Street Photography

by Rick Jacobi

Street photography is a very fun, interesting and different type of photography. Instead of a tripod, you’re hand-holding your camera. Sometimes you have just a split second to take the shot; other times you can take time to work a scene, waiting for just the right gesture or movement. Instead of a mountain or lake that stands still, you are often dealing with people on the move. You don’t have to shoot at sunrise or sunset. Instead, you can get a good night’s sleep without wondering what time the sun will rise.

Light and shadows will be cast by the surrounding buildings throughout the area you are shooting. You can catch reflected light from these buildings’ walls. In street photography, you don’t set out looking for a particular shot like you might in landscape photography. Instead, potential images come your way in the form of a young man walking down the street or a woman smoking a cigarette. When the subject appears, you have to be ready. You must always keep the lens cap off and your camera ready to shoot. You also have to be conscious of your presence. If your camera is sporting a long lens, it will be more intimidating to passersby. If you are having a bad day and are sad or upset, your mood may affect your interactions with potential subjects and make it hard to see a good shot. Try to be in a happy mood when engaging in street photography. This is more about a “feel good shot” rather than a planned shot.

There are three ways to take a photo of a person as you walk the streets:

1. From a distance

In these shots, the subject doesn’t know you are taking their photo. You will want to shoot with a longer lens, such as a 70-300mm or 24-240mm.

2. Close by

Here, the subject knows what you are doing. Close by is the hardest type of street photography because you must enter into a stranger’s personal space for a brief while. These images are often the most rewarding. When I want to take a close-up I have two ways of asking. Either I ask straight-forward if it is OK for me to take someone’s photo, or I jester, pointing to my camera and the person. Very few people say no.

Once given consent, you have a chance to develop a relationship with the person for a short period of time. It may be for just a second or a few minutes. You might need to talk with them in order to ensure they feel comfortable if you are going to take more than one or two shots. This is called “working your shoot.” Take time to get what you want. The goal is not to take a staged photo, but rather to capture a natural depiction of who the subject is at that time and place.

3. At a stationary location

I like to find a great background—possibly a wall or window in a building—and then just wait for the right person to walk by. I usually stand across the street to get this shot. It can take a couple of minutes or half an hour before that right person passes by.

With street photography you will never be able to capture the same moment again. In landscape photography you can go back to a spot repeatedly to capture the right light if need be. In street photography you have only the one shot.

My equipment is a Canon 5D Mark lll with either 24-70mm or 70-300mm lens. I am changing over to mirrorless cameras because they weigh much less and the quality is just as good. I am going to start carrying two light cameras—one with a short 35mm lens in order to not intimidate people, and a second one with 24-240mm for the distance shots. I saw Peter Turnley, a famous photojournalist use two cameras and it seems to work for every situation.

If I am close to a subject and taking my time to get their photograph, I like to shoot one shot at a time. If I am at a distance from a subject I set my camera to high-speed continuous. Then I will take about 4-7 shots of that person, no matter if they are standing still or moving. By shooting continuously I can get the right expression I am looking for. Out of every one hundred images I shoot, I might find one to three that I truly like. If you are close to the subject, remember the eyes tell the story of that person. Make sure to have their eyes in sharp focus.

My advice to you: Walk the streets and start photographing people.  At first it will feel uncomfortable and as if everyone is watching you, but they are not.  Begin by shooting at a distance and as you feel more comfortable, move closer and closer to your subject as time goes on. After a while you will be talking to them with ease and building a relationship in that moment. Show them the photo(s) you take of them and ask for their e-mail address so you can send them the photo. When initiating conversation in order to take a close-up of a person, talk to them in the same way you would like to be approached.

Street photography is a fun experience and a realm of photography in which you don’t need to wake up before the sun rises in order to capture amazing images.