While street photography is often about being at the right place at the right time, there are many things the intrepid photographer can do to prepare to have their camera ready for that chance encounter or seemingly random moment. Street photography requires great observation skills and a knack for spotting curiosity-piquing situations.
This knack can be developed into a true skill, by using certain photography techniques and exercising an eye for detail. Here are some street photography ideas that will hopefully inspire you in your thinking as you roam the streets, ready to capture the moment.
Street Photography Ideas
Set the scene. Sometimes all that is missing is the right person to walk into the shot. So if you find an interesting street corner or underground railway station, be prepared to set up shop and wait for the perfect character to cross your path. Henri Cartier-Bresson is considered to be the pioneer of the genre we now know as street photography, and he called this the “decisive moment”. He is quoted as saying: “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” It’s up to you as the photographer to do the organization.
Shoot through store windows. Enjoy a coffee or a sandwich at a roadside café and play with the reflections of the window as people pass you by. Conversely, shooting someone eating inside a restaurant is okay, but that doesn’t extend to someone’s private home. Here, U.S. law determines that you can’t take someone’s photograph without their permission if that someone has “a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Choose a theme. Narrow your field of focus by focusing on a project that allows you to tell a story using a selection of images. People and their jobs, street signs, cyclists… the themes are endless, and so are the possibilities – but by giving yourself a project with a specific theme, your narrative thread will be stronger and you’ll have a better idea of what you’re looking for when you head out scouting for shots.
Work with light, shadow, and silhouettes. Often a street photograph with the most impact has the darkened subject as a silhouette, with a long shadow. There’s an anonymity here that is very appealing, that also works best in black and white. The patterns of shadows that buildings make, the light reflecting off a window, and a silhouette at the end of a working day as someone is walking home are all transient moments that a photographer can work with to add visual layers to their setting.
Capture a feeling. Try to get a sense of what emotion your setting is conveying, by looking at people’s expressions or body language. Rush hour pedestrian traffic as people start their day could be described as feeling ‘energetic’ – here perhaps you’d use a slow shutter speed to capture the blur of movement. If people are waiting to catch a train or bus, the feeling would be one of ‘exasperation’ or boredom. Perhaps it’s a person slouched over their bag at a terminal. By giving yourself adjectives to describe the emotion of what you’re shooting, you’ll be adding to your theme and honing in on what is required to accentuate the scene.
Take portraits of people. Don’t hesitate to ask the question: can I take your portrait? It sounds fancier than asking to photograph them and shows an intention to celebrate your subject. If you have a polite attitude, you can get close up and photograph a wide array of people’s expressions that will then add up to an eclectic collection. Interact with your subject of interest first to get them to open up and let their guard down before snapping away. Jot down their e-mail address and offer to send them a copy of your photograph.
Be safe. Have your camera at the ready – this is where the expression ‘shoot from the hip’ comes from – but don’t be a sucker for a street mugging. Side alleyways are interesting to photograph, but make sure your exit is open and that you’re not walking into trouble. Similarly, shooting religious sites or government buildings up close can land you in trouble with the law.
Use humor and juxtaposition. Sometimes all that is needed for a laugh is a street sign with the right person walking into the shot. There’s a language of the streets that you can tune into – billboards and advertising lettering interacting with each other as people pass you by. The juxtaposition of graffiti with the right spontaneous moment is all you need to say something thought-provoking with your photograph.
From motion blur to working with light, being on the move in a safe, discreet fashion to engaging with people and animals, there are many exciting ways to improve your street photography skills and capture that “decisive moment”. Exploring your surroundings is the best way to start, and if you don’t find anything interesting roaming the streets, you probably need to look a little closer.