What are the Best Street Photography Camera Settings?

Street Photography in New York City, Camera Settings

Learning to choose the correct camera settings is one of the most integral skills in street photography, and while it can seem daunting at first, it is not hard to do.

With a little practice, you will have it in no time, but there are some factors that you will need to focus on.

Now before we talk about the exact settings to use, I want to get you up to speed with what the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO do in regards to street photography.


The Best Shutter Speed for Street Photography

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The shutter speed stands for how fast your camera’s shutter opens and closes to let in light. The longer it is open, the more light that reaches the sensor, but the more chance there is for motion blur.

So if your aim is to freeze a scene, remember to make sure that your street photography shutter speed is fast enough to be able to stop the motion of your subject. If you are shooting something that is not moving, then you can choose a much slower shutter speed.

For still shots, 1 over the focal length is what you need to achieve sharpness. So if you are shooting with a 35mm lens, then you would need to shoot at around 1/30th of a second. Image stabilization can add a few extra stops to this.

For people or things in motion, I try to shoot at least at 1/200th of a second and preferably at 1/250th or faster.

People move quickly through the streets and we are often walking in the opposite direction of them, so we do not want to take any chances by using an overly slow shutter speed. At night, or in very dark situations, I will feel comfortable going down to 1/125th and still getting sharp enough photographs.

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One of my biggest pet peeves is when photographers do not stop their motion when taking a photograph.

I see it all of the time, people who aim, focus, and capture without even breaking stride. If you are shooting at an insanely high shutter speed, then this might work some of the time, however, you should be fully stopped to correctly take a photograph, even if it is only for a split second.

Taking a photo while in motion is a haphazard practice and if you feel the need to do this, then you are probably walking too fast to begin with. Slow down.

If I am trying to capture a shot and I am in motion, I often use a stutter step. It is basically a very quick stop in full stride, almost like you freeze for a second in mid-motion, and then you continue walking. It probably looks a bit ridiculous to anyone who is actually paying attention, but it happens so fast that nobody will notice or care.


The Best Aperture for Street Photography

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The aperture stands for how large or small of a hole will open in your camera to let in light. The smaller your aperture, the more of the scene that will be in focus (small apertures are the higher numbers, such as F11, while large apertures are the smaller numbers, such as F2.8).

We need to use this to our advantage. Whether using manual or automatic focusing, the fact is that focusing quickly and accurately is extremely difficult when shooting on the streets.

By using a small aperture, more of the shot will be in focus and so it will give us more leeway to capture our main target in focus.

As a result, I often default to an aperture of F8 (and sometimes more), which will give me enough depth of field, but still allow a fast enough shutter to freeze motion during the day.

However, the lighting conditions are often poor, and we do not always have the option to shoot at F8 or more. Some people use flash in these situations, but I prefer to shoot at lower apertures to capture the natural light, even at F2 or F2.8 in extreme low light situations.

While I miss some photos shooting this way, I catch enough to make it worthwhile. But as long as we have the option, I prefer to shoot with a smaller aperture.

This is all subjective of course, as many set their street photography aperture setting as low as they can go to get as much bokeh as possible. This can create a wonderful look to the photos but you will inevitably mess up the focus in many more photographs this way.


The Best ISO for Street Photography

Street Photography in New York City, How To

If we are trying to shoot at 1/250th and F8 and the light is not perfect, then something has to give. Lighting conditions are rarely ideal, especially in cities where tall buildings can block the sun.

This is where our ISO comes into play. We want to raise the ISO to give ourselves the ability to shoot with these shutter and aperture settings.

Most newer cameras these days, especially the Fuji X100 line, are very good at high ISOs, so I do not hesitate to shoot at ISO 800, 1600, 3200, or even 6400 at night.

I shoot at ISO 800 or 1600 a majority of the time. The added digital noise (which still looks pleasing) is more than offset by the faster shutter and deeper depth of field.

My general recommendation is ISO 400 for sunlight, 800 for light shade, 1600 for dark shade, and 3200 to 6400 for early evening into night.

You should test your camera’s ISO capabilities and figure out the maximum you are comfortable shooting with. With older or entry-level cameras, I will typically half my recommendations. So if I recommend shooting at 800 or 1600 ISO in normal lighting conditions, I would recommend 400 or 800 for an entry-level camera.

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Also, you have to make sure to expose correctly if you are shooting at a high ISO. The absolute worst look is when you take a high ISO photo and significantly raise the exposure in post-processing. It takes this beautiful grain and destroys it with a terrible digital look. If you can avoid it, do not underexpose significantly when shooting at high ISOs.

Remember to consistently check your ISO settings. It can be a bummer to go out and take an amazing photo in great lighting conditions and then realize that your camera is still set at ISO 3200 from the night before. This is the most common mistake that I make.

