The way you set up your camera can have a dramatic effect on the way your street pictures will look and the atmosphere and messages they convey, so setting up your camera for street photography is very important. Damien Demolder goes over how. 

Cameras have been clever enough for a long time that when pointed in the right direction with all the controls set to auto, they can produce a well-exposed image with the right thing in focus all by themselves. And if your aim is to just simply record, in a factual manner, the likeness of the scene in front of you, your time might be better spent in some activity other than understanding the difference between f/1.4 and f/11.

If, however, you want more than a physical likeness of the streets around you, and you want to demonstrate the emotion, atmosphere, excitement and dynamism of the world and the people in it, it pays to know how your camera and lens settings can help you to do that.

Setting up your camera for street

How to set up your camera for street photography Damien Demolder

A daylight white balance has preserved the colours of the street. Olympus Pen E-PL5 with 45mm f/1.8, 1/100sec at f/1.8, ISO 3200. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

Pictures taken in auto modes tend not to have the power to say very much or to direct the viewer to the parts of the scene you consider interesting, which is fine if you don’t find anything interesting about the scene you are shooting.

If though something has made you stop and look, and look enough that you can see a masterpiece emerging from the bustle of the street, you will know what you want to highlight, how you want to present that element, and what you want the viewer to see first when they look at your image. If so, you will need to think about why your lens offers over 20 aperture settings when you can only use one at a time.

How to set up your camera for street photography

Working close with a wide aperture will lift the subject from the background. Panasonic Lumix GX9 with Leica DG 25mm f/1.4, 1/4000sec at f/1.4, ISO 1600. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

What are the best camera settings for street photography?

Damien’s recommendations:

  • Aperture priority
  • Widest aperture
  • Daylight white balance
  • Around ISO 400 (daytime) 6400 (night time)
  • Touch Shutter enabled
  • Whole area metering

What is the best aperture for street photography?

How to set up your camera for street photography

A wide aperture with a distant background can create a lovely effect. 1/320sec at f/1.4, ISO 1600. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

I’m going to start with discussing apertures as they are the main drivers behind my camera settings when shooting street scenes. The aperture value itself is not as important as the depth of field it creates – no one will know which f-stop you used but they will see the effect that setting creates in the picture and how it controls the way they see the subject – so I aim for an aperture that creates a definite visual effect.

These tend to be at the extremes of the range: I like f/1.4 the most for its dramatic pull of the eye and its isolating effect on the subject, and f/16 or f/22 will render the whole scene in spectacular and graphic detail. In street photography I don’t have much use for the ‘safe’ apertures like f/5.6, as they tend to produce a result that is reliable but unexciting.

How to set up your camera for street photography

Closing the aperture right down creates a completely different look, with extensive depth of field. Panasonic Lumix S1R with 50mm f/1.8, 1/3200sec at f/22, ISO 1600. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

The best apertures of any lens are those in the middle of the range. From a scientific standpoint that is almost always true – this is where resolution, contrast, vignetting, and edge aberrations are most favourable to the technical quality of your pictures. Street photographers, however, aren’t scientists. They are artists, and we value the visual and emotional appeal of an image much more highly than the line pairs per millimetre that can be recorded.

Undoubtedly, the widest and smallest apertures of any lens tend to be those that perform least well from a technical point of view, but they very often produce the most exciting results. But a drop in resolution at f/22 might be worth it if the lens delivers a jaw-dropping sun star. For better technical quality though stay at least one stop away from the smallest aperture.

How to set up your camera for street photography

The shallow depth of field from the f/2 aperture really makes the girl stand out 1/1600sec at f/2, ISO 100. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

What is the best shutter speed for street photography?

Once I’ve picked the aperture I want to work with, I consider what shutter speed is needed for the effect I’d like to create. In most cases I want to freeze the action in the street, and in many cases I’m shooting people who are moving. Sometimes the people I shoot are static but to save constantly shifting my settings I tend to keep a fast shutter speed all the time unless there isn’t much light – in which case I will engage my brain.

How to set up your camera for street photography

With people walking by quickly I needed a short shutter speed to freeze the action 1/1600sec at f/1.4, ISO 200. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

For general outside pictures in which people are travelling around the frame I’ll have a shutter speed between 1/500sec and 1/16,000sec. I won’t set this manually as I like to work in aperture priority exposure mode, so I adjust my ISO settings to make the shutter speed shift up and down.

