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8 Secrets to Successful Street Photography

As a photographer, when I started in street photography it seemed fairly simple, nothing complicated about it, just go out to the city, wait for those lucky, incredible moments, and take the shot.

But it’s not really like that, the truth is, street photography, in my opinion, is one of the most difficult forms of photography to do successfully.

You often need to wait for a very long time for those amazing moments to occur, and when they come, there are so many things that can go wrong, causing you to miss the moment or ruin the shot.

Through all the failed shots, the agony and frustration, getting great street photos are not impossible.

Here are 8 street photography tips which will make your experiences much easier, both technically and conceptually.

Street photography of a man sitting on a wall smoking a cigarette while using mobile phone, shot by perth photographer morgan nesbitt

There’s No Special Place

One thing that’s for certain when shooting street photography is that there is no such thing as a “Special Place”.

The most interesting places are all around you, there’s a story to be told from everywhere you point your camera.

A huge advantage of shooting everywhere is that you should get a really good feel for where to go and where’s best avoided.

Use the knowledge you gain to your advantage.

Street photography of a man sitting on public seat in pert city going through his backpack, shot by perth photographer morgan nesbitt

Don’t Ask For Permission

This is a controversial subject in street photography, some people believe you should always ask for permission before taking a photograph while others say you shouldn’t.

Personally, I think If you ask permission to take a photo first, then you never end up portraying a genuine emotion within your subject or capturing the true story you want to tell.

Their raw facial expressions, their unscripted body language, the way they truly are feeling within that moment, the actions they are making is what brings the story to life.

If you ask them for permission all of that becomes a lie, it’s disingenuous. This is because you are getting them to force an emotion to the exterior that doesn’t truly define how they feel inside their soul and therefore you lose all effectiveness in your story.  

And that’s not street photography, it’s more of a street portrait.

I rarely ask anyone on my adventures if I could take their picture, I don’t want to lose the magic of the moment.

But if I do ask, most of the time people say yes! Not only did it give me the confidence to ask for permission, but it also gave me more confidence to shoot more daringly, which I find to be a lot more fascinating and interesting.

If someone catches me out that I’ve taken their picture I usually smile, wave and say thanks. If you’re confident then it hardly ever causes a problem.

Street photography of a man sitting on a street curb looking down at the floor whole holding his bike, shot by perth photographer morgan nesbitt

Get Your Camera Settings Right

I made the mistake many times of going to the city and not dialling in my camera settings before shooting.

I would begin walking with my camera still off and before I knew it something happened, the shot was there, I turned my camera on, fired off the shutter and the result was a really exposed or underexposed photograph with a lot of motion blur.

Not what you want.

When shooting street photography, you want to set your camera settings up before you start shooting because there’s always something happening in every direction and you don’t miss anything.

First, if you don’t already flick your camera to manual priority.

What works for me is setting a low to mid-range aperture, between f4 and f11. This allows you flexibility between heavily focused shots with nice background blur to shots that get lots of detail.

I then set my shutter speed to start with at 1/250 to take into consideration any movement passing through the frame, so I can freeze it still.

And I normally have the ISO set to between 200 and 400 depending lighting conditions.

Street photography of a man standing in the middle of the road smoking a cigarette while holding his guitar over his right shoulder, shot by perth photographer morgan nesbitt

Go Wide

Prime 35mm and 50mm lenses are often considered to be the ‘Street Photography Lenses’.

Not all street photographers use prime lenses, some prefer zoom lenses like a 70mm – 200mm (which I occasionally use).

But I personally find prime lenses better than zoom lenses.

From experience, I find that prime lenses are much smaller and lighter. This is great for avoiding annoying pains and cramps in your hand and will allow you to be faster with your camera, as well as making the camera much less noticeable to your subjects, which means you become a bit more invisible.
Even more importantly, by using a prime lens consistently, you will eventually get used to the focal length.

This will train your mind and eye to work together better, allowing you to instinctively frame your moments and capture your photographs more effectively in a world you have never seen before.

Without you even realising it, as you hit the streets more and more shooting with a prime lens, moving around to frame your shot, getting up close and personal with your subjects will help you hone the most important skill in street photography, capturing spontaneous shots.

Spontaneous moments tell the best stories.

Perth photographer morgan nesbitt sitting down on stairs and holding his camera up to his face

Timing is Everything

It’s true, timing is everything.

The streets are full of life, but only at certain parts of the day. That’s why when I want to capture the life of the city I venture around as people are rushing around getting to work in the morning and likewise when they a frantically trying to get home or beginning of happy hour.

Things start happening at certain times of the day, the city comes to life, in cafes, restaurants, bars, barbers, public transport systems… EVERYWHERE!

Take advantage of these times.

I also like to pay close attention to where the shadows are falling, and the light is shining when it comes to my street photography style, which is more of a moody/ grungy tone.

Early mornings and late afternoons for me is perfect. The light is a lot better opposed to the middle of the day. It’s softer, not as harsh on your subjects and a lot easier to work within post-editing.

Don’t get me wrong, you can still shoot on the street in the middle of the day as long as you pay attention to what the light is doing.

Street photography of a cat bus driving up and over a bridge in perth city with the sunset in the background, shot by perth photographer morgan nesbitt

Stop Moving

This one took me forever to realise and to me, it’s one of the most important street photography tips and that is to slow down and stop moving.

I would walk around the city trying to find things to shoot, my thought process was that there is so much happening I need to stay moving so I can capture it all and not miss a single moment.

The thing was that I would check my camera roll by the end of a session and I wouldn’t have much to show for the number of steps I made. If I did capture anything, it generally wasn’t that good.

I became frustrated, very frustrated, questioning how I was not getting any worthy photographs.

That frustration paralysed me, In a moment I lost my motivation and so I didn’t move anywhere.

But that’s when I started to see things differently. The reverse started happening, by staying still in one spot all the action came to me and my camera roll started filling up.

By staying still you become much more perceptive, you spend more energy on looking around rather than walking around.

Compositions will start to come together perfectly. You watch as a scene balances out where people and objects move around and visual weight shifts into your personal space.

People will notice you less and it will make taking a photo of them that much easier. You will also usually be in a much better position to capture them when something interesting happens.

Street photography of a man sitting on his bmx bike looking off into the distance, shot by perth photographer morgan nesbitt

Hold Down That Shutter

Hold it down and never lift your finger.

Like I’ve mentioned before, when it comes to street photography, when things happen, they happen fast.

There’s lots of movement happening with and around your subject. Even if they are sitting still there will still be some movement involved to capture that decisive moment.

Sure, by holding down the shutter button you’re going to fill your memory card up a lot quicker, and sure you’ll have to go through a lot of photographs, but it will all be worth it when you find that perfect moment.

Woman sitting on a curb in perth city holding a cigarette in her right hand as she looks into the distance, shot by perth photographer morgan nesbitt

In The End

The secret behind street photography is to just get out there and have fun shooting the sounds of the streets.

Great street photos come around rarely, so you have to have patience and a firm belief that the moments will happen, because they will. 

Just learn to enjoy the walk, the footsteps, the sounds and all the bright lights.

The true beauty of street photography is the motions of going outside, getting lost within your imagination, telling yourself stories and just enjoying the experience.

And when you suddenly capture that photograph, that perfect photograph that no one else could ever recreate, well that’s just the icing on the cake.

View my street photography gallery here


And the adventure begins. I can’t wait to see what we come up with!!

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