Things to Consider When Shooting on the Street

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I think we have a lot of "to do" tips and tricks for street photography, being laid out by the predecessors as well as the current professional street photographers. Many of them center on gear choice and techniques, on how to frame your subjects and waiting for that "decisive moment" to shoot. I really think there is not much to add to such a long list of recommendations on how to improve your shots when shooting on the street so I will keep my list simple.

Here goes.

1) Shoot to impress. Make sure you know WHO to impress. 

This may come as a surprise because we are always told to shoot for ourselves, and not for an audience. Care only for what you think and shoot "who you are" when it comes to street photography. Nonetheless, considering photography as a medium of communication, you do have an audience which you will reach out to. A good photograph deserves to be seen and appreciated, and as long as you intend to show and share your photograph somewhere, the fact that you have an audience is true, no matter how much you want to claim that you are shooting for yourself only. If someone else sees your photograph, and can form an opinion or feedback after seeing your photograph, you already have an audience. It may be just a few friends  or family, or a huge following on Facebook or an online community (groups, forums, etc)

All images in this entry were taken with Sony DSLT A57 and 50mm F1.8 or 35mm F1.8 lenses. 


Walking difficulties

Handsome Young Man

Morning Light

A Grocery Shop

Interesting Read

Now the trick is NOT to impress everyone, but know who to impress, and working your way to get there. 

First and foremost, you have to be able to impress yourself! Do what you want to do, and fulfill your own fantasies. You are the captain of your own ship, and the master of your own destiny (some line from a famous poem which popped out into my mind as I wrote this) so do not let others decide how you shoot, and the most important person to please should be yourself. You are the master of your own craft, so shoot how you like to shoot, and shoot what you want to shoot. 

Then comes the crowd you are blending into. Are they very critical about the gear choice when it comes to shooting on the street? Some would comment negatively on the choice of long lenses and only accept 35mm or wider for their definition of street photography. If you want to show your photographs to this audience you will get into trouble shooting with a long lens on the street. Some will not consider street portraits (like my usual headshots) as street photography. Many will say that black and white works better in many situations. It depends really on the audience you are speaking to, and it is IMPORTANT to figure out what audience that is, and how you are fitting in, or shoot because of that. It defines the purpose of your photography, and having the right feedback, properly filtered (there are comments and responses that could be irrelevant and non-constructive, so you have do to your part taking in what matters) can push you further. I also think it is wise to spread out your audience and not just rely on smaller groups, and a few narrow windowed perspective. 

Having wider spread of feedback on your photography work will allow you to gauge your own performance and where you are standing at. Not opening yourself up, being stubborn will only get you so far!

2) Variety is Important. Ask yourself always, "What can I do to make this shot better, or even better?"

When approaching a subject, or a photography scene, it is always easy to be quickly contented and satisfied with the first few attempts. Often when we come home and review the shots we always wished we could have taken the shot from a different perspective, or probably timed the shot better by waiting for a few more seconds for the better "moment", or shot the subject standing just a few steps closer! Unfortunately for street photography, second chances rarely come by, and most scenes only present themselves ONCE. Hence when you do chance upon a photography opportunity, always consider "variety", and take more shots than you should. 

We already have a visualized image output in our minds when we shoot a certain framing or subject. That is fine, working toward achieving that vision is the priority, and usually when you already know what you want, you know what to do and acting based on reflexes (if you shoot often you have no problem reacting and responding to a scene quickly) you should be able to shoot what you have planned in your mind. But do not just stop there! If the shot you have obtained is good, think of how to make it even better. What if you frame the subject with a different background? What if you add another subject (secondary) or a third subject into your composition to support the main subject? What if you take away the many distracting subjects and just focus on ONE sole subject, as simplicity do work best in many situations? How about moving yourself 4-5 steps backward to capture more environment surrounding the portrait to establish the sense of location? In contrast, why not step in even closer to create the maximum impact and sense of connection to your portrait?  What if top angle works better? The possibility is endless!

Of course it is not recommended to go all out and shoot 100 frames on a single subject with ALL considerations. Knowing what to use and which techniques to enagage for a single photography scene depends on the photographer's shooting style and preferences. Trying too hard and doing too many things at once won't necessarily guarantee better results. The same goes to NOT TRYING hard enough. The way to improve is to put in more thought and effort into your shooting, when you are actually shooting and before the photography opportunity disappears. There is no such thing as perfect execution but we sure can do better, if we can. 

Conversation by the Road

Baby Passing by

A Fish A Day

Morning Read

Inviting Look

Over the Barrier

3) Use what gear you want to use. Don't blame the gear. 

I want to say that gear is not important when it comes to street photography but that is not 100% true. Your choice of gear does affect the overall outcome of your photograph, and shape your style as a street photographer. Using wide angle will give your more environmental and landscape feel to the overall presentation. Using a physically larger camera will get you different reactions from the crowd you are shooting on the street. Surely it all comes down to what you want to accomplish in your street photographs and you choose the right gear to suit your own shooting preferences. There is no right and wrong tool, the most important thing here is to use what you already have (no need to buy that magical super expensive lens), know how to maximize the potential of your own gear, and LOVE your gear! Only when you are comfortable handling your gear, knowing it inside out and how to make the best out of your camera and lenses, you no longer have the limitation that is holding your vision back. 

