Tips from street photography workshops

One of the more rewarding experiences as a photographer is the opportunity to conduct photography workshops. I have been conducting workshops for Olympus Malaysia, and recently Panasonic Malaysia, that focus primarily on an introduction to photography – conducted in the form of a photowalk. Workshop participants are usually new-comers to photography and are looking to learn how to use their newly purchased cameras. Not only do I have to share photography tips and tricks, but I also have to be able to walk the talk and demonstrate, on the spot, how certain shots are executed. It is easy to talk, but shooting and showing instantaneous results is the challenging part. I’ve compiled a series of photographs below that were shot over the course of a few workshops, and used to demonstrate certain techniques live.

Interesting moments happen so fast, that you need to be able to act fast enough to capture the shot.

Portrait of a stranger. Remember, be respectful to the people on the streets, always.

Malaysians are generally very friendly, I am lucky to be here.

During workshops, I always begin by emphasizing the importance of good exposure and accurate focus. Exposure compensation is a tool that allows you to adjust exposure on the fly. Setting the focus points manually helps achieve pinpoint and accurate focus. These two basic concepts are often overlooked and underestimated. I generally do not sharpen my images beyond the default in-camera sharpening for the JPEGs, or the default RAW converter sharpening on Capture One Pro. The key to sharp images is critically accurate focus. I emphasize the importance of reviewing your images before moving on, to make sure critical focus was acquired.

Getting the basic technical bits out of the way, we move on to the fun part. I encourage everyone to not use the viewfinder all the time because shooting from eye level will result in very ordinary looking photographs. Instead, shooting from the hip, or down low from the ground can open up interesting perspectives. A flip or tilt screen helps significantly with this. Finding subjects or looking for interesting content is a common challenge, as everyone sees things differently. The general motto of “shoot what moves you” and, of course, what you love applies here. It is extremely important to know what you are shooting because most of the time, what you shoot is more important than how you shoot it.

Panning shot example, adding energy and dynamic to moving subjects.

Highlight and shadow play, one of the modern and popular (and overused) techniques in street photography.

Reflection can add another dimension to your images.

Wide angle people shots, environmental portraits can work well if your surrounding can support your subjects.

As the walk progresses, I introduce a few quick and easy tips which help add drama to the images. One of the more popular tips is finding an interesting reflection to create a mirrored image. Any shiny surface such as a windowpane or a puddle of water will work. Next up, using highlights and shadows to create strong contrast – this is common among contemporary street photographers. I also share more complex techniques like panning (not that easy to explain and get people to execute, trust me!) and slow shutter speeds to induce motion in images.

Many “decisive moment” shots happen so fast that you need to be able to shoot on your reflexes. That is the main problem for most participants in the workshop as most are new and don’t fully understand the camera and how to operate it efficiently. Therefore, when an interesting opportunity presents itself, they don’t react quick enough and hesitate while the moment slips away. To be able to shoot on the street, you need to be quick and completely aware of your surroundings. Your camera settings – especially the location of crucial buttons and shortcuts should be etched in your memory. It takes time and practice to reach that level of operational efficiency, and I don’t expect that from my participants.

However, a powerful tool that can be used to build confidence and increase shooting efficiency is pre-visualization. Predict what will happen, plan your background, foreground, and subject content and composition in advance. A good example is my shot of a jumping cat. When I see a cat walking (along a bench, table, window ledge etc.), I know that the cat will jump down soon. I then know that in order to capture the cat jumping, I need to have fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion. I switch to shutter priority and set my shutter speed to 1/1000 second. I increase ISO accordingly and compose my shot wide enough to allow some margin for the cat to jump into. I then pre-focus my shot (to where the cat will jump) and wait. When the cat jumps, I take the shot.

Sometimes what sets a good photographer apart, is not necessarily skill with the camera, but preparation and foresight.

Not an easy shot to demonstrate, I admit sometimes I do miss the shot. On another hand, it is worrying how many strays we have on Kuala Lumpur streets.

Capturing details of the location, looking for something interesting as subject content.

Go in close, use a long lens, and wide aperture to isolate your subject.

One of my favourite things to shoot on the street is portraits of strangers. I share how I approach people for images. Always, and I mean always, start with a warm smile. How your subject looks in your image is usually a reflection on how you look at them. Be pleasant and be respectful at all times. I have seen and heard of cases where street photographers become violent and retaliate when they are denied permission to shoot. I advise my participants not to follow such repulsive and rude examples, which I believe give street photography a bad name. Even if you are denied permission, it isn’t the end of the world, just smile, apologize if necessary and move on. There are so many other opportunities to be found. Stay positive, and you will attract positive results. You do not have to resort to unnecessary confrontation that will drain your energy and ruin your desire to continue making good images.

I do my best to ensure that everyone has a good time. After all, what is the point of photography as a hobby if you aren’t having fun? I’ve probably shared too many tips in such a short amount of time (a typical photowalk lasts about 3 hours) but the participants may join the walk again in the future for a revision.

In some workshops, we have a photo-sharing session before the event ends. That is also the session that I am most nervous about, because I do need to share my own shots. The images you’ve seen in this article were shared immediately with the participants (straight out of camera) via a 50-inch LCD screen or projector.

Photo taken by Daniel Lim. Used with permission.

I certainly have enjoyed all the workshops and photowalks that I have led thus far. If you are in Malaysia, feel free to check out the workshop slots offered by Olympus and Panasonic (via their Facebook pages) and sign up. It would be awesome to see you there!


We are also on Facebook and there is a curated reader Flickr pool.

Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2018 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Thank you, Robin, for another wonderful post.

  2. John Joyce says:

    A little OT, but here is an interesting account of cats and humans; and of a civilised approach to controlling their population:

  3. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Your “students” are fortunate to have found such an excellent teacher!

  4. Great tips given…I’ve learned a lot from sifu Robin. Thanks for mentioning my name on the last picture. Can’t wait for the next session.

  5. Wonderful article and you definitely spot on on the emphasis of starting with warm smile, be it a posed portrait of a stranger on the street or even a candid photo. That is one of my repeated advice to some people who ask for advice on street photography. I myself have learned (a bit on the hard way) that warm and sincere smile do wonder, and often, get me out of trouble.

    Also, I know this might not be a popular tips, but for a beginner who just trying to get a grasp of their own camera settings and functionalities, the P mode is always good to ensure they focused on getting the shot and not worry too much about their camera settings (which end up making them missed the critical/decisive moments).

    And as always, your photographs are stunning 🙂

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks for the kind words! Always show kindness first, and avoid being hostile. After all the subjects on street photography mostly are humans, we should treat them as such!

      I agree on shooting with P. This article was shying away from anything technical or camera settings related. Those guidelines are widely available everywhere, hence I was trying to share some non-popular tips, which to me, worked effectively.

  6. I am continually amazed at your expertise…andnarticulation…devoid of self promotion…bravo!

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks! All the workshops I did for Olympus so far are open and free to the public!

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