Top 10 Skills to Learn in Street Photography

Photo by: Federico Alegría
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Based on Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory, “concepts should not be confused with terms”; or something like that, we want to make ourselves clear about what we mean by using the term “skills” rather than “tips” or “tricks”.

For us on the Cult, skills refer to deeply interiorized social manners that make our photography both more meaningful, and aesthetic. Tips and tricks, on the other hand, are cool things that one is able to perform in order to spice out certain photographs, and these are usually coherent with popular visual trends and effects.

Skills, on the other hand, refer to a more complex, solid and sophisticated mind-set that one is capable of developing as a social being. Therefore, “street photography skills” is a more appropriate use of terms rather than those with the letter T.

1. Stick to One Lens and Marry to It

One can’t feel but overwhelmed after buying a camera and encountering the huge array of optical possibilities the photographic industry has to offer to us. And it is no secret either that camera manufacturers dream of us buying all their accessories and lenses too. But of course, just a micro-fraction of the world’s population is capable of performing such a Brobdingnagian investment too.

This overwhelming optical context, filled with fast aperture and powerful lenses, makes it quite hard to decide “which lens to buy next” after purchasing an entry-level camera. And these folks really want to make you feel confused about it. But don’t you worry, the Visual Cult is here for you!

Lens-related decisions should always be driven by the genre that one feels more passionate about, and believe or not, the kit lens is a powerful whistle-blower regarding this matter. But, for some shady reasons, they are always down-seen and diminished by the “professional” photographic community. The reason why these plastic-based 18-55mm ƒ/3.5~5.6 (or similar) lenses are so good at guiding us is the following.

They offer a generous array of focal lengths, meaning that one is capable of examining all the photos made with them and interpret some interesting answers after that. For example, if you find yourself shooting a lot with wide focal lengths (18-28 for example); then, the logical further investment should be a wide prime lens. Or if you find yourself constantly zooming your lens, then you should look for a nice telephoto like a 70-200mm or similar.

Jeez! That was a huge context, but it was a much needed one before explaining why sticking to a single lens is an important skill that one should develop in order to become a better street photographer. Whether you have a vast experience in this genre or not, one thing is certain right now. If you are reading this, you are definitely interested in street photography.

This is not a rigid rule, but is quite expected that street photographs are usually made with middle wide-angle lenses. Why? Because they are perfect for capturing complete stories within the social realm. And they are also small, inconspicuous and even felt as non threatening. So, the first thing that you need to do in order to become a better street photographer is to develop a particular skill very similar to “patience”.

Using one single lens, for a year or more, is not an easy task; especially after drinking the sweet nectar of using different lenses in the past. This “limitation” enables us to think more, and resolve better. And after a long period of optical-marriage, you’ll become so agile with your lens, that you’ll be able shoot frames not only from the hip, but even from your back.

And if you don’t believe me, this is one of many examples of shots I’ve made from the back.

Photo by: Federico Alegría

From here on, I promise these skills will be bite-sized!

2. Anticipate Settings

Knowing what exposure settings work best for the 10-meter shadowy area located where one’s heading to requires years of practice, and we know that. But there’s a way of hacking that skill by simply trying to anticipate those settings whenever we are out there in the streets. Following the sunny sixteen rule is quite useful, and if you (like me) live in the tropical latitudes of the planet, then think about it as the “sunny eleven” rule.

Several cameras nowadays feature aperture rings and exposure dial-knobs just like those in the sweet days of film. Resulting in pretty manual photographic devices in terms of exposure settings of course. Therefore, knowing that this sunny area (imagine it) requires an aperture value of ƒ/11, I know that 1/250 and ISO 100 will also be required. But moving to a darker zone, like a street market, will make me switch from those settings to ƒ/4 (1/125 and ISO 400. perhaps).

But, as many things in photography, this isn’t an exact nor magical recipe. Only practice will make you skilled enough to anticipate settings when walking in the streets with your camera.

Oh, and always turn your camera off with a precise exposure settings combination so you know better where your dials are after turning your camera on. In my case, I always have my camera ready at ƒ/5.6, 1/125 and ISO 200 (because that’s the lowest ISO value on my camera).

3. Always Have a Camera by Your Side

As cliche as this might sound, it is an absolute truth. And with mobile devices so powerful accompanying our lives, having a camera with us at all times is definitively a disciplined task. But, considering that same principle, why bothering anyway?

Certainly, mobile devices (or phones as some still call them) are capable of delivering outstanding visual results. But having one with us is almost like having clothes on or similar. It is extremely granted, and such a comfortable position affects our attention span when walking on the streets.

On the contrary, having even the smallest camera with us can make us feel slightly guilty for not taking photographs. And that’s exactly the boost we need in order to always keep our eyes widely open for capturing those fleeting moments of ordinary life. Otherwise, we’ll become numb, eventually anesthetized, and our photographs will end up looking dull and highly similar to all the Insta-shots out there.

