I like to keep things simple. When I go shoot on the streets, I take only one camera & one lens. I do this for two reasons: 1) to challenge myself with one fixed focal length (I shoot primes) and 2) to not be tempted to swap lenses all the times (because that’s what I’d do). Having a minimalist approach to street photography helps me muting down distractions, concerns and worries.
On the other hand, street photography is very complex and can be out of our control. This is quite contradictory to my minimalist, controlled approach. Varying scenes, changes in light, unexpected behavior of subjects, all these add to the uncontrollable experience of shooting street photography.
So what do I do to minimize this and be more prepared for as many scenes as possible? I do two things, here they are:
First, I improve my muscle memory as much as I can, remembering camera settings by heart, changing exposure settings without even looking at my camera and wasting time, when I need to do it quickly.
Second, I setup my camera in advance for two different light conditions. This approach applies to when shooting during the day and specially when the sun is out with strong shadows. When this is the case, I often want to expose for highlights, with shadows very deep and dark. At the same time, I might want to shoot in the shadows or through a coffee shop window, where I need completely different set up. This would require a lot of settings to be changed at the same time – ISO, aperture, shutter speed, all back and forth. By the time I’d change them, the scene will likely be gone. My camera allows me to have two custom settings under U1 and U2 on the command dial. Your camera will likely have something similar. So for each scenario, I save my exposure values individually and only swap between them as needed.
U1 – this will be my main setting. Say I want to shoot mostly deep shadows with exposing for highlights like in the image below. I lock in the values, which will be around ISO 200, f4.0 and around 1/1250 or 1/1600 shutter speed. This should give me the correct exposure. I do a few test shots, adjust accordingly and save. You might want to go for different depth of field, hence your shutter speed will be different as well. I would suggest to keep ISO at the lowest native setting of your camera.
U2 – this will be my alternative setting, for when I get to a place with different light conditions, such as inside a train station, shopping mall or when shooting indoors in general. Here I’d actually shoot in aperture priority so I am provided with a bit of flexibility and assistance when shooting. I’d go for higher ISO, around 1250-1600, aperture around f2.8 and shutter speed would be determined by the camera, but provided ISO is high enough, it should not drop under 1/125s or 1/100s. If then I need to change my exposure, I would use exposure compensation dial accordingly.
These two settings provide me with flexibility and exposure accuracy in most scenarios I encounter during an average street photoshoot. If there is a more difficult scene or I want to have different final effect, such as long exposure or panning shot, I would set everything myself and then take the picture. Apart from using saved user settings (U1 & U2), I mostly shoot in aperture priority mode with locked shutter speed, meaning the camera won’t allow the shutter speed to drop below 1/100s or so. This can be set in ISO settings.
I wanted this article to be primarily about correct street photography camera settings but I realized this can have so many meanings. Therefore I encourage you to experiment and use the settings that are most natural to you.
One other thing – no amount of manuals and tutorials will improve your street shots as going out and taking that shot. Rinse & repeat.
It would be interesting to see what setting are other street photographers using, so feel free to leave a comment below.