The 5 Elements of Effective Street Photography

My friend Todd Hatakeyama recently gave me a superbly refreshing book titled: “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking”. It is a basic primer on how to think more effectively when solving problems– and can help students, teachers, and anyone trying to learn or improve their skills.

Like always, I took away a lot from the book– and thought about the principles and how we could apply them to street photography. Here are some of the ideas I learned from the book

Principle 1: Understand deeply

So in order to become a better photographer, you need to understand simple ideas deeply, you need to be brutally honest about what you know and what you don’t know, you need to let go of bias, preconceived notions, and you need to have a rock-solid understanding of the fundamentals.

a) Master the basics

Before you can become Henri Cartier-Bresson, it is essential to master the basics. What are some basic fundamentals you could work on in street photography?

Technical settings:

Generally when I teach introductory street photography workshops, I recommend people to shoot in “P” mode and not worry too much about the technical aspects of the camera. This is because the focus of the workshop is primarily overcoming your fear of shooting street photography– not learning how to master your camera.

But I do think that if you are comfortable shooting in the streets and really want to master street photography– you need to master the fundamentals of the technical settings of your camera and use it in a way which works for you.

For example, you want to have a strong understanding of aperture, shutter-speed, and ISO.

Composition

When it comes to making great photographs, how solid are your fundamentals of composition? Do you know how to fill a frame? Do you know how close you have to be to your subjects to make an interesting or engaging image? Do you know how to better incorporate diagonals, curves, and how to create strong figure-to-ground (contrast) in your images? If not, I highly recommend you to read my articles on composition (or watch my YouTube lecture on composition).

Emotions

Another fundamental in street photography is emotion. Before you go off and try to create very complex images, I recommend starting off to simply capture emotions. As a theme next time when you’re out shooting– look for emotions in your subjects. Look for feelings of happiness, angst, pain, suffering, and sorrow in your subjects.

How do you best capture emotions in your subjects? Look for hand gestures and body language.

Single-subjects

To make better photographs is to simplify. When you’re starting off in street photography, before you can make a super-complex and multi-layered photograph like Alex Webb, you want to focus on the fundamentals of single-subjects.

So when you’re out shooting on the streets, just try to focus on one subject at a time. Then as you feel more comfortable with that, branch out and try to photograph 2 subjects, then 3 subjects. Then see how you can add more depth to your images, by figuring out what other elements you can add to your frame to make it more complex.

So when in doubt with your photography, take things back to the fundamentals and basics. If you find your backgrounds in street photography are cluttered, simplify by just photographing people against simple black or white walls.

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