André Kertész, Vivian Maier, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Gordon Parks, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
That is the world’s shortest list of street photographers whose work can be considered classic and timeless, while still being relevant and influential today. I could easily list dozens of names, including several current photographers.
Looking at their work, the street photography settings they used, and the methods they employed, can help us reach our goals of creating great street photography images.
What is it about street photography that makes us want to look at the pictures again and again? It’s all about the artist has captured the decisive moment. I capitalized that because it’s an art form itself.
Keep reading to find the best street photography settings!
Best Street Photography Settings In 2023
Beneath are the street photography camera settings that I use as a starting point when capturing street photography. Feel free to use this as a starting point and work from there.
You can also see the 5 examples below with camera settings as well to see the variance in lighting and style.
Shutter speed: 1/250th
Focal length: 35mm
Exposure mode: Manual
Focus mode: Manual
Image format: Full Frame, APS-C, MFT
White balance: Daylight or Auto
- Shutter speed: 1/100
- Aperture: f/1.4
- ISO: 100
- Focal length: 35mm
- Shutter speed: 1/60
- Aperture: f/5.6
- ISO: 450
- Focal length: 105mm
- Shutter speed: 1/800
- Aperture: f/8.0
- ISO: 800
- Focal length: 70mm
- Shutter speed: 1/400
- Aperture: f/1.8
- ISO: 100
- Focal length: 50mm
- Shutter speed: 1/60
- Aperture: f/5.6
- ISO: 400
- Focal length: 105mm
Why I choose the above settings for street photography
Shutter speed: 1/250th – Shutter speed should be fast enough to capture medium speed action but slow enough to allow for an aperture that gives a reasonable depth of field.
The shutter speed does more than freeze or blur action. It’s an integral part of the exposure triangle, lens aperture and ISO being the other two sides of the triangle.
This particular set goes back to the Sunny 16 Rule that many film photographers cut their teeth on. Sunny 16 Rule states that on a sunny day, set aperture to f/16 and shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO for a subject in direct sunlight.
So, 1/250th at f/16 with ISO 200 is a basic starting point for a photo on a sunny day. Equivalent settings of 1/500th at f/11 or 1/125th at f/22 would also work. These are the same exposure value (EV) as the first combination.
Sharp eyes have noticed I’m not setting my suggested exposure based on a bright sunny day. I’m operating on the assumption that there are a lot of variables involved in street photography exposure settings.
One variable is how much direct sunlight there is on the subject. Urban scenes can sometimes be under the exposure value of full direct sunlight.
So, we compensate for our base exposure depending on the ambient light conditions.
Other common scenarios and EVs are weak sunlight with soft shadows (1/250th at f/11.0, ISO 200), cloudy bright with no shadows (1/250th at f/8.0, ISO 200), heavy overcast or open shade with no shadows (1/250th at f/5.6 or f/4.0, ISO 200). These are different exposure values.
When shooting street scenes, you may not have enough time to bracket exposures, so being close to a correct exposure is important.
Thankfully, shooting RAW files with modern digital cameras gives photographers a lot of leeway.
When shooting film, a lot of street photography was done with color and B&W negative films that had huge amounts of exposure latitude. Color reversal films, with their very narrow latitudes, were not a common film choice.
An advantage of B&W negative films was the ability to change contrast levels, either by using different chemicals and temperatures or by printing on different types of paper.
Filters could also be employed during printing, as well as the classic B&W lens filters used on the camera during exposure. Light green and dark red were commonly used lens filter colors for B&W photography.
Similar tools exist for modern digital photographers, the Tips section will cover some of that.
Aperture: f/11.0 – A lens aperture of f/8.0 or f/11.0 gives a photographer a good option for having a decently fast shutter speed, while still giving adequate depth of focus.
Some subjects benefit from shallow depth of field and selective focus, but that will also require more precise focusing.
A moderate lens aperture is also good for minimizing any optical aberrations that could detract from the primary subject being photographed.
Lens flare may look cool in a major motion picture scene transition, but it could make a still photograph unusable. Unless one was specifically going for that effect, of course.
ISO: 200 – Medium-speed films tend to have a wide range of exposure latitude. Medium ISOs in digital cameras also tend to have a large dynamic range.
Using a moderate ISO of 200 or 400 also results in the image having less film grain or digital noise.
We don’t want a really low ISO, though, because we need some decent light-gathering ability in order to get the shutter speed and f-stop we desire.
Focal length: 35mm – A 35mm lens was very common in classic street photography. The lens could be small and lightweight while also being relatively fast.
In stating the focal length as 35mm, I’m basing that on the film or digital format of Full Frame. Use the crop factor for other formats
This focal length is moderately wide-angle but does not introduce any of the optical and perspective effects of wider lenses.
If based on Full Frame format, 35mm is just barely on the wide side of the “normal” focal length as described by the diagonal of the format’s rectangle, which is about 43.5mm.
Exposure mode: Manual – Presetting the exposure controls at what we expect will be appropriate for the targeted scene will free us up from wondering what the camera automation is setting.
We know we have this shutter speed at this f-stop and frame our shots accordingly, deciding on the decisive moment to click the shutter.
