion forget to shoot from the hip, although some streetshooters disagree. You decide what you like.


Another "issue", is that you might be mistaken for press if you have a serious SLR (not the silvery ones that Canikon love to sell to soccer moms), the right age (20-70), look as if you have a bad hangover and some nice lipstick on your shirt.  This might be an advantage in some cases as you get access, but other times you'll be turned away for being press.  Some people will assume it's ok that you shoot as you're press, others will be extra skeptical because media represents for them "all that is wrong in this world."  Kids of all ages may want to know what newspaper they'll be in the next day though, so have an answer ready.

<h3  class="streetclear">35mm and DIGITAL RANGEFINDERS:</h3>

Camera of choice (and Leica in particular) for many of the most famous streetshooters through the times.  Purchase of one Leica will cost you more than the yearly GNP for an average citizen in the third world, but what is life without luxury?  A lot of rich people think they'll be HCB, Doisneau or Erwitt if they get their hands on one.  Chances are they will not.  Some people will "be all you can be" with a proper rangefinder.  It's a big jump, and expensive as well, so a reality-check for how serious you are is important.  Note that you can get (more bulky) russian copies cheaply, to see if this is for you.

Rangefinders work by looking through a viewfinder which has everything in focus (like normal glass) and then the rangefinder patch is imposed over it, and to focus correctly you have to align what you see and the patch. Where you align them is where you focus.  You can see people going in and out of a scene clearly, but the focusing can be hard if there aren't any contrasts or people to focus on.  Focusing is however a lot easier in low light when you get used to it. Rangefinders also tend to be quieter than SLRs so they can be used quietly where SLRs will be heard.  You can cough to hide the sound of SLRs and rangefinders e.g when shooting in a gallery or church.  Rangefinders rarely have sophisticated technology or zoom-lenses, and the lenses are expensive (and good), but rangefinders are more complex mechanically than an SLR.  They're smaller than SLRs and can fit in a pocket and you can use it quickly when the need arises, which is invaluable for a streetshooter.  Rangefinders exist as 35mm or even as medium format. There is currently only one digital rangefinder on the market, the Epson R-D1, which can use 35mm lenses, has comparable digital quality to a digital SLR, but is pricier than consumer dSLRs

Their advantages are however their disadvantage.  The complex focusing which is very good, makes them also more expensive to produce.  They have become scarce because they are so pricy, and camera collectors (the enemies of those who actually plan to use cameras) are driving up the prices.  It also takes some getting used to a rangefinder for people who have just used SLRs, and the rangefinders are not as flexible as an SLR wrt lenses and cannot really be used very well closer than 1 meter due to parallax error. All but the most recent rangefinders lack autofocus or automatic exposure modes.  This means you have to learn more technical stuff to shoot than your average run-of-the-mill compact or consumer SLR.

Carrying a rangefinder in public might attract camera collectors or serious amateurs, and you might lose a good moment when unable to get away from camera collectors who want to discuss Summilux and Noctilux, and qualities of bokeh.

<h3  class="streetclear">MEDIUM FORMAT:</h3>
Written by Eugene Zaikonnikov

The medium format cameras are typcially bulkier than smaller format equipment. Their lenses are in general not as fast, which complicates the available light photography indoors and at night time. The 120 and 220 films provide less exposures than 35mm format while the cost is about the same.

However, a certain share of street photography was done using such equipment. Twin-lens reflex cameras (TLRs) are notably small and not too heavy, the legendary Rolleiflex (still in production today) is a typical example of the breed. A decent TLR can  be operated very quickly, their central leaf shutters are whisper quiet and they have no mirror slap issue of SLRs, with all the consequent disavdvantages for hand-held use. You focus the camera on the groundglass in a submissive bow rather than in arrogant straight gaze, which may often make a difference to other people's perceptions. Indeed, many woudn't even have an idea that you're photographing at all.

A system medium format SLR, like Hasselblad or Mamiya are not very convenient for street photography: they're cumbersome to hold, their heavy mirrors slap noticeably. Leave them in the studio.

Mamiya also makes excellent 6 and 7II series medium format rangefinders. They look like overgrown 35mm rangefinder cameras, and are very similar in most respects.

