Camera settings for street photography - The Fastest Gun in the West / by Hugh Rawson

 Fleet Street, London. August 2017

Fleet Street, London. August 2017

I can't remember which cartoon Quick Draw McGraw came from (turns out it was his own show, but I'm often reminded of him when I'm in the zone for a good day shooting candid photography on the streets. Part of the appeal of street photography for me is the fast nature of it. It reminds me of hunting - not that I have ever hunted or ever plan to. I'm sure that the same basic instincts, of going undetected and making the most of the element of surprise, apply to both street photography and hunting. After all, we don't call it shooting street for nothing.


The fast nature of street photography is diametrically opposed to the careful planning and on-the-spot preparations involved in landscape photography. I listen to landscape photographers describe how they walked for two hours in darkness, then set up and waited another hour for the possibility of the right shooting conditions for that one, meticulously planned shot. I think, sheesh, I'd have bagged around four hundred shots in that time. Granted, 390 would probably be pretty much instantly trashed - but I'd still be nine shots up, warm, and never too far from a decent double espresso. 


When I'm on the street, my camera is ready and my eye is in full anticipation mode. I'm scanning ahead for anything that may prove shot-worthy: a movement, a gesture, a colour that contrasts or complements a background, a striking change in light... And my finger is hovering over the shutter button. I'm ready.


Anticipation is a massive part of my armoury. It's not something you can buy but people watching is something you either do or you don't. The more you do, the better you become at anticipating. However, knowing that the smartly dressed gentleman in the fedora is going to turn around to talk to his partner before they reach the corner is no good if I miss the shot because my camera isn't ready.


Deciding on the right settings is very much a matter of personal choice. For me, I generally want to avoid any movement blur.  This means shooting with a shutter speed that will eliminate any chance of this. On my Canon I opt for a speed of 1/320th of a second. On my Fuji there isn't this option so i shoot at 1/500th of a second. 1/250th of a second is just too slow for me while I am holding the camera, walking through the crowd towards people who are also moving towards me, and preparing to shoot at any given (decisive) moment.


Aperture is even more a matter of personal choice, dependant on the desired effect. There are those who feel that shooting street should be about documentary photography - an accurate record with everything as sharp as possible and an almost infinite depth of field. If that's you then you will need to shoot at an aperture of f8 - or smaller. Personally, my photography is generally individuals and their stories. I don't mind a narrow depth of field with background (or sometimes foreground) melting away. I will even shoot wide open - especially with the Fujifilm 56mm f1.2 (85mm equivalent) because the softness of the background, and the beautiful light it creates, often prove irresistible.


Wide open shooting is not without its challenges though. The shallow depth of field can easily mean that the main point of focus is not sharp, especially when shooting from the hip and not using a viewfinder. Shooting wide open also brings the risk of over exposure, especially on a bright afternoon in the city. Review your shot and keep an eye on your histogram, increasing the shutter speed and/or narrowing the aperture until you achieve the balanced exposure that you want.


So, how do I achieve that balance? How do I balance that fast shutter speed of 1/320 - 1/500 of a second with my chosen aperture of, say, f4? The answer is Auto ISO. This is where it  comes ino its own. Digital cameras are now so good at shooting in low light that as the ISO numbers rise you really don't need to worry too much. Even if some grain begins to creep into your images, don't panic. With street photography, a grainy image is often part of the style and tradition. Some street photographers even deliberately introduce their own grain to an otherwise clear photo in the post production stage.


Auto ISO allows me to set my shutter speed to 1/500 of a second, open up my aperture wide and trust my camera to balance the ISO and deliver a well exposed image.


So, in summary, my settings for street photography are generally these:

  1. Shutter speed 1/320 of a second minimum.
  2. Aperture wider than f8 and often wide open
  3. Auto ISO


It's all a matter of personal taste. There is no set of rules. However, these settings are a good starting point for anyone to begin to find their style, reducing shutter speed for more blur in their image or reducing aperture size (increasing the f number) in order to have more of the image sharp and in focus.


Try it. let me know. Perhaps you will be the quickest draw in the west - or at least your local High Street.