Candid street photography is a ton of fun – but it can also be pretty difficult, especially for the beginner street snapper.
In this article, I share my favorite seven tips and strategies to level up your candid street shots. These are techniques I’ve developed from over a decade of photographing on the streets – and I guarantee that, if you apply them carefully, you’ll end up with great results.
Let’s get started.
1. Travel light and with minimal gear
Many beginner street shooters work with a DSLR and a midrange zoom lens – and while it’s fine to do street photography with such bulky equipment, lightening your load will make a huge difference. You will have more energy, your coordination will be better, and you will be faster and more willing to explore. You’ll also be able to photograph in situations where you don’t feel comfortable bringing a large camera.
So what type of gear do I recommend?
First, consider a more compact street photography camera. Mirrorless models – especially APS-C and Micro Four Thirds options – are smaller and lighter, plus they look less intimidating to the people you’re photographing.
And if you do want to stick with your DSLR, consider using a small prime lens, such as a 35mm or a 50mm. A 50mm f/1.8, for instance, will be far smaller than your standard zoom. It’ll also be very cheap and offer high-quality optics.
Note that prime lenses will restrict you to a specific focal length, but this limitation can actually be quite freeing. By sticking to 35mm or 50mm (the two favorite focal lengths for most street photographers), you will quickly learn to see how the lens sees, and you’ll be able to better visualize shots before you raise the camera to your eye.
2. Raise your ISO
If you attend photography workshops or take photography classes, you’ve probably encountered the standard advice: keep your ISO as low as possible.
Yet while high ISOs can create unpleasant noise effects, modern cameras offer very impressive high-ISO capabilities; you can often shoot at ISOs of 1600 and 3200 with minimal noise, which is why, in my view, you You shouldn’t be afraid to boost that ISO.
I typically shoot candid street photos at ISO 400 in sunlight, ISO 800 in light shade, ISO 1600 in dark shade, ISO 3200 at dusk, and ISO 6400 at night. With an entry-level or less-advanced camera, I would drop this by one stop (ie, shoot ISO 200 in sunlight and up to ISO 3200 when doing street night photography).
You see, a high ISO gives you a huge advantage. It lets you use a fast shutter speed, even in low light – which means you can shoot handheld, you can freeze motion, and you can use a small aperture to maximize depth of field.
(Why is a deep depth of field necessary? For one, if you fail to focus on your subject, you may still get a sufficiently sharp shot. Plus, it’ll let you keep multiple subjects sharp within a single composition, which is a great way to add context and complexity to your candid images.)
3. Pick a spot and wait
Street photographers often just take a camera, walk around, and explore – but by constantly walking, you may be doing yourself a disservice. You’ll miss out on the shots that require a bit of patience (which is often better than the shots you’ll get when walking around).
So instead of walking constantly, head outside – and when you find a promising location, linger for a while and wait for something to happen.
By picking a spot, you give a magical moment plenty of time to materialize – and if you’ve chosen your location carefully, you’ll be able to combine subject interest and a good background for a top-notch result. After all, it’s when the right location merges with an interesting moment that a great photograph appears.
Additionally, if you lie in wait, you’ll be faster at noticing your surroundings. You won’t be focused on walking, so you can instead spend time scanning the flow of people.
Plus, people will be coming into your scene rather than the other way around. This might not seem like a big deal, but in my experience, it makes the whole practice of candid street shooting easier and less confrontational.
One last note: If you want to do candid street photography while remaining unnoticed, make sure you raise your camera to your eye before your subject walks into the image. Then keep your camera up as the subject leaves the scene. That way, it’ll seem like you were just photographing the background!
4. Know what to say if someone stops you
No matter how you look at it, street photography is inherently uncomfortable – if not for you, for the people you’re photographing. Some of your subjects will be flattered by the camera, but others will be confused or even bothered.
If you do street photography for long enough, even if you use a low-key approach, you’ll eventually run into people who question you. They may even get mad.
