9 Easy Tips for Sharper, Punchier Street Scenes

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Profile photo of Jason D. Little
Jason Little is a photographer (shooting macros, portraits, candids, and the occasional landscape), writer, and music lover. You can see Jason’s photography on Flickr, his Website or his Blog.

Unplanned and unposed. This is the essence of street photography, a genre that so often finds would-be practitioners welling up with anxiety over the thought of having to photograph total strangers. Yes, it takes a certain bravado to be a street photographer, but ask anyone who does it and I’m quite sure they will gab incessantly about how rewarding it is, the high they experience from it. Think you might want to kick your fears to the curb and get in on the fun? Have you already tried your hand at street photography and are searching for ways to improve your work? Below you will find a few ideas that address how to get sharp, interesting street photos.

Follow the Leader by jDevaun, on Flickr

Use a small aperture. No lens is at it’s sharpest when it’s wide open, and if you’re on the move, getting a sharp shot becomes that much more difficult. Thus, you will want to stop your lens down to f/8 or so. If you’re very familiar with whatever lens you’re using, you should know and use its “sweet spot,” which may or may not be exactly f/8. The important thing to remember is that a smaller aperture makes is easier to get more of a scene in sharp focus since depth of field is deeper.

Use aperture priority mode. Expanding on the tip above, using aperture priority lets you essentially “set and forget it.” Assuming you’re comfortable with your camera’s metering capabilities, aperture priority is ideal for street photography because you can dedicate more attention to finding and framing scenes, and less to fiddling with camera settings. This is not to say that one should never shoot in manual mode; if you’re adept at changing settings on the fly, then by all means use manual. It’s the final result that matters.

Use a high ISO. This is probably not anyone’s first thought when thinking of ways to make their photos better. After all, high ISO equals more noise, right? Sure, but there are a number of dSLRs that aren’t fazed by ISO levels upwards of 6400. Philosophical offspring of the first two tips on the list, a high ISO will let you use a faster shutter speed at a smaller aperture and, consequently, make for a sharp photo. Whatever noise is introduced can be easily eliminated in post processing or you can always go the edgy route and leave it as is. Of course, if you’re shooting on a sunny day or photographing inanimate subjects, you don’t have to worry so much about all this.

Use burst mode. With life swirling about and whizzing by, any technique that endeavors to freeze a moment is a welcome thing to the street photographer. One means of heightening the probability of a crisply captured photo is to use your camera’s burst mode. With dSLRs capable of anywhere between 3 to 9 shots per second, you’ll almost certainly capture the scene you want. And since you will have multiple frames at your disposal, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you unexpectedly captured something just nuanced enough to make it stand out from the scene you originally envisioned.

proofread by Björn Bechstein, on Flickr

Use a wide angle prime lens. Fixed focal length lenses are often recommended for street photography because they are traditionally revered for their superior optics; they contain fewer moving parts and, generally speaking, higher quality glass than zoom lenses. A wide angle lens (between 35mm and 50mm for street photography) will allow you to get in close and capture not only your intended subject but some of the environment as well; this intimacy is a key factor in street photography. There is also an important technical consideration to bear in mind when it comes to working with a wide angle lens. We’re accustomed to the idea that sharper shots correlate with strong depth of field. And there’s the idea that wide angle lenses inherently provide more depth of field than zoom lenses, which would mean that most of what you shoot with a wide angle lens will appear in focus. Well, what’s actually happening is the distribution of depth of field changes drastically across focal lengths; longer focal lengths flatten perspective and give the illusion of greater depth of field, whereas depth of field in a wide angle lens fades more gradually behind the focal plane than it does in front of it. This is one of those instances when the illusion and its impact on a photo is, perhaps, more important than technical forthrightness.

Stop moving. Since everything and everyone around you will likely be moving non-stop, try doing the opposite. Stop and wait for a scene to develop. Instead of going out in active pursuit of subjects, let the subjects come to you. Wait for actors to enter the stage and for scenes to unfold. How long you wait is up to you, but if you scout your locations well, you shouldn’t have to wait long at all. This definitely beats trying to capture sharp images and walk at the same time.

Pay attention to detail. Shots of random people doing random things can be abundantly interesting; in our normal comings and goings we rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to really observe elemental slices of human behavior. Street photography, though, allows us to glimpse this. To take this up a notch, forget about the bigger picture for a moment; you can photograph crowds of people later. Focus instead on the little things that no one else seems to be paying attention to. Sure, the throng of passengers on the subway might make a decent photo, but what about a shot of hands grasping the handholds?

Change your perspective. Basically, don’t spend all your time shooting at eye level. Go high, go low, use oblique angles. A departure from the perspective that we see all day everyday will help infuse your street shots with a little extra punch.

Choose wisely. Allow me to state the obvious: if you want interesting street photos, choose interesting subjects. Don’t be satisfied to make a photograph that looks like a thousand other photographs you’ve seen. Doing street photography, you’ll encounter a plethora of unique faces and expressions, eccentric fashions and behaviors, quaint architecture, and all manner of curious affairs. Immortalize in a photo those characteristics that, in your view, best represent the human experience.

I realize that for each of these tips there are 10 additional ones that would be just as useful. The purpose of the ideas presented here is to help you get the ball rolling and build your confidence, as you simply can’t be any good at street photography without it. Confident photographers raise their cameras swiftly, assertively, and with the resolve to capture the all-important “decisive moment.”

More street/candid photography on my Flickr page.

2 thoughts on “9 Easy Tips for Sharper, Punchier Street Scenes

  1. Dgoakill

    Overall good advice. Not sure about the burst approach, the decisive moment isn’t about choosing the best frame of 6 or 9, it’s about reading the scene and knowing when to pull the trigger. Burst mode is like using a shot gun for target practice.

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