<h3  class="streetclear">LARGE FORMAT:</h3>

Some people have used large format cameras for street photography, believe it or not.  They're big, bulky and hard to use for snapping. But given the recent trend of small digital compacts people might not realise that it is a camera so you might set up a nice scene and wait for people to walk into it.  And of course, half-posed/posed shots can work well.


<h2  class="streetclear">WHAT LENS SHOULD I USE?</h2>

Provided you have a camera-system that allows you to change lenses, you're faced with the question of which lens to use on the camera when doing street.  Let me first say that any lens can be used for street, there are no real limits but your creativity.  So there are no excuses like "I don't have the right lens".  That said, lens choice is maybe one of the things that affect your photos and probably also your approach the most, most likely more than camera-system choice between 35mm rangefinder or 35mm SLR.

<h3  class="streetclear">FOCAL LENGTH</h3>

In general a wide lens means that you need to be closer to your subjects to get expressions and details, but it makes it easier to include more of surroundings and more people in a frame.  A telephoto lens will allow you to keep more distance to subjects, but at the price of not being able to include surroundings because the field of view tends to be too narrow.  A wider lens is typically thought of as giving more depth of field than a telephoto lens, and that may also affect your approach.

<h3  class="streetclear">APERTURE</h3>

The ability of a lens to collect light is controlled by the aperture (blender/blende in norwegian/german).  The wider aperture the lens is set to (denoted by a small f-number) the more light it can collect in a given time.  A lens with wide maximum aperture is called a fast lens, while one with smaller maximum aperture is called a slow lens.  What is considered a fast lens depends on focal length and use, but for reasonable focal lengths a lens need to be f/2.8 or faster (lower number) to be considered fast.  A wide aperture also gives you a narrow depth-of-field, and a "good" lens will typically render out-of-focus area (bokeh) softly at wide apertures, allowing you to isolate subjects completely.  On smaller apertures a lens will render out-of-focus areas in a way that allows more of the out-of-focus areas to be fairly recognizable.

<h3  class="streetclear">ZOOM OR PRIME</h3>

A zoom-lens is a lens that can change focal length.  There are wideangle zooms, normalzooms, telezooms and superzooms. Zoom-lenses tend to be slower than lenses with fixed focal lengths (also known as prime lenses), and bokeh (out-of-focus areas) tend to be smoother and softer with prime lenses.  The fastest 35mm zoom-lenses you can get are f/2.8, while prime lenses can be gotten cheaply at f/1.8.  You can also get f/1.4 lenses for fairly reasonable prices, while f/1.2, or even f/1.0 lenses are also possible to get for those willing to spend.  An f/1.4 lens is two stops faster than an f/2.8 zoom-lens, and in low light that is easily the difference between a handheld shot and needing a monopod or tripod. The fastest zoom-lenses typically have a maximum of 3x zoom, and the more zoom you have the more likely is is that the lens has had to compromise on speed and/or optical quality compared to the lens with less zoom.

<h3  class="streetclear">STARTING OUT</h3>
Sky High
by panopticum

When you're just starting out, it might be tempting and maybe a good idea to use a telephoto lens, and maybe a telezoom if you have one.  A telezoom or a digicompact with superzoom is flexible and you can handle several situations, especially if there is enough light. But they're not very useful indoors because they can be slow, but will give you plenty of chances to practice outside.  In general, a normalzoom (roughly 24mm to 75mm) will be more flexible than a telezoom once you've gotten past the first shyness and is able to get closer.  When light levels are low, you will probably want a fast normalzoom (f/2.8) or a faster prime lens.

  A fast lens will also allow you to use a narrow depth-of-field to isolate scenes from busy surroundings, but all in all give you more creative freedom than a slow lens.  A fast lens on an SLR will also give your eye or the camera's autofocus system more light to focus with. But when push comes to shove, you might want to use the photojournalist slogan "f/8 and being there", meaning choose a small fairly aperture to be fairly safe wrt focus and getting enough environment in the frame.

