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3 Street Photography Tips for Capturing the Decisive Moment

Street photographers live and work by two rules, keep a low profile and shoot fast. To achieve both you need to know your camera and understand exposure at a fundamental level. Street photography is a waiting game: the photographer observant, always looking for the right moment. In this article, we explore the preparation that comes before the shoot and how to recognize and react when the moment comes. We cover three fundamental areas for street photographers: calculating exposure rapidly, hyperfocal focusing, and camera selection.

Street Photography and Black  White seem to go hand in hand so nothing stops you from converting your images into BW
Only being prepared to shoot at any moment allows photographers to capture the "decisive moment" (Photo: Jose Antunes)

 Calculating Exposure in a Split Second

Automatic systems and RAW format digital cameras have made modern cameras almost faultless when creating exposures. Automation has made it much easier to get a technically correct picture, but to get creative results and to work quickly a deeper understanding of exposure is needed. Knowing how to expose your film or sensor and practising freedom from automatic decisions made by your camera gives you better final files to work with. You may also gain a new sense of authorship over your pictures.

Film boxes have an exposure guide that will offer correct exposures for a series of situations
Film boxes have an exposure guide that will offer correct exposures for a series of situations with different emulsions

Photography In An Ideal Light

If you look at your family albums, you'll likely find hundreds or thousands of photos taken without a light meter, simply because early consumer cameras did not have light meters or automatic exposure . How did our ancestors manage without all the sophisticated systems we depend on today? Simply by following the rules. Film boxes in early days had and exposure guide for film printed on a leaflet or the cardboard box. Each guide suggested correct daylight exposure values for the film in use, under different conditions, from sunshine to shadow.

Most of the time, exposures made from about two hours after sunrise until two hours before sunset would fall under the rule of thumb for a correct exposure for the values in the guide for each type of film. The photographer, knowing the ideal light, would watch for changes in lighting conditions and make exposure compensations by eye.

Look Ma, No Light Meter

Knowing how to judge light by experience and set the camera by feel gives the photographer the ability to adjust exposure values - speed, aperture and ISO to achieve the desired creative results without unnecessary fiddling with buttons or dials. Ultimately, for street photography, if you're setting your exposure in the heat of the moment it's already too late. The best street photographers don't just react: they predict, and set their cameras to the settings they think they'll need before the action even begins.

But is it possible to learn how to judge the right exposure without a light meter? Yes, it is! In fact, understanding how the meter in your camera reacts to light is fairly easy, and will immediately help you to make your own decisions about what a "correct" exposure is with a lot more creative control than aperture or shutter priority.

Sunny f/16

A good first step is to learn how to judge light by the Sunny f/16 rule. The Sunny f/16 rule is a simplification of the initial exposure guides: on a sunny day set aperture to f/16 and shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO film speed or ISO setting for a subject in direct sunlight. Knowing and understanding the Sunny f/16 rule frees photographers from constantly monitoring the light meter.

Learning the Sunny f16 Rule will transform you into a living light meter

Learning the Sunny f/16 Rule will transform you into a living light meter!

Exercises with Light

Practice reading exposure every day, at different places, then confirming with the meter in your camera or hand a held light meter. A good exercise is to use your regular daily paths and guess exposure at different places: under the sun, in open shadow, on cloudy or sunny days. Soon you'll find a pattern, your own, that you can apply to other places under the same conditions. Through this game you'll learn to read different conditions and how to adjust to achieve the intended result. Start each day by looking at the sky and defining what's the exposure likely, and make a habit of it.

Being able to choose your exposure just by looking at a subject will be a valuable asset for your street photography, as you can preset your camera for the prevalent exposure conditions and readjust at any moment without hesitation. In doing so, you keep a low profile and work quickly, both important for street photography.

Manual lenses made it easy to adjust focus and depth of field, through the scale engraved on the lens barrel

Hyperfocal Focusing is Hyper Fast

Photojournalists in the era of manual focusing cameras were masters of hyperfocal focusing and focal distance calculation. Having the ability to shoot from the hip - often literally - and sometimes without adjusting focus at all, was essential in those days. With autofocus cameras, hyperfocal focusing seems more a technique from the realm of photographers aiming to have extended depth of field, like landscape photographers.The technique, however, is still important for speed on the street.

What does hyperfocal distance mean? The technical definition is the distance beyond which all objects are acceptably sharp, for a lens focused at infinity. For the sake of practicality, what we mean when we talk about hyperfocal distance is the closest distance at which a lens can be focused so as to keep both close and distant subjects in an acceptable range of focus.

Older lenses (on the left) had a depth of field scale allowing to adjust the depth of field. Modern lenses (right) do not have such a guide

The Secret Weapon of Photojournalists and Smartphone Photographers Everywhere

Back in the days of film and manual focusing cameras, being able to keep everything in focus (or acceptable focus) from about one meter to five or more meters would guarantee usable 35mm frames when back at the newspaper. A 35mm or 28/24mm lens is a regular lens for many photojournalists and street photographers. With these lenses it is possible to achieve good results even without looking through the viewfinder, a bit like using a point and shoot camera.

