Photographing Street Scenes


As travelers, we spend a great deal of time on the streets of the world.  We often see things that we want to take a picture of.  Maybe the architecture is interesting or maybe a person caught your eye.  Our first reaction is to take a ‘grab’ shot – just point a camera at the scene and click the shutter.  Once in awhile we get a good photo but not often.  Here are a few suggestions that may improve your street photography.


1. Shoot wide


If you are going to take grab shots (and we all do) use a wide-angle lens and capture a bigger scene.  This gives you more options to crop your photo to create a better composition at a later time.  My go-to lens for walking streets is a 16-35 mm zoom lens and I put it on a full frame camera.  This gives me the best chance of capturing everything I want to capture.


2. Get close


Many street scenes are ruined when people or cars pass between you and the subject.  If you use a wide-angle lens you can get very close to what you want to take a picture of and still get everything in the frame.  By getting close, you minimize the chance of ‘outside interference’.


3. Use the sky for a background


One of the biggest problems with street scenes is the background is often busy.  If your background is cluttered or busy and you can’t do anything about it, consider shooting from a low vantage point to use more sky in your background.


4. Use the ground for a background


If the background is busy, you can also seek out a higher vantage point and shoot down on the scene making the ground your background.  I often seek out high floors, towers and rooftops to take photos of busy street scenes below.  I use a longer focal length for this of course.  My go-to lens for this type of photo is a 70 – 200 mm zoom lens.


5. Lower your depth of field


Another way to handle a busy background is to blur it.  If you are close to your subject but your background is busy, reduce your F stop until you get the effect you want.  Lenses that support the lower F-stops like 2.8 have a big advantage here.


6. Choose the best lighting


Once you have identified a scene you want to shoot, figure out when the light should be best.  If you have the option to return at that time of day, do it.  Early morning and late afternoon are generally better times of day for photography because the sun is lower in the sky and it’s not as harsh of a light.  But on the streets of a city or village, long shadows can reduce available light too much.  Similarly, an east-facing scene will generally be better in the morning and a west-facing scene will be better in the later afternoon.  The right light will make a big difference in your photo.


7. Choose a subject in good light


Sometimes we have multiple subjects to shoot in a scene.  Some of those subjects may be in good light and some may not.  If your goal is a better photo, sometimes you have to choose a subject that is positioned in good light over a more appealing subject that is not in good light.


8. Wait for the scene to change


If your scene is changing and the photo you want is not always possible, you might have to wait for your shot.  This is the hardest one for me because patience is not my strong suit.  But, if you stand in one location and wait for the light, the people or the background to get better, you will have a better image for it.


9. Rearrange the scene


Most people think of street scenes as being candid and most are.  But, it’s not as crazy as it sounds to rearrange it.  Tell everyone what you have in mind and make it fun.  Become a director and let everyone pretend they are movie extras.  Tell people where you want them to stand, rearrange the furniture and have someone hold the crowd off a few minutes.  Not only will you have a picture but you will have a fun story to go with it.  The bigger your camera, the easier this is.


10. Focus on one person or object


Many street scenes are just too busy.  If you have the time, study the scene for a minute and figure out which part is the most appealing.  Then focus on just that part.  By narrowing the scope of your photo you have a better chance of getting a clean background.  Move around until your subject fits into the composition you want with the background you want.


We all take grab shots when we are walking through city streets on vacation.  Next time, pause for an extra moment to take a better shot.  You will come home with more keepers.


May your travel and your photography both be rewarding!


       Roger Nelson