In the last several years, street photography has blossomed from being a specialist and esoteric area of shooting practised mainly by editorial professionals into a mainstream activity for all enthusiasts. The reasons for this new popularity are that it’s extremely accessible for most people — you just need to go beyond your doorstep — and makes the least call on specialist equipment, or even on specialist knowledge.
Such accessibility and simplicity do not, however, make street photography easy. Far from it, and probably the biggest issue is that as a street photographer you’re very exposed — in two ways. First, you’re exposed to your own wits and chance, because there’s very little in the subject matter to get a first hold of. For example, if you were shooting landscapes, you could start with a known subject such as a lake or a mountain, and from there work your way to finding the best location for what you want; then after that work on the weather forecasts to get close to the light you would like. It doesn’t work at all like that in street. You’re simply exposed to whatever might or might not happen as you walk. Second, street photography usually means people, and if you’re looking for certain expressions and gestures (see below under Decide what to react to), you’ll be exposed to human interaction, and many of us are not all that comfortable with intruding visibly into other people’s activities with a camera.
However, accept this ‘exposure’ and street photography is exciting and rewarding when you get a successful shot. Remember that anyone can photograph the same mountain, but street situations in close-up are always unique. When you succeed with a shot that satisfies you, no-one else will ever be able to repeat it — and that’s very valuable in photography!
It starts with the preparation
I’d argue that street shooting calls for more preparation than just about any other kind. That might sound a little contentious, but consider this. By definition, on a regular day’s shoot you have absolutely no control over what you’re going to find, and it’s quite likely to happen fast. Therefore, the one thing you can do to improve your chances of capturing a particular moment is to prepare for it — complete familiarity with the camera and lens in your hand, the ability to anticipate the flow of events, and a mental armoury of what I call ‘presets’, which are kinds of framing, composition and timing that you already know and can bring onto play instantly.
Yes, there’s an exception, which is known street events like parades and markets and suchlike, but the classic definition of street photography involves simply walking and staying alert to possibilities as and when you come across them. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of this form, wrote “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life – to preserve life in the act of living”. That pretty well sums up the working ‘method’ of most street shooters, and it’s very much to do with the frame of mind rather than any help that equipment might give you.
Decide your lens style
Focal length is the main quality that sets lenses apart from each other. Shorter gives a wider angle of view, longer narrows it, and which you choose for any particular shot generally depends on what the subject needs and how you personally like shooting. There are practical reasons, certainly, for choosing focal lengths, but more interesting is matching lenses to personality and as a way of developing your own style. Most photographers have a relationship with their lenses that goes beyond the pragmatic. American photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark wrote, “Choice of lens is a matter of personal vision and comfort.” Henri Cartier-Bresson believed that 50mm “corresponds to a certain vision and at the same time has enough depth of focus, a thing you don’t have in longer lenses,” while 35mm was way too wide: “very often it is used by people who want to shout. Because you have a distortion, you have somebody in the foreground and it gives an effect. But I don’t like effects.” Annie Leibovitz said, “I have to work to avoid getting normal-looking pictures. My favourite lens is the 28mm because it gives me a different perspective with a minimum of distortions.” In other words, a lens should be the extension of your individual eye, and it pays to develop an actual feeling for optics.
Even if you think you’ve settled on a favourite focal length for street work, it may be worth doing a reset, at least as an exercise, and reconsider the range of lenses on offer. At this point, here’s a caution. Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s a right lens and a wrong lens, and a right way and a wrong way for shooting. Now, why would I even say that? Because in newly-fashionable street photography there are hints of political correctness, notably that to be pure it should be performed in an ‘old masters’ way, namely with a standard lens, enclosing a Cartier-Bresson kind of decisive moment — even better, with an old Leica and black-and-white film. Actually, this is pretentious. What counts is the shot you get, however you choose to get it. If you like to use a hefty DSLR with a battery of lenses straining your shoulder, that’s OK too.
Standard lens — as we see
Take a look through practically any serious collection of notable handheld photography from the first use of 35mm film in the late 1920s right up to today, and you’ll see that the great majority of images were—and continue to be—shot with lenses close to standard focal length. There’s a narrow range of focal length around 50mm that gives an angle of view that most of us think of as basically similar to our vision, and it’s called ‘standard’. It’s unobtrusive, perhaps even without character, and that would be for many photographers exactly why they choose it. The lens optics simply don’t get in the way of the subject, and that makes standard lenses particularly apt for street photography Optically, there’s no agreed ‘standard’ focal length, because our vision isn’t limited by a rectangular frame, so there’s no direct comparison. One definition is the diagonal of the sensor (about 43mm), another is the focal length at which the view through the viewfinder looks the same as to the naked eye (but this also depends on the design of the viewfinder). Perhaps the most sensible is the focal length that gives roughly what most people would feel was their angle of view. That’s around 30º, which is what a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera gives.
