Street Life: Tips For Successful Street Photography

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I'm a lover of street photography. It's what inspired me to pick up a camera and shoot. It became fairly addictive. There is nothing like capturing or "stealing" a moment. So many special things happen day to day, which are just fragments in our lives. I find it interesting to watch people, observe and capture a brief snapshot of their lives.


I'm fascinated by the lives of others. I love collecting images of people and scenes on the street. I find that often these images can be ironic, poetic and thought provoking. 

I started my photographic journey on the streets of Manhattan, usually whilst pushing my son in his stroller with one hand, shooting with an old Nikon 35mm SLR in the other. Interesting times! I think perhaps the addition of the stroller and baby made me less threatening to folks who may have caught me taking their picture. Here are some tips on successful and fun street photography. Babies are optional.


 Travel light and bring the right lens for you. 

 Don't carry too much equipment. Choose one lens and stick with it. I have a small cross-body bag I use for film, lipstick and essentials, but keep my camera around my neck or over my shoulder. Choose your camera wisely. After a whole day, certain cameras become very cumbersome to carry—if you are serious about walking the streets—so plan the equipment in advance. A comfortable camera strap is a must. I find the best ones have neoprene cushioning at the neck. Take your camera everywhere with you so it starts to feel part of you. Your lens choice is very important. I find that prime lenses, such as 35mm or 50mm, give me sharper images than a zoom lens. I like to get closer to my subjects, rather than rely on a zoom to get me there —that almost ruins the intimacy of street photography. Start with a 50mm or 75mm, gain confidence and get closer from there.

Color versus black and white.

I like to simplify my photos to give more focus to the subject matter. I find that while I love color for portraits and conceptual work, black and white gives me a cleaner and more simplified image. There are so many images, ads, other people and cars on the streets, it can get very confusing to the eye in a color image. Sometimes a color image is necessary, especially if one is shooting in a place like Times Square, for example, or in a colorful place like India. Pay close attention to the background and how it may enhance your picture. 

Steal a moment.

Watch people's behavior and body language. Anticipate moments before they happen, such as a couple about to kiss. Follow human interactions, watch people. Stand in a spot for an hour, or in one specific area. Wait for a moment to happen, rather than search the streets for it. Try to be invisible. 

Look for multiples.

Often I find multiples or repetition interesting in a shot, so look for scenes with this type of rhythm. For example, during fleet week in Manhattan, the sailors were walking the streets in groups, as were the four marines in the photograph below. Parades and protests are also great places to find good street scenes. 

Freeze frame.

Streets are bustling places, full of people going about their daily lives—often in a hurry. Make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to get sharp shots even during movement. Street photography is something that requires fast reactions and fast shooting. Metering exposure in such situations (and to not miss a shot) can be hard. Very often I can guess the exposure, or perhaps use the "sunny 16" rule. Try to experiment with your camera settings and utilize the Shutter Priority mode to keep that shutter speed fast, or perhaps the Aperture Priority mode, if you want to remain more in control of your depth of field. The important aspect of street photography is to be fast and ready at all times. 

It's also interesting to try slower shutter speeds on the street and capture movement. Blurred vehicles, people running or panning shots can be just as intriguing as in-focus ones. 

I caught you!

In my last B&H Insights article, I referred to catching people through my portraiture. In my street photography work I refer to it in a slightly difference context. The joy of street photography (and also the hard part) is that you want to capture a moment without the person even knowing you are there. It's more about being unobtrusive and subtle than interacting with people. However, very often, the subject will notice you taking their picture. That moment of the subject first catching you is quite telling. I find that moment to be extremely real.

 

Don't be afraid.

Street photography requires confidence. Act like you should be there. Don't be afraid of confrontation. I have been yelled at many, many times but it's all part of the experience. Explain yourself. Be polite, smile and say sorry if somebody is offended you took a photograph of them. Offer to e-mail the photograph. It takes practice being comfortable in this style of photography, but the results are very true to life and worth it. 

All images in this article are © Sara Louise Petty.

Sara Louise Petty is a New York-based fashion designer and most importantly, mother. Always a lover of photography and the arts, she picked up a plastic toy Holga camera and started to experiment with analog photography. Although the Holga produced (and still produces) some of her most moving images, she moved on to 35mm and medium-format cameras.

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 Thank you so much for another great article Sara! After having first being exposed to your work and philosophy via your first B&H interview, I had become a quick fan! I am new to the field of photography and to hear your words echo my personal goals so eloquently and true to form has inspired me to press on! Thank you, from one displaced New Yorker :) now living in Seattle.

