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How to Shoot Street Photography with a DSLR

by Chris Gampat on 07/25/2011

It’s no secret, I love small cameras for street photography. The Fuji X100 retaught me how to do it and the Olympus EP3 is perhaps a game changer in nailing the right shot. Before this, though, I used DSLRs: my Canon 7DDigital SLRs)and Canon 5D Mk IIDigital SLRs)to be exact. And when the smaller cameras had been sent back after the review was over, I needed something with better image quality. So I returned to my DSLR. But how exactly do you deal with something so large and so beastly? Here are a couple of tips.

Note: the majority of the images in this story were also shot with the Canon T3i which we found to be very good. Check out our full review and if you’re not sure if the camera is for you, take a look at this posting.

Pre-Selected Focusing Point

A good idea when shooting street photography is to use a pre-selected focusing point. Ideally, what you want to do is choose a point that would allow for the best composition possible and also allow you lots of leeway in the editing process. What I usually do is choose one of the furthest points on the left or right side of my viewfinder. When I find a subject I’m interesting in, I place said subject on that point in the viewfinder. Then I either recompose a bit or just shoot. This allows you to keep up the shooting pace and doesn’t slow you down when you know you have a great moment.

For the photo above, I used the right most focusing point, placed it on the girl’s face and shot. What attracted me to the moment was her style of dress, the shoes, the skateboard, and the fact that she’s on the phone at the same time. That takes some skill.

When Moving, Stop the Lens Down

Face it, you’re almost never going to nail a perfectly sharp photo with a lens wide open and while you’re on the move. A good idea is to stop the lens down to anywhere between f4-f8. When you’ve done that, consider either:

– Using the hyperfocal length scale on your lens to stay focused out to somewhere around maybe five feet away. Then when your subject is within five feet, just shoot.

– Stay in autofocus, and use the preselected point method that I talked about.

– Shoot from the hip (more on this later)

When Still, Open it Back Up

When you or your subject are still or moving slowly, you can open the aperture back up. If you act quickly, you should be able to get the shot. Part of this comes from using the pre-selected focusing point and having a vision in mind of the shot you want.

What also doesn’t hurt is firing off one or two shots.

Aperture Priority and Shoot Raw

What I often do when shooting street photography is use Aperture priority and adjust my ISOs accordingly because the high ISO settings on the 7D and 5D Mk II are so good to begin with. This means that I fiddle with the settings much less and I’m often able to balance out the depth of field with a fast shutterspeed to capture the moment.

Shooting RAW allows me all the forgiveness in the world in the post-production stage because I can turn what some may call a mistake into something artistic and beautiful later on.

Don’t Be Afraid, You’re Not Shooting Someone with a Gun

The other day, someone came up to me and asked me how to get rid of their fears when they’re shooting with a big camera and getting in someone’s face.

I immediately put the camera to my eye, and said, “Give me all your money, or I’ll shoot you.”

Would shooting him kill him? Of course not.

Could I have robbed him with my camera? If I did, I would probably need extra insurance which would cost me more.

Could someone actually think that you’re threatening them when you point a camera at them? If you answer yes, you need to stop taking photos.

If you can’t get over your fear, close your eyes. When I first started shooting street photography, the people I was trying to photograph looked at me with an intense gaze as I was about to press the shutter button. In response, I would become frightened. Because I realized that the fear came from seeing this gaze, my procedure was to focus and compose very quickly then close my eyes and shoot the photo.

Just keep in mind that taking a photo of someone is harmless.

Smile

A way to disarm the angry person that you just photographed is by smiling at them and making eye contact after you’ve taken the shot. But this isn’t an ordinary smile: it needs to come from the heart. You need to fill yourself with genuine warmth and excitement and convey to them through body language that you don’t mean anyone any harm.

All of this first comes from your mentality. You need to believe in your own cause and convince yourself that you’re not harming anyone.

Use a 24mm, 35mm or 50mm Lens Equivalent

One day, we're going to catch Moby Dick...

The reason why I’m recommending these lenses is because they closely mimic what the human eye sees and allow you to capture the entire environment when shooting. Don’t want everything? Then just crop later on in post-production. But when you shoot with these focal lengths, you’ll make your viewers feel as if they’re there.

Combine that with shooting from perspectives and angles to inject your emotions and feelings into the image, and you’ll have an enthralled audience.

Don’t have these lenses? Consider our list of the Best Budget Lenses. My current favorites are the Canon EF 35mm f1.4L (review here) and Olympus 17mm f2.8.

Positive Reinforcement

It’s important to show genuine enthusiasm about your photos. When you nail one perfectly, use that excitement to nail another perfectly. Remember that the image won’t look just like it does on the LCD when you import it to your computer. With that in mind, you’ll need to develop your own style of editing to make the files work. Said files will work differently for each camera and RAW file format.

Shoot from the Hip

Try this:

– Sling your camera around your body.

– Pre-focus your lens to a certain area; this often works best with a smaller aperture.

– When someone is in range, press the shutter button on your camera while it is still slung down by your waist. You can get some very interesting results this way.

or

– If you camera has a tilting or flip-out LCD screen, you can hold the camera down by your waist and flip the LCD screen out to compose your images.

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