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Setting Up your DSLR for Street or Urban Photography

Setting Up your DSLR for Street or Urban Photography

When looking at the work of great street photographers, it can sometimes 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 tougher than it might seem.

Ultimately, the content of your images is most important, but when shooting street photography, people quickly find that their photos come out nothing like what they see in the moment. A major reason for this is because they were not taught that setting up their camera for street photography can be quite different from most other types of photography.

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

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

A lot of street photography is based around moving subjects. Not all of course, but a significant portion of it. Sometimes, the perfect person will appear suddenly and move through your scene. This makes your shutter speed vital.

If you want to freeze the motion of a subject, you need a fast enough shutter speed to do so. It is for this reason that I usually shoot in shutter priority, with a shutter speed of 1/250th or 1/320th of a second. These are my go-to settings to freeze motion in people. If the light is very dark, I will go down to 1/160th or even slower, which will add a little blur, but will still be beautiful. When shooting in sunny areas, I will go to 1/400th or 1/500th.

The next step is to raise your ISO.

You might have been taught differently in the past, but cameras these days can shoot at much higher ISOs, with more pleasing results than they could have, even five years ago.

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Do not be afraid of ISO 1600 or 3200. The newer high-end cameras can even do 6400 well.

Raising your ISO will add more noise/grain into your image, but it will allow you the ability to shoot with a faster shutter speed, and a smaller aperture, in less than ideal light. Suddenly, you will be able to shoot handheld in lighting situations that you would normally avoid. You will also notice that your images will look technically better, despite the added grain. For portraiture or pure landscape photography, I will shoot at lower ISOs, but street photography is a much different situation.

Unless it is very dark out, a higher ISO will allow your camera the ability to shoot with a smaller aperture (f/8 to f/16) to achieve a larger depth of field. This is a matter of taste of course, and images with out-of-focus backgrounds can be very beautiful, however there are some considerations.

Three reasons to shoot a small aperture

  1. The first is that you often do not know when your subject and moment will suddenly appear, and these moments will be fleeting. So if you are shooting with a shallow depth of field and miss the focus, your image will more often than not be ruined. You will have more leeway to screw up your focus and still get a sharp shot using a small aperture.
  2. The second reason is for the situations where there are multiple subjects that are equally important in the scene, and at different depths. With a small aperture it will allow you to get them all relatively sharp.
  3. Finally, the context of a scene can be very important to a street photograph. Background, settings, and small details can be just as important to the image as the main subject, and blurring them can lessen their impact. With a large depth of field, it can allow even the smallest of details to have a large impact.

Work hard to master the technical tips shared here and eventually it will feel like the camera is not even there. This is when you will be able to best capture the fast moving scenes in street photography and be able to focus most on the most important thing, which is what is happening in your image.

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