Again, to save adjusting the ISO for every shot I tend to keep it quite high to give myself a good margin for changing conditions and environments. If the shutter speed slides up to 1/16,000sec it doesn’t matter, but if it drops to 1/60sec it does, so I’d rather have a bit of noise from an ISO 1600 image than subject blur from a shutter speed that was just a bit too long for the encounter. There are no rules in art of course, but street shots in which the subject is a bit blurred tend to look like mistakes.

How to set up your camera for street photography

Opening the shutter for longer can create neat streaks as people walk by. 0.8sec at f/5.6, ISO 200. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

If you want blur in your subjects, you need to go the whole hog and make it really obvious that you did it on purpose. The shutter speed that will be right for the occasion will depend on how much blur you want as well as how quickly the subjects are moving across your viewfinder.

Too long a shutter speed and you might find the subject just disappears, so aim to start testing at around 1/4sec for people travelling at a walking pace about 15ft from the camera.

What are the best autofocus settings for street photography?

Adjusting your ISO settings manually does not take very much mental processing power and brings with it many advantages in speed and flexibility. In many other genres of photography your camera’s auto ISO mode can deal with this issue entirely, leaving you to concentrate on your subject, but as street photography is action photography, we need to be in control of our shutter speeds.

Is it okay to shoot with Auto ISO?

Auto ISO modes are designed to avoid camera-shake and will assess the focal length and aperture you are using and then adjust the ISO to deliver a shutter speed that ensures a shake-free image. However, auto ISO doesn’t account for moving subjects, so while 1/125sec might be a safe shutter speed at which to use a 50mm lens it’s no good if your subject is a person on a bike.

You can of course set limits on the range of ISO values your auto ISO mode can use, and you can also control the range of shutter speeds the camera uses, which will make using auto ISO ‘safe’. The downside of this is that when you want to venture out of these controls at a moment’s notice, because you’ve moved into a different environment, you must unset these controls – which takes time and can cost missed pictures.

Don’t use auto white balance

How to set up your camera for street photography

Using the Daylight white balance settings has allowed the green tint from the street lights to remain 1/900sec at f/2, ISO 6400. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

If you want to convey the true atmosphere of the scene in your pictures you need to avoid auto white balance. Auto white balance settings are very clever and can be extremely effective at neutralising coloured tints in the lighting of the moment, so that the true colours of the subject shine through. So, if getting the colours of the things you are shooting accurate is important, auto WB, or a custom WB, is a good way to go.

My issue with auto white balance is that the process can remove some of the colours in a scene that made us react to it in the first place. Auto WB modes can also make scenes look a bit sunnier than they actually were, which is great if you want your holiday pictures to look nice but it’s not so good if you are trying to demonstrate that you are taking pictures in the town on a cold morning.

AWB can also remove the warmth of a tungsten-lit interior or the unnerving green tint of an underground car park lit with dirty old fluorescent strip lights. The colours we encounter with our eyes make us feel a certain way, make us react and make us stop to shoot, so we need to make sure we include those colours in the pictures we take.

How to set up your camera for street photography

A Daylight white balance has preserved the colours of the street 1/6400sec at f/1.4, ISO 500. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

For the most part we see with a Daylight white balance, so that’s what I always set when shooting street. People often comment that when you shoot in raw you can add those colours back in afterwards, but colours are very hard to remember, and most people would forget to consider it while processing. It is easier just to capture the right colours at the time.

Should I use mechanical shutter or electronic shutter?

I really value the ability to shoot silently when I’m in the street, as this allows me to shoot unnoticed and to take multiple shots of the same thing without the shutter sound clearing the area. To shoot silently we need to engage the electronic shutter – something only mirrorless camera shooters can do in a practical way.

Of course, if you look very, very closely you might be able to see that pictures taken with an electronic shutter have slightly more image noise than those shot with a mechanical shutter, but in real life no one is actually going to notice the difference.

The electronic shutter often gives us access to a set of high shutter speeds that the mechanical shutter can’t match, which then allows us to shoot with a really wide aperture in brighter conditions without resorting to a neutral density filter.

How to set up your camera for street photography

Working with an electronic shutter allows the camera to operate silently, which is useful close-up 1/1600sec at f/1.8, ISO 200. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

Things you’ll want to watch out for though include banding when shooting in areas lit by fluorescent lights – such as in shops and on trains – and distortion when the subject is moving quickly across the frame. Both problems are a bit fatal to the image and on few occasions will you be able to get away with the effects. In these situations, switch back to a mechanical or electronic first curtain mode.