 Hey Sara,

great text, great photos - as your experiences matches mine mostly! I think street photography is a most rewarding genre of photography, as you'll get results with a spontaneity and impulsiveness as you will never get in a studio or with models. And Ithink it's a real art, to tell a story with one photo and with people you meet in the street - and it's a real art to make photos that still keep some secrets, and make the viewer think about life. So do your photos! Thanks for sharing them, Sara,

best regards from Berlin

Juergen Buergin

How do you get people on the street to sign a release so you can use their pictures?

Sara thank you for an inspiring article, I recently started doing street photography. Being that I am in the 70+ club people don't seem to mind when I shoot them, your mention of using B&W gave much to think about and I am going to stat using it.

thank you for a great read -- Bob R

Yes.  That's the question.  What you can use the photos for without a release.  Are they allowed to be on this website or any website?  Photos on websites are 'published'. 

Craig M wrote:

Yes.  That's the question.  What you can use the photos for without a release.  Are they allowed to be on this website or any website?  Photos on websites are 'published'. 

As Sara pointed out, using photos of people on web sites is fine as long as it's not for a commercial purpose. One would need a model release if he/she intends to sell those photos (say through a stock photo agency), or using the likeness of someone/something to promote a product or service. One should also have a release if the photograph implies some association between the subject and a cause (e.g. a political or social campaign) that might suggest that the subject endorses or supports the cause.

The law is very complex indeed, and the provisions of fair use are often unclear. However, the way these photos are used in this post falls pretty squarely under editorial fair use. It's one provision of the law that makes photojournalism possible.

On a separate note: Sara, these photos are amazing and they turn out very well in grayscale.

Thanks Joan and Juergen for your thoughtful comments.

Anonymous, thank you for your interest. Are you familiar with street photography and many of the famous street photographers out there? I've researched it a great deal and for the purposes I am using these pictures for (art) I do not need a release, unless I'm using the image for some sort of commercial end. I do, however, have a model release form that I keep in my bag at all times and for my portrait work I have someone sign that. 

Again, thanks for your interest. 

Thank you, Bob. Good luck with the B/W work.

Chris, there are millions of street photography pictures published on websites daily. Including, Flickr and other such sites. I was browsing street photography articles recently and other similar shots were featured. I can bet you, those pictures did not have model releases. If I'm not using the pictures for commercial use, or on a stock photo site (which I am not) as fine art I have rights to include my photo journalism anywhere.

My work isn't about selling for commercial gain, so when you say 'what can you use the pictures for' it's a moot point.

Thank you for your input. 

Thanks for the outstanding tutorial and photos. As a former Navy Officer, allow me to point out that the gentlemen in uniform are  Marines. ;)

Best wishes for continued success with your work. Film rules!

Love street photos - I've got a few series of invisible themes I work on. You are right - be fearless. You are right - travel light.

It's important to have an idea of what you want to shoot, and I think it's important to see what's behind the subjects.

If you take photographs in public spaces, you are perfectly within your rights to do so without a model release. You may NOT photograph people in a situation where there is some expectation of privacy, such as in a rest room, changing room or locker room. As long as you are not depicting anyone in a defamatory or negative manner, then you as the photographer have no legal obligation to present a release form to the individuals in your pictures, nor is it necessary for purposes of editorial photography.

When you do need a model release, though, is when you are going to use the images for commercial purposes, such as selling from a photo stock house or using the image in conjunction with selling a product.

I don't think Henri Cartier-Bresson traveled around, photographing people all over the streets of the world, with a stack of release forms in his camera bag. Nor did Gary Winogrand, Helen Levitt, Elliott Erwitt, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Saul Leiter...

Thanks Bob, I am British and always tend to refer to them as sailors! :-) Thanks for clarifying that. hehe. 

And Arthur, thanks for your comment. Would love to see your work.

So if you aren't selling the pictures, how do you make a living at it? By what means do you measure "success?"

Thank you for the clarification, Howard. That is what I thought, and found during my research on the matter. :-)

All the best,

Sara

Anonymous,

I measure success by my personal goals and my art. I refer to 'successful' street photography in terms being successful in capturing real life, these moments that happen. Photography to me isn't about monetary gain, it's about fine art (why I choose to work with film still too) and making a mark within our society. I'm not a commercial photographer. I do assignments for money, yes, but not this type of work. 

I am a Design Director in Fashion Design by trade, and I took up photography as a hobby and it's become my world. It's a way of expression and documenting society for me. I love photo journalism and street portraiture and found it's something I've got a good eye for. 

Thanks so much for your comments. 

Thank you Alex. It is a complicated subject, but as street photography is pretty much my area of expertise I did the same research and yes, it's a fine line.

