It all comes down to the photographer’s instinct, and no amount of planning can prepare you for what you encounter on the street.
Bresson gave up the camera for good in 1975, after almost half a century, but his legacy lives on in street photographers around the world. You’re unlikely to find anyone outdoors these days with several cameras flying every which way. But every time someone takes out a mobile phone to capture an interaction, an expression, a coincidence, or a chance encounter in a public place, they’re following in Bresson’s well-worn footsteps.
As cameras have become more accessible, the genre of street photography has shifted to accommodate more voices. Check out popular Instagram hashtags like #streetsgrammer, #everybodystreet, #fromstreetswithlove, #lensonstreets, or #storyofthestreet, and you’ll find millions of images from professionals and hobbyists worldwide.
We interviewed seasoned street photographers from around the world to get their advice for shooting captivating images. Here are 14 of their best tips.
1. Find a role model
Robert Frank learned from Walker Evans, and Eugene Atget influenced Berenice Abbott. For more than a century, street photographers have found inspiration in their predecessors and contemporaries. Find someone whose work speaks to you, and use that as a point of departure.
Kameron Sears is a street photographer based in Chicago. He cites Robert Frank, along with Vivian Maier, Saul Leiter, Todd Webb, and Bruce Gilden as inspiration. “Try not to simply look at their work online, but actually purchase their print books and flip through them,” he advises. “I find this to have a much stronger effect than simply scrolling.”
Spend time with images by master photographers, and let them inform rather than dictate your artistic path.
2. Be brave
The confidence to photograph people in public will come with time, and it requires a degree of courage. “Every street photographer is afraid to approach a subject,” the award-winning street photographer Nicola Fioravanti explains. “You must accept this fear and be glad for it because it is a testament to your love of what you are doing.”
Street photography, at its best, empowers you to exceed your limitations and learn more about other people. Utilise your excitement and nervous energy.
3. Respect others
Approach each of your subjects with empathy, especially if you’re working in a country where the customs and culture surrounding photography might be a bit different. If you’re ever in doubt, feel free to ask the subject for permission, either before or after you’ve taken a photo.
Timothy Cohen is a self-taught photographer who spends much of his time exploring new places. “In this day and age, mass tourism is a real problem, and I’ve met too many travelers taking a portrait of someone who didn’t want to have his picture taken,” he tells us. He makes a point to treating others with dignity and compassion, no matter where he is.
4. Walk everywhere
Chazz McBride is an artist and photographer based in New York, a city where almost everyone prefers to walk. He finds that slowing his pace increases his chances of capturing remarkable moments. “It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the busy streets,” he admits. “Take your time as you walk and really look. There are so many opportunities that can be easily missed because you are moving too fast.”
5. Go “fishing”
Photographers from all over the globe recommend what some call the “fishing” technique. Here’s how it works: instead of catching a fleeting moment while you’re on the move, you find one special spot and wait until someone interesting enters the frame.
The Polish photographer Marcin Ryczek is willing to stay in place for as long as it takes. “This process of waiting for passersby is like a meditation,” he tells us. “It is silent and calming, and you can feel this atmosphere later on in the final photograph. This process differs from the fast pace we normally associate with street photographers, but I encourage you to try it.”
6. Tell a story
Some artists find it helpful to compare street photography to theater. Yes, you’re capturing a single moment. But beyond that, you’re also creating a larger narrative, just as a playwright or film director does.
“Of course, street photography is not really theater; it’s real life,” Catherine Matthys, a photographer based in Perth, says. “But it helps in my mind to look for certain elements when composing my images.” As with a play, you’ll need the right location, an interesting cast, beautiful lighting, and props for accenting the emotions of the scene. “In my case, I know when I have the shot,” Catherine adds. “I get goosebumps!”
7. Play with architecture
Tim Smith is a photographer who straddles genres as far-reaching as architecture, portraiture, and minimalism. When he’s on the street, he combines those different fields to create something unique. “Street photography is currently all about geometry, surrounding structures, contrast, and texture,” he explains. Seek out areas with tremendous potential in terms of light, shadows, leading lines, and clean angles.
8. Watch the light
Keep an eye on the weather forecast so you can plan for the best times to shoot. “Light must be your main focus,” the New York City-based photographer Rafael Barbosa says. A simple change in the light, from cool to warm, can transform the entire mood and atmosphere of your image.
9. Opt for rush hour
People in a hurry are unselfconscious and make for stellar street photos, so try going out during heavy traffic.
“Honestly, big cities have so much happening at any given moment, your senses can be awash with action,” Gary Cummins, a photographer based in Toronto, says. “That’s what I love about it—the unexpected randomness of it all. For my compositions, I like people crossing the street, waiting at a bus stop, or getting on and off transportation. Cyclists too are good to photograph.”
He also likes photographing in bad weather for similar reasons; when it’s raining or snowing, people move hastily from Point A to Point B.
10. Avoid the obvious
Busy streets are fertile ground for street photographers, but it’s worth venturing into the lesser-known parts of your city as well. “Most large cities have certain areas that are particularly popular with street photographers,” the South London photographer Jonny Sharp explains. “By shooting outside of these areas, you are more likely to capture unique photographs and less likely to repeat shots already taken by others.”
11. Find “your” camera
“The first thing to do is make sure you’re comfortable with your camera,” the Melbourne-based photographer David M Clarke tells us. “By that, I mean you can use it easily and make adjustments without too much fuss. If you aren’t at that point, practice or use some auto-settings.” Your camera doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive; it just has to work for you. Learn it like the back of your hand, and shooting will become second nature.
12. Change your perspective
“All cities consist of layers upon layers,” the Amsterdam-based photographer Bas Hordijk says. In order to get unique images, he looks up or down instead of straight ahead.
“Go into a building and look for a window view, find yourself a bridge or a raised walkway, or go sit on the top deck of a bus,” he suggests. “When looking down, it’s easier to create clean compositions, as the horizon is no longer something you have to worry about.”
13. Stay honest
Part of respecting others means portraying them truthfully. Always choose reality over sensationalism, and avoid playing into harmful stereotypes. “Life is not always beautiful and shiny,” the Vienna-based photographer Sascha van der Werf says. “Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s sad. But for me, it has to be an honest moment I document.”
14. Return to the scene
There’s no rule that says you have to get your shot on the first try. In reality, it usually takes persistence and repeat visits to find what you’re looking for. If you’re working in the same neighborhood over a period of time, you’ll also have the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the terrain and the local people.
Iris Maria Tusa is a photographer based in Bucharest, Romania. She’s also the editor of streethunters.net. “I tend to go to the same places more than once so that the people get used to me,” she tells us. “That way, the photos can be more interesting, more authentic, and more valuable. The more I visit these places, the more I discover beautiful things I couldn’t have noticed at first glimpse.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.