<h3  class="streetclear">THOUGHTS ON FOCAL LENGTHS</h3>

Some thoughts on different 35mm focal lengths that I've collected over time.  Digital SLR users should multiply their crop-factor first, so a 20mm lens on a Canon 20D with crop-factor 1.6 will be 32mm when reading this text.  A zoom-lens allows you to adjust to your need:

  • Wider than 28mm lenses allows you to do very wide streetscenes, especially with an ultra-wideangle.  They will distort perspective, making close things seem closer and not-close things even further away.  This means you often have to get really close and as such may not be for the new streetshooter right away.  The distortion might distort the "illusion of reality" aspect, but it might also allow you to be creative, and superwide lenses aren't used that much.  
  • Lenses between 28mm and 35mm are wide, but do not distort perspective in a way that makes the photo seem unreal.  They are nice for big street scenes and especially indoor scenes where subjects are close to you and you want to include more subjects.  Garry Winogrand used a 35mm lens a lot to include many people in his composition.  The risk is clutter, but sometimes (when skill and luck go hand in hand) it all works well together.  A 35mm outside allows you to be close and also show environment, as such it's also useful for photojournalism.  Many streetshooters are very loyal to wideangles like a 28mm or 35mm. With a 35mm or wider lens you can also easily include people in your composition that have no idea you're shooting them, unlike a telephoto lens where the field-of-view means you point the lens more directly at them.
  • The most common choice is a lens between 40mm and 55mm, including the popular 50mm lens, known as the "normal lens".  Before zoom-lenses conquered the market, a 50mm was the lens that came with a new SLR or rangefinder.  A 50mm gives your shots a perspective that matches what the eye sees, and that helps to convey the illusion of reality.  You can also be closer to people without distorting facial features as much as a wideangle does.  Another key thing with 50mm lenses is that they're cheap to get fast, there are typically at least a 50mm that is f/1.4 or faster for every lens mount system.  The fastest lens in history was a 50mm as well.  
  • At about 80mm you start to approach portrait range (head and torso), and you can get much closer to people but giving them more private space when shooting.  Absolutely useful for street portraits, photos will look as if you're closer, and facial features will generally be more flattering than a 50mm.  The longer focal length will also give you the chance to isolate more.  On the street an 85mm will also allow you to capture scenes further away from you and if you're shy it can be handy.  An 85mm lens isn't that big and threatening as longer focal lengths either.  allows you room for people's more private space, and photos look as if you're closer and best of all: you can also isolate things more. Also useful for street portraits which is not to be forgotten.
  • 135mm is a lens that's excellent for facial portraits, and given a bit more space it works great as an overall portrait lens, also allowing candids without being too close. And for many street
    photographers, street is about people so even if you're not close, you can get a close look at emotions.  For the shy it also allows you to keep good distance.  With a 135mm you can typically pick out streetscenes on the other side of a street with few problems.  The long focal length also allows you to compress perspective, and using out-of-focus natural framing is quite easy.
  • Lenses with more tele than 135mm are maybe ok when building self-confidence, but they're mostly sfor sports or birds, no? They have one strong feature though, you can isolate scenes very well with it.
  • Other special lenses that might give a cool view of life are fisheyes, tilt-shift lenses and lens babies.  Following zort's examples, I've also found a macro lens very useful.  A  macro-lens around 100mm is generally fairly fast, it's sharp and works as a good medium telephoto.  A macro lens has two very cool features though, it's designed for smooth bokeh and for a very flat depth of field.  These two features allows it to isolate subjects very very well.

Note: You can obtain a downloadable, printable version of this article here.

Add a Comment:
iRainbow-Unicorn Featured By Owner Aug 14, 2011  Hobbyist Photographer
So... I won't get my head ripped off or get in trouble taking pictures of random people? Phew! I've really only done it once or twice... only one time I got some awesome pictures, but I'm always so nervous. ._.
stupid2noob Featured By Owner Jul 11, 2011
Great A article.
lorenzodom Featured By Owner Dec 21, 2010   Photographer
Great summary.

Kudos to you for putting this great guide together.

My immersion into street photography was actually a life-altering experience for me.

In 2005, I was a husband, father, and corporate employee — my life revolved around home, work, and my daily commute from the suburbs to New York City.

Then, one day, I found myself staying at the Little Church in midtown Manhattan in the wake of a marital separation. Living in virtual isolation for three months, I had a rare chance to re-examine my life.

Quite unexpectedly, I found myself wandering around the city to take photographs, a passion I had let slide in the years of pursuing a career and starting a family. During my nightly sojourns through the streets of New York City, I was reminded of some important life lessons—lessons too easily forgotten in the blur of everyday existence.

