15 Street Photography Ideas
Let’s first answer the question what is street photography? For me, street photography is the ultimate dance between control and letting go. So much depends on serendipity there’s only one thing you can you. To be fully present in the moment.
Street photography is unpredictable and spontaneous at its core. You can prepare all you want good things start to happen when the surprise element introduces itself. Being present and ready to receive the unexpected is all we can do in street photography. That is what makes street photography so challenging and exciting!
There are a lot of ideas and misconceptions about what is and what isn’t considered street photography. So let’s take a look at what is in general considered a street photo. It’s a photo of a candid moment of one or more humans in the street. But are we served by such a strict definition? I don’t think so. Street photography is more fluid than this.
With versus Without People
Is it possible to convey humanity in a photo without portraying a person? I think it is. Public spaces are full of human traces or a strong mood. It’s not necessary to include people to tell a story about what it’s like to be alive.
Candid versus Posed
You can do both. As long as you keep the authenticity of the moment intact I think there’s nothing wrong with asking someone permission to make a photo. Or manipulating the shot by adjusting the background and/or giving posing directions.
Key to this kind of street portraits is that it is a stranger you’re photographing, someone you just met on the street and who caught your eye for some reason.
Outdoor versus Indoor
I think the defining element in street photography is public space. And that includes indoor spaces like museums, malls, or the subway. But it does not include private space like offices or houses.
In my opinion, two aspects make a photo a street photograph. Number one is it should contain the humanity of the moment and number two, it is taken in a public space.
In a nutshell, it is a wild and free type of photography with only one vital rule: respect for the people and the places you photograph!
Are You Fearless?
Street photography is awesome but there’s one catch. Candid street photography feels scary to a lot of aspiring street photographers. I know, I’ve been there. You go out with your camera into the streets but freeze in your tracks when you want to photograph strangers.
Because you know what? It takes a fearless photographer to roam the streets searching for human magic. But wouldn’t it be great if you could be that street photographer?
Ease in the Scary Part.
What if you could go out into the street with a plan, a roadmap if you will? What if you have an array of ideas that make it easy to slide into the scary ‘photographing strangers’ part?
Let’s get this show on the road and start with 15 street photography ideas. They range from not scary at all to quite adventurous once you have more street photography experience.
They are designed to help you to get your creative juices flowing and give you a couple of street photography project ideas. And to top it off I’ve included a few vital street photography tips at the end.
Two more things before we start. I’m having trouble with boxes in general but especially when it comes to defining the different types of photography. In my experience the line between street photography and travel photography is almost non-existent.
And secondly, when you take a closer look at the photos I used as examples you’ll discover that you can combine any of the street photography ideas I’ll be sharing with you in the same street photograph. So, don’t be afraid to mix and match!
Starter Street Photography Ideas
#1 Go for Forms and/or Colors.
Like I said it doesn’t always have to be about people. You can look for strong graphical forms or focus on a single color. This is particularly a good idea if you’re just starting in street photography. Enter the street with a confined idea in your head like today I’m gonna photograph circular forms, or the color blue, or numbers, or corners. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.
It’s a great exercise to sharpen your observational skills. And when you feel stuck you can always turn to forms and colors to get your creative juices flowing again. Go here for Color Inspiration.
Because obviously once you’re out on the street and you’ve photographed a couple of numbers in a blue circular form at the corner of a building there’s no stopping you from seeing other interesting stuff.
#2 Capture a Mood | Porto
#3 Shoot the Back | Tagus River Lisbon
#2 Capture a Mood.
To convey a mood in street photography, you need to enlarge the feeling. No subtlety here. You might think you should include people to do that but not necessarily.
A rundown building, an empty square or the remnants of a festival can convey a strong mood.
Somehow I find it more difficult to capture a happy, airy mood without people. But feelings of nostalgia, or Saudade as the Portuguese say is somehow easier to portray in raw urban landscapes and/or human traces.
#3 Shoot the Back.
Photographing people’s backs is a good way to start to get over your fear of photographing people. It’s more anonymous.
But make sure there’s something of interest. A quirky detail, a grand gesture, an impressive background or a special moment. The viewer should be able to connect and if it’s just a back that becomes a little difficult.
There needs to be a hook, something to reel the viewer in.
#4 Photograph Silhouettes.
And yet another way to photograph strangers while they remain anonymous.