Using a small hand held light meter is a good idea. This lets us make sure we’re not far away from a correct exposure.
Some photographers seem to have a sixth sense about exposure, setting by the set of their pants. This is fine, too.
Actually, some exposure mistakes could end up being beneficial in creating great images.
Focus mode: Manual (Hyperfocal Distance) – I love my fast responding, super-accurate autofocus in my newer cameras.
However, street photographers have been using the hyperfocal distance with great success for around 100 years now.
It’s a fantastic way to get ready for capturing the decisive moment, being one of the most important of the best street photography settings.
Hyperfocal distance is the distance setting the lens can be set to that gets everything beyond that distance in focus too. It depends on the lens focal length and the aperture set.
Many older lenses had a depth of field or depth of focus scale on the lens barrel that made setting the hyperfocal distance easy.
You would line up the infinity symbol of the focus ring with the line on the barrel for the far distance of that f-stop.
Not only was everything from the focus point to infinity in focus, so was quite a bit in front of the focus point.
There are some handy reference charts or scales that can be downloaded to your smartphone or printed out for keeping in your pocket. Make sure to specify which format your camera is in order to get the proper chart.
In Full Frame format, using a 35mm lens, the hyperfocal distance at f/11.0 is 12 feet. Everything from about 6 feet to infinity will be in focus.
Image format: Full Frame, APS-C, MFT, 1” Type – By far the largest majority of cameras for photo enthusiasts are APS-C and MFT formats.
Entry-level, prosumer and professional cameras in these formats provide outstanding results and have many accessories and lenses available.
A lot of the entry-level cameras are scarcely more expensive than a full-featured smartphone.
Many digital cameras for professionals and serious enthusiasts are Full Frame format. Some of the best imaging devices ever made are in this format. They tend to be on the high end of the pricing scale, as do the lenses for these cameras.
Though a smaller format, the 1” Type sensor cameras are an intriguing choice for street photography. Small and very light, several new models on the market have completely manual setting options, both for exposure and focus.
These are often matched with absolutely stunning lenses, making them very worthy of consideration.
White balance: Daylight or Auto – If you are shooting in RAW file format, white balance is not a huge issue, as color profiles can be assigned or changed in post-processing.
Shooting JPEGS during the day, Daylight color balance will cover most situations. Nighttime street photography is best handled in RAW with automatic white balance. Some night scenes may have 4 or 5 different light sources.
Tips on how to capture stunning street photography images
Tip #1: Get in Close
For many photographers, sitting back and using a tele to gain access to picture taking opportunities is their approach to candid photography.
That usually doesn’t fit in with what street photography is all about. Because street photography isn’t merely candid pictures on the street.
In order to photograph the decisive moment, which is the essence of street photography, sometimes it requires the photographer to be in the midst of what’s going on.
Some street photographers are really bold about it, others seem to be able to fit in virtually unnoticed like someone wearing an invisibility cloak.
Intimacy with the subject is one of the hallmarks of compelling street photography images.
It doesn’t always mean being right in front of the subject, but we should be open to doing so if that makes a better image. Stay safe, though!
Tip #2: Preset Everything
Visualize what you want to accomplish, set your camera to a basic exposure and the hyperfocal distance, and leave those settings alone.
That way, you can concentrate on getting the picture instead of on numbers.
Practice makes perfect. Not every scene, or certain details of the scenes, will end up giving you a decent photo with preset controls.
After a while, you start to get a feel for what variable you will need to compensate for. A person standing in a doorway may need more exposure, while a person frolicking on a white concrete sidewalk may need less.
Tip #3: Pay Attention to Composition
Take a good look at some of the more famous street photography images. Besides that captured moment of time, a good number of them also have an eye-pleasing composition.
Unposed and spontaneous images can still be composed. That’s what our legs are for. Walk around to the other side of the subject, kneel down, and stand on top of something.
Changing those vantage points is one method used to compose better candid and street images.
Tip #4: Shoot Black and White
With digital cameras, I tend not to use the camera’s B&W mode setting, if there is one. I like to shoot in RAW, all the while previsualizing how I want my black and white final image to turn out.
This means not relying on color to separate elements of the composition, but thinking of how those colors, shapes, and shadows will appear in a monochromatic medium.
This also means, for me anyway, shooting in RAW and knowing how to properly use the post-processing program controls.
Tip #5: Make Use of the Golden Hour
The golden hour, that brief period of daylight just before the Sun goes down or right after it comes up, provides a golden opportunity for street photography. (See what I did there?)
Shooting in color, the quality of the light can change how things, people, and places look and feel.
Shooting street images during golden hours of daylight can almost be a form of special effects when exposed and composed creatively.
That warm-toned light can transform a bleak construction site into a mythical playground of light, shadow, reflections, and contrasts.
Tip #6: Shoot a Themed Project
This is another exercise for opening up our creativity. It’s interesting how limiting ourselves to a narrow range of something can force us to be more creative.
In some ways, it reminds me of MacGyver. Supplied only with a camera, lens, and the best street photography settings, use those three simple ingredients to create something spectacular.
Making good use of the best settings and tips for street photography will allow the photographer to capture that Decisive Moment. Maybe someone will mention our name on a list in a few years.