Photo by Cathal McNaughton

Press photographer Cathal McNaughton and four AP readers take to the streets of London in search of subjects for classic portrait images. Oliver Atwell picked up some valuable tips on how to capture those crucial candid shots

Street photography is all the rage these days. With various exhibitions up and down the UK, and iPhones making covert photography more accessible, street photography is fast becoming one of the most widely practised photographic genres. But as this month’s photographer and guide Cathal McNaughton points out, there are no hard-and-fast rules – whenever you think you’ve got it sussed, something comes along to undo all your hard learning. The fact that our freedom to take pictures in public is under threat due to the police stopping photographers under terrorism laws doesn’t make it any easier, either.

So what is street photography? Exact definitions vary, but most people agree that it involves photographing subjects in candid situations within public places such as parks, streets and markets. More often than not, it involves capturing a single moment at a decisive point in time. Think Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt and Chris Steele-Perkins, who was featured in our street photography special (AP 26 March 2011) and you get the idea.

‘The good thing about shooting street photography is that you never know what you’re going to end up with,’ says Cathal. ‘That’s one of the reasons why it is such a challenge. If you shoot landscape or architecture, you already understand the elements that are going to be present, such as trees and grass, or buildings and glass. With street photography, it isn’t so simple.’

This month’s chosen location is central London. The bustling streets provide the perfect opportunity for our four readers to challenge their preconceptions about what street photography is and learn the importance of patience, confidence and knowing your rights as a photographer.

Each of the participants was issued with a brief explaining what to bring and, perhaps most importantly, what not to bring. It was hoped that each person would be able to bring 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses and enough memory cards to last the day. But then came the warning: ‘Do not bring filters, tripods or flashguns as we are looking to remain as inconspicuous as possible.’ Stealth and mobility are of paramount importance, it seems.

Your AP Master

Cathal McNaughton
In his career as a press photographer, Cathal has travelled the world covering conflicts in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, and events such as Paris Fashion Week. Providing images to The Press Association and Reuters news agency, Cathal has been named UK Press Photographer of the Year and received numerous awards, including the 2011 Amateur Photographer Power of Photography Award. A regular contributor to AP’s Photo insight series, Cathal also runs workshops. He is based in Ireland. Visit for details.

The AP readers…

Michael Beckett
Michael, 72, is retired and uses a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 24-70mm lens. ‘Cathal gave us tips on how to carry your camera in a way that doesn’t draw attention,’ says Michael. ‘He’s also strong on the ethics of photographing people who you may be photographing for the wrong reasons.’

Mike Blythe
Mike, 56, is a retired plumber. He uses a Canon EOS 7D with 18-270mm and 24-70mm lenses. ‘I really enjoyed the Masterclass and learned a lot under the guidance of Cathal,’ says Mike. ‘Now when I review my shots I can immediately identify the issues I need to deal with.’

Mike Conway
Mike is secretary of the London Camera Club in Kennington. He uses a Canon EOS 5D with a 24-70mm lens and a Canon EOS 20D with a 70-200mm lens. ‘The main message I got was to compose and edit in-camera,’ says Mike. ‘Don’t rely on Photoshop to fix your shots.

Dawn O’Connor
Dawn, 54, volunteers at a local monthly magazine. She uses a Canon EOS 450D with 17-85mm and 55-200mm lenses. ‘Cathal was always nearby to help us compose our shots,’ she says. ‘He explained that we may sometimes have to find an interesting backdrop and wait for a suitable subject to come into view.’

Would you like to take part?

Every month we invite three to five AP readers to join one of our four experts on a free assignment over the course of a day. If you would like to take part, visit for details of how to apply. Please remember to state which Masterclass you would like to attend and make sure you include your name, address, email address, daytime telephone number, some words about your work and three or four of your images.

Taking the right approach

If there’s one thing that worries photographers when they embark on a street photography shoot, it’s
knowing when to approach people and when to stay ‘invisible’. ‘Sometimes introducing yourself to a person can save a lot of bother for you and your subject,’ says Cathal. ‘This is important in a situation like a market, where you want to shoot the stallholders.

