As you begin to practice street photography, the biggest challenge has little to do with camera settings. It’s more about getting over your timidity of photographing strangers. That anxiety leads to a lot of missed opportunities or photographing from a distance with a telephoto zoom. Neither of these results in the kind of imagery that likely inspired your interest in street photography.
Those feelings are a part of the process and there’s nothing that completely eliminates it. However, you can work through those feelings and begin to make images that are intimate and have impact. Here are some suggestions that may help you to make better street photographs.
Work with a Fixed Focal Length
Things happen fast on the street. You can lose a shot as result of adjusting your zoom lens. Instead use a 35mm focal like such as the Sigma 35mm (for a full frame) or a 28mm f/1.8 (or an APS-C). This focal length will provide you a generous depth of field even with a moderate aperture. It will also have the benefit of a fast aperture to photograph in low light.
Always Have Your Camera Ready
Leave the camera bag at home. Hand-hold the camera with the benefit of a wrist-strap like the CowboyStudio Matin Hand-grip Strap or a strap such as the Custom SLR Glidestrap. You want to be able to react in seconds to make the shot.
Prefocus Using Hyperfocal Distance
To eliminate any possible hunting from your camera’s autofocus system consider pre-focusing your camera. By pre-focusing at a distance of about 7 feet and using a moderate aperture of f8 you will have ample depth of field in front and behind your subject. Use an online depth of field calculator to determine this information for specific lenses.
Find Your Background First
A big consideration for a successful street photograph is the background. Find a environment, which you think will provide a good setting or background for a photograph and wait for people to enter the frame and complete the shot. Look for interesting light and graphic elements to make more striking images.
Use Your Phone
Everyone is on their phone constantly and so it may not be so obvious that you are making photographs. Use your Apple iPhone 5s or Samsung Galaxy S5 to get more comfortable making photographs on the street. Practice handling your camera to appear as if you are checking e-mail rather than making someone’s photograph. Watch this Lynda.com video on photojournalist Richard Koci Hernandez and see how he does it.
Place Your Subject Off-Center
With a wide-angle lens, you can compose your shot with your subject off-center, making it appear that you are photographing something else. The angle of view will include them in the frame and won’t make it obvious that they are included in the composition.
Stare Past the Subject
If the subject catches you making their photograph, simply lower the camera and look past them as if you were photographing something behind them. Then raise the camera again and continue making photographs. Repeat it several times before moving on.
If a subject discovers you making a photograph of them simply smile and say thank you. Most people are not going to be resentful or hostile, especially if you are open and friendly. Acting as if you are hiding something or doing something wrong will raise their suspicions as well as making your experience very uncomfortable.
Using a smaller camera can help lower your profile as compared to using a hulking DSLR. Consider a camera like the Fujifilm X100s, Samsung NX300 or Olympus EM-10. Such smaller cameras will likely feel less intimidating to your subjects.
Go to a Public Event
A festival, a concert or county fair provides a great opportunity to practice street photography. Everyone is people watching and making photographs. As a consequence, people are more accepting and comfortable with having their photographs taken. Take advantage of this to get over your own fear of photographing strangers.
If you are interested in learning more about a personal approach to street photography and photographing strangers, purchase my latest e-book, Portrait of Strangers from Fuel Books.