Here are 28 common mistakes to avoid when you shoot street photography.
1. Always Using Manual Mode
One common misconception and street photography mistake is the belief that professional photographers always use the manual mode, and therefore it is also useful for street photography, right?
First, professional photographers don’t use the manual mode every time. They use it when it benefits them, but they also choose an automatic mode when conditions are changing rapidly and would mean adjusting the camera settings too often. The automatic modes that come with the camera are already well developed and tested in the field. A lot of professional wedding photographers use them, as well as photojournalists.
The street isn’t a place where you can define your settings once and go with them all day. Choosing the automatic modes allows you to focus more on taking the picture and waste less time to fiddling with your camera.
2. Using the On-Camera Flash
Most cameras have an in-built camera flash that is very tempting to use if you don’t have any other flash. The truth is that the on-camera solution is very disappointing and doesn’t help your images. Instead you become very frustrated by the poor outcomes and don’t meet your expectations. Make sure to disable the automatic built-in flash function as soon as you get your camera, so the flash doesn’t pop up on accident. Instead, change the camera settings to work with the available light, rather than relying on this poor choice of flash.
3. Never Using a Flash At All
While the built-in flash is a poorly choice, an off-camera flash or a standard external flash is a great opportunity to enhance your pictures in daylight and allows you to use the nighttime, as well. If you believe that street photography with a flash can be more “frightening” than normal daytime shooting, I recommend you obtain your own experience. Contrary to my prejudice, using a flash is way easier than expected, and I haven’t met any negative repercussions yet. Instead, I discovered street photography in a very new way. With the flash on it feels like shooting a whole new genre. Don’t refrain from trying it out just because it looks intimidating.
4. Choosing the Wrong Focus Mode
Another street photography mistake is using the wrong choice of the focus mode. Depending on your camera, the automatic modes can be more or less reliable. Using the full automatic mode can be okay, but with my first camera about 20 percent of the shots were out of focus when the camera chose the focus points. A way to get more reliable shots is to choose the focus point manually. For example, you can set your focal point to the center of the frame. If you want to focus on the sides, you might press the shutter button half way through to focus and then move your camera to frame the shot while maintaining the focus.
Another technique is the pre-focusing method. You set the focusing distance beforehand—maybe one or one and half meters in front of your camera—and go with this setting along your photo walk. Combine this with a wide aperture of f/1.8, for example.
5. Setting the Wrong ISO
Don’t get lost too much finding the right ISO setting. Rather, choose an automatic mode where the camera sets the ISO value. If your camera allows it, you should also define some maximum ranges for this setting, so the camera doesn’t suddenly choose some over-the-top value. The lower the ISO the better, but going from 100 to 400 doesn’t destroy your pictures and a little grain doesn’t ruin them either.
6. Too Shallow Depth of Field
You’re proud of your supreme lens that allows an aperture of f/1.4 or even f/1.2? That’s cool for you, but it doesn’t mean that you should always shoot with the aperture wide open. A shallow depth of field usually is a visual effect that tries to hide the weaknesses of a picture. When your pictures are good enough to show in full beauty, don’t get lost with a shallow depth of field.
7. Too Heavy Gear
Are you afraid of missing a shot because you left your specialized lens at home? Then become accustomed to not taking every shot possible on the street. Take a small camera with one fixed focal lens that lets you have fun on the street for hours, rather than bringing your whole arsenal of equipment and becoming exhausted after only 15 minutes of shooting. It’s more beneficial to travel light and be mobile than it is to cover every focal length. You won’t have the time to change your lenses, anyway.
8. Wearing Uncomfortable Clothes
In terms of gear, I’m more concerned about comfortable clothes than any camera gear. Focus on wearing shoes that can take you the extra mile instead of having stylish shoes that aren’t that practical for walking long distances.
During the winter it’s also advisable to get some gloves that let you operate the camera on cold days.
9. Not Shooting in RAW
Camera manufacturers use different picture styles to advertise their new top of the line cameras. In reality, these effects or filters are worthless. Shoot in RAW and export to Lightroom or a free editing alternative. It might take five more minutes out of your time, but it’s definitely worth it. Almost none of the pictures that are published in books or online are straight out of the camera; they have been edited.
