Getting Started with Street Photography: Advice from two Influential Street Photographers

Bob Books
29th September 2021

Street photography is a genre that can be difficult to define, because it includes so many different styles, subjects and approaches. It’s a way of documenting aspects of everyday life or capturing random encounters in public spaces.

Unlike urban photography, which is bound to an urban setting and often focuses on objects or cityscapes, street photography tends to include humans and can take place in any public space, whether it’s a city park or remote petrol station.

One of the only ‘rules’ of street photography is that it should be candid and unstaged, but even this rule is often broken by pro street photographers.

Initially, it might feel a little intimidating to go out in public and start snapping photos of strangers. Once you get the hang of it, however, street photography is very rewarding and allows for a lot of creative freedom. It’s also relatively easy to get into, because it requires very little equipment.

Image © Gil Ribeiro

In order to provide an in-depth look at the ins and outs of this diverse genre of photography, we spoke to two talented street photographers.

Portuguese street and travel photographer Gil Ribeiro is based in Lisbon. He initially studied cinematography in Germany, but during a trip to Sri Lanka, he discovered his passion for street photography. After moving back to his hometown of Lisbon, he began to further immerse himself in this genre of photography. 

English documentary and street photographer Sophie Wedgwood started her career working on long form reportage stories for media outlets like the BBC. Eventually, her desire to spend more time on each project led her to branch out for herself. She still documents people’s stories, but her images are now more about the people she photographs and what she reads from them.

Given their wealth of experience with this style of photography, we asked them to share their advice on everything from scouting out locations to building confidence in your work.

Image © Sophie Wedgwood

What makes a good street photograph?

Although opinions will vary on what makes a good street photograph, there are certain things you can look for, as well as questions you can ask yourself, in order to create a more visually appealing image. At times, a good street photograph might even tell a story.

“For me a good street photograph has to make you want to look twice. It has to evoke some kind of emotion in you or provoke tension,” says Gil Ribeiro.

A well-composed street photograph, he says, should raise questions such as ‘What is happening and why?,’ ‘Where was the photo taken?,’ ‘Who is that person?,’ or “How did the photographer get that shot?’

“In my photography specifically, I look to combine storytelling, colour and light. The location, time of day and weather all determine the setting of the scene. From there, you just need an interesting interaction of people to include. Timing is also a key factor in some situations. Of course, the order of priority of these factors can vary. It’s not easy to get all these things in the same frame, but when you do it’s a great feeling.”

Sophie Wedgwood adds that great art often has some ambiguity in it, and can’t be fully understood. “If we could understand it we wouldn’t have to photograph it,” she says.

“A great street photographer is Garry Winograd, for that reason. So many of his images aren’t visually striking but there’s something in the work that leaves you wondering what it means. Robert Frank is another great one.”

Image © Gil Ribeiro

Planning your locations for street photography

If you’re new to street photography, you might be wondering how to plan ahead for a day of shooting. For instance, how do you select the right location?

The truth is that every photographer has a slightly different approach, and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. Some photographers might look for locations that fit with a particular theme they’re working on. 

Other photographers may simply look for eye-catching backgrounds with interesting graffiti, billboards and architecture, or visit bustling locations such as beaches, parks and shopping streets. You could even catch a bus or take the tube to find your photography subjects.

“The only preparation I do before a day of shooting is to make sure my batteries are full and the card is in the camera,” says Gil Ribeiro.

“Other than that, I just get on my bicycle and start pedalling somewhere. I usually go places where I know the chances of getting good shots are higher, but once in a while I also like to explore places I’ve never photographed. If I see something with potential but don’t have my camera with me, I’ll try to go back another day. Interesting scenes can develop anywhere, so have your camera ready whenever possible.”

Image © Gil Ribeiro

Choosing your photography subjects

Finding the right subjects to include in your photographs is another aspect of street photography that can be difficult for those who are starting out. Most of the time, with street photography, it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

“I think it comes back to being able to read something in the subject’s face,” says Sophie Wedgwood. “They also have to be able to trust you and be open to being photographed.”

She points out that it’s important to keep an open mind, as being in the right mind-frame can help things flow. “Some places are also easier than others. Sometimes you walk around all day and come back with nothing. Photography is like that. You’re not going to find a gem every day, but then when you least expect it, something comes along.

That’s kind of the beauty of it. It makes street photography more exciting in some ways. Another important thing is having an open philosophy towards the street, because you can’t control what’s going to happen. It can be frustrating, because the more you try to force it, the less it seems to work.”

Image © Sophie Wedgwood

Investing in the right equipment for street photography

Another consideration when you’re just starting out in street photography is the camera equipment. Sophie Wedgwood says the type of camera you’ll want will depend a lot on your preferred style of photography.

“A lot of street photographers like smaller 35mm cameras because you can be quite nifty. Personally, I use a Mamiya 7ii (medium format) which isn’t the classic choice for the street. It’s slower but it makes my work considered.”

Gil Ribeiro agrees that street photography can be done with all sorts of equipment, from phones to disposable cameras. What matters most is choosing a camera you’re comfortable using.

“Knowing your camera as well as possible will increase your chances of success, which in turn will increase your motivation to keep shooting. If you buy expensive equipment but don’t know how to use it properly, it will only frustrate you,” he says.

“I often hear that you should start with a prime lens instead of a zoom lens, to “force” you to train your eye and positioning for that specific focal length. I disagree. When you’re starting out, it’s important to experiment with different fields of view. Being able to quickly adapt to different situations will teach you more than restricting yourself to one focal length.

It’s true that prime lenses are sharper than zoom lenses, but when you’re just starting out, you’re doing it primarily for yourself and not for a magazine or an exhibition. So keep it simple in the beginning with something that suits you. You can upgrade when you feel the need for it.”

Image © Gil Ribeiro

Building confidence as a street photographer

One thing many new street photographers struggle with is not feeling confident enough to approach or photograph strangers. So how do you get past this initial apprehension and build up more confidence in your work?

“It’s definitely a matter of habit. The more often you go out and shoot, the more confident and comfortable you’ll get shooting strangers,” says Gil Ribeiro.

“Start slowly by shooting from far away, and then work yourself up to getting in closer. With time you’ll also develop little tricks to make it easier, such as shooting from the hip, not making eye contact with the subject after taking the photo, acting like a tourist, or acting like you’re just testing out your new camera.

If you are ‘caught,’ just remain friendly. Explain what you’re doing, and delete the photo if that person wants you to. One thing I like to do is carry some business cards to show people I’m ‘legit.’ They often end up liking my work and are happy to let me keep the shots.”

Sophie Wedgwood adds that taking your time to refine each piece of work and develop your own style is more important than sharing a lot of work.

“One piece of advice I would give to people starting out with street photography is don’t feel pressured to post things on Instagram all the time,” she says. “Take time on your work and refine it. When it’s ready, you can share it. Instagram is ultimately a distraction, and it can influence you to chase trends.”

Image © Sophie Wedgwood

Want to see more of Sophie Wedgwood and Gil Ribeiro’s work? You can follow them on Instagram @SophieWedgwood and @Gileres. If you’d like to learn more about street photography, check out these tips we’ve put together, or read our interview with Dimpy Bhalotia.