Honing Your Skills w/ Street Photography, Part 1

Since most all travel photographers cannot always be traveling, they need ways stay sharp and improve their skills at home. What better way than simply exiting your front door and hitting the street!? It’s challenging, yes, even daunting, but that’s exactly what we need. It’s also quite fun and rewarding when you get it right.

Street photography focuses on capturing candid moments of everyday life in public spaces. Its practice offers a wealth of valuable lessons that can be applied to many if not most types of photography. On the street you can sharpen your eye for composition, improve your ability to capture candid moments, learn to see the entire frame, and make more deliberate choices with gear and settings. Ultimately, getting good at street photography will translate over to your travel shooting abilities, and you’ll be creating a more varied body of work in the process.

Composition in Street Photography

We all know composition is a critical element in photography, and there’s no better place to learn it than on the street. You all know the basics, the rule of thirds, golden ratio, leading lines, negative or white space, filling the frame, etc. On the street you have minimal control over the environment and must be patient and observant to capture well-composed images, often at speed. You’re regularly faced with complex and cluttered environments, so you have to see your subject and the frame within the chaos, then release the shutter at the right instant. What Henri Cartier-Bresson called, “the decisive moment”. When practiced and honed on the street, your skills will not only improve your travel shooting, but most any other genre of photography you might be interested in as well.

Street work is about being out there, first and foremost. Armchair photographers are like armchair quarterbacks; they know everything but cannot perform well on the field. Once you’re in the field, on the street, the ‘everything you know’ gets put to the test, and then the real learning begins.

In essence, the practice of street photography teaches you to see the frame and its dynamic visual elements with intention. What is the story I want my image to tell? Does my composition effectively tell it? What should my settings be? As you practice, you’ll be sharpening your senses of observation, heightening your instincts in choosing what to shoot and how best to capture it, and increasing your appreciation of the myriad ways everyday life unfolds. Always be looking for the moment, angling for the moment, anticipating the moment and – snap! Be bold, experiment, look for details most people do not see.

Once you learn to see in compositions on the street, you will bring that vision with you everywhere you go.

Layering Your Images

Layering is a powerful technique that enhances your compositions dimensionally, by separating the frame’s elements into different layers. In street photography, this can mean placing people, buildings, and other objects in distinct foreground, middle ground, and background layers. This layering creates depth and visual interest in an image, making it more dynamic and engaging. Learning to see in layers can greatly enhance your compositions, and is another skill that translates over to most kinds of photography.

In wedding photography, for example, you can use layering to emphasize the couple in the foreground while showing layers of other moments happening in the mid and background.

In event photography, as in this the massive Kumbh Mela festival in India captured by David Lazar, you can layer objects and people to create a sense of dimension around your main subject and convey a bustling atmosphere.

To say the least!

This technique requires a good understanding of composition and visual storytelling. By paying attention not just to the main subject, but to the rest of the frame as well, including layers that add depth and interest, you create images that take the viewer’s eyes on a journey throughout the frame.

Dividing the Frame

Dividing the frame is another effective way to create visual interest. When capturing candid moments in public spaces, dividing the frame right can make or break a photo.

Street photography often involves photographing busy scenes with lots of people or objects, and as a result, it’s a really big challenge to capture scenes with minimal overlap of subjects. A well-divided frame ensures that the subjects do not overlap each other, thereby creating a clear and distinctive separation between them. This separation ensures that the subjects can be appreciated individually. In addition, it helps to create a sense of balance within the image.

The most effective way to divide the frame is to keep things somewhat even. Suppose you have a two-person scene that you want to capture. Moving to position the subjects on opposite sides of the frame with an equal amount of space between them can create a symmetrical and visually pleasing composition. Alternatively, one subject can be in the foreground on one side of the frame, and the other subject behind them on the opposite side.

The challenge on the street is to think on your feet and capture fleeting moments in which the subjects are often in motion. Dividing the frame during these moments can be tricky and requires a great deal of practice. However, by implementing this technique, you can create engaging and dynamic images that capture the essence of human interaction in everyday life.

Again, you can apply this concept to most any type of photography, and your compositions will be stronger for it.

Filling the Frame

Filling the frame is a critical aspect of street photography that is often emphasized by seasoned photographers in the genre. The concept is simple: it involves capturing subjects up close so they occupy a significant portion of the frame. This concept works well because it allows viewers to focus firstly on the subject, capturing their attention and making them feel immersed in the scene.

When you fill the frame, you eliminate any empty or wasted space that could distract the viewer’s eye from the subject. The lack of, or minimalization of negative space helps add visual interest to each element. You can use different techniques to fill the frame, such as getting physically closer to the subject or using a longer focal length for street photography.

My preference is using wider focal lengths ranging from 28mm-40mm, so my approach to this usually involves getting close to subjects, or at least whatever subjects are in the foreground of the frame. If you have a fear of getting close in street photography, keep in mind that if you’re using a wide-angle lens and you place a subject in the foreground to the side, people often don’t even realize you’re including them in the frame because your lens isn’t pointed directly at them. Smaller cameras go less noticed, and phones are virtually invisible in this regard. If you really want to avoid getting close to people, try a 50mm lens, which gives you a bit of extra reach.

Using Deep Depth of Field

While many photographers prefer the aesthetic appeal of shallow depth of field and bokeh, this style is used less in street photography. It’s more common for street photographers to not only want their subjects in focus, but want everything else in the frame in focus, or relative focus, as well. Although shooting with a deep depth of field can be challenging, it can create visually compelling images when done right. Layering goes hand in hand with this.

The advantage of using deep depth of field is that it allows you to tell a more comprehensive story about what is happening in the scene. When all the elements in the frame are comprehensible, you provide better context and enhance the story the photograph tells. In documentary photography and photojournalism, a deep depth of field can capture the environment and subjects in a way that an extremely shallow depth of field would blur away. Using a deep depth of field is not always the answer of course, but it can provide photographers with the opportunity to create visually and contextually compelling images.

In Part 2 I will cover – being deliberate with your shutter speed, photographing candidly, capturing expressions and gestures, and working with minimal gear.


Brandon Ballweg is a street photographer, traveler, and global citizen. His passion is capturing unique moments around the world through photography. As a former student of Global & International Studies at the University of Kansas, he understands how important it is to appreciate the world’s diverse cultures and learn from them. He lives in Kansas City and blogs at ComposeClick. You can find his portfolio at brandonballweg.com.

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