Shooting in the city can be both the easiest and hardest photography you’ll do. First, it’s a target-rich environment — people everywhere, perpetual backdrops and usually lots of action and interest. You could walk down the street, fire your camera randomly, and usually come away with something decent. But that doesn’t necessarily make what you get actually good. Being good takes the same degree of thought, planning and skill that any other photographic genre demands.
So I consulted two extremely talented street photographers — Jill Shomer (@jillshomer) and Brad Puet (@bradpuet) — to see how they work their magic. And I threw in a few tips of my own. Check out the advice below, grab your camera, and hit the bricks.
Be a Geometry Major
New York City-based photographer Jill Shomer looks for great lines. “I’m really attracted to geometry and perspective,” she said. “I like to find that in long street views and in facades with a lot of windows. I’m also super hung up on straight lines — to me, that’s what makes a photo mine.”
Focus on light
Seattle-based street photographer Brad Puet loves light. “I always look for how the light plays with the city,” he said. “The nooks and crannies where light might seep in, or even where it blankets a crowd.” Living in Seattle, where it’s overcast much of the time, makes that a challenge, however. “I become a giddy little kid whenever the sun comes out.”
People inject life and scale to a scene, Shomer said. “I love to see interesting ways that people can fit into their surroundings.” She was attracted to the Instagram work of Eric Brammer (@eric_le_reveur), who would feature one person walking through a frame in a way Shomer found visually striking, and which felt like it was capturing a moment. As a result, the two of them created the popular hashtag #strideby. “I like to capture a strider in a particular place in a scene — centered, usually, or at a particular angle, and again, I really like to play with vertical scale,” she said. “I think it helps show how we live in a big city, constantly dwarfed by the urban landscape.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
Puet shoots candid moments about 60 percent of the time, and the other 40 percent consists of him approaching people he thinks are interesting. “I introduce myself as a street photographer, then ask if it’s okay to take their portrait,” he said. “I would say ninety-five percent of the time, they agree. While I’m taking their photos, I engage them in conversation, and this is where I learn more about them and really start to put context around who they are. It really confirms why I had the need to find out more about them.”
Shooting with a long telephoto lens can compress space in really interesting ways, turning long boulevards into almost vertical-looking compositions and allowing you to use depth of field to fill the frame with great stuff. A good 200mm lens will do this well, but 400mm will do this really well.
Shomer always shoots in portrait mode. “The landscape in New York City is excellent for vertical scale, but I look for the same sense of height when I travel, too. Interesting shapes and colors are everywhere, so I’m always scanning my environment.”
Always Look Behind You
When you’re out shooting, whether you’re walking down a street in the city or driving through an exotic landscape, you tend to focus on what’s ahead of you, sussing out interesting compositions from the skyline, the nearby buildings, and the ebb and flow of people. But if you take a moment — say, every block — to look behind you, you’ll see not the same stuff you just walked through, but a completely different set of views, angles and lighting conditions. You’ll double your possibilities for great compositions.
Make It an Experience
Use street photography as a social experience as much as an artistic one. “I am a people person and I like to socialize,” Puet said. “This contributes well to my street photography — I don’t have that fear of engaging with people. So my favorite part of shooting streets is the portraits, and the gathering of people’s stories. You just have to have fun. Shoot close, be respectful, and smile.”
What’s in the Bag?
Great Gear for Urban Photographers
DxO ONE 20.2MP Digital Connected Camera by DxO $495
This camera attachment for smartphones will give you a 20MP, single-inch sensor for great low-light shooting, with the option to save uncompressed RAW files.
ExoLens Pro by ExoLens $50
This range of lens attachments adds pro-grade Zeiss glass to your iPhone, for higher-resolution photos free of distortion.
SKRWT by SKRWT $2
This smartphone app helps you process your images for maximum impact, including correcting for distortion and perspective flaws.
The Bowery Camera Bag by ONA $149
This compact messenger bag will hold your camera, an extra lens, and enough personal items to make for a great day out shooting.
Leash Camera Strap by Peak Design $35
This smart strap — configurable as a sling strap, neck strap and safety tether — keeps your camera ready at a moment’s notice.