In fact, every disposable camera and most cellphone cameras on sale today use hyperfocal focusing. These cameras use a wide-angle lens (around 30mm) and a small f-stop (f(8 or f/11) and rely on depth of field to put everything from 1.5 meters to infinity in acceptable focus.

The ExpoAperture 2 disc from ExpoImaging can be used to calculate depth of field and hyperfocal distance if your lens does not have the engravings on the barrel
The ExpoAperture 2 disc from ExpoImaging can be used to calculate depth of field and hyperfocal distance, if your lens does not have the engravings on the barrel

The Focusing Scale

Lenses used to have a depth of field guide engraved on the barrel, something we've lost on modern lenses. Through that scale it was easy to know the area of acceptable focus, simply by aligning the meter or feet indicator with the aperture markings on each side of a center line.

With the lens engravings gone, there is always the option to use the depth of field preview button to verify the area of focus, or resort to other tools. You can use some tools on the web, and even print charts for different lenses and focal lengths. There is also the option to use a tool like ExpoAperture 2, a disc from ExpoImaging. To use the tool you start by selecting the camera’s sensor or film size (all sizes from crop sensors to a 6x6 film format) and the focal length to use. The guide gives you information on the depth of field you can get with different apertures. Or, if you know how much space you need to cover, the right aperture to get everything in focus. This handy calculator that you can take with you everywhere even can tell you the right hyperfocal distance for different situations. 

Medium format rangefinder cameras like the Fujifilm GS645S also offer a depth of field scale on the lens
Medium format rangefinder cameras, like the Fujifilm GS645S, also offer a depth of field scale on the lens

Ask Your Smartphone

Smartphones users have a variety of apps, some free, that can be used to calculate hyperfocal distance. One I use, PhotographersTools (which is actually a set of tools) tells me instantly what I need: for example, with a full-frame sensor and a 24mm lens closed at f/16 I can get acceptable focus on everything from 1.22 meters to infinity.

Being prepared allows you to shoot odd images like this one
Being prepared allows you to shoot odd images like this one. A second later and the effect was gone (photo: Jose Antunes).

Hyperfocal Exercises

For street photography, the most common working distances are within two to five meters if you use a wide angle lens.

To prefocus your lens so that focus covers those distances it's helpful to know how much space you cover in a single step. For example, if your normal step covers 50cm, four steps equals two meters. If you adjust your wide angle lens focus on about five steps away and use a small aperture like f/16 you'll get everything in focus from around 80cm to infinity. Practice measuring distances using your normal step. With practice, you'll be able to eyeball usual working distances for street photography.

Remember, though, that the hyperfocal concept is associated with extreme depth of field, and deep focus is not a that suitable for every situation or style of photographer. So, although it is wise to know the technique, follow what your heart dictates and adapt to each moment. That's part of the secret for street photography: to adapt and shoot fast, before the decisive moment passes.

A medium format rangefinder camera from 1984 the Fujifilm GS645S
A medium format rangefinder camera from 1984, the Fujifilm GS645S

Joining the Rangefinder Family

There is no specific camera for street photography, and gear alone will not make your street photography (or your photography in general) better. This said, rangefinders are usually small, silent, and offer you a viewfinder without any blackout created by the moving mirror in an SLR, so they might help you to get some images that would be harder to capture.  The small size of rangefinders also helps to make people more comfortable when you point the camera at them.

Smaller cameras allow you to work without being noticed. For a period, there were very few digital rangefinder-style cameras, like those from Leica, for street photographers. These days, street photographers have a wider choice of options, from Micro Four Thirds models like those from Olympus or Panasonic to the Fujifilm X series of cameras.

The Micro Four Third models are affordable small cameras for street photography
The Micro Four Third models are affordable small cameras for street photography

Paradoxically, a slower camera can make for better street photography: they put your mind squarely into observation mode, and reduce the tendency to hit the motor-drive on your SLR. Going slow is something every street photographer should try at least once.

Nothing stops photographers from using a bigger camera, on the street. In fact, I enjoy the Fujifilm GS645S rangefinder (pictured above in hyperfocal), a camera from 1984. The GS645S, with a 60mm lens (equivalent to a 35mm in 35mm format), is a great quality camera, very light and quite small (for medium format). The Mamiya 6, Mamiya 7, and Fujifilm GF670 are similar medium-format cameras. Rangefinders like these will slow down your photography and help you focus in just the right way.


Having read this far it's clear you're really interested in shooting on the street and want to explore it further. Do not get stopped because you only have a compact or a DSLR. Pick up the camera you have and make a step in the right direction practising the exercises suggested here. Take some time during your week to practice adjusting your camera controls, focusing distance and exposures. Be bold, and give yourself your first assignment on the street: discover the world right outside your front door.

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