The Most Important Lessons of Light in Street Photography

Speak to any photographer from any discipline and they’ll likely tell you the most important thing to master is light. You may have great creative vision and an eye for a good scene, but if you don’t understand how to light your frame there’s a strong chance your photograph is a dud. That’s especially true in street photography, where most of us work with only natural light. I’ve had a lot of lessons over the years, and below (with the input from another street photographer), I’ll share what I’ve learned with you.

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I never considered light back in my early days of being a street photographer. I’d just go outside, no matter the conditions, and shoot. I never really understood why my exposures didn’t look like those of the street photographers I admired. The answer is I didn’t understand how to light a scene correctly.

Before we go further, let me clarify the difference between exposures and light to any new photographers. You may have set the proper exposure for your environment, but that doesn’t mean you’re creating in the best light. Not understanding light tends to lead to dull, flat exposures. As a result, unless the scenes are stellar, your images won’t engage many people. Now let’s take a look at some of what I’ve learned regarding light and street photography.

Direct Sunlight Isn’t Always Good for Street Photography

When the sun is shining, free to illuminate the earth without the barriers of clouds, street photographers are quick to hit the streets. “The sun is out, and it’s the perfect time to shoot!” Well, that’s often not true. Direct sunlight creates harsh shadows making it difficult to expose your subject correctly. And when they face the sun, they’re often squinting and don’t make desirable subjects.

What happens here is that street photographers create images that focus heavily on light and shadow, which can certainly lead to some cool, creative images. But those images are often stale and overdone. While I’ll shoot in direct sunlight, it’s not my favorite type of light to create street photographs.

Grey Gloomy Days Are the Worst for Street Photography

Removing direct sunlight opens the door to more balanced light. However, when clouds are grey and the daylight is dark, it’s not the best light to work with and I think that’s for two reasons. Firstly, it’s tricky to find the best exposure for the conditions, and glum images are not the most attractive to view. Secondly, and most importantly, the people’s mood on a dark, grey, gloomy day tends to be low. Nobody wants to be outside and everyone wants to rush to their next destination, which makes it challenging to find a beautiful scene that’s inspiring and compelling.

Even Light Makes You More Creative with Street Photography

So when the clouds cover the sun, and they’re bright and soft, creating even light, it’s time to get to work. The best part about even light is that it makes you think more about the scenes. Why? Well, seeing as how the light isn’t offering much more than a balanced exposure, you need to ensure you’re finding frames that tell a meaningful story. Creating photographs in soft light isn’t easy, but I it’s the best type of light to improve storytelling and the eye for a good scene.

Thoughts from Polly Rusyn

Opinions on the best and worst types of light for street photography are diverse, as are the lessons each street photographer learns. To get a different opinion, I turned to a street photographer who I (and many others) believe understands the importance of light and how it works. I turned to Polly Rusyn. For those who don’t know, Rusyn was The Phoblographer’s 2019 street photographer of the year and has a valued voice in the street photography community. I asked her what’s the number one thing she has learned about light and street photography. She told me:

“Light is the subject, and you can have a lot of fun playing with it! Perfect exposure is overrated, shadows can be solid, and there doesn’t have to be a story — as Harry Gruyaert said, “There is no story. it’s just a question of shapes and light”. Ultimately street photography can just be nice to look at.”

Photo credit: Polly Rusyn

My Favorite Light to Shoot In

I have two favorite types of light to create photographs. The first is the golden hour (morning and evening) and the second is the first hour that follows sunset. Personally, I find these types of light offer the best balance of being creative with light while also needing to think about the scene and the story.

I think, overall, there are no hard and fast rules as to when you should practice street photography. The lessons we learn are personal. Perhaps the most important rule is that you work in the light that gets the best out of you and your capabilities. Evidence of this is the slightly differing opinions between Rusyn and me. Neither of us is wrong; we’re just sharing our truth. So to continue with the phrase of the modern era, when it comes to light and street photography, find your truth and enjoy the process of making photographs.

What’s your favorite type of light to shoot street? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Dan Ginn

Dan Ginn is a content writer and journalist. He brings with him five years' experience writing in the photographic niche. During that time he has worked with a range of leading brands, as well as a host of professional photographers within the industry.