Can You Reduce Street Photography to a Few Rules of Thumb?

Everybody loves a “rule of thumb” that turns a difficult task into an easy one. There are lots of rules of thumb in photography, some good, most of them awful.

An example of a good rule of thumb is the old “Sunny f/16” rule. While it’s rarely used today, on account of in-camera metering, it was very helpful to film photographers who’d forgotten to bring a light meter. To know that you needed to set your camera to f/16 on a sunny day with a shutter speed of 1/ISO (eg. 1/100 second at ISO 100; 1/200 second at ISO 200) was a life-saver, especially as you couldn’t check the result on a digital screen. Even then, it only worked for frontlit subjects.

If a rule of thumb can encapsulate a piece of good advice in such a way that we can easily recall it when we need it: that’s fine. The trouble with rules of thumb — and with all rules in general — is that there are lots of provisos and exceptions which reduce their value. The old maxim: “Learn the rules before you break them” is itself a contentious rule of thumb and certainly one which should not be applied universally.

Here are my 10 Rules of Thumb for Street Photography

1. Shoot in good light
2. Go where the people are
3. Be patient
4. Use multiple strategies
5. Avoid zooming
6. Use standard/wide angle primes
7. Control the depth of field
8. Be discreet
9. Travel light
10. Fish in the right pool

Are these good rules of thumb – or are they contentious?

Let’s look at them one at a time.

1. Shoot in good light
Light is the basis of all photography. Saying “shoot in good light” is a bit like advising someone to “eat nutritious food.” It’s pretty obvious. Some years ago I took to heart the contents of the “Light and Film” volume in the Time/Life Photography series and I’ve found nothing in digital photography to contradict the information.

However, in practical terms, it’s not always possible to find good light when you’re out on the street. The solution is to work around its absence, making compositions that work in poor light.

I should add that by “poor light” I don’t necessarily mean weak light, because digital cameras have very sensitive sensors that work very effectively at low levels of illumination. I mean light such as you get with the overhead noon-day sun, top-lighting the subject, creating hot-spots in the image and draining the subject of its subtle tones.

You can make a virtue out of poor light if you don’t feel inclined to wait (see rule of thumb no.3). Hard, intense, overhead light may even be appropriate to your style. So this rule of thumb does not hold true for everyone.

2. Go where the people are
A photograph without people is not street photography it’s just a photograph of a street. You need to go where people gather, move, meet each other, argue and gesticulate. In such places you’ll get more good photographs than if you stand on a quiet street where only the occasional passer-by is a potential target.

Garry Winogrand advised young street photographers to go where the people are — advice that seems somewhat redundant in his native New York City where it’s quite hard to get away from people. (When I lived in NYC the only time I found it empty was when I encountered a shooter on East 43rd Street. Everyone else had fled.)

Yet you only need find a single figure in the right place at the right time to make a terrific street photo. If you always obey this rule of thumb you’ll never get that sort of picture.

3. Be patient
German street photographer Andreas Ott describes walking past a window in Voorburg (Netherlands) every day and admiring the light shining through it. He thought it would be great if someone appeared in it. He writes: “Almost half a year later, I got my shot. What should I say, patience in Street Photography pays off!”

I’m not a patient person. Sometimes I find a great background on a busy street, then suddenly everyone seems to disappear. I wait. Nothing. I go somewhere else. This is the Way of the Street Photographer.

4. Use multiple strategies
In street photography you need to improvise constantly, sometimes moving around, at other times anchoring yourself to a single position. If you always shoot with a 35mm lens, try using 50mm or 28mm for a change. Look for different patterns, gatherings, groupings of people. Let yourself be drawn to certain subjects without quite understanding why. Or set yourself a goal by looking for something specific: people using their cellphones (shouldn’t be too hard to find!) or girls on bicycles (easy in a college town).

Only by using multiple strategies can you hope to make best use of the time available. Remember what the economists say: you need to bear in mind the concept of “opportunity cost,”  the loss of potential gain from possible alternative choices.

