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8 Practical Ways to Take Compelling Photographs on the Street

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This post is part of a series called Street Photography.
Summoning Your Personal Vision in Street Photography
Your Body Doesn't Lie: How to Use the Mind-Body Connection in Street Photography

The greatest challenge—and reward—of photographing on the street is having to grapple with the unknown. Who and what will you see?—where and when? Street photography demands that you be alert, open to recognizing the countless forms inspiration takes, and poised to photograph. Whether you are making fly-on-the-wall street photography or you interact more directly with people on the street, lovely moments and opportunities continually whisk by, never to be seen again if you aren’t ready to capture them. Developing intuition and fearlessness is key (forthcoming articles in this series will elaborate on how to nurture these qualities), but here are several other actions you can take to increase the odds of successfully capturing what inspires you:

Get Ready to Photograph on the Street

1. Know Your Equipment

There’s no time to be fumbling with buttons and settings on your camera while you are out on the street. Inspiration goes by too quickly for that. Ideally, your camera is like a part of your body—an extension of your eyes or arms or heart—a direct receiver of your intentions. Cultivate that sort of intimacy with your technology before you go out into the world so that (1) you are ready to photograph those fleeting moments and (2) you don’t waste your subject’s precious, generously donated time.

2. Practice Gauging Distances 

Life on the street goes by so quickly, there often isn’t time to check that your subject is in focus. Doing so might mean missing the photo opportunity altogether. Sidestep this problem by using a small aperture/large depth of field (which is often available to street photographers because they usually work in daylight) and photographing the subjects who fall within the range of distance that aperture setting keeps in focus. 

Distance can be deceiving, so practice at home by estimating distances between you and an object and then focusing your camera on the object and checking your lens to ascertain the actual distance. Being adept at gauging distances is an especially helpful skill when using a large aperture/small depth of field, in which the plain of focus is much more limited; in this case, your estimations would have to be spot-on in order to make a focused image at a moment’s notice.

A street scene from Bed-Stuy Brooklyn 2015
Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, 2015, photograph by Amy Touchette.

3. Pre-set Your Camera for the Light

As soon as you walk out the door, place your camera on the settings you desire for the existing lighting conditions. Stay aware of the light you are in at all times. When you move from the shady side of the street to the sunny side, immediately adjust your camera settings so that you are ready to photograph. If you home in on a subject more specifically and time permits, check your settings again and see if they are still to your liking. 

Skin color that is a radically different shade than that of the background is one case in point when further adjusting your settings might be necessary. But if you don’t have time to get a new light meter reading, make the image anyway; since you metered the light of the area in advance, your settings probably won’t be too far off. Although it’s always a little bit of a gamble, the alternative is to forego the image’s possibility of even existing, and that’s a mistake. 

4. Pack Only Essential Equipment

Think about the setting in which you will be photographing. If you had to choose one camera and one lens, and perhaps one flash if that’s part of your style, what would they be? Although you want to be prepared for the unexpected, you can’t bring all your equipment with you. Make an educated guess and pack only what is truly essential; then enjoy the focus of mind and freedom from multiple choices that limitations inspire. (Your body will also thank you for keeping your load light.)

5. Bring the Quantity of Memory Cards or Rolls of Film You Would Need on Your Most Productive Day—Then Add a Little More

You want to stay light, but not at the expense of running out of the materials you need to record a photograph. You need to feel free to photograph to your heart’s content (it’s a state of mind that fosters inspiration) and not be worried about a problem that’s so simple and easy to avoid.

6. Bring Professional Looking Business Cards and/or Postcards That Display Your Street Photography

You can learn to be as quick as lightning while making a photograph on the street, but it’s all for naught if your subject wants more information about who you are and what you do, and you have nothing on you to show them your good intentions. Make business cards that leave a good impression: use thick card stock, design the card with pleasing, simple fonts, and include contact information you are comfortable giving to strangers (email and website addresses are best). 

Also consider bringing postcards that show your street photography; this can be the most direct and effective way to convey to strangers why you do what you do. To the vast majority of people, photographing strangers on the street is an unusual proclivity, and it’s extremely important to remember that you photograph in this context.

7. Pack Your Belongings in an Organized Fashion—and Stay Organized as You Photograph

Despite the fact that you’re only bringing the essentials with you, there’s still quite a bit to manage: a camera and lens, perhaps flash, memory cards or film, batteries (if need be), business cards and/or postcards, plus personal belongings, such as your phone, wallet, and keys. Use a bag that has compartments and be consistent about where you place objects within each compartment while you are photographing so you can find them at a moment’s notice. Doing so not only allows you to be efficient—thereby increasing your chances of being poised and ready when inspiration strikes—it also helps you to stay focused on your objective.

8. Wear Clothing That Reflects Your Personal Style

This might sound like a funny or surface thing to suggest, but it’s not about fashion; it’s about seizing the opportunity to use visuals to evoke who you are to people who know nothing about you. Clothing is one of many ways we signal our personality to people, and when in the mix of perfect strangers, it’s my opinion that it’s of the utmost importance to be who you genuinely are. Sure, you want to fit in, and perhaps be fairly stealth, but nothing looks more suspicious than someone who is pretending to be someone they aren’t. 

In addition, I also recommend shying away from straight-up photographer clothing. While those vests are extremely handy with all their compartments so nice and close to our upper body, in my opinion that puts forth too aggressive a message; they impart a photojournalist who is working diligently to make pictures that will then be blasted onto various media. To me, a softer, casual look is a more effective way to wordlessly put strangers at ease.

Conclusion

Preparing for and engaging in street photography is never a waste of time, because the process rewards you with lessons that also apply to all-around good living: These tips help you cultivate efficiency, focus, professionalism, and sensitivity, so that you are open to noticing and connecting with the world at large and the many gems that lie within it.

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