“Street Photography Tips for Travel and Beyond” is part of my Photography Tips series on PhotoTraces. You can find the rest of the tutorials here: Photography Tips.
Many of the guidelines for one style photography can also be useful for lots of different photography styles and forms.
Street photography as a style has its own group of tips, techniques, and ethical considerations. And if you apply street photography tips and guidelines correctly they will tremendously enrich your travel photography.
For instance, travel to new cities means trying to capture the flavor of an unfamiliar setting. Knowing a few tips will allow you to focus on observing instead of worrying about settings. It will make it easier to concentrate on looking for the situations that showcase how people interact with the environment.
Let’s take a look at a few things to learn, and a few things to avoid, in street photography that will make your travel photography stronger.
Street Photography Tips and Guidelines
Street photography presents considerations and challenges the photographer has to give serious thought to. The photographer's feelings on ethics of street photography. There are also the practical needs of opportunity, plus technical considerations such as depth-of-field, accurate focus, ISO, and shutter speed to keep in mind.
Ethics of Street Photography
Ethics in street photography involves awareness of the personal rights and privacy of subjects. And an awareness of how the goal of photography affects subjects.
There are generally two approaches and schools of thought on the matter.
One school asserts that since street photography exists in public places, any subject is fair game. The idea of street photography as a record of us all, who we are and how we live, supports this philosophy. The goal is never to embarrass or ridicule but to celebrate.
Another school of thought believes permission should always be given, and that the photographer has a responsibility to ask. In a time when we are always on camera in some way, it is an interesting question.
This is a personal decision the photographer must decide. This question also must take into account local laws, and even custom when traveling.
In the US, it is generally permissible to photograph anyone or anything in public, including law enforcement. There are still times when the issue causes conflict.
Opportunity in Street Photography
Opportunity in both travel and street photography means making sure you are always present.
You should prepare in two ways;
- always have a camera on you,
- and be aware of life going on around you, the relationships between people and the environment.
These two points can not be stressed enough. You should always have a camera on you. Even if it means rethinking the gear you carry, or making use of a cell phone, then do it.
Not only should you always have a camera because you might miss something, but photography is a craft that can only be mastered by doing. The more photographs you take, the stronger photographer you will become technically and creatively.
Consider a camera or lens with a wider angle of view. For a DSLR or mirrorless camera, this means something around the 24mm – 50mm range.
It might be tempting to use a long telephoto, but your photographs will be better if you are closer to the action. A longer lens will also draw more attention to you and people will stop being themselves because they will be focused on you!
Don’t be afraid to get close. This may not be something you are comfortable with. If you’re used to using longer lenses, it will take getting used to.
Getting closer means greater intimacy in your images and greater impact for the viewer. You are part of everything that’s going on as well as an observer and documenter.
Depth-Of-Field and Focus
Speaking of the technical that leads us to depth-of-field. Street photographers have long used the technique of zone focusing.
While zone focusing may sound like a complicated technical technique, it isn’t.
Zone focusing only means taking advantage of depth-of-field by setting an aperture that makes sure everything at a certain distance is in focus. Select the manual focus settings, pick an object a set distance away (say ten feet), and set an aperture that will include everything at that distance. The smaller your aperture (f8 – f16) the more of the scene in front and behind your teen feet will be in focus.
When using zone focusing, you only have to remain aware of the distance you are from the subject. Raising the camera you can concentrate on composition. You know what will be in focus when you press the shutter.
Though zone focusing is often considered the best option, different focusing modes can also be considered.
Back Button Focus
Another focusing tip involves what is called back button focus. Simply put, back button focus assigns focus to a button, the AF-L button, and not the shutter button. This allows the photographer to press the AF-L button with a thumb to achieve focus and use the shutter button ONLY to trip the shutter. This is a very useful function. Used with continuous focus mode (AI-servo for Canon, Continuous-servo AF for Nikon) it can be a photographic lifesaver.
The half-press method with the shutter button is one everyone is familiar with. It has some drawbacks though. Pressure has to be maintained to keep on a stationary object in single-focus mode or track a subject in continuous focus mode. Lifting your finger will lose focus. The time it takes to refocus can mean lost shots.
With back button focus this is not an issue. A press of AF-L will acquire focus and keep it in single focus mode until released. A press of AF-L in continuous focus mode will track the subject if it is moving. Your index finger has one job, pressing the shutter. This tip will mean more focused images faster and with more confidence.
ISO and Shutter Speed
Street photography, like a good percent of travel photography, happens outdoors. As another option to Zone focusing, you can shoot in Shutter Speed Priority. As a general rule, you will want a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second or faster. By allowing the camera to decide what aperture to use you can be sure to freeze the action you want to photograph.
To make this method work to your benefit you should shoot at higher ISO too. A higher ISO setting will mean the camera can choose smaller apertures and that will mean more of the scene will be in focus similar to zone focusing. Using Program mode in places where the light changes quickly, risks a slow shutter speed, meaning blurry photos.
Modern digital cameras have great high ISO performance. This wasn’t always the case. Today you can use most cameras up to at 1600—3200 ISO with good performance.
Auto ISO will allow you to set a range of ISO, a maximum, or a minimum and a maximum, to deal with changing lighting conditions.
Auto ISO will automatically boost the ISO to achieve the shutter speed that you have set. So if you have set a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second, and the lowest ISO to have proper exposure is 800 ISO, the camera will automatically set the ISO to 800. This is great for avoiding blur due to camera shake. One less setting to worry about and still have properly exposed images.
The image above doesn’t work because the focus just isn’t there since the shutter speed was too slow. Also, the cellist is facing away from the camera and there is not very much for the viewer to connect to emotionally. A better image could be made by moving to the left and using a higher shutter speed.
Street photography is an awarding style on its own. Many of the tips that street photographers use can be useful in travel photography. Try some of these tips in your own work, some may help you, some may not. Either way, these are tips that can be added to your “photographer’s toolbox” and will be there when you need them.