Street Photography: How to Take Expressive Photos

street photographyThere’s a popular saying among photographers: “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” While some types of photography emphasize light, exposure and color, street photography is all about capturing a spontaneous event as it happens.

It’s entirely possible to become a street photography expert without buying any special equipment. All that’s required is an understanding of what makes a great photograph, a basic camera and the ability to spot interesting street scenes.

Ready to start? If you’re familiar with the basics of photography, keep reading to learn how to become a great street photographer. If you’re 100% new to digital photography, enroll in our Fundamentals of Photography course to get started.

What is street photography?

Some types of photography are heavily dependent on equipment, whether it’s the right lens or filter for the perfect aesthetically appealing photograph or a certain prop that helps a scene stand out artistically.

Street photography is very different. Instead of being about capturing the perfect balance of light and color, it’s about capturing the human condition in streets and other public settings.

Photographic techniques like framing, light and timing are very important in most types of street photography. Famous street photographs capture a feeling, moment or idea that couldn’t be emulated in a staged photograph.

Although street photography has been a popular artistic category since the late 19th century, it grew in popularity once compact cameras were introduced. Most famous street photos date back to the 1960s and 70s, when cameras become mainstream.

Street photography gear

street photographyWhat do you visualize when someone says “professional photographer?” For most of us, the phrase brings up images of giant telephoto lenses, high-end DSLR camera bodies and several briefcases full of different filters and lighting equipment.

When it comes to gear, street photography is polar the opposite of photography in a studio. Most street photographers use small, versatile equipment that can capture a wide variety of scenes without any preparation.

The most popular camera models for street photography are rangefinders – a type of camera that blends the adjustability and power of a DSLR with the small size of a modern point-and-shoot.

Despite the popularity of digital cameras, many street photographers prefer to shoot on film. One of the most popular cameras for established street photographers is the Leica MP – a 35mm mechanical film camera priced at approximately $5,000 USD.

Don’t worry – you don’t need a Leica MP to become a street photographer. Popular digital cameras for street photography include the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 or the Fujifilm X-Pro1 Mirrorless Camera, both of which cost $2,000 or less to purchase.

If you don’t have a digital camera, it’s also possible to capture interesting scenes on your smartphone. Check out the iPhone Photography Secrets course to learn how to take high quality street photos using the front camera on your iPhone.

Street photography techniques

Many great photos are careful and deliberate. They involve spending a long time on location discovering the best angle, exposure settings and lens to capture a beautiful scene and create a stunning photograph.

Street photography is neither slow nor careful – instead, it’s about capturing a real, organic scene as it occurs. The techniques used in street photograph emphasize its spontaneity and realness and make up for poor exposure with interesting subjects.

One of the most important skills in street photography is the ability to capture real life as it happens. This often means taking photographs of people as they walk past your camera or photographing interesting events as they occur.

Street photographers use a variety of approaches to capture organic scenes. Some take photos before politely approaching their subjects to ask if they’re alright with being photographed. Others take pictures quietly, quickly and stealthily.

Since you’re capturing action so rapidly, the autofocus setting included in modern digital cameras generally isn’t suitable for street photography. Autofocus tends to adjust to scenes too slowly, resulting in blurry, out-of-focus street photos.

Professional street photographers use manual focus exclusively, adjusting their lens rapidly to capture a scene in fractions of a second. This requires a very fast shutter speed and an aperture that’s matched to the weather conditions and natural light.

Are you new to digital photography? Learn how to adjust your aperture, ISO, shutter speed and other settings to create perfect photography exposure with our EasyDSLR Digital Photograph Course for Beginners.

Street photography framing

shutterstock_121276963Since street photography is all about capturing an organic, real scene, framing and other artistic aspects of photography are hugely important. The right framing can indicate motion, anxiety, comfort or hundreds of other emotions and actions.

Capturing the perfect photo requires an understanding of a variety of techniques, including framing, balance, composition and timing. Even when you have a limited amount of time to capture a photo, compositional techniques still matter.

Learn how to use techniques like framing, composition and depth of field to capture street scenes that express emotions and activity with our course, The Art of Travel Photography.

The legality of street photography

Since street photography often involves taking unsolicited photos of people without their permission or knowledge, it’s a controversial form of visual art. In some places, street photography is illegal without the permission of the photo’s subjects.

In Germany, for example, privacy laws mean that capturing people in public can be legally problematic. Germany and several other European countries has restrictions on public photography, with exceptions for certain types of panoramic photography.

If you’re interested in street photography, make sure you’re aware of then laws in your country related to photography and privacy. Photography websites like Flickr have country-specific groups which may be able to assist you with privacy laws.

Learn more about street photography

Whether you have a DSLR camera or a smartphone, any photography gear is ideal for capturing inspiring, thought-provoking street scenes. With the right timing and compositional techniques, you might be able to capture an iconic street photo.

Would you like to learn more about street photography? Read our blog post on the best street photography tips to learn the best equipment, manual camera settings, and compositional techniques for street photography.