Street photography is probably one of the most controversial photographic genres existing. Photographers, all around the world, have been trying to categorise it and define it with varying success. Are street portraits part of street photography? Is asking for permission ‘allowed’ when shooting this genre? What is the relationship between candid photographs and privacy laws? As you could imagine, this discussion would take much more than a single post and probably would not improve your photographs.
What is undoubtedly true – and makes me love this genre – is its accessibility. Indeed, you can be a street photographer independently of your gears, ability to travel around the world and opportunity of reaching the most remote locations. To me, street photography is simply about taking your camera, get out and photograph what you see, your daily life, your city.
What makes a street photo a great street photo is the ability to propose an anonymous scene through the artistic eyes of the photographer, who is able to capture the decisive moment. You should never forget that you can artistically manipulate the reality by deciding what to include in the frame, what to exclude and how to compose it.
My passion for street photography allowed me to try several different approaches to the genre and I would like to share with you the 3 most important tips I have learnt so far.
Tip 1: Be Comfortable with Your Gears
If we agree that street photography is about capturing a decisive moment, gesture, expression or action, then we will have to agree that being responsive and flexible are crucial skills. This can be achieved only if your camera and focal length become a true extension of your eyes. When your camera setup becomes a spontaneous tool, you will stop changing your setting clumsily, focusing inaccurately and moving back and forth as the composition you had envisioned is not the one rendered by the focal length you are using.
How to get to this point is not easy and is not a linear process. Surely, you need lots of practice, which means using your gear as long as you can and as frequently as you can. To get more comfortable, more rapidly, you could even try to walk around with your eye watching trough the viewfinder in order to get the sense of scale offered by your focal length – maybe try this at home first and then in an empty street to avoid running into other people. Moreover, you need to fail and to learn from your failures. Probably, the first times you will practice with your setup, you will make photographs that do not satisfy you, even if the scene you were photographing was great. Well, do not discard that photographs immediately. Look at them and try to understand how to improve – I know it is painful but it is worth it!
Tip 2: Stick to a Single Setup
The problem with extensive practicing is that most of us do not have enough time. Our busy routines might force us to take our cameras a few hours a day or even just in the weekends. Therefore, getting used to our camera setup might be a tedious and time-consuming exercise.
In order to speed this process up, you could use a single camera setup. Which involves using the same body and a single lens – preferably a prime lens rather than a zoom. This will allow you to master that specific combination more quickly and more efficiently. You will notice that by adopting this tip for a long enough time – I would say at least one month, depending on how frequently you make photographs – your results will be much more consistent and your ‘keepers’ will increase.
Why did I suggest to use a prime lens rather than a zoom? Well, a prime lens has one focal length by definition, that is it. While, a zoom will incorporate several focal lengths and allows you to move from one to the other seamlessly. Therefore, it will take you much longer to get use to a zoom lens than a prime lens. Moreover, a zoom lens will probably make you more lazy. You can change composition by simply moving a few fingers. On the other hand, a prime lens will force you to ‘work the scene’ and be more creative!
Tip 3: Choose the Right Focal Length
In my experience, I have used several focal length to make street photographs: 28mm, 35mm, 40mm and 50mm. They are all different and will put you to the test in a different way.
28mm and 35mm lenses are still in the wide-angle range. Therefore, they will include much more of the scene in your frame. This is an advantage when shooting an environmental portrait, for instance, when the surroundings play an important role in your composition. On the other hand, it is a limit when trying to focus the viewer’s attention on a specific subject in a busy street. The main advantage of these lenses is that you have get much closer to your subject to isolate it – I know that this is scary but will improve your street photographs enormously!
40mm and 50mm lenses are more in the standard focal length range, which means that they give you a perspective you are more used to – a similar perspective to our eyes to make it easy. The main advantage of these lenses is that they are the easiest to get used to because we are naturally accustomed to see a scene in that way. On the other hand, if you want to isolate your subject, you will need to point your camera straight at it because the angle of view is much smaller – which to me is really intimidating.
Out of the four focal lengths, I would advice to try either a 35mm or a 50mm, depending of which is the best option for you. They are probably the cheapest out of the four and can be found in excellent conditions even secondhand. So the only question is: going wide or not?
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