The trick with silhouettes is you need backlight, to begin with. Backlight is light that comes from behind the subject. So it is light that shines in the direction of your camera. And secondly, you need to underexpose quite a bit.
Look for strong, recognizable human forms as your silhouette.
Challenging Street Photography Ideas
#5 Photograph People Photographing.
Whenever you feel nothing is interesting to photograph look for people photographing. They make for an interesting subject and I assure you, you’ll have no trouble finding them.
And the good thing about this is when people are photographing they won’t notice you photographing them.
#4 Photograph Silhouettes | The roof of museum MAAT, Lisbon
#6 Start with the Background | Verona Arena
#6 Start with the Background.
Or set the stage. Find yourself a good spot with good light and interesting background and wait for something to happen. Start shooting and be patient. Something will happen eventually.
Don’t just stand there but be active and keep looking through the viewfinder. This will keep you on your toes and you’ll be ready when things start to evolve.
Keep shooting even if you think the moment has passed. You’ll know when the scene has outlived itself when a new scene presents itself or nothing happens anymore. You can either move on to the next situation or wait a little longer.
#7 Start with the Light.
This is similar to starting with the background and of course, you can combine them. The difference is that a background is just a background until something happens.
But the light itself and its accompanying shadows can be so dramatic or interesting or beautiful that it’s not always necessary to wait for something to happen. Check out this post about Natural Light Photography to discover the beauty and challenges of photographing in natural light.
Of course, you can but sometimes light can be the main subject of your street photography. When the light itself is your main subject you need to underexpose because you want the areas with the light to be properly exposed leaving the shadows nice and dark so they don’t take away the attention from the bright areas.
#8 Shoot at the Same Location.
Going to the same place allows you to photograph in a different set of circumstances while having one consistent element. The weather, the light, and the people will be different every time you go there.
You can make a photography project out of it and present your street photographs together. When you combine them the photographs tell all kinds of stories giving the place a 3-dimensional and dynamic character.
You’re more likely to feel at ease when you return to the same place and that makes it easier to get over the fear of photographing strangers.
It gives you a direction. A place to start and you can see where it leads you from there. Because that’s also the point of street photography. You never know where you end up or what you bring home.
#9 Look for Symmetry.
Symmetry is a street photography composition tool to create balance in a busy street scene.
The symmetrical composition becomes a counterweight to the chaos. Within a symmetrical frame, it is easier to show who or what is the hero of your story. Especially when a lot is going on it’s important to make very clear to the viewer who or what the subject of your photo is.
Looking for more composition tools? Check out the Photography Composition Principles.
Fearless Street Photography Ideas
#10 Go to an Event.
Photographing at a public event like a street festival, a music festival, or a demonstration is the best way to ease into photographing strangers from up close. Visitors to the event will expect to be photographed there. And most of them won’t mind you pointing your camera at them.
Try to single out one or two people in the crowd. That makes it more interesting and easier to connect for the viewer.
#9 Look for Symmetry | Lisbon
#12 Shoot Indoors | Uffizi Gallery, Florence
#11 Look for Funny/Odd Moments.
When you’re walking the streets with your camera you need to be ready at all times. It’s best to have it around your neck the entire time so you’ll be ready when something funny happens, or you see something odd. These moments are gone before you know it.
If you’re lucky you have time to make a few frames. Be quick, don’t fret about your settings, just get in and grab that moment.
#12 Shoot Indoors.
Whenever I go to a museum or a famous church I’m not so much focused on the stunning architecture of the church or the compelling art hanging on the wall. I’m interested in the people watching the art and experiencing the building. How they react and how they interact with their surroundings and each other. It is also a great way to spend an afternoon photographing strangers while it’s raining cats and dogs outside.
You can do this in a mall, a church, a museum, public transportation, the lobby of a hotel, an indoor market, etc.
Basically, any indoor space that is publicly accessible. I do think it’s even more important to respect people in indoor spaces because somehow the assumption of privacy is more present in an indoor space. So keep that in mind.
#13 Photograph Pairs.
One of the awesome things about photography is that you create connections that are present for a fleeting moment. When 2 people are in the same frame together we immediately assume a connection between them. It tickles our imagination.
When you photograph a pair look for moments of implied connection, synchronicity or contrast.
And of course, you can also photograph people that form a pair in real life.
#14 Single Out Hands or Feet.
