Street Photography: myths and stereotypes

There is a lot of information these days about photography in the streets; a lot of recommendations about composition, settings, history. But in practice, are they the ultimate recommendations about it? Are there other alternatives to those well-established believes, stereotypes, and, also, myths?

In the following lines I will talk only by my experience. I will discuss opposite criterias and directions for those «recommendations» or tips. I chose the following for my discussion:

  1. Focal length: use 35mm or a standard wide angle 28mm lenses (with a crop body you should multiple by 1.5 or 1.6 to obtain the same view angles).
  2. Aperture: go from f/8 to f/16, never wide open.
  3. Focus: Use zone focusing (related to the last item and the depth of field).
  4. Camera mode: Use Program mode and forget about settings.
  5. Gear: Use a little, portable camera.

I’m inclined to consider the first three strong stereotypes nowadays. The other two are common-sense recommendations, but not rules you must follow. For example, I know about street photographers who use Manual mode or any other semi-auto mode (Aperture priority or Shutter priority) for street photos all the time. But let’s discuss our vision one by one.

Focal length for the streets

There aren’t dogmas in street photography, except that it must show instances of wanderings on the streets. This is why it pictures the life in the street as a main motive: people working, talking, walking, kissing, playing, and so on. It also shows any special feature of public places, street lines, railroads, buildings, windows, bridges. Many street photographers prefer wide-angle lens, 35mm or 28mm, to gather in the same frame the big picture, their complete sight in a bit of time. These lenses cover a lot in the frame showing what it’s the principal point of focus and any other scene not perceived initially by the photographer. In any case, the principle is that if you want to get closer, you will and get a decent portrait or a body shot by: «zoom-in with your legs». The wide angle fixed lens allows the convenience of a zoom lens, covering a lot of content, but using your legs for approximations when necessary.

From my perspective about street photography, what impress me the most is the human presence in the streets in candid situations (although not any candid photo is in the street, as we know). The human presence, their faces and body features, in uncommon gestures and postures, are by me the most remembered images of street photography. Buildings geometry or any public object forms, and textures, could impress me, but there is no more to see, no stories involve. Even a peculiar emanation of the light, its reflection and refraction, don’t cause the strong signature of a human face. Why is that? For sure that affections takes part in this, but I think that the central point is the multi-semantic dimensions of those images. With people in unordinary situations we are inclined to create complex meanings, stories. The photo of humans could denote an underline drama. Why is he or she smiling like that? Why are they looking? What are they talking? Where they come from? What are their destination? Are they feel pain, love, anxiety?

Because all of the above, in these days I’m using a fast (max aperture f/1.8), fixed lens of 50mm in an APS-C body for street shooting. It’s not enough for me go near the subject. I want to see the faces, arms, and upper body more closely. I want the immersion into the crowd, following the opposite direction of my subjects to see their faces, trapping their gestures. But also, with this focal length—the equivalent angle view of a 75mm lens in full frame cameras— I don’t interfere too much with what it’s happening around me. I want the people to be and maintain their candidness. Some critics think that using mini-telephotos or full telephotos show the implicit shyness of the photographer. For sure, that could be the case in many instances. To me, as I said, it is an excellent way to look a human being with god eyes (without notice my presence), and to avoid the «panorama illness» of many street photos with wide angle lens. By the side, with this focal length, there are many opportunities of excellent street portraits.


«The mexican» (f/1.8 1/250s ISO 160 50mm) © Claudio Rivera 2017

The lens Aperture

With the election of a fast lens, I pursue another supposedly «anti-pattern» for street photography when shooting street portraits: big apertures of 2.8 or less. If you notice, in the above photo, the focus remains in the face of the man, with blurriness behind and in front of him. The image came from his eyes to his face, his tattoos, paying almost no attention of the other people or street features.

In images with f-stops from f/8 to f/16 or more, almost anybody would be sharp: your subject and whatever that it’s not (the chairs, the waitress, the street). For any portrait these are unnecessary distractions, that could be in many ways, cause the loss of the main subject in a «maremagnum» of content.

A note of careful: the focal plane with a low f-stop is very short. If the subject is moving, you should have the most fast auto-focus system or get a higher f-stop (between f/4 or f/5.6 is very good) to avoid out of focus frames.

Although the main goal of street photography is to picture the public, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay attention to a proper subject. Do you remember the landscape photos of fields of grass and a remote mountain, without any particular feature or form that stand out from the other parts? Those pictures seem backdrops, nothing more. It doesn’t mean that you must use a single object as your subject. Photos of groups of people or a field of flowers, are very good subject candidates, but they must jump out clearly as your main eyes stimuli over all around them. I think the consideration is about the approximation of your subject. As your subject is close to you—as it is the case of portraits—, it’s better to open the lens, with a nice blur in the background; otherwise get the aperture to higher f-stops for the proper focus of all the context around the subject.