Often people complain that their equipment is not good enough. I missed the shot because the man was walking so quickly and my autofocus is not fast enough. Then you have to react more quickly, and do more pre-planning before the shot happen. You have to predict and plan ahead what you want to do, not just react reflexively, as we are only human no matter how fast we want to think we are with our hands. Pre-focus on the nearest subject, or use zone focus so everything you capture within the "zone" will be in focus. I think the worst complain anyone can give when it comes to street photography would be "my colors don't come out nice enough" or "I wish I have better dynamic range, I see so many blown highlights" and "I cannot shoot this scene because if I push my ISO beyond 10000000000000 I will get ugly noise". Leave all that technical obsession aside for a while and just shoot! Focus on the subject, not the camera. Yes the colors may be off, but who cares, street photography revolves on the "moment" or emotion or the drama you are presenting, not how nice the colors should be. Squeezing the most dynamic range into your photograph won't help improve your photograph either. So what if I have some blown highlights, if I can tell a compelling story, if I managed to capture the right facial expression or you can feel what the subject is feeling from the photograph, the blown highlight should not even be an element of complain when it comes to street photography. Then the high ISO obsession should be out of the window. 

Instead of thinking how much better your photograph can be by using a better gear, think of how much you can improve yourself, or what other different techniques or improvements you can make to your own shooting, with what you already have. When I was looking for the new camera I went for the lowly Sony Alpha A57 (yes, I also admit budget is a concern) but whenever I was out shooting with the big boys (Sony A99, D800, ID series users) I never felt threatened or disheartened in any way. I am not saying I am better or who is better or that better cameras mean nothing, do not get me wrong. It is very crucial to love your own gear, be comfortable and accept its limitations. Learn its strengths, maximize what you can do with it, and the rest is up to you to make the photograph happen! Even a photograph taken by an I-phone by a photo-journalist can make it to the front page of New York Times (not too long ago), so seriously, just shoot and do not blame the gear for our own inadequacy when it comes to shooting. 

Closed Shops

Open Air

Old Hotel

From Nepal

Chop Chop Chop


4) Don't follow the rules blindly

You do get many websites with so called self-proclaimed professional street photographers telling you what to do and what not to do. They have endless lists of street photography rules that they claim can make your street photographs better. 

While I rarely disagree with what they say, and I do find many times, incorporating what I learned into my own shooting, I also filter out many rules or guidelines which are not applicable for my own shooting. It is easy to write and tell you what works and what do not, but only when you are out there shooting can you decide and find out how practical an advice can be, or not. Everyone is different, and no one shoe can fit all sizes of feet. What works for me may not necessarily work for you. My choice of lens may not be what you like to use for your own street shooting. My way of approaching my street subjects may not be agreeable by some, and that is completely fine. 

The annoying trend I find (on the internet of course) is how blindly some photographers can be, in following the rules, may it be old or new. For example, no photo-shopping allowed. No cropping allowed. Everything must be done in camera, and get it right straight out of camera. Then there are those that have rules like you must be invisible and once your subject was aware of your presence, that is not street photography. They would become ninjas, and be stealthy at all times ,as if people do not know, or you think they would pretend they are ignorant to what you are doing when you hold out that black box thing called camera.  In contrast to that, there are those who would go "Bruce Gilden" and scare the daylight out of the stranger they are shooting by pointing their lens inches away from the subject's face and fire a powerful flash into their already traumatized eyes, just for the gritty and "expressive" look. The more "shocked" and "annoyed" the look on the strangers' faces, the better! 

The truth is, everyone is an expert and everyone defines street photography differently. While it is tiring to debate and argue which one is true street photography, lets just set that exhaustive discussion aside, and start enjoying what street photography is, whichever you choose to think it is. Don't let the rules restrict your view and shooting. Don't let the rules define who you are as a street photographer. You should define what your street photography should be. Your photographs should exhibit your characters, and your own self!

On the floor

Washing up

On my forehead

I was shooting at Pudu this morning, with a rather large group actually. Present for this shutter therapy session were Nick Wade, Luke Ding, Kelvin Ng, Tom Truong (the professional photographer from Sydney), Tai Foong and Gan. It was a fine morning, and I thought it was a great walk. 

I am surely getting more comfortable with the Sony now. I simply love what the lenses can do, and I have the cheapest of the Sony lenses. I use mostly 50mm F1.8 prime, as I treasure the longer reach, which I like for my own shooting. I also use a lot of the 35mm F1.8, for wide scenes which the 50mm cannot fit. I rarely do use the kit lens, but I did bring it along, just in case I have a wide angle framing suddenly popping out. There is little to complain about what I use with the Sony so far, but of course this only applies for street shooting. 

Famous beef noodles in Pudu for lunch

I have shared some of my thoughts which I believe may benefit some new-comers to photography, and those wanting to explore street photography. 