Sometimes hands or feet can tell a profound story of the life of the owner. Maybe even more so than their face. And of course, singling out a personal detail like hands or feet is another way to tell an intriguing story without showing a person’s face.
When you photograph hands or feet make sure they stand out by getting really close. And don’t forget to pay close attention to the background.
If someone doesn’t want their face photographed this is a wonderful alternative. Most people will be okay with that.
#15 Make Street Portraits.
It might feel counter-intuitive but actually asking people permission to photograph them is a great way to overcome your fear of photographing strangers. Get the conversation started by asking if you can take their photo and be sure to tell them why.
Most people will be more than happy to give you their time and effort for a spontaneous street photography shoot.
And if they don’t well that’s okay too. Even though in most countries it is legal to photograph people in public areas people still have a right to their privacy. So if someone doesn’t want to be photographed respect that and move on.
#13 Photograph Pairs | Tagus River Lisbon
#15 Make Street Portraits | Lisbon
Street Photography Techniques
What is the best camera for street photography?
The short version? Small, lightweight and unobtrusive.
I prefer my Fujifilm X-Pro2 because with the right padding it fits in a regular bag. well, obviously a camera should be around your neck at all times once you’re out in the street but the fact that it fits in one of my handbags makes it easier to protect from outside elements should I need to.
It’s also not such an ‘in your face’ camera as a DSLR. It looks like an old school film camera which is something I love about this camera. People are less inclined to think I’m a pro photographer with this camera. Before when I went out into the streets with my big Canon 5d it was pretty clear that I’m no amateur. And people react differently to that.
So I prefer my old school looking small, lightweight ‘fits in my handbag’ Fujifilm for street photography any day.
What is the best lens for street photography?
I have only 1 lens for the Fujifilm and that’s a 23mm. That is the equivalent of 35mm for a full-frame. That might feel limited to you but it’s not.
Not having to carry around another lens or having a big zoom lens mounted on my camera makes it so much easier to get some mileage out of the day.
I remember years ago before the beloved Fujifilm I was walking around with a camera bag full of lenses, a big 5d around my neck and ready for every situation. Or so I thought.
I’ve discovered over the years there’s power in constraint. When you have just the one lens you need to find ways to work with that lens in whatever situation.
You need to find alternative ways to make it interesting when you think in the back of your mind…mmm….if only I had my other lens with me this would be an awesome shot. In other words, it makes you more resourceful and creative.
So, take only 1 lens with you. Preferably a prime lens and I feel the best lens for street photography is either a 50mm or a 35mm full-frame.
What are the best camera settings?
Shoot in Raw
Step 1 is to select the raw image quality. I cannot stress this enough.
Even if you have no clue right now what to do with your raw images shoot raw anyway.
If that’s the case select the combi option of saving them as raw and jpeg. This gives you a raw file for the future when you’re advanced enough in your photography journey to develop the raw images and gives you a jpeg file for now.
You can find more information about Raw versus Jpeg here.
Select Semi-Auto Mode
Because street photography depends very much on the speed you’re able to react to a situation I don’t recommend shooting in manual mode even if you are familiar with it.
I usually shoot in shutter speed priority mode and use the exposure compensation wheel to under- or overexpose.
If either of the semi-automatic modes is beyond you you can set your camera in Program mode. This allows you to select your ISO and you can under- and overexpose by using the exposure compensation.
Avoid Blurry Photos
Don’t be afraid to crank up your ISO. Your ISO needs to be high enough to give you some leeway with the fast shutter speed and small aperture.
One Final Street Photography Tip!
When you’re out shooting street photography don’t be happy with what is given to you in the first few shots. Stay with it for some time and shoot a lot. And I mean a lot!
However, don’t shoot random street photographs. You’re looking for the decisive moment. For most street photographers the decisive moment is the holy grail in their street photography.
The term was coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson and it describes the moment when all the elements in the frame fall into place to create a magnetic and memorable moment.
Then, when you get home and you’ve uploaded the files to your computer be ruthless in your culling. Select only the best one or two photos from a particular scene and edit them. Go to Navigating the Library Module in Lightroom and Editing Your Pics in Lightroom for in-depth Lightroom Tutorials.
Check out How to Keep Your Gear and Pixels Safe on the Road for photography safety tips!
Now it’s your turn, go out to shoot street photography and create some magic! Let us know in the comments which idea you like the most and how you did.
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