The Ultimate Guide to Candid Street Photography
One of the most difficult but rewarding aspects of street photography is becoming comfortable with the candid aspects of it.
It is the early major learning curve, but once you learn to get through this, the sky is the limit.
Eventually, the idea of getting close and comfortable photographing people will start to feel easy and normal, but there are some street photography tips and strategies that can get to you this point much quicker.
Acting and the Camera Snap
As a street photographer, you can benefit from a little acting if you are going to try to get close to a subject while being inconspicuous.
And I mean acting subtly. You just want to pretend that you don’t notice the subjects right in from of you.
Avoid pointing your head directly at your subject or making eye contact. There is something evolutionary about eye contact that will make a person immediately notice you.
Instead, try to look through the person, as if you are looking at something behind them and slightly to the side. This will tend to make you look like you are a little spaced-out or engrossed in something.
Pretend you are noticing something to the side or behind them, maybe engrossed in a building or something happening across the street and the person just happens to be in the way.
You can aim up at a building first, move the camera to the person to take the shot, and then aim away from them again. This way, it just looks like you are looking around with your camera.
I like to just look like I am walking around daydreaming, thinking about what I want to photograph, just lost in my surroundings, and looking in a slightly different direction from what I want to photograph.
It’s sneaky but it works incredibly well.
When walking towards a subject, I will consciously ensure that my path intersects with then and then I will stop as if I am gathering myself or as if I see something interesting around them.
This is not how I always shoot, a lot of times I shoot very quickly so that the subjects will barely notice, and then I will quickly move on.
But this strategy is very important when needed. Sometimes there is no way around it and you just have to be sneaky to get the right photograph.
Linger and Let Subjects Come to You
One of the reasons I love street photography is because I love to get lost and explore. I love to walk.
But stopping yourself in an area with good potential and waiting for good things to happen is one of the most important things you can do.
Waiting gives you time for those special moments to happen, particularly in areas with interesting backgrounds of your choosing.
Those magical moments where both the background and subject look incredible? That is very often due to waiting in the right area.
What this also does is allow you to get closer to your subjects in a much easier way. This helps a lot with the fear of street photography. Because you are already there waiting, your subjects will be entering your personal space instead of you entering their space. This changes the dynamic significantly.
It also allows you to notice people earlier on since you will be more perceptive of your surroundings.
Travel Light and With Minimal Gear
You can do street photography with any camera, from an SLR to a phone. But I highly suggest giving a mirrorless camera or any camera with a prime lens a try.
Lightening your load will give you much more energy to walk around and get in position for the right shot without being noticed. You will be faster with your camera, more intuitive, and more inconspicuous.
It will also allow you to carry your camera around much more often, which is the most important key for this type of photography.
There can be a fear of missing out when putting a prime lens on your camera. What if I miss that shot because I don’t have a zoom? Yes, you’re going to miss some shots without a zoom.
But I think this restriction will benefit you and allow you to come back with more great shots in the long run.
You will eventually learn to see how the lens sees. It will become second nature.
If you use a prime constantly, then you will get used to the perspective and it will make you much faster and more spontaneous. Because of the fast-moving nature of street photography, any tool that makes you quicker is a big advantage.
I prefer to use 35mm and 50mm (full-frame equivalent) prime lenses, which allow you to get close and intimate with your scenes.
Set Your Camera to Not Screw Up – Depth of Field, Fast Shutter, High ISO
By having your camera settings completely set and ready to go, this will take your focus on the camera out of the equation, and will allow you to be more a part of what you are shooting. You will become faster and more spontaneous with the camera.
Now while many street photographers use Manual, I think it can be a disadvantage.
What if you are shooting into the sun and the best moment of your life suddenly occurs behind you? Do you have the time to suddenly change your settings and still get the shot?
For this reason, I use aperture priority most of the time, and if you know it well it is similar to shooting in Manual because you have an idea of what the settings will give you, but it will allow you to seamlessly go from shadows to sunlight without having to change your settings.
I will always set my settings for the shady side of the street, to make sure that both the sunny and shady sides will be in focus. If you expose for the sunny side, then the shady side will be blurry.
I like to have a lot of depth of field in my photos for two reasons (I usually keep the camera around F8 when I can). The first is that you often miss the focus on your subjects, and having a good depth of field will often allow you to screw this up and still come back with a sharp shot.