So what do you say when this happens?
When someone asks if you took their photo, own up to it and tell them what you were doing. Talk to them and explain why you found them interesting. I always keep a business card with me, and I offer to send the photograph if they email me for it.
No matter what happens, always keep a smile on your face. If someone seems angry, there’s no need to get defensive or angry back. It’s your legal right to take photos on the street (depending on where you are photographing, of course), but you don’t need to explain this, at least not at first. It’s not the best thing to bring up right away as it can make people even angrier.
Instead, figure out how to defuse the situation. Tell them that you didn’t mean to make them uncomfortable. Over the years, I’ve been offered to delete a couple of photos when I felt it was necessary.
If you’re careful, however, you won’t experience many issues. I’ve been shooting frequently for 15 years, and I can only recall one or two uncomfortable situations.
5. Don’t be afraid to get experimental (or even weird)
Candid street photography is about capturing life and culture as it goes on around you. It doesn’t have to be about beauty, and it doesn’t have to be about creating “standard” street shots that get lots of love on Instagram.
So express yourself. Shoot what interests you. Capture subjects that are unique. You don’t always need to take the prettiest or most beautiful photographs; Instead, try to create something that makes viewers think or that throws them off balance, even if it’s weird. Capture images for yourself, regardless of whether some people fail to understand or fail to like them right away.
Remember: It is not your job to please everyone. It’s your job to take a good photograph.
And be spontaneous. With other forms of photography, you can be a perfectionist about every detail. While it is also important to think this way when doing street photography, so many of your decisions will be made in a split second. Let yourself go. Whenever you feel there is potential for a strong image, even if you aren’t certain, go for it. Many of these shots will fail, but some of them will end up being the best photos you’ve ever taken.
6. Group your photos while editing
Make sure you review your street photos often – and as you do, group them based on feel. Sequence them into a loose narrative. Come back to these groups, add to them, and take away from them. Over time, you will notice ideas that grow organically, and you’ll start to feel inspired to take more shots, different shots, interesting shots.
The ultimate expression of “photo grouping” is a book, and you may want to eventually think about putting one of them together. However, before you head down that path, purchase a simple cork board for your office wall and fill it with 4×6 and 5×7 images. Constantly print and replace photos to create a cohesive wall of images. It’s a lot of fun, it’s a great way to view your progress, and it’s also great for developing ideas and inspiration.
7. Explore the work of other photographers
This is such a simple tip, but it is immensely important.
In your free time, look up the work of street photographers and study their portfolios. Explore the content, learn the technique, and think about the styles that you like. Watch videos of these photographers in action to see how they approach the street. Go to gallery shows and look at real-life prints to train your eye. This will give you a range of ideas about what to capture the next time you are out shooting.
Also, don’t be afraid to look beyond the candid street photo genre. For instance, you might consider looking at still-life street shots, architectural street shots, or street portraits – whatever interests you, make sure you pursue it, as it will only help your photography!
All of this is inspiring and fun to do. Start a photography book collection or even purchase a couple prints for your walls. The more you surround yourself with street photos, the better you will become, the more ideas you will have, and the more inspired you will be.
If you’re not sure where to start, here’s a list of incredible candid street shooters to look into:
- Henri Cartier-Bresson
- Garry Winogrand
- Robert Frank
- Helen Levitt
- Lee Friedlander
- William Eggleston
- Walker Evans
- Daido Moriyama
- Martin Parr
- Elliot Erwitt
- Joel Meyerowitz
- Mary Ellen Mark
- Bruce Davidson
- Saul Leiter
- Trent Parke
- Alex Web
- Vivian Maier
- Bruce Gilden
Candid street photography: final words
Now that you know how to improve your candid shots, go out and have some fun!
The more time you spend shooting, the better your images will look. So keep practicing, keep developing your skills, and keep honing your craft.
Now over to you:
Which of these tips do you plan to use first? What type of candid street photography do you like to shoot? Share your thoughts in the comments below!