As a result, I wrote a book called 25 Lessons I’ve Learned (about photography), which has been the #1 best seller in the photo essay category on Amazon for some time.


I also wrote an abbreviated version of the lessons, which are available for free online for those who are interested:

Over 100,000 visitors since 2005!

Happy Holidays!
ChiTheDesigner Featured By Owner May 18, 2010
Wow, this is great.
Nck69 Featured By Owner Mar 24, 2010
Great article and very interesting
Im quite new to street photography but have to say after getting bored of taking countless shots of trees,hills,sky ect ect ect it's so much more satisfying and there is always something new and interesting to shoot every time.
iDoux Featured By Owner Jan 8, 2010  Hobbyist Artisan Crafter
Nice article
Nocturnatum Featured By Owner May 11, 2009  Hobbyist Photographer
Nice article, might read this again.
oscarnewlove Featured By Owner Mar 12, 2009
Good article
Eloquent-Weapon Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2009
Hey, i don't know if you still check this, or even if you're still on DA, but if you are and you do read this i would like to give my sincere thanks for writing this article. It was exactly what i was looking for, and it is very appreciated, very welcomed help. :)
uhh-what Featured By Owner Nov 8, 2008
i have to do street photography for photo class and this halped alot thanks i'll put some street pic on my accont it will take awhile to develope them but come and look at them to tell me what you think
Amy-Zarah Featured By Owner Apr 24, 2008  Professional Photographer
I'm currently doing a project on street photography for college, and I found this helped me BUNDLES.
I was a bit lost in the subject of street photography, but this has given me a little more confidence.

Really well written! Thank you!
Trivium11 Featured By Owner Apr 17, 2008
Great article. Taught me basically all I need to know and has certainly helped with everything I was curious about.

banana-dancer Featured By Owner Jan 6, 2008
Great article. :clap:
Thank you for this.
Absolutely :#1:
sweet1sacrifice Featured By Owner Oct 3, 2007
wow, thanx :D This article was very interesting.
notchosen Featured By Owner Jul 11, 2007   Photographer
Many thanks for this fantastic, grat job!

xdead-angelx Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2007   Photographer
This article is really good, thanks.
But there are lots of pictures that were taken off, so you should check those =3!
Also, I cant print this, it says "forbidden" when i click the "here".
Now i want to try street photography XD! Thats it, tommorow its off to downtown for mee!
emreinstein Featured By Owner Nov 10, 2006  Hobbyist Photographer
It's very useful, i've read it before many times but, i have a problem with downloading the printable version of the article. When i clicked on the "here" it said "Forbidden". Any of your help would be highly appreciated. :]
FreakyLaurent Featured By Owner Sep 30, 2006  Professional Photographer
Very well written!

Tips & pointers are fine way of showing & guiding the photographers. I too love to do the street shots myself.

Working the nerve to askis my weakness but tries very hard to capture & yet accomplish. Other time I walk away disappoint but always a next time for photo op

alexjtb Featured By Owner Aug 17, 2006   Photographer
excellent reading - some of the best and most comprehensive advice I've found on the 'net to date! mad props matey
cultureddirtbag Featured By Owner Dec 22, 2005
Awesome and helpful article =flumpie. It suddenly inspired me to bring my camera tomorrow since I'm going into the city.
RobertMJohnson Featured By Owner Nov 27, 2005
Hello, I just found your article on Street Photography and have become a new member. I am a long time street photographer, starting back in the late 60's. Most of what I have shot was done in the 70's. If you get a moment please take a peek...