Most cameras offer to switch between mechanical and electronic shutter modes automatically for you, particularly to reach those high shutter speeds, so it is something to keep an eye on.

Use your in-camera profiles

I like to get my pictures as close to finished in-camera as I can. This isn’t because I’m some fanatical purist who doesn’t crop or manipulate my images, but because it makes my life easier during and after the shoot.

How to set up your camera for street photography

I used a high contrast and high colour saturation in-camera profile to create this punchy shot 1/16000sec at f/2, ISO 400. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

I like the Portrait Photo Style in Lumix cameras when I’m shooting in colour, and Monochrome when I’m in black and white. I like to see the full effect of the image while I’m shooting, and don’t want to have to imagine what the final picture will look like once it’s been through Photoshop, so I adjust exposure (and contrast with the Monochrome Photo Style) so that the picture on the back of the camera looks as close to what I want the finished picture to look like as possible.

The reason is that when I see the done deal on the back of the camera it sometimes inspires me to shoot more because I can see how well it is all working. I might notice something cool in the image or the scene that I mightn’t have done had I waited until afterwards to manipulate the raw file, and that will spur me on to shoot more or to make the most of the element that is appealing to me.

How to set up your camera for street photography

Customising the Monochrome Photo Style in the camera has given me a dramatic, contrasty effect 1/1250sec at f/2.2, ISO 160. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

Equally this helps me to see when things aren’t working, and when I need to change something or simply abandon the idea and look for something else.

Seeing the almost-finished image on the back of the camera should be exciting (if it isn’t, it won’t be later either) and it makes the whole process much more enjoyable. Seeing a technically optimal but flat raw file on the rear screen is never exciting, and it leaves all the creative work until later – when you mightn’t truly remember what drew you to the scene in the first place.

Of course, I shoot in raw so most of the colour and contrast changes I make in-camera are lost in Camera Raw (though some can easily be reinstated in the Camera Profile drop down) but I also process a few raw files in-camera too so that I have references for the way the images looked when I shot them. Shooting all RAW+JPEG is a good, if memory-heavy, way to do this too.

Want to know more about black and white photography? Check out our guide to black and white photography and Black and white street photography tips from the experts.

How to choose the best lenses for street photography

How to set up your camera for street photography

A standard lens for whatever format you are shooting with delivers a natural look to the image 1/12800sec at f/1.4, ISO 200. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

Focal lengths

I like a standard lens for the system I’m using – so a 50mm for full frame, 32mm for APS-C or 25mm for Micro Four Thirds. The angle of view matches what I can concentrate on, and I believe what most viewers are comfortable with. About 90% of my street pictures are shot with this kind of focal length, however I also like a 24mm-style wide when I’m working close up and when I want to include lots of background.

These standard and wide focal lengths preserve a connection between the viewer and the subject and offer a ‘being there’ perspective that is often lost when long lenses are used. However, there are no right or wrong focal lengths – just different effects that create a different feel. Experiment and find the angle of view and the distance between you and the subject that suits the look you want.

Aperture trade-offs

How to set up your camera for street photography

Shot with a 24mm lens to show the environment while still allowing the boy to stand out 1/800sec at f/1.8, ISO 200. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

Fast apertures allow us to shoot in low light without having to crank the ISO up into zones in which noise becomes a real problem. Apertures like f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2 and f/2.5/8 all work well, but when you get to f/3.5 you may struggle to shoot at night and to create a shallow depth of field that makes the subject jump out from the frame.

If you only intend to work with small apertures, you’ll have a wider and cheaper range of lenses to pick from, but a more limited range of effects and atmospheres you can produce.

Size and weight

High-spec lenses tend to be bigger, heavier and more expensive than more regular lenses, so you need to decide how much you want a wide aperture and how much weight you can carry all day. Bigger fast-aperture lenses will also make your kit bigger, and you will stand out more, so again determine how comfortable you are with that. While I love a tiny camera with a pancake lens, I’m also prepared to go big and heavy for the sake of really sharp images at really wide apertures.

