14 secrets of successful street photography by expert Paul Bence

Professional photographer and Photocrowd member Paul Bence is our Expert Judge for the current Street Photography contest. Paul has over 10 years of experience under his belt and some breathtaking imagery to show for it. Here he shares with us his top tips for how to take great photos on the street.

1. Start local

Don't go searching for a "Special Place" when shooting street photography. The interesting place is usually the one that's closest to home. And an advantage of shooting locally is that you should have a feel for where to go and where’s best avoided. Use your local knowledge to your advantage.

Tooting Kebab Shop, South London © Paul Bence

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2. Don’t ask permission before you shoot

If you ask permission first, then you end up with street portraits, which are different from what I’d call street photography. I started out asking the public if I could take their picture, and it turns out people tend to say yes! That gave me the confidence to shoot more daringly, which I find to be a lot more interesting.

If someone sees that I’ve taken their picture I usually smile and say thanks. If you’re confident then it hardly ever causes a problem. I’ve only been attacked once in 10 years!

Here’s an idea of the difference between asking permission, and not:

Taken with permission

© Paul Bence

Taken without permission

© Paul Bence

3. Don’t worry about what camera you’ve got

You can use any kind of camera for street photography. DSLRs are fast and responsive but the downside is that the bigger ones are quite heavy and make you stand out more. Compact cameras work well for the street – they help you to be less visible, but they’re sometimes not quite as quick, which can be frustrating.

I shoot with a Nikon D3S, a Nikon D800, and I have a Fujifilm mirrorless camera that I’ve been using the last few months – the X100S.

4. Get your settings sorted before you start

When shooting street you want to set a mid-range aperture, between f8 and f11. This allows you to get lots of detail in the shot, which you can’t if you use a shallow depth of field. You can use aperture priority mode if you want. I shoot in manual mode, which I think gives you a better understanding of your camera’s settings, but either is fine. I normally have the ISO set to between 200 and 400.

5. Use a wide-angle lens

You can use any lens for street photography, but you’ll notice that most street photographers use a fairly wide-angle lens – somewhere between 24mm and 50mm. I use a 35mm lens on my full-frame DSLR, which means I can get in closer to the subject and get more involved in the scene, which comes across in the photograph.

I started with a longer lens because I lacked confidence, but gradually I switched to a 50mm, and now I use the 35mm about 80% of the time. As your confidence builds, you get in closer.

6. Don’t touch the zoom!

Fixed lenses are better for street photography. Or if you’re using a zoom, set it to your preferred focal length and then leave it alone! Using a fixed focal length will help you master composition, and you’ll shoot quicker if you’re not spending time playing with the zoom before firing.

7. Get the focus right

You can use manual focus or autofocus. If you use autofocus then a good tip is to put the camera into AF-S/one shot mode and make use of the AF-L/AF-ON button on the back of your camera. By pressing this button in you can lock the focus at a set distance and fire more shots without it refocusing each time.

If you’re shooting through glass, which can add a nice layer to a shot, you’ll need to use manual focus as the autofocus often struggles with reflective surfaces.

Another thing to try in manual focus mode is pre-focussing at a set distance, with a smaller aperture such as f11, and then making sure your subjects are all about the right distance from the camera.

© Paul Bence

8. Shoot in RAW, with black-and-white preview

RAW files give you a lot more scope to change the image in post production than JPEGs do. You can also decide later whether to choose colour or black and white. Setting your previews on the camera’s screen to black and white will help you decipher the light in your scene.

9. Look for the light and shadows

Pay attention to where the shadows are falling, and the light is shining. It’s common knowledge that early morning and late afternoon light is better, softer, but you can shoot on the street and get great photographs any time of the day as long as you pay attention to what the light is doing.

© Paul Bence

10. Look at the foreground AND the background of the shot

For every shot I take I’ll systematically look for interesting elements in both the foreground and the background that can add interest to the main subject. This creates a more interesting, layered image. At the same time it’s important to avoid friction and awkward overlaps between the different elements.

© Paul Bence

11. Stake out a scene

When you find a great setting for a shot, with the right elements and the right lighting, hang out there for a while and see how the people are interacting with it. Sometimes I’ll spend half an hour shooting the same scene, waiting for the right shot.

12. Shoot a lot!

The more time you spend on the street the better you'll get. And don't be afraid to return to the same spot and try for different shots.

13. Edit well

The process of editing is just as important as the process of shooting. When reviewing the images you've shot on a day out take time to assess whether some images would work on their own or as part of a series. Look for patterns and keep track of what worked and what didn't.

One thing I like to do is have a folder of my personal favourite images and I will drop all my good images into this folder. Every so often I'll go back to this folder in search of emerging patterns that will help me create a narrative.

I also find that when creating a series of images it’s best to stick with either all colour, or all black and white.

14. Don’t over-process your images

Keep your post-processing down to a minimum. Street photography is about documenting reality, and it's very easy to go overboard.

Each of these tips should have an impact on the final image and will help you to discover what you love shooting. Remember that it's all trial and error with street photography, there is no right or wrong and at every step of the process there’s always room to improve.

If you want to learn more about street photography, here are a few links I'd like to recommend:

erickimphotography.com/blog/ - Eric Kim is a great first point to learn about street photography - knowledgable and friendly

twocutedogs.com - Charlie Kirk is a UK street photographer/tutor currently working in Turkey

www.flickr.com/groups/onthestreet/ - a great flickr group where you see what good street photography is all about

martinparr.com - one of the most famous British street photographers

Thanks Paul for this excellent guide to street photography. To check out more of Paul's work, visit his site. And once you’ve put Paul’s advice into practice, upload your best shots to Photocrowd's contests.

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