At any moment the aforementioned “patterns, gatherings, groupings” are happening all over the city, so you don’t want to be wasting your time pursuing the wrong strategies for finding them.

The downside — as with all these rules of thumb there’s a downside — is the tendency to chop and change, never developing a coherent and distinctive style.

5. Avoid zooming
I include this for two reasons: first, because high-quality zoom lenses tend to be large, heavy and bulky. They’re a real pain to carry around and they tend to attract attention, which is the last thing you need.

The second reason — the impracticality of zooming — I shall be discussing elsewhere (in “What’s the Best Lens for Street Photography?”). I guarantee you’ll lose many opportunities to get a great shot if you have to zoom, focus, click.

On the other hand, if all you have is a zoom lens, you’ll still be able to get great shots, but it’s not the ideal lens for the job.

6. Use standard/wide angle primes
Don’t got too long or too wide. Among experienced street photographers the most popular lenses are 28mm, 35mm and 50mm.

If you go too long you’ll get camera shake. Street photography is all about taking hand-held photos, except on those delightful occasions when you can jam the camera against a lamp post or rest your elbow on a mailbox.

If you go too wide you’ll distort vertical lines at the edges of the frame. The subject will often be too small. Figures near the sides of the image will be stretched unnaturally.

Can you get a great street shot with a 16mm lens or a 100mm lens? Yes, of course. But I wouldn’t try to make it a habit.

7. Control the depth of field
Don’t let depth of field take care of itself. You really need to know which parts of the image will be in focus and which are not in focus. This is good photographic practice and not limited to street photography.

Depth of field is the effective focus range: the distance between the nearest and farthest objects where everything will appear acceptably sharp in the final image.

I control depth of field by shooting consistently in Aperture Priority mode. It allows me to choose the aperture and let the shutter speed change automatically to the right setting. However, you need to keep a close eye on your settings to make sure the shutter speed is fast enough to freeze action (if that’s your intention). If it’s not, raise the ISO.

Personally I think this rule of thumb is the exception that proves the rule. Unlike the others it’s totally true!

8. Be discreet
To avoid unnecessary confrontations it’s sensible to be discreet when you take street photographs. You’ll also get better pictures if people don’t stare at you with eyes like deer caught in the headlamps of a car.

Today, street photographers are an integral part of urban life, going about their work in much the same way as all the other occupants of the city. If we start to become a nuisance the other workers will make our job more difficult than it is already.

Is there a place for cheeky, flash-gun wielding street photographers who chat to their subjects and make a spectacle of themselves? Yes, as long as they’re nowhere near me.

9. Travel light
On fine days, all you need for street photography is a lightweight camera and lens, a bottle of water, sensible clothes and comfortable shoes. Anything more (apart from a spare battery or two) is probably unnecessary and will hinder your ability to move around and react to the changing scenes of the city. On rainy days, hook an umbrella over one arm and take weather protection for the camera.

I feel sorry for landscape photographers with their huge back-packs laden with heavy lenses, filters, tripods, and the like. If you’re carrying all that superfluous equipment, don’t even think of taking a street photo on your way to the waterfall. You’re not dressed for the occasion.

10. Fish in the right pool
I think it’s important to take street photos in places where you stand a good chance of getting decent shots — but also where you feel reasonably at ease. If you’re lurking awkwardly outside a terrorist target with a policemen glaring in your direction there’s every chance you’ll fluff your lines.

Yet it’s also good to move out of your comfort zone into the unknown, exploring parts of the city you’ve never visited before. I like to take the SkyTrain in Bangkok and jump out at stations I’ve never previously used into neighbourhoods utterly unfamiliar to me.

So there are my ten “Rules of Thumb.” I’ve left out other frequently mentioned “rules,” like “move in close,” because they’re too prescriptive.

As Pablo Picasso probably didn’t say (there’s no citation for it): “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

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