Chris J Wilson

Krakow Street photographer

What Camera Settings Should I Use For Street Photography?

One of the most common questions when people look at photos they like is “What camera/lens did you take it with” and “What are the settings”. This is usually because people believe that by getting their gear and settings the same as the photographer in question, they’ll be able to access the same type of photos as the photog captured this moment. This inevitably isn’t true. The quality of the light, the composition and the eye of the photographer play a huge part. However, camera settings are important as they will impact the image that you take. With that in mind, here are a few settings you should consider and, more importantly, some ideas for the mindset to adopt behind your settings.
Just remember that you are free to break the “rules” and create your own ideas. experimentation is great. These are just some starting points because it is usually a lot more effective to break the rules when you understand them. As Pablo Picasso said.

Know the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artistClick To Tweet

ISO

ISO is how reactive the sensor in your camera is. The larger the number, the more reactive it is. So ISO 200, is a lot less reactive and needs more light than ISO 1600. The higher the ISO, the more grain and noise they usually have, leading to “worse” quality images. Often this grainy style is desired in Street photography but not in high fashion images.
Modern digital cameras usually have very little noise till around 32,000 ISO and the smaller the sensor, the worse the noise (usually). So a Sony A7S can go up to 409,600 ISO with little noise up to 25,600, but a smaller Olympus Micro Four thirds struggles at ISO 3200. This is something you have to learn.
Traditionally this was the first setting people would adjust as it was the hardest setting to change (with film, you had to use up a roll before you could change it). Now I would suggest this should be the last thing you change as it often has the smallest affect on your images style.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is how long the shutter on your camera is open. The longer it is open, the more light it gets. The shorter, the less light. Shutter speeds are usually 1/X of a second. 1/250 will freeze almost everything (and is what Tony Ray Jones told himself to shoot faster than) 1/30 often gets a bit of blur even from people walking along. Blur creates a sense of motion and action, freezing everything makes it more static but more “decisive” as well.
Depending on the style you want, you should go for the shutter speed you want. I usually stick to Tony Ray Jones guidelines and shoot at 1/250 but occasionally mix it up with 1/30 for some more blur and even slower sometimes.
A final point to remember is about lens motion blur, the longer your lens, the more it can shake and lead to bluring your images. You can correct this by using a tripod OR with a simple formulae of shooting with a shutter speed faster than 1/(your cameras focal length) so if you have a 50mm lens, shoot faster than 1/50 and so on. It’s probably not a big deal for you but it might be if you are using a tele lens.

Aperture

Aperture is how much light the camera lens let’s in and is shown by the f stop number. The smaller the number, the more light it lets in (so f0.95 lets in a lot of light at once, f22 lets in very little) This also has a couple of other effects. Letting in a lot of light causes a “shallower depth of field” and can lead to “Bokeh” and elements being out of focus. Lenses also aren’t as sharp when they are shoot at their fastest aperture. A smaller aperture usually leads to sharper images, with more in focus and …
typically in street photography, people favour a smaller aperture so that more elements are in focus. This also lets you use hyper focusing so that you don’t have to keep adjusting your focus but instead just click the shutter.
I typically aim for f/8 or slower, but I know I need to have a “faster” (or bigger) aperture at night. F/4 is still very sharp on my Fuji x100t but I can need to set my camera as fast as f/2 when it’s really dark.

Auto vs Manual

[check out our video street chat for more on this topic]
Many people view Manual as essential for being a true “pro” photographer. I think that’s really just snobbery, after all the end product really determines if your photos are good or not (although there are merits to valuing the process over the final product). With that being said, shooting in manual allows you to determine the style of image you want. For example, if you want an image with a shallow depth of field you should set the aperture yourself. Or if you want blurred figures as they walk on a bright day, you’ll need to go manual.
Auto mode has the great benefit for street photographers of saving you from thinking. You don’t have to consider the aperture or shutter speed, instead you just focus on the composition and let the camera think about the exposure for you. Often you can adjust your exposure compensation on your camera a little bit so you can get the exposure you see (not the camera) but without the issue of having to work out which aperture or shutter setting to adjust.

