Ask a bunch of photographers who’ve tried their hand at various genres and a large percentage of them might tell you that street photography is the most challenging, especially for beginners. Without getting into the utter fear and apprehension most people have in pointing their camera towards the direction of complete strangers the challenge with street photography in comparison to most other genres is you usually get one shot. In most other forms of photography the environment is much more controlled and you can get set up and start shooting and if it’s not to your liking or you need some tweaking you have time to do so. Not so with street.
You need to think and act fast because most times if you miss the moment it’s gone so knowing the right settings for various conditions is absolutely vital. Knowing how to change those setting quickly on the fly is even more critical. So, I'm going to break down the best settings for various conditions so you can come home with less accidental blurry, grainy out of focus pictures and more work you can be extremely proud of.
Probably the most unreliable time of day to shoot as you are reliant on the whims of Mother Nature and the type of light she decides to give you. Unless you live in a place that has consistent weather conditions such as countries closer to the equator then chances are you live in a city that has varying weather patterns and therefore quality of light ...and light is the most important thing in any type of photography.
Rain / Sun / Snow... wildly different conditions requiring knowledge of appropriate settings for each
Typically speaking when I shoot street photography during the day I like to keep to a few standard settings.
Mode: Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority or Manual? There is no RIGHT way as street photographers use all modes depending on their preference. Typically during the day I’m comfortable to go into Aperture Priority or AV mode. Why? I want to control depth of field and let the camera decide the rest so I have less to think about. However, keep in mind to check what shutter speed the camera is choosing. If it’s too slow you are best to up your ISO.
Focus: During the day you typically have 2 options which would be Auto-Focus or Manual aka Zone Focus. Zone Focus as the name implies is setting a focus distance at a certain range and shooting within that range to ensure your images are sharp. It will take a lot of practice to get a feel for how far things are away from your camera or if they are in your zone or not however.
What I tend to use more often is AF-C plus a tracking focus area set to wide. This ensures that I capture the moving subjects in my frame. It’s not going to be always 100% accurate especially if you have a lot of action in your scene but more times than not you’ll get the shot.
Plus a lot of cameras now have spot focus which I use a lot day or night. Spot focusing is taking your camera off of auto-focus mode, and choosing where on your viewfinder to put focus thus prioritizing that spot as the most important focus area before taking your shot. This is great for more still subjects and cameras like my Sony A7IV have touch screen spot focusing so I can immediately place the focus where I want on the image to nail my shot!
Aperture: The aperture stands for how large or small of a hole will open in your camera to let in light. The smaller your aperture, the more of the scene that will be in focus (small apertures are the higher numbers, such as F11, while large apertures are the smaller numbers, such as F2.8). By using a small aperture, more of the shot will be in focus and so it will give us more leeway to capture our main target in focus. So I usually default to an aperture of F8 and in pure sunny conditions around F11 or even F16. If the lighting conditions worsen and I need more light I could stop down to F4 or even F2.8 but be mindful that doing so will mean less of the scene is in focus.
Shutter Speed: general rule of thumb is that for still images 1 over your focal length will get the job done so for example if I’m shooting a still image with a 35mm lens than shooting at 1/35 (or whatever speed is closest) will give me a sharp image. But it’s rare that in street photography that our subjects are not moving so in order to freeze the action and minimize blur I recommend to shoot at a shutter speed of at least 1/250 and preferably faster.
ISO: During the day and especially during bright conditions you’ll typically want to keep this down as low as possible so we don’t introduce MORE light into your camera. Here I’m typically at around 200-400 ISO and under cloudy or darker shade conditions anywhere from 800-1600. Be mindful of your cameras capabilities here though. Most of the newer, semi-pro cameras can crank up the ISO no problem however if you’re using an older or cheaper model you might want to half my recommendations.
I can definitely say that nighttime shooting is much more consistent in terms of lighting conditions than daytime. We can show up to the same locations night after night and the same lights will typically be on giving us the same conditions consistently.
No matter when I show up at night to these spots, I can rely on roughly the same lighting conditions
However night photography presents its own set of challenges and most photographers really struggle in terms of getting quality images at night. Here are my basic settings
Mode: Here I will almost always use Manual mode as I prefer to have full control over the camera under low light conditions. Many night photographers will use Aperture priority and that’s ok too but be sure to set a minimum shutter speed in your camera of around 1/250 and a maximum ISO of 6400 but perhaps less if your camera gets too noisy at those levels.
Focus: I usually use Automatic AF with a Focus Area set to Flexible spot. On my Sony A7IV I can easily touch the screen of where I want the focus to be which is really important at night as we have such a shallow depth of field. On a Nikon you’re best to use 3-D tracking and on a Canon Single-point AF will get you the same results.
*PRO TIP - when using any of the auto modes at night try setting your exposure compensation by -.7 or -1. This is because your camera might try to overcompensate a dark scene by overexposing your brightest areas and we must always remember to protect those highlights. By setting our exposure compensation down we are essentially pre-emptively making our photos darker so we can properly pull up the exposure later in post editing.
Aperture: This is where a fast lens is going to earn its money. Having a lens that can shoot at 1.8, 1.4 or even 1.2 like my Sony 50mm GM is going to make night shooting a lot easier as we have much more room to let light into our cameras. Of course we don’t need to shoot wide open all the time but having that option is a key difference between a dark and grainy photo and a well lit and clean one.
Shutter Speed: Keep your shutter speed fast enough to freeze any movement in your scene but slow enough to let in more light. If you want to capture light trails and purposefully add motion blur to your photos you can of course keep this number down. You’ll have to figure out what’s best according to your subject and style. And bring a tripod!
Shutter Speed at 1/40 to capture lots of light and camera on a tripod
ISO: newer cameras can really push the boundaries of ISO and if I’m going to give anything up in order to properly expose my scene it would have to be ISO. You want to keep it as low as possible but on my Sony A7IV I would be comfortable to take my ISO as high as 6400 under some conditions. Typically however because I use faster primes lenses at night I can keep this number much lower.
And there you have the basics! There is a lot more to get into obviously but these core concepts will get anyone moving on the right path. The end goal is to practice so often that these settings can be changed instinctively on the fly with little to no thinking and of course hesitation. Too much time spent fiddling around on your camera and just maybe the moment you wanted to capture has already gone.
Leave a comment below if you found any of this helpful or any questions on what we covered!
Thanks always for reading and catch you on the next one when we cover DAY 4: What To Look For and Lighting.