Photo by Michael Beckett

If you have a picture in mind and need someone to walk in and complete the shot, you could be standing there for ages. In the meantime, the stallholder is becoming increasingly uncomfortable because you are hanging around his stall, camera in hand, waiting for the right moment. Just introduce yourself and make sure he or she knows you’re not the police or environmental health. Then they can forget about you and you can capture your shot when it comes along.

‘If you’re going to get in close to someone on the street because you think they have an interesting quality, try to make some sort of eye contact with them. However, the problem here is that you probably won’t get an unposed image. Trying to get a good picture of someone in the street when they’re aware that they’re being photographed is impossible.

Photo by Oliver Atwell

You can bet that they’ll find it incredibly hard not to look at the camera, so most of the time you’ll want to blend in. That’s why it’s important not to walk around looking like a photographer. You can’t trawl the streets with lots of gear and cameras hanging off your shoulder. Not only are you easy to spot, but you are also likely to become incredibly self-conscious. You need to feel relaxed.’

Manual Settings

Cathal was keen to point out how important it is to feel comfortable using your camera’s manual settings. ‘It’s crucial to have complete control over what your camera does,’ he says. ‘If you leave your camera on automatic, then you have no control over depth of field or your shutter speed. If that happens, you could end up missing pictures by blurring or underexposing your images.

Photo by Cathal McNaughton

‘In street photography you’ll be dealing with people and objects that may be moving, so you’ll want to set a fast shutter speed,’ he continues. ‘It’s important to remember that all shots will be handheld. If you use a tripod you’ll stand out a mile and you may find that the extra weight slows you down.’

Manual vs Automatic

While the camera’s settings should always be kept in manual mode, the opposite is true with focusing. ‘In my opinion, you should always stick to autofocus,’ says Cathal. ‘If I’m shooting in manual-focus mode I can’t guarantee that all my shots will be sharp, but if I switch to autofocus I can be sure that if my lens is telling me that an image is sharp then it is sharp.’

Photo by Michael Beckett

So what happens when you compose your shot, but the subject you want to focus on isn’t in the centre of the frame? ‘You can always recompose your image or change your position,’ says Cathal. ‘But sometimes the composition of an image is so critical that you can’t afford to move the frame otherwise the picture will be lost.

One thing I do is to move the autofocus (AF) point. If I’m composing my picture and want my subject (the focusing point) in the top right corner, I move the AF point and keep my framing. Check your camera’s manual about how to do this. That said, a lot of the time a central focusing point will more than suffice.’

Working with available Light

One of the things to remember when shooting street photography is that the light is always changing. Cathal pointed out that this is something to bear in mind when scouting out a location, as a bright sunny location on one day might be grey, flat and miserable the next.

Photo by Dawn O’Connor

‘When you return to a location, it may look completely different if the light changes,’ says Cathal. ‘You have to get into the habit of turning the camera on as soon as you get to an area and taking a lightmeter reading through your lens. Keep doing this throughout the day. If you plan ahead you will be ready for anything.

The last thing you want to do is find the perfect shot and then realise that your exposures are ruined because you assumed the light in one area was the same as in another. In street photography you’ll be moving from open space to enclosed areas, such as alleyways, all the time. The light in these places is very different. Two clicks of the dial to tweak the exposure can change everything. When you look at a preview of a shot and it’s underexposed or overexposed, the next shot should be perfect. That’s what the LCD screen is for – there’s no excuse.’

Trust your Conscience

According to Cathal, the first thing that must be understood about shooting people in the street is to be respectful. ‘Street photography isn’t the same as a professional assignment where it’s crucial that you get a shot that day,’ says Cathal. ‘If you’re photographing someone, be respectful of them.