Thanks for the compliments too!

Kind regards,

Sara

The pictures are nice, I love black & white photography. Do you only use black & white when shooting street pictures? Do you have a darkroom or do you use photoshop? I very seldom use black & white anymore every since digital photography came on the scene. I can turn my color pics into black & white and toner to, all on my computer, but I still have my 35mm camera, the darkroom is long gone, they don't sell Plus X film anymore do they? What type do you use, Tri-X or some new type of film? Thanks for sharing your pictures.

Hi Phillip,

Thanks for your comment. I have used both color and B/W film when shooting street pictures. I tend to like the clean, simple and stark look of the black and white, especially when shooting film.

I do not have a darkroom, but develop black and white film at home. You don't need a darkroom, just a sink, black bag and somewhere clean/dust free to dry - usually my bathroom. Alternately, shooting digital and converting to B/W is acceptable and nice looking too these days. 

I'm not sure what Plus X film is. I use a variety of films (all purchased through B&H - they have the best selection I've found). These were taken with a few different films. I know some were Fuji Neopan 1600. That is a great film, with awesome grain and allows you to photograph in many light variations (like in subways).  I also believe I used some Ilford HP5 Plus here. Neopan Acros 100 is one of the sharpest, nicest (and inexpensive) films but better for other situations than street photography, I recommend faster speed films for this. Plus, I like the added grain!

Kind regards,

Sara

Thanks for the information Sara, I remember those days developing film in the bathroom, lol. Later I had access to a darkroom w/ an enlarger and all the chemicals to process my prints. I'll dig up some old black & white prints of mine to show you. I do have a few on facebook: Phillip E Blount, SR 

Great stuff Sara! Yip, "stealing" moments unobrusively does indeed capture intimate scenes, however sometimes I have issues with my conscience, which makes me feel as though I've taken something personal from someone without their consent, so I do find myself asking for permission upfront. I just go right up and ask and have never been told "no" or yelled at (yet) -- maybe because I'm small? Dunno. Sometimes I'll linger to chitty-chat, and most times they'll tell me their stories, which is always good for me because I'm really supposed to be writing. When the personal distance closes, even for a very brief moment, I usually find complete strangers quite content to let me snap even more pics. Yayayay! Keep us posted with your photograhy news and writing. Luv it!

Phillip, feel free to share for sure!

Thank you for your nice comment, Michelle. And yes, I also like to talk and ask permission also...but usually more for my street portraits. The moments I captured above, involved some serendipity. 

Will post more blogs soon!

All the best

Sara

You are my favourite =)

and I appreciate taking random pictures !

Anon, sale of prints is considered "retail" use and does not require a model release.  Of the three categories of use, only commercial requires a release; the third is editorial.

Sara, the "Time is On Your Side" photo is great, but I wish more color work were here.  You forgot to mention another great tip: Be female.  There's an automatic assumption that a man taking photos of strangers in public is some kind of perv.  For some reason women get more of a pass on that.

Thanks for the input. 

I do have more color work, mostly street portraiture. You can see some of it here on my BHInsights blog "Shot Through The Heart" or on my website. www.saralouisepetty.com

I prefer my street photography to be B&W and I do like shooting a high grain film for a gritty , contrasted and simplified look. 

You may be right on the female thing although I have a friend who is an amazing street photographer who is male. He doesn't have many issues, I think it's all about both 'being invisible' and also acting as if you have every right to be there and shoot that photo. It's a fine line.

Best,

Sara

 Hi Sara, wow your work is really interesting, simple pictures yet captivating...you've touched on a few questions that I have had myself regarding taking pictures of strangers on the street, I always wondered how i'd get round that one once I begin my photographic journey but like you said it's all about being confident yet polite. Thank you

Great answers and good pictures

Hi Sara!

Very much inspiring photography. Enjoyed thoroughly !!

Inviting you to see the link on street photgraphy on a winter morning in India :

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWOhU_o7G6o

Hope everyone will enjoy it. I belong to the city named Kolkata ( Calcutta), India... the city of Mother Teresa. India is a growing economy but I found the smiles on the faces of homeless poors as well !!

Happy viewing !!

Ayan Chaudhuri

i read this article over and over again.. i found it useful and rich with tips. But, i prefer to shoot street photography pictures in colour. I dont know why. I feel more comfortable and more confident presenting my pictures in colours. A great article. Recommended reading.

It was nice to read you, i am too big fan of street photography but most of the times i get timid on streets while photographing .

Thank you Sara, Your lessions and suggestions Suggestions are exceptionally helpful for those who want to become a good street photographer. Thanks indeed. Regards, Krish