There is another exception for me. It is when your’re in a multi-layer photo, with various subjects at different focal planes. The «layers» pattern is a composition aid that draws subjects in different locations under the same frame: one subject in the front, and others, several meters more in the background, structuring separate and distinguishable focal planes. In this situation you need a f-stop of f/8 or more to get all the scene properly in sharp.


«Lost?» (f/16 1/125s ISO 400 55mm) © Claudio Rivera 2017

In the above picture—taken at f/16—I recognize the family in front, with the passing couple near them, the two men talking in the right sidewalk, the people and the flag behind them, and in the back the church and the flying dove frozen in the sky. This photo couldn’t be made without a closed f-stop getting a decent sharpness for all of the layers it shows.

Zone focusing

The zone focusing is another recommendation dictated for street photos. The goal is—with a high f-stop (f/16 or more), until some point to avoid diffraction—to bring sharpness into all the frame from a short distance (one or two meters) to several meters ahead or infinity. In practice, with a tiny aperture, you should be in focus with continuos auto-focus from a single point in the front of the scene to the other back layers every time, without presetting the focus beforehand. After all, that is the concrete result of pre-focusing a zone. With the auto focus system of today, you should have good results in milliseconds. Focus every time will guarantee to be always in focus, being at 2 meters or 10 meters the first layer of your picture. The photo above focus directly the family in front, but the f/16 aperture allows us to get a good definition up to the church in the background. The focus is not as sharp than in the front, but you get a clear view of textures and lines of walls and balconies.

The main problem with different, or opposite f-stops, is how can you be prepared for those situations when you want to capture in sharp different layers, or when you want to get a pretty background blur. I think—and this is only my opinion—that most of the time you should confine to intuition. On many occasions you feel that your environment is about the subjects around you. In those situations you want portraits of individuals, one single focal plane of interest near you, then set your aperture to 2.8 or less. But other times, the street are convulsed by many groups, many interesting events around you, that suggest more than one layer, but all of them you can catch. Those times you set your aperture instantly to f/8 or more.

This is actually part of my workflow. That is another reason to select Aperture priority mode in the streets. It allow me take these quick decisions and get the proper exposure instantly. In more complex situations you can shoot with opposite apertures and let’s the results stand out by themselves.

Another consideration is the workflow you choose for shooting in the streets. I use as a reference the pattern of the three Fs: fishing, following, finding. «Following» a subject along the street almost suggest itself: this is your main character, get near it to fill your frame and open the lens with a f-stop of 2.8 or less. You have to be careful because of the limitations of the planes in focus. It all depends of the speed of your subject, your distance (closer you get, less depth of field), and the f-stop. If your subject is moving there is a great chance to get it out of focus (for the very shallow depth of field). Only practice—with continuous auto-focus in a single point—and taking 3 or more shots will allow to catch all in focus with big apertures. When «fishing» subjects in a pretty or interesting backdrop, you can plan beforehand  your settings, take intelligent decisions: one layer, two or more layers, etc. By fishing you decide your apertures, if the expected subject will be all in the frame or the background must be sharp. And finally, by «finding» the unexpected in the streets, you have no other than pure luck, the serendipity governs, you should have to be quick, no matter what your setting are: you shoot. Generally, when nothing is apparent and you are wandering expecting something to happen, you presets to f/8 and focus near to 2 meters, or so, ready to shot immediately.

Program mode and perfect gear

The last two items are less strict. As I said before, many street photographers use Manual mode, pre-setting the aperture, the shutter speed and the ISO, based on experience and light conditions. The good result is a common appearance along all their pictures. The bad thing is the missing opportunities when the subject or light conditions quickly varies. Nowadays, shooting raw solves many of those problems, and you can adjust any picture in post-production. In Aperture and Shutter Priorities, when and why I discuss my choices in that direction. I prefer Aperture priority for common outdoors situations, changing to Shutter priority in indoors or when my subject, or me, are moving fast. Setting the Shutter speed 1/250th avoids to me the camera shake and most of the motion blur. Less than that can avoid camera shake, but no always the motion blur with moving figures.

Finally, I shoot with a DSLR APS-C body. It’s a semi-pro camera with excellent configuration capabilities and high quality sensor. Not two lite, not too discrete. I miss however a tilt LCD display. It would allow me to shoot from the hip and to change easily the perspective of the eye (down or up as wish). It also would allow me to be more discrete in close distance with my subjects. A light mirrorless camera come to mind. It’s too complicate for me to carry my DSLR everywhere. A pocket-size camera would motivate me to get my gear everywhere, not missing opportunities of good shots when making errands in the streets or in my free-time of the regular working week. Next year…maybe.

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