My personal Approach

Personally, I set my shutter speed and aperture manual and then use Auto ISO with hyper focal focusing. This allows me to get the style of image I like but still not have to think about exposure or adjusting settings all the time.
My settings are usually either

  • Shutter speed: 1/250
  • Aperture: F/8
  • ISO: Auto
  • Focus: Hyperfocal

Or

  • Shutter speed: 1/30
  • Aperture: F/8
  • ISO: Auto
  • Focus: Hyperfocal

Obviously, I sometimes have to adjust the aperture if it is really bright and at night I have to use completely different settings (often using a flash) but I usually work around these settings

What settings should you use?

Honestly, it’s up to you but I would advise you to aim to think about your settings as little as possible. If that means using autofocus, go for it. If you can “set it and forget it” with manual settings, cool. But I suspect using auto settings will be the best way to enter into this kind of mindset.

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About Chris Wilson

I'm an English as a Foreign Language teacher in Krakow, Poland in my spare time I love taking photos. This is my blog.

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4 Replies

  1. Quite informative, thank you. I would add: use a single fixed lens, in the range of 24 to 50 on apsc and 28 to 70 on full frame. Get close to what or who you want to fotograph. Don’t crop, create the photo in the camera. Go out with one lens only. Learn to handle it, stay focused and use manual mode mostly as the autofocus -as good as they may be- jump around sometimes, or work with ae-lock. My settings are normally on apsc: 35 1.4 lens, 1/125, 5,6 – 2.8, hyper focal; on full frame: 50 1.4 lens, 1/125 and 5,6-1,4, hyper focal. The Iso is then between 200 and 800, I never use flash.
    Always good light!
    Flickr/photos/jensaddis
    Tumblr/jensaddis

    Some links concerning the topic:
    http://m.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/100-jahre-leica-kamera-du-musst-naeher-rangehen/11624618.html?utm_referrer=
    http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2011/08/22/10-things-henri-cartier-bresson-can-teach-you-about-street-photography/

    1. Chris Wilson

      Hey Jens, I mentioned a few of these points on a previous post about what camera to shoot with but it’s interesting to see a few differences. Why don’t you ever use flash? Is it because of the affect it has on people you photography? I find it can be very useful to help increase separation between foreground and background when it’s sunny, can have a nice harsh effect (though sometimes I don’t like it) and is great for providing opportunities at night that just wouldn’t be possible otherwise (just my personal stance). thanks for the links as well.

  2. Quite informative, thank you. I would add: use a single fixed lens, in the range of 24 to 50 on apsc and 28 to 70 on full frame. Get close to what or who you want to fotograph. Don’t crop, create the photo in the camera. Go out with one lens only. Learn to handle it, stay focused and use manual mode mostly as the autofocus -as good as they may be- jump around sometimes, or work with ae-lock. My settings are normally on apsc: 35 1.4 lens, 1/125, 5,6 – 2.8, hyper focal; on full frame: 50 1.4 lens, 1/125 and 5,6-1,4, hyper focal. The Iso is then between 200 and 800, I never use flash.
    Always good light!
    Flickr/photos/jensaddis
    Tumblr/jensaddis

    Some links concerning the topic:
    http://m.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/100-jahre-leica-kamera-du-musst-naeher-rangehen/11624618.html?utm_referrer=
    http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2011/08/22/10-things-henri-cartier-bresson-can-teach-you-about-street-photography/

    1. Chris Wilson

      Hey Jens, I mentioned a few of these points on a previous post about what camera to shoot with but it’s interesting to see a few differences. Why don’t you ever use flash? Is it because of the affect it has on people you photography? I find it can be very useful to help increase separation between foreground and background when it’s sunny, can have a nice harsh effect (though sometimes I don’t like it) and is great for providing opportunities at night that just wouldn’t be possible otherwise (just my personal stance). thanks for the links as well.

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