Three Ways To Get Better at Street Photography

How do I take pictures of people without being noticed? How can I react fast and still get a well-composed shot? How do I get interesting shots on the streets? These are questions that anyone doing street photography asks at some point or another.I still ask myself that all the time and there are three things that helped me understand how to get better images when shooting in the streets. And made the process much more fun. Here they are:

1-Use a prime lens to always shoot at the same focal length, preferably 35 mm or less. This is something I learned from Alex Webb. I spent a whole week at one of his workshops in New York last year. I was shooting a wide-angle lens, a 16-35mm zoom lens, so I was constantly changing focal length wasting time zooming in and out. I knew that I really wanted to shoot only wide angle the entire week and I did, but I overcompensated and found myself shooting too wide, at 16 or 20 most of the time and it was hard to get close enough to make the image interesting. I discussed it with Alex and he told me to try to shoot at just one focal length (like he does) and suggested either 28mm or 35mm. He shoots only at 35 mm because for him seems to be “just right” for this type of photography, not too much information but not too little either. I think a 28 mm lens allows great street photography images when used right, but I decided to use 35mm only from that point on and I really like it. No more wasting time zooming.

Soho, New York. (C) Juan Jose Reyes

As anything else, it’s a matter of trying to see what feels right to you because you might have a different experience with it.I feel that shooting at focal lengths of 35mm or less and using it on a constant basis for all shots, instead of zooming back and forth, will improve anybody’s street photography.

 –

“I’ve worked out of a series of no’s. No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative. And all these no’s force me to the “yes.”- Richard Avedon

Manhattan,NY. (C) Juan Jose Reyes

2-Blend in: There are two ways to blend in so we can take pictures of people and become “invisible”. The first is minimizing the gear you carry. Is almost impossible to go unnoticed if we are carrying a backpack full of lenses and a huge SLR with a monster zoom. It calls too much attention to yourself and is very intimidating when pointing such lens at someone. What is he doing? Why is he taking pictures of me? What are the pictures for? etc etc. It triggers too much paranoia and there goes our candid shot. As Jay Maisel says: “ the more gear you carry the less pictures you are going to take”. Jay also says that one way to become invisible on the streets is to shoot with the early morning sun on your back into people coming towards you, since they can’t look directly into the sun they can’t see you. I tried it and it works.

“I work from awkwardness. By that I mean I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself”. -Diane Arbus

Soho, NY. (C) Juan Jose Reyes

The second way of blending in is to pay attention to our body language. A lot of times we tend to move too slowly, with arms tightly close to the body, acting all serious and never even looking at people. It seems paradoxical but the less conspicuous we try to be the more we stand out, specially if the street is not too crowded.  Try instead walking around comfortably, moving your arms freely, ready to shoot but not hugging the camera. Talk to people when you can and smile when you can’t.  If people don’t sense that you’re trying to be sneaky then they will not pay too much attention to what you’re doing. And, remember, never look at your LCD right after you take a picture of someone, it’s a dead giveaway that you just did what you’re pretending not to be doing.

3-Give up control. This one was hard for me because I always wanted to have a perfect composition for the shot, always in focus. But the uneven framing and unusual composition that results from shooting fast on the streets is sometimes what makes a street photograph great. Accepting that most of the times, if not all the time, the rules of composition are beyond our control when shooting on the streets will make the experience of shooting in the streets more fun and as a result the pictures will be better. Give up control of the ISO, the focus, and the white balance. Uncertainty is a big part of street photography, let go of the need for control and accept it.

“the snapshooter’s pictures have an apparent disorder and imperfection which is exactly their appeal and their style”. – Lisette Model

 

Harlem, New York, NY. (C) Juan Jose Reyes

Street photography is about taking chances so it doesn’t go well with predictability. As with any art form embracing the mistakes and surprises is part of the process of becoming better at it. I believe each person has to find his or her own personal style and what works for him or her trough practice. I still struggle with giving up control and smiling and engaging people on the streets. I need to practice more.

That’s why I go out for a walk.

JJR

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9 thoughts on “Three Ways To Get Better at Street Photography

  1. Very helpful advice. Just one thing: Zoom is al right, if you use it as a prime. Don’t zoom while you are composing! That means, you decide the focal length before you shoot. It gives you the chance to have a 28mm a 35mm and a 50mm at hand in a very short time. just my experience. Though I shoot with a prime most of the time too, because it’s less flashy.

  2. This blog is THE reference on street photography. I’ve been following it for a couple of months. This article summarizes the whole experience but I would like to contribute a trick I discovered with my own experience. If you know in advance that you will be shooting people at a specific place, in a hallway, on top of a stairs, or at a street corner for example, sitting or standing comfortably with your camera already pointing and evaluating that specific emplacement will make it easy to shoot people who are about to walk inside your frame. If they notice you, THEY will feel like they are the ones intruding with the scene you were capturing.

  3. I always enjoy your posts, and I’m wondering with this one if you’re talking about focal length of a prime lens in terms of full-frame equivalents? As you know, for those of us with crop-sensor cameras, 28mm and 35mm produce a much different field of view than the same lenses on full-frame sensors.

    • Hi Jim, yes , you’re correct. I am referring to the full frame equivalent. So for a DX lens it would be about 18 and 24. I am shooting now with the Fuji X-100 which has a fixed 23mm lens so it’s close to a 35mm equivalent. Great point!, thanks for bringing it up.
      Juan

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