Wide-angle — immersive
Wide-angle lenses have focal lengths shorter than 50mm, and by general agreement have an angle of view wider than about 60º, and as much as 90º before we reach the more exotic world of super-wides. On a full-frame camera, the classic wide-angles are 20mm, 24mm, 28mm and 35mm, each with a long history, but of course these are now included steplessly in to normal-to-wide zoom lenses. You can use them simply to get more into the frame, like an expansive landscape our an interior, but getting in close and very personal to a scene with a wide-angle pulls the viewer into the thick of things. It’s the still equivalent of the cinematographic ‘subjective camera’. Distortion close to corners and edges is hard to avoid, and most wide-angle photographers work hard at framing and composing to avoid such deformations as the egg-head effect. To work at its happiest, this wide-angle style calls for very good depth of field, and so a small aperture.
Medium telephoto — across the street
The opposite of the immersive and in-your-face style of wide-angle shooting is the more objective and cooler effect from using a longer focal length, and importantly for street photography, it gives you some breathing room so that you can often shoot (or prepare to) without being immediately noticed. Medium telephoto focal lengths tend to be in the region of 150mm to 200mm. and one of the classic prime lenses of ‘across the street’ shooting was the 180mm ƒ2.8. Shooting this way tends to be a bit stand-offish, which runs the risk of distancing yourself a little from the action, but things are not quite so urgent when you’re shooting several metres away. Another advantage is that the compressing effect of a telephoto makes the background relatively larger to the person, and that can help in framing clean shots. Problems include passing traffic, both vehicles and people between you and your subject.
Long telephoto — unobserved
Long telephotos are less often used in street photography because first, they tend to be bulky, heavy and noticeable, and second, there’s often a lot of interfering traffic in the distance to whoever you’re focused on. That said, they reveal views so small and distant that they can be surprising, and if you have a good, commanding viewpoint with a lot of action in front of you, such as a sidewalk café, there may be a considerable choice of subjects for shooting. I sometimes use a 500mm fixed-aperture mirror lens, once fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s, now hardly used. Its light weight and small size make it practical for street shooting, though difficult to use because of its ƒ8 aperture, manual focus, and that holding such a light but magnifying lens steady is not easy.
Decide your pack-and-carry style
Because street photography means a lot of walking, less equipment is definitely more comfortable than more. Nevertheless, with increasing manufacturer pressure to ‘improve’ your photography by adding to your collection, there’s a noticeable increase these days in Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS). How much, in items and weight, do you actually need to shoot effectively? It means balancing choice of equipment for what you anticipate you’ll need (particularly lenses) against a load that will actually slow you down and, if you’re out walking for a few hours, wear you down as well. Rather than work from manufacturer suggestions, which will always encourage you toward more, take a clear look at how you typically shoot. Looking at the choice of lenses above, which appeal to you the most. More important, what proportion of your shooting could you manage with a single lens? The following are the usual choices:-
- Single camera with single lens on a simple strap, usually shoulder/neck but also wrist. The ultimate light approach
- Sling strap, normally worn over one shoulder with the camera hanging from a base plate at hand level when your arm is fully down. Again, the single-camera-and-lens approach
- Belt and plate. The camera clips on to a holster-like arrangement.
- Holster bag. Like a belt, but more protection for camera, with slightly slower access. The Manfrotto Street Camera Holster for DSLR’s, top loading is a good example
- Shoulder bag. Traditional solution, with some risk of shoulder strain, but more or less necessary if you want to carry one or more extra lenses. The Manfrotto Street camera shoulder bag for CSC, water-repellant is neat and secure.
- Small backpack. Many kinds with varied access (top-loading is popular). Perhaps not the obvious choice for street work, but if your style is to keep the camera out of sight until you find a good situation, it has the advantages of safety if the streets you’re in are not particularly safe, and helping you not look like a photographer. For instance, the Manfrotto Offroad Stunt Backpack or the Street camera backpack for CSC, laptop pocket.
Choose the day’s location
Cities, towns, all have a choice of type of location. Most people don’t classify these in the way that street photographers must, however. Important considerations are the volume of foot traffic, obviously heaviest in big cities, and this is also influenced by the width of streets and the weather, and by the day of the week and the time of the day. Pedestrianised streets are good, but these tend to fill with tourists rather than locals, which might affect your shooting choice.
Decide what to react to
Yes, knowing the kind of image you’re going to respond to is very much a part of preparing yourself. Even if you haven’t thought specifically about this, you probably make certain kinds of framing naturally, by default. If you’re at all uncertain, it pays to spend time looking at the work of other street photographers, and making a mental list of the different ways of composing at different distances and with varying numbers of people in shot (single, two-shots, small groups, large groups, crowds). One good resource is the Urban and Street Photography category of the lens culture website.
Another is the Magnum Photos site. This venerable photographers’ collective has a high proportion of members who shoot street.
People express themselves visually — for the camera, in other words — in three ways, each at a slightly different scale. From close there’s expression, which happens in the face. Then there’s gesture, usually from hands and arms. Third, there’s posture, meaning the whole body, whether standing, sitting or moving, and how people position, hold or contort themselves. It’s unusual for all three to be strong at the same time, but when you’re shooting it’s important to aim for at least one that comes across distinctively. Almost without exception, people in front of the camera become interesting and worth photographing when they move and express themselves in definite ways. Flat expressions, slumped postures and unexceptional movements just do not cut it in photography. Ordinariness is the default, so why would it be worth a picture? Ultimately, the interest value of people in photography for most of us who shoot comes down to the way they behave.