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For many photographers – even the masters – street photography is the most intimidating test of their skills. However, it’s also one of the most rewarding. It fuses a multitude of photographic genres, from architecture, to portraiture, to photojournalism – perhaps even abstract – into one, definitive creative pursuit.

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Street photography gives us the unique opportunity to capture extraordinary, ‘decisive moments’ as our fellow humans go about their ordinary lives. By the end of this article, hopefully you’ll be armed with the knowledge that will allow you to capture candid street moments like the pros do.

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The Right Gear

Photography is inherently a technical pursuit. Naturally, a solid understanding of your ‘work tools’ is essential. However, be careful of becoming too focused on gear acquisition – infamously called Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS). As Erick Kim says, ‘buy books, not gear’. Here are some useful tips.

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The Body – First and foremost, choose a camera that allows full control over your settings – most importantly, your exposure (ISO, shutter speed, and aperture). Cropped sensor DSLRs are a good choice. While they’re larger than their point and shoot / mirrorless cousins, they’re smaller than full frame cameras, and typically sport a high megapixel count and full control over in-camera settings, which is essential.

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The Lenses – Discretion and flexibility are key here. Prime lenses are ideal. While zoom lenses are often bulky and therefore quite indiscrete, primes are often smaller, and produce images of higher quality. 35mm is an ideal, flexible starting point. It’s wide enough to capture subjects within their environments, but works for candids and portraits, too.

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Wide-angle lenses (under 35mm) are great for architecture and tight spaces, but usually unsuitable for portraits or people due to distortion. Telephoto lenses (50mm+) are great for subject isolation, portraits and patterns, but too restrictive for most ‘environmental’ shots. Experimentation is the best idea here; playing around with an 18-55mm kit lens is a good way to find out where your favourite focal range lies.

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Accessories – There are a multitude of accessories that can benefit your street photography. Investing in a good bag is a good idea – check out the Lowepro Messenger 150, or Peak Design Everyday Messenger Bag. Flashes can give you more flexibility with light, and improved street portraits. Tripods allow you to get creative with long exposures – think architecture shots with dramatic clouds, or street scenes with blurred, ghostly figures. The Joby Gorrillapod SLR Zoom is light, small, and highly flexible – perfect for street photography.

The Right Settings

Camera Mode: You want the perfect balance between control and convenience. Aperture Priority (Av) mode allows you control of aperture (how much of the scene is in focus) and automates Shutter Speed (how blurry or sharp your subject is). Program mode (P) automates both shutter speed and aperture. Control of your settings is important, but fumbling with your aperture while an amazing, ‘decisive moment’ passes you by is the most frustrating thing to experience. Find a balance that works for you.

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Exposure: Try to keep your shutter speed at 1/250th of a second in order to freeze the motion of people and traffic. Keep your shutter speed between 100-1600 ISO depending on the light available (if it’s bright, stick to 100-400, if it’s overcast, stick to 800-1600). A wide aperture (f-stop of 1.8-6) can be used to artistically isolate subjects, but can make sharp focussing tricky. A narrower aperture (f-stop of 7-16) is more flexible, capturing subjects and their backgrounds. Learn these ‘rules’, and break them. Fantastic photographers have captured awe-inspiring photographs with wide aperture or slow shutter speeds.

Focus: With street photography, there are two main approaches to focusing. Automatic focus is the first, and it’s easier, but you’re relying on the camera to choose the right focus point. ‘Zone focusing’ is the second. It’s the simple technique of ‘pre-focusing’ your camera to a certain distance in manual mode – say 1-2 metres away. This has the added benefit of being able to quickly, discretely shoot ‘from the hip’ as your subjects enter your zone of focus. Keep your aperture narrow (f7+) so your subjects are tack sharp. Learn more about zone focussing here.

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The Right Approach

Even if you have the highest-quality kit and a complete understanding of the technical aspects of your camera, there’s no guarantee you’ll produce quality photography. Your approach is the most important element in achieving awesome imagery in street photography, and photography in general.

There are as many methods as there are photographers. However, there are a few key approaches that will redefine your photography.

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  1. Stop. Yes, really. Stop and observe. Instead of rushing around, hunting for that ‘decisive moment’, find the scene, and wait for the action. This might be the top of some stairs, a doorway, an underpass – it could be anywhere. When the moment comes, you’ll be prepared. Check out Vincent Laforet wait for the ‘decisive moment’ for 20 minutes.
  2. Be fearless. Street photography can be intimidating, true. However, some of the best photographers push boundaries, immersing themselves in their environments. Try unorthodox angles. Get close to the action. Make sure you’re always friendly and never ‘sneaky’, however. Respect your subjects.
  3. Compose carefully. In the hectic chaos of the street, it’s easy to forget the ‘art’ in photography. Finding patterns and contrasts in your urban environment can be an effective way of turning an ordinary image into the extraordinary. Check out Erick’s Street Photography Composition

With so many of us dwelling in towns and cities, street photography gives us the unique opportunity to capture those key moments of interaction – whether it’s with our fellow humans or our environments. Whether it makes you laugh, cry, or think, street photography is an exciting exploration of the human experience in all of its diverse chaos. Hopefully, this article has inspired you a little to get out and capture it!

Photos: Salt

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