I am looking forward to enjoying all great the work here!
flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 29, 2005
Lots of good stuff there, bookmarked :)
RobertMJohnson Featured By Owner Nov 29, 2005
Thanks for the visit! Your article is the best that I have ever seen on the net!

flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 29, 2005
:blushes: thank you. spread the word :)
vopium Featured By Owner Nov 24, 2005   Photographer
I really appreciated this article. Are you familiar with the book "The Tao of Photography?" It would be a good one for you to read, I think. It includes a lot of work and quotes by some of the guys you quoted and referenced in this article. Of course, it only corroborates your ideas, but there's nothing wrong with building a little confidence in what you say, right? I really need to get out and do this more (I live in Chicago, for god's sake!). Do you have any suggestions for keeping your SLR in working order in cold weather? I don't want to come home from a shoot and find my solid-state media actually solid-state!
flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 24, 2005
I will look for that book. And yes, building confidence could never hurt, although i have gotten a bit reckless when doing street sometimes but not too bad. These days I'm more on the shy side again :(

As for col, check winter-shooting tips.. most important thing I can remember is to keep spare batteries because battery-life is shorter in the cold and to use the platic bag trick when taking a camera from the cold to the warm. But in general I just bring my camera and hope for the best :)
lommo Featured By Owner Nov 20, 2005
I enjoyed reading that, it also answered questions about street photography that have been on my mind. Thanks :thumbsup:
flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 24, 2005
goodie :highfive:
FadingBlack Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2005   Photographer

This was really helpful. =D
flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 24, 2005
Castigator Featured By Owner Nov 17, 2005
Great article. I'd like to stress the fact that different people in different cultures react differently to having their photo taken though! Not everyone is open minded, and that can depend a lot on the culture they are in/have grown up in. But common sense should always be applied. (If you're lacking that take someone with you who has got it ;) ).
flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2005
Good advice there, common sense helps a lot, smiling also helps and people might be happy that you show an interest in them :)
Castigator Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2005
absolutely :)
wise-ass Featured By Owner Nov 17, 2005
and yeah, not allot of people here value street photography... no one ever comments on the portrait shots, but it's enough to put some stupid, cliched photo of a sky that people deluge u with favs... that's kinda unfair - but art isn't for the sake of money or fame, it's for art!
flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2005
you shoot for you and hopefully we can all together raise awareness of the genre and as such help each other. check ~streetshots too :)
wise-ass Featured By Owner Nov 17, 2005
most of the suggestions are quite useful... I'm just starting out, so read that article from top to the very bottom! it was an extremly interesting interesting thing to read!

But I'm concerned about ethical issues. For couple of days ago, I had a case when policeman came up to me and told me not to photograph some girl in the street who was lost and was crying - even more than that, couple of minutes later after that police guy a lady came up to me, some random person from the mob nearby and asked me to remove all photos...... it was depressing u know - I just stuck my camera into the bag and walked away, I realy felt embarassed... I though I would never turn to street photography again... oh well, after reading this article I got back my self confidence :D
flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2005
Sounds like a really bad day, but I hope you keep shooting. and yes, we all have bad days and sometimes everything works againgst us. Then we sometimes need a break and then we build up new strength :)
spectoRex Featured By Owner Nov 17, 2005
thankyou so much! i've been so interested into getting beyond just landscapes etc and start exploring my new city and suburb, and what better way than street photography! cheers again :)
flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2005
Keep shooting :highfive: :camera:
FlowersAndRazorwire Featured By Owner Nov 16, 2005   Photographer
I finally got to reading this and thought it was real informative and written pretty well.

The only thing I wished was there was a Street Photography vs Photojournalism paragraph.
flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2005
Happy you liked it, maybe I'll include such a paragraph in the followup article some time next year :)
RibenaCreature Featured By Owner Nov 16, 2005
My gosh, you've gone and made me terribly inspired now. :aww:
flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2005
Thank you, looking forward to your shots :highfive:
Ultimaggot Featured By Owner Nov 15, 2005
amazing article :worship: thanks for it, im definitely inspired now :D
flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 24, 2005
Ultimaggot Featured By Owner Nov 25, 2005
Ciril Featured By Owner Nov 14, 2005  Professional Photographer
well done on the article. :thumbsup: i know already a lot about street photogrpahy but i find out some new things. :)
([link] )
flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2005
Street photography is a small genre these days so if streetshooters shared tips and tricks, as well as helped newcomers I think the overall level will go up. Lots of good shots on that link, i am enjoying your shots :) (but then again I almost never get to my devwatch)
Korri Featured By Owner Nov 14, 2005
Wow i found that really useful. Thanks for taking the time to share your experiance, i shall hope to take advice from this and build my skills in this field.

Great Work! xxx
flumpie Featured By Owner Nov 24, 2005
Good luck with the shooting :)
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