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A complete guide to street photography for beginners

Definition of street photography

Street photography has the purpose of capturing everyday life in a public place. Or trying to say in different words: street photography attempts to capture the chance interactions of daily human activities within urban areas.
Street photography started with the impulse of photographers to visually document life and people. The goal of street photography is to freeze in the photographs moments that otherwise can be unnoticed.
So street photographs are, most of the time, candid images of strangers, really often captured without their knowledge.

Street photgraphy and documentary photography are different

Unlike documentary photography, street photography doesn’t necessarily have a social purpose. Moreover, the content of the images and the exact location of street photography, unlike documentary photography, are most of the time immaterial.
The main thing for street photographers is often to capture something unexpected, interesting, funny, unrealistic, and extraordinary. In other words, the street photographer’s creative quality is essential.

Something important about street photography

Making street photography, the scene’s timing, and capturing the image from the right angle are essential elements of a compelling street photo. For example, the image will be completely different if you take a picture of the same scene and location two seconds later or from a different angle.
For this reason, time, patience, and dedication are the essential qualities of a street photographer.

Your personal view as an artist

As I just said, the timing in a street photograph is crucial. Therefore, to succeed in this photographic genre, a street photographer must express his/her vision and his/her sense of timing.

Street photography is all about seeing and expressing your vision of what is happening before your lens. Through street photography, you develop confidence and discover how to express your vision through images.

So, while doing street photography, try to have no doubts:

  • Trust your feelings and emotions.
  • Follow your vision.
  • Don’t hesitate to take a photograph when you feel the moment.

While you are in the street capturing images, try anything because hesitation means loss, and any picture you lose is not coming back again.

Gear: less is more

When it comes to gear, doing street photography, it is better to have just the camera and one lens. Everything happens fast when you are out in the street, and there is no time to change the lens if you want to capture the moment. Or the moment is gone.
The only thing that matter is the photograph, so especially at the beginning, you can use whatever camera you have. Even the camera of your mobile phone is fine. Just concentrate not to miss the moment happening in front of your lens. Having just one lens, you will also learn how the camera sees the world in front of the lens faster.
The gear is probably the less important thing about street photography. What matters is your vision, the potential of a scene you can see in front of your camera.
The camera, substantially a space-time editing tool, freezes a moment and a part of reality that the photographer feels is relevant to photographing.

A portrait is not made in the camera but on the other side of it.

Edward Steichen

Try to anticipate the moment

With street photography, almost everything is out of your control. You control only two things: where to shoot and when to shoot. Things continuously happen around you, and none of them is under your control.

The only thing that is under your control is your camera. So that’s why it is essential you know your camera very well. In addition, you should master how to change any camera setting fast: such as the aperture, the shutter speed, and the Iso. In this way, you will be ready to capture anything interesting happening in front of your camera in a photograph.

Train yourself to understand, predict and anticipate what is happening around you. As everything in the street is mainly unexpected, you must be ready, aware, and tuned.

Be positive

As nothing is under your control in the street, and you are substantially taking photos of strangers, street photography can be overwhelming.
For this reason, a positive mental attitude is critical to succeeding in street photography. If you are going outside hoping that you are going to take compelling photos, you will probably find something more interesting than if you think you won’t be able to succeed. Taking street photos, you are in a creative process, so you must engage the moment in front of your eyes with your head and feelings.

As you are capturing photographs of strangers, be positive about yourself; body language and communication are essential while doing street photography. Be gentle and respectful of others; you are not a threat to anyone as you are only interested in making good street photographs.

Embrace the failure

If you want to learn something, you have to start failing. Failure is the only way to learn something. We learn by making mistakes.
For this reason, you must embrace the fact, especially at the beginning, that you will not take those fantastic images you will remember forever.
Failure is typical in street photography; if it wasn’t like this, street photography could be boring. There will be no challenge.
Street photography can be challenging; some days can be tough to return home with a good result. However, some others will be good.
This is another good reason you must try to have a positive mental attitude. Again, Alex Webb explained this well.

Street photography is 99,9 percent about failure. So often I feed defeated by the street. I sometimes find, however, that if I keep walking, keep looking, and keep pushing myself, eventually something interesting will happen. Every once in a while, at the end of the day, when I am lost and exhausted and hungry, something – a shaft of light, an unexpected gesture, an odd juxtaposition – suddenly reveals a photograph. It’s almost as if I had to go through all those hours of frustration and failure in order to get to the place where I could finally see that singular moment at day’s end

Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, On Street Photography and the Poetic Image.

Keep Trying

Photography, any genre of photography, especially street photography, is the result of dedication and hard work rather than being lucky while going out in the street to take photographs.
The harder you will practice, the more you will succeed. But, of course, it would be best to practice for hours to get some results. And outstanding street photographs don’t come around often, but if you are out there trying, you will get a better street photographer. And better also means luckier. So the more time you put into street photography, the more it will reward you.

Keep it simple

Please keep it simple, not only about gear. When it comes to ideas and projects, if you try to make these simple, it will help you to have a better approach and focus.

Be inspired by the greatest street photographers of the past

We are so lucky. Today we can find and buy photography books easily. If we live in a big city, there are plenty of bookstores, or we can order books online with just a few clicks. I discovered most of my favorite photographers just by looking at photography literature in the bookstores. This way, I found Henry Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Saul Leiter, and Ansel Adams. And I discovered many others online: Alex Webb, Jole Meyerowitz, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, and so on.

It is so important to find inspiration from such notable artists. Looking at their photographs is like entering a dream:

  • Living their experiences.
  • Seeing the places they captured.
  • Looking at the people they portrayed.
  • Studying the way they took the images.

It is so helpful to improve your capacity to see things from a different perspective: the perspective of the essential photographers in the history of photography.

You should use their works as a library of ideas to encourage you to go on with your journey in photography.

From a photographer like Henri Cartier-Bresson, you will learn how to find exciting things in everyday life.

Trust yourself

Outside taking street photos, you should engage your head to understand what’s happening in front of your lens. It is essential to be aware and tuned at the moment to comprehend what you see. Just looking is not enough for making street photography. Or you will not understand the potential of a scene.
But you should also engage your heart. Capturing street photos is a process driven by impulse, so you should trust your feeling and take the picture every time you feel something moving you to capture the moment you are seeing. If you don’t, if you overthink, you may miss the moment. And when it is gone, it is gone forever.

Try different things

Don’t be easily satisfied. Every good street photographer keeps working on the scene and takes as many pictures of the same subject as he/she to have one perfect photograph. “The decisive moment” of Cartier-Bresson was ofter a photo selected from plenty of images captured in the timeline to have the perfect one. Continue also to reinvent yourself and change every day something in your approach. Keeping pushing your limits will keep you creative.

Try different light, different weather

Don’t do street photography only with good weather and sunny days; your images will all look the same. Instead, take the camera always with you and force yourself to go out in the street even when it is rainy, windy, snowy, or foggy. You will find different light conditions and discover a completely different way of capturing light. Also, your image will have a different style and different mood.

For example, when it is raining, people act in a completely different way: they run, trying not to get completely wet, they try to get a taxi, or they cover their heads in the funniest ways with whatever they can find.

Own the street

Beginner street photographers are often afraid to go outside in the street to take photos of strangers. This is because they are shy and are scared of doing street photography in a public place.
A simple smile and being aware that it is not wrong to do street photography will help a lot. Be relaxed and calm; this will make all difference, and people won’t perceive you as a weird person.