So, you’ve decided to stumble out and explore your local metropolitan area, camera in hand. As you step off the train, bus or exit your car, the enormity of the city gets to you. At first, your attention goes directly to the sprawl of high-reaching edifices, seemingly placed there arbitrarily. They appear to loom, ominously over the thousands of people roaming the streets, like an ant hill newly exposed from its top-soil.
You begin to walk – aimlessly at first – then your attention shifts down to the narrow corridors between buildings, winding crevices, and sharp angles that seem to call for attention from your lens. It’s at this moment, where inspiration is about to strike, that a passer-by nudges you as they hurriedly get to where they have to go. This acts as a reminder that you yourself are part of this urban environment, just one of a thousand ants.
Urban exploration and street photography, while seemingly a daunting task at first, make way for the emotions of the city, its inhabitants and the photographer to merge into a single frame. The basic elements of a well composed photo are the backbone to any successful session. Regardless of if you’re shooting people, structures or a mix of both. Camera body, and lenses (to a certain extent,) have little bearing as to what makes a good capture. Hell, even smartphone cameras are useful to snap certain unexpected occurrences. Knowing about the area you want to shoot in and having a rough theme of what you want to capture go a much longer way towards success.
The following are some tips for those looking to begin an urban or street photography endeavor, or for those trying to hone their skills a little more.
Don’t Fuss the Body, Mind the Lens
A beautiful thing about street photography is that there isn’t a specific camera body required to excel at it. A typical DSLR will work fine. They are more bulky than other options, but are typically faster and more responsive. Compact point-and-shoot cameras are much easier to transport, but can lack in the speed category, which can be a detriment when trying to snap several shots in a matter of seconds. It’s recommended to take your DSLR with you when possible, and carry a compact camera in your pocket for when the unexpected snapshot happens.
If there’s one piece of equipment you need to worry about, it’s the lens. There’s an old rule of thumb in street photography; creepiness is proportional to focal length. With this in mind, it would be ideal to shoot using a prime lens. That is, a lens that doesn’t zoom. HIstorically, 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm wide-angle lenses are the norm, but don’t be hesitant to experiment with other lengths in order to achieve a unique look.
If using a zoom lens, make sure it isn’t too long. Something that goes from 18-55mm will do just fine. Make sure to know the ratio of your camera’s crop sensor so that you can adjust to meet a specific length you want to shoot in. Also, set the zoom and focus before shooting by using a test subject. This is to avoid fiddling around with the controls as you navigate, allowing you to stay focused on possible subjects.
Know the Area and Set a Theme
The best street shots don’t take much travel to find. Start with somewhere local and where you can find your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be an area filled with high-rises, or packed to the gills with people. Most cities, big or small, have some kind of downtown area where there should be sufficient opportunities to snap the right shot.
If you’re able to access a larger urban area however, set your sights on a specific region of it, rather than aiming to explore the entire area. For example, if Downtown Los Angeles is your desired shooting location, choose to explore the Jewelry District one day, and Santee Alley the next.
Set a course of a few, easily navigable blocks. Try looping around a couple of times, you’ll be surprised at how your eye will see new elements as you familiarize yourself with the course.
Along with this, it is helpful to set a rough theme to guide yourself by and keep some consistency to your shots. Unless you have a specific project in mind, themes can be rather general. Keywords like portraits, architectural, compositional or minimalist are good bases for establishing ideas of what you want to shoot.
Open-mindedness and Quick Thinking
Anything and everything is subject to capture, rule nothing out (unless your better judgement tells you to.) Examine nooks and crannies around buildings, the angles, lines and shadows will surprise you with their artistic tendencies. Same goes for simply looking up at the building you’re under. Learn to appreciate the composition of doors against the facade of the larger building, don’t be afraid to keep it simple. Watch for juxtapositions between people and the inanimate objects surrounding them. If you come across a public space bustling with foot traffic, dive right in, you’re bound to find interesting people which lead to interesting shots. Try to combine elements in your composition to create an aesthetic that is inclusive of the environment.
Most importantly, don’t try and force a shot. Standing in one place for an extended period of time waiting for something to happen isn’t the best way to go about it. Instead focus on quickening your reaction time and taking many, many shots. Be ready for a situation to spring up from nowhere as you continue on your path and let situations unfold naturally.
A writer from the Los Angeles area in his 20-somethings. An enjoyer of good conversations, good compositions, and good drinks. Inspired by the the sights, sounds and ideals of a city which embraces cultures of all different mediums.