Similarly, context is important in street, and there are often scenes with a subject and a background or multiple subjects at different depths and you want everything to be as in focus as possible.
I love the look of street photography with a shallow depth of field, and often you have no choice but to shoot at F2.8, but it’s just not a very practical way of shooting when you don’t need to.
On Aperture Priority, I will then make sure to keep an eye on my shutter speed. I like to keep it above 1/250th or 1/200th to make sure to freeze the motion in my subjects, although I’m fine going all the way down to 1/80th at night or if a subject isn’t moving and it’s necessary.
But if the lighting isn’t ideal, you’re shooting at F8 and trying to get 1/250th of a second or faster, something has to give, and that is the ISO.
Raise your ISO!
I like to shoot at ISO 800 on sunny days (remember I’m exposing for the shady side), 1600 on overcast days or for later In the day, and 3200-6400 for dusk into evenings.
Most cameras these days can handle that, and the added grain will look great and be offset by the sharper quality of your photos.
Hip shooting is the act of shooting without looking through the viewfinder. It can often be necessary for candid street photography, but sometimes this technique is overused.
If you can look through the viewfinder to get a shot, it’s important to do this.
But I like to hold my camera when I am walking right around my chin (and I use a shorter camera strap than most).
With a prime lens that I am used to, this allows my eyes to act almost as the viewfinder, and I know exactly what the camera is going to give me without looking through the viewfinder.
This is important for those fast-moving scenes where you don’t have time to raise your camera or when you want to be inconspicuous. And it works particularly well in really busy and fast-moving areas.
Zone focusing is the act of turning your camera to manual focus and pre-focusing it to a certain distance (I typically choose around 8-10 feet). This is best done with a wide-angle lens such as a 35mm due to the depth of field.
While it can be done well at any aperture if you practice, it is much easier to do with a decent depth of field such as using F8.
If you think about it, if you use a 35mm lens, prefocus to 10 feet, and are using an aperture of F8, everything from 6-15 feet will be acceptably sharp. This is the general range that we will mostly be photographing our subjects at anyway, so it just means we no longer waste time having to lock in the focus.
This will make you much faster, more spontaneous, and your shots will be sharper for the most part.
And of course, when you can autofocus, you should flip the switch and autofocus to make sure to get the shot as sharp as you can.
Candid Street Portraits
Street portraits are a very important aspect of the genre even though they technically aren’t candid.
But the goal of street portraits is to get your subject into a candid feeling moment. Get them out of the pose so that they show their real self.
I will often tell my subjects that I want them to look natural, or look exactly how they were when I stopped them. This gives them the direction to be themselves and makes them a collaborator in the portrait, instead of just looking at you stiffly waiting for you to take the photo.
Try to capture moments where they are lost in thought, and you can often do this by engaging them and asking them questions.
Make the session fun so they forget they are taking photos! Then when they are looking good and lost in conversation, you can raise your camera and take a photo at the right moment.
What to Say if Someone Stops You
Candid street photography can make you nervous, but knowing what to say if you get caught is one of the most important ways to become comfortable.
And it doesn’t have to be a scary thing!
When someone stops you, just be honest. Tell them you are doing a photo project on the area and you thought they looked great and had to capture them in the scene!
If they seem uncomfortable, offer to delete the photograph. Legally, you don’t have to do this, but it’s the nice thing to do. Before that, offer to send it to them though!
You’ll find that if you can talk to them in the right, pleasant way, you’ll usually be able to diffuse the situation.
Act Like You Belong
Always walk around with a smile and keep an air of confidence like you belong there and there will be much less of a chance of you being noticed or of people caring if they do see you take their photo.
The more you look and act like you belong there, the less people will notice.
Sometimes, if you stand in the middle of a sidewalk intersection, you will be so obvious there that people will give you no thought. It is usually the time where you try to hide and slink in the background that people will notice you.
And if you get caught, just acknowledge the subject with a friendly smile. If they are curious, complement them and explain what you are doing. Always act friendly and confident and never defensive about what you are doing.
Go With Your Gut
Part of the art of candid street photography is going for it – feeling that a moment is going to happen and then reacting and taking the photo without a thought.
Usually, these photographs won’t pan out or will be terrible, but when they work they will create some of your best photographs.
Everything we covered here is part of the goal of making your camera work for you, to help you become more spontaneous with it, and this will help significantly with both the interest and the candid nature of your photography.