Hints & Tips

Street Photography Tips

Tom Bol, February 26, 2016

In just about a month we are returning to one of my favorite locations, Patagonia.  My first experience in Patagonia was leading a two-month sea kayaking expedition with my wife, Cree.  For 60 timeless days we paddled remote, unexplored fjords and bays, many of which Darwin noted during his travels in the area.  Highlights included practicing kayak rolls with penguins bobbing in the water beside me, and Cree finding at nine-inch primitive spear point in an ancestral fishing camp.  Ever since that trip I’ve been hooked.

While the stunning landscapes of Patagonia never disappoint, I am equally excited about photographing vibrant Buenos Aires and the quaint towns in Patagonia.  The people of this area are very warm and friendly, and great street photography abounds. 

One thing I’ve noticed is some photographers struggle in the urban environment.  Things look different than photographing glaciers, landscapes and wildlife.  But just refer to your class notes on composition.  The subject matter may be different, but compositional guidelines are similar.  What’s different is you are photographing people, cars and ‘urban mountains’ (i.e. buildings).  I’ve shot many travel assignments for publications, and the best advice I ever got from an editor is this; the viewer has to feel, touch, smell, taste and hear a location through your images.  Think about creating an essay of images that really bring the experience home to your friends and family who look at your images.  Don’t take snapshots; photograph the soul of the city and its personality. 

Here is more magazine editor advice for travel images.  I once had an editor tell me there were two kinds of travel photographers, participatory and non-participatory.  Here is an example; when you photograph a person on the street, will you approach them and engage them while taking their image? Or will you shoot from the street corner so they don’t know you are there? Both methods work.  If possible I like to engage my subject when taking a portrait.  I feel the connection between photographer and subject is critical; this relationship is evident in strong travel portraits.  Not to say I don’t shoot interesting people without them knowing, sometimes this is more practical.  But keep these ideas in your mind when taking street portraits.

Below I’ve outlined 15 points for street photography.  Some are obvious, others maybe less so.  Just remember the next time you are in a city en route to a beautiful landscape, street photography can be just as rewarding and beautiful, you just have to go out and shoot!

  1. Patience.  Look for interesting backgrounds, and wait for the right subject to move through it for an interesting composition.
  2. Juxtaposition: Two things being seen together with contrasting effect.  Think about patterns, colors, shapes, subjects; be aware of possible pairings.
  3. Light.  Subject is important, but so is light.  Without light, you don’t have a photograph.  Try approaching scenes looking for the most interesting light, not just the subject.  Then wait for subject to move into good light.
  4. Shadow.  “Light illuminates the subject, shadow gives it dimension.” Look for interesting shadows, and anticipate where they might occur.
  5. Perspective.  Be very aware of what angle you are photographing your subject.  Change angle to increase graphic elements.  Shoot high and low.
  6. Intuition.  Street smarts.  Be aware of situations around you that might make good photographs. Conversely, avoid situations that are unsafe.
  7. Reflections.  Rainy days are great!  Umbrellas and reflections!  Car mirrors, canals, lakes…
  8. Layers/frames.  Shoot through objects such as windows, screens, arches to add layers and more depth to shot.  Transform 2D into 3D.
  9. Motion.  Experiment with motion in people, cars, markets.  Try pan and blurs, ‘shakies’ and ‘zoomies’. Freeze the action; blur the action.
  10. Courteous.  Photographing people is personal, whether your subject knows it or not.  Be courteous, and respect people’s wishes.  If with a group (like a workshop or tour), remember you’re a representative of that group. If you’re in a foreign country, remember you’re representing your country too.
  11. Twilight.  Great time for street and city lights with details still in the sky.
  12. Close.  Try photographing your subject with a 50mm lens.  Get close, meet someone, share the moment.  Create the ‘honest shot’.
  13. Events.  Festivals and events are good for photography, lots of subjects. Research these before you go 
  14. Graphics.  Use line, shape, form, texture, pattern and color to create strong images.  Speak to the viewer graphically…not literally.
  15. Experience.  In the end, you want people to ‘experience’ your travel and street photography.  They should be able to see it, hear it , smell it and touch it.