This article outlines the best techniques for taking photographs of everyday life, including shooting tips we can learn from the pioneers in street photography.
In the days of film, most street photographers used a wide angle lens with a focal length between 24mm and 35mm, largely because it’s easy to achieve good depth-of-field with wider lenses. Esteemed 20th century street photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, almost always shot with a 50mm ‘standard’ lens. This ‘classic’ focal length also works well today because it provides a good working distance between the photographer and the subject.
The ‘standard’ focal length (equivalent to 50mm in 35mm format) combines a natural-looking perspective with a usable working distance for street portraits.
Dealing with the variable light levels on the street posed problems for early street photographers. Film photographers tended to favour faster films, with ISO 400 being the most popular sensitivity by the mid-to-late 20th century. Push-processing was often used to boost sensitivity to ISO 640 or even ISO 800 if grain could be tolerated.
Without the modern benefits of stabilisation and dynamic range controls, shutter speeds needed to be fast enough to produce shake-free pictures. The focal length reciprocal calculation ““ setting the shutter speed to 1/the lens focal length (or faster) ““ was a popular rule of thumb that can still be applied today.
Many of the other shooting techniques we’ve learned from the pioneers in street photography can be useful for present-day photographers. But the latest cameras add a range of tools and functions that make it easier to obtain good shots. In this article we summarise the best techniques to use when taking photographs of everyday life.
Keep it simple
Because of the spontaneous nature of street photography, it’s important to minimise the number of camera adjustments you need to make so you can concentrate upon capturing the picture. Constantly changing camera settings will distract you and probably cause you to miss potentially great shots.
Even a short zoom lens ““ in this case 28-50mm in 35mm format ““ makes it easy to compose shots to suit your purpose.
Most experienced street photographers will stick with one camera and one lens, often a prime lens or, if not, a short standard zoom. Different photographers settle on preferred focal lengths for street photography; think Henri Cartier-Bresson and a 50mm lens, Bill Cunningham and 35mm, Steve McCurry with a 28-70mm zoom.
Having several cameras and multiple lenses will inhibit your creativity because you will be forced to concentrate on the differences between them. Feel free to experiment with a couple of combinations in the early days, but once you’ve discovered a kit that suits your style you should generally stick with it.
Find a basic reason for taking the pictures. It can be as simple as documenting the town or city you live in or recording a particular sub-group of its inhabitants (tourists taking photos, business people, buskers). Having a concrete goal or plan will provide the focus you need and minimise distractions.
Important camera controls
These controls can make the difference between capturing the shot and missing it:
1. Shooting mode. Experienced photographers usually prefer the aperture-priority AE mode because it lets them control depth of field. But when in a hurry or if they aren’t sure what the best aperture setting is, they may swap to the P (programmed AE) mode. This setting tends to favour wider apertures. So do all the auto modes, including the scene pre-sets (except for the Landscape mode).
2. Sensitivity. Because light levels often vary widely in different locations and at different times of day, most street photographers use the Auto ISO setting but limit the maximum sensitivity. By default, the camera will use the lowest ISO compatible with the shutter speed selected. Cameras with Custom memory banks will allow you to save several groups of settings so you can program one Custom set for shooting in bright conditions and another for low light use.
3. Stabilisation. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in the camera or in the lens; if it’s available, use it. Even a one-stop advantage can make a difference between sharp and blurred shots.
4. Dynamic range control. Take advantage of any facilities the camera provides, even if the processing is only applied to JPEGs.
Dynamic range control is helpful in contrasty lighting when you’re shooting JPEGs. Raw files can usually be adjusted to produce a satisfactory balance between highlights and shadows during conversion into editable formats.
5. Exposure compensation. Check the histogram whenever you can to ensure the exposure lies within the 0-255 step limit. If your camera has highlight/shadow clipping alerts, make sure you use them to see where exposures require adjustment to minimise clipping.
From the earliest days of street photography, the most commonly-used focusing technique has been zone focusing. The photographer estimates the approximate distance from the camera to the subject and sets the focus within it, choosing a small enough lens aperture to ensure the desired depth of focus (distance from the camera over which subjects appear acceptably sharp). This is known as the hyperfocal distance and it varies with the lens focal length and aperture setting.
A quick way to estimate this is to focus manually on the most distant part of the scene you want to appear sharp and then rack the focus back until close areas in the scene are sharply focused while the distant point remains acceptably sharp. The smaller the lens aperture the more leeway you will have, which is why many street photographers use aperture settings between f/5.6 and f/11, or even as small as f/16 in some situations.
Manually focusing the lens for a distance of five metres and setting the aperture to f/5.6 made it easy to take a quick shot without being noticed. A 100mm focal length setting was used with ISO 320 to ensure a fast enough shutter speed.
