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Camera settings for street photography

When you look at the work of great street photographers, sometimes it can seem easy – you just have to be in the right place at the right time.

While that last part is true, the reality is much harder than it seems.

Ultimately, the content of your images is most important, but when shooting street photos, people are quick to notice that their photos look like they are not in the moment.

A major reason for this is that they have not learned that setting up their camera for street photography can be quite different from most other types of photography.

Every technical conversation about street photography starts with light, and this is where many photographers get confused.

You need to be able to see and understand light before you can choose the right settings. Your main focus should be on how strong the light is and where the main light sources are coming from. After you have evaluated this, you can look at your camera to choose the right settings.

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Much street photography is based on moving subjects. Not all of them, of course, but a significant portion of them.

Sometimes the perfect person suddenly appears and moves through your scene. This makes your shutter speed vital.

If you want to freeze the movement of a subject, you need a sufficiently short shutter speed for this. For this reason, I usually shoot with shutter speed priority, with a shutter speed of 1 / 250th or 1 / 320th of a second. These are my settings for freezing people in motion.

If the light is very dark, I go to 1 / 160th or even slower, which will add a little blur, but will still be nice. If I’m shooting in sunny areas, I’ll go to 1/400 or 1/500.

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The next step is to increase your ISO.

You may have learned differently in the past, but today cameras can shoot at much higher ISOs, with more pleasing results than they had, even five years ago.

Don’t be afraid of ISO 1600 or 3200. The newer high-end cameras can even do 6400 well.

Increasing the ISO adds more noise/grain to your image, but allows you to shoot with a faster shutter speed and a smaller aperture in less than ideal light. Suddenly, you can shoot handheld in lighting situations you would normally avoid. You’ll also find that your images will look technically better, despite the added graininess.

For portrait photography or pure landscape photography, I shoot at lower ISOs, but street photography is a completely different situation.

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Unless it is very dark, a higher ISO will allow your camera to shoot with a smaller aperture (f / 8 to f / 16) to achieve a greater depth of field.

This is obviously a matter of taste, and images with blurred backgrounds can be quite beautiful, but there are some considerations.

Three reasons to choose a small aperture

The first is that you often don’t know when your subject and moment will suddenly appear, and these moments will be fleeting. So if you shoot with a small depth of field and miss focus, your photo will fail more often than not. You have more latitude to mess up your focus and still get a sharp photo with a small aperture.
The second reason is for situations where multiple subjects are equally important in the scene, and at different distances. With a small aperture, you can get them all relatively sharp.
Finally, the context of a scene can be very important for a street photograph. Background, settings, and small details can be just as important to the image as the main subject, and blurring them can reduce their impact. With a large depth of field, even the smallest details can have a big impact.

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Work hard to master the technical tips shared here and eventually it will feel like the camera isn’t even there.

In this way, you can best capture the fast-moving scenes in street photography and concentrate most on the important thing, which is what is happening in your image.

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