Frequently asked questions at street photography workshops

For the several years, I have conducted basic street photography workshops for Olympus Malaysia and it’s been a great joy for me to be able to share some tips and tricks on street shooting with my workshop participants. After each and every session, I am amazed at how, regardless of the diversity in participants, the same questions were asked repeatedly. Therefore, I thought I’d share some of these frequently asked questions and a few things I have learned during these sessions today.

Should I shoot street photography in black and white only? 

It’s not unexpected that black and white photography is somehow tied to street photography. Black and white is a whole universe on its own, and by removing colors from photographs, they can appear less distracting and attention can be effectively directed to the subject. Black and white images can also appear cleaner, more soulful (especially portraits) and as if imbued with a timeless, classic beauty. However, if photographs are meant to be a representation of reality, then aren’t colors a part of said reality? There are so many exciting possibilities with color photography and many important details are lost when colors are absent from images. My quick answer is to encourage my participants to practice both, shooting with color when appropriate and black and white when the scene calls for it. After some experience, they should be able to tell when color or black and white works better for what they’re shooting.


A wide angle lens like a 28mm is suitable for environmental portrait.

If I were to use one lens, what is the best lens for street photography?

While there are already thousands of answers on the internet discussing the ideal lens for street photography, I still get asked about my recommended lens for street photography. There is no simple answer to this. Many of my workshop participants are newcomers to photography, with some having just purchased a new camera. To these beginners. I strongly suggest using the standard kit lens that comes with their camera and not worry about upgrading lenses immediately. Get to know the camera – its functions and features, the fundamentals of photography and how to see, compose and create images first. After some time and experience under your belt, lens upgrades will be dependent on your preferred style of shooting. Popular choices for street photography include 28mm and 35mm lenses which offer a wide perspective for environmental portraits. I personally prefer 50mm and longer for most of my street photography. Again, choices of focal length are personal and after sufficient experience shooting you should be able to decide what works best for you.

Should I use zone focusing?

This is another tricky question. If you know what zone focusing is, and have experience in using it, you probably realize the pros and cons and can make an informed decision for yourself. Most people who ask me this question generally come across zone focusing on a post or video about “advanced street photography techniques” and somehow assume this guarantees them an upgrade to the next level in street photography. Unfortunately, zone focusing will not improve your photography if you don’t know what you are looking for in the first place or don’t have a clear project in mind.  Most modern cameras these days have incredibly fast autofocus and I just don’t see a need for zone focusing most of the time.


To get critically sharp image, I positioned the focusing point at the eye.

Your photographs are always sharp. How do I achieve that?

Some participants have probably read my previous blog and have asked about the secret sauce to super sharp images. Much to their disappointment, there was never any secret sauce. The key is in two crucial things: 1) getting critically accurate focus and 2) minimizing camera shake by watching the minimum shutter speed. The two common causes of soft images are not being 100% in focus and camera shake. Nailing these two should give you perfectly sharp images! To achieve this, I recommend setting using single point focus and setting it over the area of image you want in focus, and for camera shake, watch your shutter speed and use the rule of thumb of 1/focal length.

What is the best camera setting? Should I use, P, A, S or M?

I almost always discourage my participants from full manual (M), because setting everything manually just makes things very complicated.  My answer has always been to never skip your photography basics. It is extremely crucial to understand the exposure triangle and how it can affect your image. Therefore, I usually recommend program (P) for beginners. I personally use aperture (A) priority most of the time to control depth of field. I will switch over to shutter (S) priority when I need to capture motion.


I normally shoot with Aperture Priority. To capture motion however, I will switch to Shutter Priority.

“What” should I be shooting on the street?

This is perhaps the most important question I’m asked when it comes to street photography. The “what to shoot” is more important than the “how to shoot”. Seeing is crucial in any form of photography. If you can’t see the beauty of the subject, or understand the story in the scene, then how can you successfully make an effective image? My advice is to shoot what moves you. Shoot the subjects that attract your attention, or find something unusual and interesting. In the beginning, you will come home with a random pile of images and that’s OK. The more you shoot the more you learn what you want and the easier it becomes to narrow down your subject choices. To start, just keep on open mind and an open set of eyes of course.

Remember that there is no single right answer to these questions. I answered them from my own perspective and experience shooting on the street and these recommendations are aimed at new comers to photography. As you move along, feel free to break the rules, challenge the norm and create your own style.

All images in this article are shot on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, as demonstrations during the actual Olympus Workshops in Malaysia. 

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is available here from B&H

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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2017 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Hello Robin,

    What do you think about the X100F as a first prosumer/street camera for a beginner?

  2. Sim Piin Hor says:

    Always so much fun attacking street with you 😀

  3. Chris Maes says:

    ‘I recommend setting using single point focus and setting it over the area of image you want in focus’ (sic) That implies the subject is posing right? But what with furtive pics or moving subjects, obviously the won’t work, right?

  4. Martin Fritter says:

    There are some wonderful videos of Garry Winogrand at work. http://bit.ly/2wGFtcc

  5. wow you take great pictures!!

  6. Hi Robin, may I ask your settings for the lady on the motorcycle?

    • Robin Wong says:

      Shutter Priority, 1/40sec, ISO200.

      • i’ve never tried this technique. Am I correct in say you follow the subject with cam as you shoot? If you had time for a sentence or two on technique i would be most grateful !! (GX8 and 12-35mm or 100-400 pl.) thanks so much!!

        • Robin Wong says:

          It is called panning. I suggest that you look up a Youtube video tutotial for panning, because a live demonstration is usually more effective in showing how certain techniques work.

  7. Great post, thanks for taking the time to write it out.

    Anyone else finding it really odd to see images on this site without the trademark black borders? 😀

  8. Thanks for sharing. Great tips!

  9. Thanks for the tips robin. Have been following your works and truly admire them. Just sharing from my point of view as a beginner, it also helps to see professional photographers works and find the soul in their works. As for me I find Deido Moriyama’s style facinating and always try to mimic his works in my style of photography. Somehow along the way they say, you’ll get your own style after learning from many established photographers. Cheers

    • Robin Wong says:

      Coincidentally, Daido Moriyama is having an exhibition now in Kuala Lumpur. Might swing by to check it out soon!

  10. Thanks for these inputs.Appreciate sharing your thoughts.Very very useful

  11. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    No wonder you have such a high reputation, Ming – that article is both comprehensive (for the purposes it covers) and flawless (in what it tells the reader). Great article!!!!

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