Another quick tactic is to focus on an object roughly one third of the distance between the camera and the most distant point in the scene. The benefits of this technique include:
1. Reduced capture lag times since AF lag is eliminated. This can result in fewer missed shots.
2. Some reduction in focusing errors because the zone of acceptable sharpness in the scene is wider.
3. You can ‘shoot from the hip’ without having to raise the camera to your eye. This makes your picture-taking less conspicuous and provides scope for quick ‘grab shots’ that can capture fast-changing scenes. (Tiltable LCD screens also make it easy to shoot from the hip.)
While using the hyperfocal distance can be useful in some situations, it doesn’t work well for all subjects. Wide lens apertures can blur out potentially distracting areas in the background or foreground and draw attention to the main subject. This technique is ideal for portrait shots.
A lens aperture of f/2.8, used with a 40mm focal length on a Micro Four Thirds camera created enough background blurring to isolate the subject through differential focusing. The 2x crop factor gives a 35mm focal length equivalent of 80mm, which is ideal for portraiture. The subject was happy to pose for this shot.
Focusing aids like peaking displays can show you which areas in the scene are in-focus. But only if your camera has an EVF or when you use the monitor for composing shots. Magnifying the scene to check focus can slow shooting enough to cause you to miss the definitive moment.
Sharpness vs bokeh
Some photographers become obsessed by the need for pictures to be pin-sharp, while others fret over attractive bokeh (out-of-focus blurring). Yet many of the most famous street photographs are slightly soft when enlarged to make prints for exhibitions or galleries.
One of the features of street photography that technical aspects are seldom as important as the content in the frame, how you compose it and the effect that it gives the viewer. As long as you’re happy with your choice of camera and lens and you know how to use them, it’s not worth getting stressed about techniques while shooting on the streets. There are more important things to grab your attention.
Archways, doorways, overhanging verandas and window frames can help to keep viewers’ eyes directed to the main subject. They also provide a context for the subject’s activity.
It is often worthwhile finding an interesting place and staying there for a while, observing people as they pass through. Sit on a park bench, perch on a wall, rest against a pillar. Interesting photographs can be obtained by recording how people interact with their environment.
Be prepared to wait until the lighting is right, an appealing person enters the scene, people interact interestingly. But also be prepared to change your position if nothing develops after 15-20 minutes.
On the other hand, if you spend too much time in a place you tend to start affecting what’s happening around you and can draw attention to yourself. Sometime you need to keep moving in order to record what’s happening on the street.
Some shots work best with a 16:9 aspect ratio. This format is also ideal for slideshows that will be viewed on widescreen TV sets or computer monitors.
Change the aspect ratio, vary your perspective and look for interesting and dynamic angles. Shooting from a low angle will make subjects appear more imposing and important, while shooting from above will diminish them and make them more integrated into the scene.
When you’re out on the streets you’re likely to be recording moving subjects most of the time. Some will move quickly; others slowly. Traffic may also play a role in some of your shots and can dictate how you read the pace of the place.
It’s easier to ‘freeze’ moving subjects when they are coming towards you.
Some subjects work best if you ‘freeze’ the movement with a fast shutter speed; for others a little blurring adds impact to the image and helps to tell your ‘story’. Very slow shutter speeds create a lot of blurring, turning recognisable people into moving shapes and conveying a sense of energy.
Be alert for the ‘decisive moment’ when a moving subject reaches a critical point in the composition. Practice will help you to anticipate when to trigger the shutter to record the shot. Aperture, shutter and ISO choices will need to be made to record the image as you wish, taking account of the available lighting.
Silhouettes can make interesting subjects as long as the subject is recognisable. People with umbrellas or large hats, cyclists, couples holding hands or anyone who is stylishly-dressed can make worthwhile silhouette images.
Silhouettes can produce interesting pictures and are easy to shoot with exposures are metered on the background.
Meter your exposure on the bright background, making sure it is correctly exposed to ensure the silhouette is properly recorded. The contrast between the subject and the background should be clearly defined.
Stills or video?
With the arrival of 4K video capabilities, many cameras can now record a high-resolution clip from which individual frames can be extracted for printing at 8-megapixel resolution. This is high enough to make A3 sized (420 x 297 mm) prints.
Many cameras include Photo modes that let you capture still frames while recording and save them at 8-megapixel resolution. Even higher resolution is offered through the continuous shooting modes, some of which are as high as 12 frames/second.
Some pictures work best with the 16:9 aspect ratio of video format and photographers whose cameras support 4K movie recording can shoot video clips and then extract printable frames afterwards. This is very handy for fast-moving subjects.
It’s important to understand how these modes work and how your camera records images with them. Still frames extracted from video clips are always in JPEG format, whereas using the continuous shooting mode allows you to record raw files at full resolution. Check (or test) the buffer capacity so you know how many frames you can capture in a burst.
Understanding autofocus: www.bit.ly/PhR-Understanding-autofocus
Shooting sharp pictures: www.bit.ly/PhR-Shooting-sharp
Bokeh and depth of field: www.bit.ly/PhR-Bokeh
This article is an excerpt from Street Photography pocket guide
Sponsor: Olympus PEN-F