4. Learn to Shoot from the Hip

I mentioned this one above, but I didn’t develop the reason why this is a practical skill that will eventually help you become a better street photographer. Street photography is filled with candid shots, or at least those are the ones that I find to be more moving and aesthetic. There are some highly conspicuous photographs too, but those are harder for me to capture. Therefore, I enjoy consuming them rather than capturing them.

Shooting from the hip is not cheating, it is just a skill used to capture the every day in its most quotidian state. And even though I enjoy shooting through my viewfinder, there are some moments that the mere act of lifting my camera to my eye would draw too much attention.

Also, this skill is easier to master when shooting with a fixed lens rather than a zoom one. But, one can always set the focal-length to a precise position. And if you think that this is hard, you can always use vari-angle LCD screens when available. This is a perfect mimic of what shooting street photos with a TLR camera felt like.

5. Shoot at Night

Shooting street photos at night might feel like something to avoid for those photographers contemporary to myself. But nowadays, shooting above ISO 400 is not a problem at all. Back in 2009 when I started getting serious with photography, raising one’s camera ISO value further than that was a suicidal task. Nowadays, we have entry-level cameras capable of shooting at ISO values of 1600 and even 3200 without any optical stress.

The night life offers a huge burst of social situations that deserve to be captured with our cameras. Some like using tripods for their cyberpunk inspired cityscapes, and some of us simply enjoy walking with our cameras in a lighter way. But despite your choice, never stop shooting at night!

Visual Tool: After hanging out with a fellow photographer from Costa Rica, I learned about using portable video LED-lights for shooting certain moments in the streets. Here is one example of that.

Photo by: Federico Alegría

6. Be Polite, Be Respectful

We all know that street photography has gained some bad reputation over the years in some cities around the world. My main hypothesis behind this social perception towards the craft is the following. The current reception of social photography is closely related to the way some street photographers have behaved in the past.

I’ve seen photographers in the streets behaving like if the are in safari tours or similar, like if having a massive 5D with a 70-200mm stuck to it is a license for being disrespectful to the people just because they are in public places and “is their right to take photos of them”. And just like this applies to the micro-levels of social dynamics, it also goes along to the macro stuff.

A photographer can also become a disrespectful agent towards a cultural tradition simply by behaving like a douche. Behaving in the streets is simple, don’t ever do something that you won’t like others doing to you. And about the cultural contexts, always be respectful. If you have a liberal mind, then respect conservative contexts and cultures when approaching them. And if you are a conservative person, you have to accept that some cultures are more liberal than yours.

And if you can’t deal with these subtle and brief coexistence guidelines, then you should look for another photographic genre that makes you more comfortable. Period.

7. Do Your Homework

And that takes me to the next skill. Which is doing some inquiry or research before hitting a new place. Learn about the culture, the customs, the traditions and all the useful background that will guarantee that your presence with a camera won’t be perceived as a threat. Also, it is useful to do some inquiry in order to know certain precautions to consider. No photograph should ever be more valuable than your life, and we meant it from the heart.

8. Invest in High Quality Shoes

I remember once giving a lecture, and someone asked me about the best piece of equipment one could buy as a street photographer; and “good shoes” was it for me. The attendees burst in laughter, and me too. But let me tell you, I was deeply convinced about that as I am now.

Investing in high quality shoes that would make you able to walk during hours in the city, for several days in a row, is priceless. Street photography is something that happens as you walk, and if you are having a bad time while walking, then your shooting limitations will end up being poor.

Boots or walking shoes, you name it, as long as they are high quality ones. Oh, and if they are weather-resistant, better. Walking on black-ice is no fun when using regular shoes.

9. Invest in Photo-Books

Also, invest in photo-books. Not photography technique related books, but actual books filled with nicely printed photographs. From time to time, we tend to review stuff like that here at the Cult, but try looking for used book-stores for serendipitous findings. Book stores are very low crowded places, and after Covid, they feel like tiny ghost-towns. So don’t worry about visiting them, but always remember wearing a mask and cleaning your hands.

And of course, we are not diminishing photography-technique related photographs or even manuals, but for inspiration purposes, there is nothing like watching photos in a tangible object like a book. Well, there is one higher aesthetic experience, galleries and museums, but those have a considerably lower visual offer for us these days.

Street photography is a practice that shouldn’t be limited to the act of shooting frames on the streets. It also has this beautiful dimension of visual consumption that we can benefit from. Art and photography related websites are also good sources for aesthetic visual consumptions, but for once in a while, it is nice to get out the screens.

10. Shoot Film

And last but not least, try shooting film. And not because you should be migrating from digital sensors to film. No. Do it because it will allow you to develop a much appreciated skill as a street photographer, shooting less, but seeing more. By having such a limitation (36 frames when shooting 135 format or 12 frames when shooting 120), you’ll quickly learn to shoot only when you are certain that a moment has the proper elements for being memorable.

Back to digital, this will raise your keepers ratio, and you won’t need to shoot bursts and bursts of raw files just to capture something worthy of posting on Instagram. Film is one of the best photographic training for becoming a better photographer because it forces you to discern, and take precise shooting decisions.

Alright, this has been a different kind of post than the usual things we publish here at the Cult; but we considered that sharing these skills was important for the sake of the upcoming photography in the world.

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