Best camera-lens combos for street photography

Canon EOS M50 Mark ll with Canon EF-M 32mm f1.4 STM

Price: $549 / £679 (camera), $479 / £494 (lens)

The Canon EOS M series has a limited range of lens options but it does offer Canon technology in a small package and at a more reasonable price than the R system. The EOS M50 ll brings DSLR-like controls to a tiny body, and provides a hinged touchscreen that makes shooting from all angles and focusing anywhere in the frame easy. The 32mm f/1.4 lens acts as a standard lens, and that fast maximum aperture allows low-light shooting and a nice shallow depth of field.

Fujifilm X-Pro3 with XF 50mm f/1.0 R WR

Fujifilm XF 50mm F1.0 R WR

Fujifilm XF 50mm F1.0 R WR mounted on a Fujifilm X-T4.

Price: $1849 / £1,549 (camera), $989 / £1,449 (lens)

Okay, so this is a bit of an extravagance, but the XF 50mm f/1.0 is an exceptional lens that not only has a dramatically wide aperture, it is also sharp wide open and creates a unique look. The X-Pro3 is an odd pairing size-wise perhaps, but the smaller body keeps the kit a little more compact, and the X-Pro series all make great street cameras. The camera offers a host of built-in styles for a wide range of looks, and the raw files are lovely to work with.

Hasselblad X2D with XCD 2.5/55V

Hasselblad X2D 100C

Hasselblad X2D 100C. Photo credit: Damien Demolder.

Price: $8,200 / £7,369 (camera), $3,699 / £3,559 (lens)

A medium format camera mightn’t be an obvious choice for street photography, but the larger sensor of the Hasselblad X series makes for a pretty unique look when you make the most of the faster apertures of the new XCD-V lenses. The AF of the X2D is much quicker than the other X bodies but you’ll need to aim elsewhere in really fast-moving situations – but for walking pace action the camera will keep up, and the pictures will look amazing.

Leica M11 with APO-Summicron 50mm f/2 ASPH

Leica M11 Monochrom. Image credit: Andy Westlake

Price: $7,894 / £7,600 (camera), $7,839 / £6,950 (lens)

Manual focus can be hard work if you want a shallow depth of field as moving subjects are a challenge, but stopping right down allows action and focus to come together. The M11 has exceptional image quality and the f/2 APO 50mm has the resolution and contrast to make the most of it. Live view shooting makes the latest Leica M cameras modern, but through-the-rangefinder is still a great way to work. For a classic (softer) look, consider the £3,550 50mm f/1.4.

Nikon Z 6ll with Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.8 S

Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.8 S

Price: $1,996 / £1,929 (camera), $819 / £629 (lens)

Nikon’s Z 6ll is its most popular camera and it makes a great option for street photographers with its fast reactions, great AF system and in-body IS system. Nikon has just announced a tiny 26mm f/2.8 pancake that looks exciting, but for more regular shooting the 50mm f/1.8 S is a good option and offers a wider aperture. The Z 40mm f/2 SE is very tempting not only for its cool looks but also its nine-bladed iris that’ll produce attractive out-of-focus highlights.

Olympus OM-1 with M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm F2.0

Best camera for bird photography - OM System OM-1

OM System OM-1. Photo credit: Joshua Waller

Price: $2,199 /£1,979 (camera), $799 / £699 (lens)

The Micro Four Thirds format makes a lot of sense for street work, and Olympus has a host of small, light and reactive cameras. The company’s OM-1 has an excellent AF system and fast reactions, making it a great choice for street. It is probably the best MFT camera for stills at the moment, and it offers all the control and image quality of a much larger camera. Coupled with the 12mm f/2 you’ll have a powerhouse with a nice wide view from some first-class glass.

Panasonic S5ll with Lumix S 50mm f/1.8

Panasonic Lumix S5II sensor

Image credit: Andy Westlake

Price: $1,997 / £1,999 (camera), $447 / £429 (lens)

While the Lumix S5ll is a full-frame camera it is also pretty small, light and has similar reactions to the speedy Lumix G9. The new AF system will help in low light and the exceptional image stabilisation will allow long shutters without a tripod when you want blur. Also small and light is the Lumix S 50mm f/1.8, though the 24mm and 35mm lenses will appeal to those who like a wider view. The f/1.4 50mm is amazingly good, but also big in size and price.

Check out our picks of the best lens for street photography in 2023 for more options.

What is the best camera for street photography? Check out our picks of the very best cameras for street photography as well as the best camera phones for photography in 2023 if you shoot street photography with your smartphone.

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