You can also set up a general profile for your pictures so you don’t need to edit every image individually. RAW gives you way more freedom in a time where disk space is rarely a restriction.
10. Not Backing Up Your Images
Probably everyone knows a photographer who has lost entire archives due to hardware failure. Nevertheless we believe that such a horror story wouldn’t happen to us, because we believe we’re more technical savvy or that such a catastrophic event only occurs to others.
The truth is, that no one is exempt from such disasters and that is easier to prevent than to repair. I recommend you store all your important images not only on one physical device, but two. You can, for example, set up an external hard-drive only for your pictures. Additionally you can use online services like Flickr or cloud-storage solutions like Dropbox to save your images from any harm.
11. Choosing a Tele-Lens
It’s hard trying out street photography for the first time, especially getting comfortable around people while you snap your pictures. While it is tempting to go for a longer lens to get “closer” a tele-lens is not an appropriate solution for this kind of genre. There is no short track to avoiding the hard phase of building up your confidence to get closer. In general try to work on yourself and not on the gear you choose.
12. Over-Editing Your Pictures
As already mentioned, not editing your pictures is a lost opportunity to improve your pictures quickly. Drifting to the other extreme of over-editing your pictures to make a boring shot look more exciting is another mistake you should try to avoid. Editing a street picture shouldn’t take longer than five minutes. Adding a little contrast, clarity, and vignette is usually enough to get the best results.
If you think your picture looks too artificial and you have overdone the post-processing you’re probably right. Take a few days off and come back later, and you’ll usually notice that your picture is way off.
13. Over-Complicating Street Photography
Street photography can be a very complex subject. The articles on this page are in place to help you to get the pictures you always wanted. Thinking about photography more than actually taking pictures doesn’t make you a better photographer; it makes you a better theorist. The best advice is to go out on the street to shoot and put as much time into practicing as possible. Internalize the rules of composition one step at a time, and don’t rush the theory too fast.
14. Not Shooting During Transit
Shooting in public means traveling from one place to another. Of course we have favorite places where we feel more inspired than a boring train or dirty bus. But not exploiting the possibility of getting a shot anywhere is one mistake you shouldn’t make. Always be prepared to take a picture when you have the camera with you.
15. Avoiding the Action
Have you ever noticed the distance of the audience from the performers and musician that are playing on the street? As street photographers our goal should be to not be a regular spectator from a safe distance. If you only choose to do regular things, your results will never be overwhelming. Try to get closer and jump right into the action, even it might be a little scary at first to stand out from the crowd. Try different perspectives and points of view. Shoot from the melting pot of the action to capture exciting images.
16. Not Shooting Near Your Home Turf
Similar to shooting during the transit, we often start taking pictures when we arrive to the desired location. In our mind, our home area seems boring because we know it from the inside out and therefore we have the wrong mindset that we need a different place to take interesting pictures. The truth is that the audience doesn’t know your place as well as you and is strongly intrigued by pictures. Be prepared to take pictures near your own place; it’s more interesting than you might think.
17. Copying Iconic Photos
Having role models and favorite pictures is great. Blatantly copying them is okay as long as you’re learning from them. After that first learning phase, try to evolve your own style. Although it can be very hard to distinguish yourself from your masters, if you solely try to step in the footprints of others you won’t leave behind your own marks. Try as soon as possible to fulfill your own vision of street photography even if it might be a little unconventional or unpopular.
18. Never Printing a Picture
Are you afraid that your pictures aren’t good enough to print because they don’t look perfect on the computer screen? You will be surprised how well these pictures turn out in reality. Having a picture in your hand is a very special feeling. Even if you think your pictures are inferior to others, don’t be afraid to frame your own pictures and put them on a wall. You can be proud of your first pictures, and to remember those early memories is very precious.
19. Not Being Close Enough
That’s probably the first advice you hear and you might already be annoyed by this phrase, but it is nonetheless very true. Especially in the beginning you might be afraid to get close and receive negative reactions. The truth is that if you are friendly and have a positive attitude people will react more positively themselves.
