As many of you might know, the etymological roots of the word “photograph” are the Greek words for drawing (-graph) and light (photo-). That means without illumination of some sort, a photographic subject can’t exist.
Finding a workable source of light is not the only concern
photographers have, of course. But it’s the foundation of the medium, and when
you’re out on the street during the daytime (we'll talk about nighttime light another time), the light can be as difficult to
harness as a compelling subject, given we have so little control out there.
Interesting subjects can be found anywhere, at any time. Will you be poised and ready when they cross your path? And if you are, will the light be “right” enough to show what’s captivating about your subject? Making an extraordinary photograph marries the two seamlessly.
Decide the Light You
Prefer and Make a Preliminary Light Meter Reading
So how do you increase your chances of making successfully lit street photographs when you are collaborating with ever-more mercurial Mother Nature? The first thing I do when I go out is look at my light source: the sky.
Find a 'Ballpark' Exposure for the Scene and Your Subject
If it is a sunny or partly cloudy day, I decide whether I
want to photograph in the sun or the shade. Then I move to the side of the
street that has the lighting conditions I prefer. Next I take a spot meter reading off of my
bare hand, and set my preliminary exposure accordingly.
If, on the other hand, clouds fill
the sky, I take a spot meter reading off of my skin right where I am standing. On a cloudy day, the clouds act like a giant diffuser, and the light is relatively the same no matter where I am in relation to the
I use my own skin as a starting point to set my exposure because I am primarily interested in making portraits of people on the street. The details and expressions of my subjects are of utmost importance to me, so that’s what I want my exposure to highlight. Because my skin is lighter than the 18% gray that meters read for, I account for that when I set my exposure. However, if another subject is what compels you most as a street photographer, you’ll want to base your meter reading on the exposure your subject requires by metering it directly under the lighting conditions you prefer or have to work with.
The point is to get in the ballpark of the exposure you need as soon as possible, so that, from the beginning, you are as ready as possible to capture a picture.
If Relevant, Assess and Meter the Skin Tone of Your Subjects
If you do photograph people on the street, basing exposure on skin tone can be tricky for a couple of reasons, including the great variety of skin tone from person to person. So after I set my exposure based on my own skin tone, I think about the skin tone of the people I want to photograph in whatever setting I find myself.
If the majority of people there have mainly one skin tone, then I compare it to my own. If it is darker than mine, I open up my initial exposure to let a proportionate amount more light in. If their skin tone is lighter than mine, I close my initial exposure down to let less light in. And as soon as possible, I spot meter my subjects’ skin tone directly in the light I prefer to make sure my estimations are correct. (But guessing before going directly to the source is a fun game to play. It also sharpens my understanding of light and my equipment’s reaction to it.)
If, however, the majority of people in the setting I’m photographing have a variety of skin tones, as is often the case for me, being a New Yorker, then I still start with an exposure based on my own skin tone, and I stay aware that, when I find a subject, last minute exposure refining is almost always necessary.
And if I am photographing a group of people who have a variety of skin tones, I look for something in the setting that has a similar tone as an 18% gray card (a good shade to memorize) and meter off of that. It's not a fool proof method, but on the street, it's all I have time for.
Determine the Quality of Light That Will Work Best With Your Subject
On a gray day or on the shady side of the street, the light is "flat" or low-contrast: the range of tonal differences between the highlights and shadows is quite small. Therefore, it’s easier to find a setting that properly exposes for both the highlights and shadows within the dynamic range your camera is able to record. This fairly uniform quality of light also smoothes people’s skin and gently wraps around protrusions and recessions.
On a sunny day or on the sunny side of the street, however, the difference between the highlights and shadows is much more extreme. The light drops off more curtly, creating strong shadows and shapes. As a result, it’s difficult to find one setting that can properly expose for both, so photographers have to make a choice: (1) to expose for the highlights and let the details in the shadows go dark; (2) to expose for the shadows and let the details in the highlights blow out; or (3) to add a new source of light, like flash fill, in order to diminish the gap in tonal range between the highlights and shadows.
Use the Quality of Available Light to Your Creative Advantage
Deciding the light you prefer among those available to you on any given day is a personal choice that depends on your subject, your setting, your mood, your equipment, the amount of light you need, the effect you want to give, etc. More often than not, I prefer to photograph in the shade, because the light is easier to manage, and it is also generally more flattering. That said, bright highlights and deep shadows can be gorgeous and create dynamism in a picture that is not possible with flat, even light.
Each lighting condition can and has been used to great effect in street photography, and it’s one of the fundamental ways photographers put their unique stamp on the pictures they create. See Alex Webb’s Under a Grudging Sun series for examples of exposing for highlights, this image from Trent Parke’s Dream/Life series for an example of exposing for shadows, and Martin Parr’s The Last Resort series for examples of flash-fill photography.
If Possible, Remain in the Lighting Conditions You Prefer
Sometimes it’s necessary on the street to set an exposure before each and every shot, because the light varies so wildly on the path you’re walking. But, if possible, I try to limit myself to photographing only the parts of the street that have the lighting conditions I prefer. That way, I’m not running myself ragged between the sun and the shade, constantly making major adjustments to my exposure, and I can, instead, focus on the part I find more intriguing—and much more challenging: my subjects. I enjoy the technical aspects of photography very much, but, for me, they are secondary to what the medium gives as far as having experiences (verbal or otherwise) with people.
Watch the Light, and Periodically Meter as You Photograph
Whether your path allows you to stay in consistent lighting conditions or not, periodically check in with the light the entire time you are photographing. There are many reasons it can change on you: a break in the weather pattern or a simple cloud crossing the sun’s rays can affect the light drastically. But there are also more subtle changes in the light that happen gradually and are less obvious (especially when your mind is focused on other things), like the angle and intensity of the sun’s rays, which as we know are always slowly but steadily on the move.
So, while I think it's very helpful to find a lighting condition you prefer and stay within it as much as possible in order to limit the variability of any given situation on the street, as an artist who “draws with light,” what illuminates your canvas must never be too far off in your mind. And I’m sure you wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
During the day, the sun is your main source of
light on the street. Start by determining the quality of sunlight that is
available to you. Then decide what lighting conditions work best with your
subject and, if possible, limit yourself to the part of the street that provides that light.
Set a preliminary exposure and refine it as you photograph. Finally,
embrace the limitations of the light on any given day. Let it be your guide and tell you where to photograph, so you can focus on having fun out there.