Photo by Dawn O’Connor

Trust your conscience. If you’re not happy taking the picture, then don’t do it. If you feel like you’re showing a person in a bad light, then stop. If you’re faced with a shot of someone who is homeless or rather obese and you point your camera at him or her, then you have to question why you’re doing it. Why have you chosen this person? Is it to mock them? It may be an easy subject, but you have to set standards. Be fair and feel empathy for your subject. Remember that your camera is a powerful tool.’

Simple Backgrounds

‘Often you’ll find an interesting backdrop for a photograph, but you don’t have a focal point/subject for
the image,’ says Cathal. ‘You’ll need to be patient and wait for something to come along and complete the photograph. If you think you’ve found an interesting backdrop, it’s always worth waiting for that missing element.

Photo by Mike Blythe

‘A lot of people think that street photography is about speed and running around the place sniffing out every interesting detail in the environment,’ he adds. ‘Rather than working fast all the time, it’s OK sometimes to take a step back and wait for something to come to  you. A lot of the time you won’t have to wait too long. If you stand in oneplace for long enough it’s amazing what you actually see, particularly in a place like central London.’

Top Tips

  1. Try seeing things from a different perspective, such as shooting from inside a building. If you stick to the outside, you’ll risk missing a lot of interesting things that are happening on the other side of the glass
  2. Keep checking your settings, because when the camera is hanging over your shoulder the dials and buttons can be knocked
  3. Keep your pictures tightly framed. Don’t be afraid to get in a little closer to your subject and don’t always go for the widest end of your focal length
  4. Make sure your camera settings are correct for your environment before you start shooting and keep checking your exposures as the light changes
  5. When is a picture not a picture? When it’s not sharp. It’s not enough to have something  ‘interesting’ in the frame. If your subject’s not in focus, you’ve got nothing
  6. Walk around with your camera as much as you can. If you only go out shooting for one hour a week you’ll never become confident
  7. Don’t take too many lenses with you. If you have too many lenses you can become caught up in thinking about what lens to use in every situation. Your photos may become contrived
  8. Try to blend in, otherwise you’ll lose the candid nature of your photographs
  9. Edit your picture through the viewfinder. Ask yourself: ‘Does that need to be there? If I move slightly forward, will that improve my shot?’ Do as much editing in-camera as you can


Photo by Mike Conway

‘Reflections are a great subject in street photography, although they can often be quite difficult to get right,’ says Cathal. ‘The exposures can be critical because often you’re dealing with extremes of light. Sometimes you will be faced with two light sources – those inside the building and those outside.

Photo by Mike Blythe

‘You can always use polarising filters if you’re looking to reduce the reflections from a building because you’re trying to shoot something that’s going on inside. Alternatively, you could just change your shooting position or  wait for the light to change. Remember, though, that if it doesn’t cometogether, you can’t force it to work.’

Mono vs Colour

Photo by Mike Conway – Original

Street photography and black & white often go hand in hand, but is it always the right option? ‘Just because a picture is in monochrome, it doesn’t automatically mean that it’s a good shot,’ says Cathal. ‘People have a tendency to think that black & white equals “real photography”, but that’s simply not the case. It’s all about personal preference. Black & white can almost be seen as the easy option in some circumstances because it removes colour from the equation and therefore reduces the number of things you have to think about.

Photo by Mike Conway – Edited

‘When we shoot street photography what we’re essentially talking about is “pure photography”, as much as you can have such a thing. Would it not be purer to shoot things in colour as we see them rather than altering them?’

Your right to take photographs in a public place

These guidelines have been issued to all police staff by the head of Specialist Operations for the Metropolitan Police Service, to assist them in dealing with professional and amateur photographers taking pictures in public places.

While we must remain vigilant at all times in dealing with suspicious behaviour, staff must also be clear that:

  • There is no restriction on people taking photographs in public places or of any building other than in very exceptional circumstances
  • There is no prohibition on photographing frontline uniform staff
  • The act of taking a photograph in itself is not usually sufficient to carry out a stop
  • Unless there is a very good reason, people taking photographs should not be stopped
  • Officers do not have the power to delete digital images, destroy film, or to prevent photography in a public place under either power (Section 43 and 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000)