If you do have something to add, please feel free to comment! I always welcome open discussion, and those of you active street shooters, who do have something to share, I would love to hear from you. I too, am a learning photographer, and I have much to explore, and thousands of miles to go!

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  1. Great set of photo again. Do you know what is that on the last photo "On my forehead"? It is a sex toy to suck your penis...

    1. Eh don't say so loud lah! haahhaha. Thanks for the kind words.

  2. LoL. Robin the innocent... NOT!

  3. Really great shots Robin. I especially enjoy your write-up about not following the rules blindly. I don't use Photoshop, but I do use Aperture for basic Raw edits and then send everything over to the Nik Complete Collection with Silver Efex as my top priority. I used to be so anal about making my shots perfect with no overexposed or underexposed areas and perfect white balance. Then I said screw it. I convert all my shots to black and white. Not because I think it's easier, and in many ways it isn't, but I absolutely love the texture and mood that pops from black and white pictures. Color has become a little boring to me. :-p I don't care about white balance anymore, and generally don't worry about overblown or underexposured areas. I make the shots look exactly how I would want them to look. I do agree that same shots are defined by their color, and some pros may disagree with me making everything in black and white, but I don't care. lol Photography rules are meant to be broken, and especially when it comes to black and white, the shot can be as interpretive as you want. Here's some of my shots if you'd like to check them out:

    1. Chris Reinhart5/24/2013 09:06:00 PM

      Forgot to include the link. Just click my name for it. lol

    2. Thanks for the kind words, and agreeing, Chris!
      You were so right, the point to be added here as you have put it "rules are meant to be broken in photography". I wish a lot of people can see how this can actually improve their otherwise rigid, and restricted view of art in shooting!

  4. Robin, those are very wise words. In fact your writings give hope to the wise, lol. There is so much crap nowadays passed as "expert" advise that it is a fresh breath of air to read what you have to say about it, and your experiences you share so freely. Not to mention the often downright stunning results you wring out of normal equipment. Excellent!

    I couldn't agree more with what you've written in this article. As far as I am concerned, the only rule is that there are no rules - just as you say, just make it work for YOU and the heck with the highlights-crap and the high-ISO-crap and all the rest of it. Another crucial point you make it to KNOW you equipment and how to eke the best results out of it. It's like a soldier being able to disassemble and assemble his weapon blindfolded, exactly so a photographer should be able to "dream" (and thus pre-visualize) how the equipments works and what -consistent- results can be expected under certain circumstances. Both anticipation and being proactive are important factors.

    A very good article indeed, excellent advise, and lovely shots. As usual!

    1. Hey Andre!
      Thanks for the words of encouragement and support. As you have mentioned, just make it WORK for yourself! that is what matters most.

  5. You got it absolutely right Robin. Great photos don't need many words, and you have to filter these "expert" rules to what may improve yourself. I love the "closed shops" photo, which really reminds me a lot of my time in Malaysia.

    1. Wolfgang,
      Come to KL, lets shoot some photos!

  6. Robin,

    Thanks for your wise advices.
    You are a master in street photography and I admire your approach to shoot the close up (head only or head and shoulder).
    You have ever said : "Smile and show up the camera" ?

    paul tirajoh

    1. Hey Paul,
      Thanks for the kind words!! I think it is very important to smile. And yes, show up the camera!!!

  7. Hi Robin. Love your blog. Am a keen follower but never felt the need to comment until now.

    The shot "washing up" is awesome!


    1. Thanks Seech !! Do comment more often. And I love washing up image too!

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. hi robin..strongly agreed with ur tips as i like to captured photo with d stories inside..i know some people dont like street photo ..dunno why i like to take street photo..maybe i like to see d story inside d pic..ur tips are very useful for them who like to take street photo...really miss to take a photo with u again..
    *hadi nik*

    1. Hello Hadi,
      It is important to tell stories through your photos, and you thinking about it shows that you already know the most important thing about street photography!

  10. Hi Robin,
    Thank you for those valuable thoughts. It's very a good reminder for me as my mind still dreaming of holding Canon 5D MarkIII or Nikon 600D for my event's shots. As for your shots in this blog, "WOW! they are awesome shots! Hopefully one I will be able to do so with it's sharpness and clarity where vision, thoughts and stories revealed in the moment in time. I really salute you for your hard work and passion over the years to be there on the TOP.
    Happy shooting and may you have a great day.
    John Ragai
    Ps: Last weekend, I tortured myself by leaving my D7000 at home and force myself to depend on OMD-EM5. I am suffering out of my comfort zone. Tough but improving, need more practice on the street. This is my second practice session.

    1. I would think that the OM-D is a relief from the D7000, considering the faster AF, and of course, the smaller size and weight to walk around with. No worries, take your time to get used to it!

    2. Good morning, Robin.
      The problem is not on the camera but the shooter (me). I am very familiar with 50mm aka 75mm on D7000 since my first street on 28.10.2011, my mind and body still reacted as if I am using a fixed 50mm lens as for the estimated distance from the subject and I tend to zoom-in and out with my legs. I just need to shoot and walk around more with OMD. Thank you for the pat on the back..."No worries...."
      May you have a great day.
      John Ragai