Being closer has many advantages. You are able to connect better with your subject. It might sound a little esoteric, but in my opinion it shows in the picture when you are physical closer and no a longer lens doesn’t have the same effect.
From day one, try to get as close as possible. Don’t stagnate at a safe distance. Overcome your comfort zone and connect with your subjects.
20. Trying to Get Everything in a Single Frame
Another point of the “not close enough” paradigm is that we often feel that we need to put as much stuff in our pictures as possible so that every person might find something of interest in it. The truth is, that these chaotic pictures with many different scenes are discounting every point of interest. Rather than having five focal points in a single picture, take five pictures with a single interesting story.
You can’t please everyone anyway, and if out of the five pictures, four are boring and one is a true hit, then this is larger success than having one mediocre picture. Therefore before you take a picture make sure you think about the actual subject of the picture and then fill the frame only with objects that are relevant to this subject and their story.
21. Wanting Too Much Too Quickly
Photography and especially the street genre is not a 50 meter dash race. You can get surprisingly good results early on and already feel like you are the next master photographer. Truth is, that there is always luck involved in street photography and snapping a great picture every now and then doesn’t make a skillful photographer.
When the time comes and you have to endure a time where you feel uninspired and aren’t able to capture great pictures, it shouldn’t demotivate you. All the iconic names that come to your mind practiced photography for many years or even decades to be where they are now.
Not only do you need a lot of time with your personal development but also while photographing on the street. Whenever you see the potential for a great photo, don’t back off after only five minutes of trying to get the perfect picture. Be patient and take your time until you got your final picture, even if it takes an hour of work.
Don’t only snap a single picture, but try to work the scene by trying out different perspectives and other points of view.
23, Always Shooting From Eye Level
Having the camera in front of your eyes and photographing from there without changing the point of view is effortless. But that also means that pictures from the standard eye level are very regular and appear uninteresting at first. By choosing a different angle you offer a view that we don’t regularly see. You can, for example, lie your camera on the ground and take pictures from there if your camera has a flippable display.
Be creative and put effort into every single picture, which also means changing up the point of view. Don’t go the lazy way by only taking pictures from eye level.
24. Not Using the Light to Your Advantage
While starting out, the light is something we need to “measure” and apply to our camera settings to get the exposure right. We totally forget that we can integrate interesting light situations in the photo composition. The natural light does not only influence the camera settings, but can become an integral element of the final image.
25. Forgetting the Details
Thinking in terms of complete pictures is fine in the beginning, but the difference between good and great pictures lies in the details. All those positive little details are adding up, creating the soul of an image. If you only think about the grand scheme of things you might miss the little aspects that make or break a photo.
26. Ignoring the Background
You might think that the most important part of the image is the actual subject, but the background takes an equally vital role in forming an aesthetically pleasing image. You can have the most beautiful scene lying in front of you, if your background destroys the photo, it won’t work.
There are ways to get rid of a distracting background—for example, changing the perspective or simply getting closer to the subject.
27. Breaking Every Rule Possible
Shooting on the street makes you feel like an outlaw or a rebel and breaking every rule possible in terms of photo composition fits your lifestyle. The truth is that breaking every natural rule or formula doesn’t form an artistic picture; it only produces crap.
Try to apply the rules of composition as best as you can. Don’t think that only because you compose your picture to be visually pleasing that it has to be boring. The great and iconic pictures have both. They are visually pleasing but also tell an exciting story.
28. Following Every Rule Strictly
On the other hand, following every rule like it is a god given law can distract you from capturing a great story. Sometimes you have to compromise between a visually appealing picture or telling the whole story.
In street photography, we don’t have the opportunity to arrange a scene like we have in posed studio photography. Therefore we sometimes have to sacrifice specific rules. Personally, I try to tell the story in an optimal way and the composition has to follow—not the other way around.
About the Author
Sebastian Jacobitz is a hobby street photographer from Berlin. He captures the everyday life in the city.