When shooting in a city, I will always choose an ISO for the shady side of the street. So even on sunny days, I will default to ISO 800 instead of ISO 400, since I want the camera to work well in the darker and shadier areas, and I don’t mind shooting in ISO 800 on the sunny side of the street.

The photographs will turn out great. If you choose your settings for the sunny side of the street (and you are moving between shady and sunny areas), the shady shots will often come out blurry.


Which Mode to Use

There is no correct mode to use between Shutter Priority (TV), Aperture Priority (AV), and Manual (M), and each mode is used frequently by many street photographers.

That being said, I typically prefer to shoot in Aperture Priority during the day and Manual mode at night. I try to stay around F8 when possible and go lower as the evening gets closer. If I’m shooting in pure sunlight with no shady areas, then I will use F11 or F16.

Shooting in Aperture Priority gives you exact control over your depth of field, but the key to shooting in this mode is to set your ISO high enough so that your resulting shutter is fast enough.

You will need to occasionally pay attention to what shutter speed the camera is choosing, to make sure it does not get too slow. However, I prefer to set the ISO a little higher than I need, so I’m sure the shutter speed will be fast enough throughout the day.

This way, I do not have to check my camera constantly, and I can be confident in the settings to put my focus on what is really important, the moment.

Since exposing correctly is much tougher at night but the environments are typically pretty consistent, I prefer to shoot in Manual mode. This allows me to lock in the exact settings that I need without having to worry about the camera messing up.


How to Focus

New York Street Photography

There is nothing worse than capturing the perfect moment and ruining the focus.

Focusing well is the toughest and most important technical aspect of street photography, and it is the one that you should, no pun intended, focus on the most. As a result of the unpredictable and constantly fluctuating nature of the street, getting a shot in perfect focus is extremely difficult and requires a lot of practice.

Auto-focus is a great luxury. Our eyes may get older and fuzzier, but as long as that red or green square is highlighted over the area that we want in focus then most likely the focus will be correct. Also, if an unexpected moment happens and you need to change your focus quickly, then auto-focus is a powerful tool.

However, auto-focus is far from perfect. You have to look through the viewfinder to use it (unless you are using live view) and you have to select the focus area, so there is a good chance that you will miss some split-second moments. At times, the auto-focus will malfunction, especially in low-light. In many cameras, the auto-focus systems do not work particularly well in low levels of light.

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For about 50 percent of my photography, I use autofocus with the focus spot in the center. I will then lock-in the focus and recompose as quickly as I can.

Manual focusing, or more specifically zone focusing, is the technique that I use the rest of the time. Manual focusing involves turning the manual focus dial until the subject of your shot is sharp. Zone focusing involves keeping your focus distance set to a certain range, which for me is typically about eight or ten feet away.

With zone focusing, you want to maximize your depth of field to make it more likely that your subject is sharp. This is why many people prefer to do it with wide-angle lenses, such as 35mm. I find it too difficult to zone focus correctly with a lens longer than 50mm. The more depth of field in your image, the easier zone focusing will be.

Then simply wait until your subject enters the range that you are focused on, and understand that you will have more flexibility with the sharpness the deeper your depth of field is.

Here is a technical example. If you are shooting with a 35mm lens at F8 and you pre-focus your camera to 8 feet, then everything from approximately 5.5 feet to 15 feet away will be in an acceptable range of sharpness. The closer that objects get to 8 feet, the sharper they will appear.

Here is a link to figure out the depth of field depending on your focal length, aperture, and focus distance. You can see how much tougher it gets when you go below F5.6. Http:// www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html

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Also, keep in mind that the closer you get to your subject, the smaller the range of acceptable focus will be. If you are shooting at F2, then it can be extremely difficult to be accurate consistently at close distances, such as 3 feet away. Trying to focus on something 8 feet away at F2 is much easier. I often walk around with my camera set to focus 8 feet away and then adjust as necessary on the fly. Occasionally, I zone focus as close as 3-5 feet.

Learning to zone focus with a smaller aperture is a difficult but very important skill for street photographers to master. There are few technical skills that you can master that will have a better effect on the outcome of your photos.

If you practice, then it is possible to zone focus even at F2 with a wide-angle lens. I shoot often in low-light situations, particularly on the subway. I will ruin the focus on many of these shots; it is impossible not to, but I catch more than enough to make it worthwhile.

Above all, remember, if you have time to use auto-focus and your subject will not notice, then use it. In this case, it will be much more accurate than zone focusing.


Zone Focusing Exercise

Hopefully, your lens or camera has a manual focusing meter on it. If not, many newer cameras will have focusing meters somewhere on your camera’s screen.

If you have either of these, I have an assignment for you. Go outside with your camera and auto-focus on objects that are different distances away, particularly between five and 12 feet. Guess their distances and then check the meter to see how close you are to the exact numbers. Remember that the auto-focus is not always accurate, so check each distance by auto-focusing twice on each object.

Do not be discouraged if you are off at first. This is a difficult exercise. However, you should work on this until it becomes second nature.