It's not easy, but anyone can do it. 13 tips for street photography beginners

Any wannabe Vivian Maiers out there? Just follow this advice from a couple of pros.

Any wannabe Vivian Maiers out there? Just follow this advice from a couple of pros

"Until Forever" by Taha Muharuma. (Courtesy of the artist)

Go down the same street a billion times, and every day it'll be different. Different weather, different people, different traffic — which is why you might want to consider having a camera in hand whenever you leave the house.

Whether the person behind the lens is your favourite Instagrammer or legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz or Vivian Maier, street photography is all about capturing spontaneous, candid moments that are happening around us.

That's not easy. But so long as you have a camera, anyone can do it.

And if you're a beginner interested in trying it out, CBC Arts asked a couple of pros for their tips. Taha Muharuma is a Toronto-based street photographer whose moody scenes have earned him 32.5K followers on Instagram, and Monique Campbell regularly leads workshops for newbies like you — including this Sept. 29 photo walk tied to the Art Gallery of Hamilton's ongoing Vivian Maier exhibition.

Street photography is just capturing candid scenes, wherever that may be.- Taha Muharuma, photographer

"Sometimes, people think, 'Oh, I have to go downtown to shoot,' and it's not the case a lot of times. Street photography is just capturing candid scenes, wherever that may be," says Muharuma. The way he sees it, you don't need to live in a big city to be a street photographer. "You're always looking for one thing that will make a scene unique," he says — and those moments can be found wherever you live.

Here's their advice for getting started.

The best camera is the one you have

"Don't worry too much about equipment if you're starting out," says Muharuma. And Campbell agrees: "I encourage people to use what you've got."

So if you already have some jacked up DSLR stashed away, amazing — but what matters is that you start experimenting with whatever's around.

"If you have a mobile device, that's probably your cheapest and best lens to use at the moment," says Muharuma, and while he switches up his gear from time to time, 80 to 90 per cent of what appears on his Instagram was captured with a smartphone. "I would say don't worry about equipment — worry about practicing. Because you will naturally get better; it's inevitable."

So even if you're working with a busted iPod Touch, get a handle on how to use it. Play with different ways of holding it, Campbell suggests. Get to a point where you'll have an idea of what will be in the frame, even if you're not looking through the viewfinder.

Says Muharuma: "The camera that you have on you is your best piece, your best camera for sure."

(Taha Muharuma)

Blend in

If you want to capture candid moments, you've got to be stealthy. No need to be extreme about it. (It's not like Vivian Maier was tip-toeing around Chicago in a ninja suit.) But dress to blend in.

Says Campbell: "You're not going to wear an evening dress or pumps when you're out on the street. Just wear what you're comfortable with and whatever you'd see out on the street." Muharuma goes one step further. His tip? Wear dark colours.

And remember, the art of getting lost in the crowd is about more than what you're wearing. Think about how you're moving. "If you're bending low trying to get this shot, people are looking at you because you're bending low, looking silly," says Muharama.

And when it comes to gear, bigger is definitely not better. A giant lens is going to draw attention in a way your smartphone never will.

(Monique Campbell)
(Taha Muharuma)

Always have your camera ready

Says Campbell: "The number one rule that I'm going to give to you is that people need to travel with their camera. I travel with my camera every day. I'm not without a camera."

Muharuma's the same: "I shoot every day, usually in transit. [...] Just literally everywhere: going to the grocery store, meeting a friend for coffee."

"I think that's the starting point," says Campbell. "If you don't have a camera in your hand, at your disposal, you're not going to make images."

Shoot at all times in all weather

To get images with beautiful shadow and contrast, you'll get the best light around the "golden hours" of sunrise and sunset. But if you're a beginner, every time of day is the optimal time to shoot.

Why? As Muharuma puts it, it's all about "practice, practice, practice."

Think of it as an experiment. Pick a scene — maybe a particular intersection — and go back to it at different points of the day, in different kinds of weather. How does it photograph in the morning, at noon, in the evening — and on sunny days, rainy days, snowy days, foggy days? "You can't assume that 12 noon is not your favourite time to shoot unless you've shot it over and over," says Muharuma. "You can look at other people's photos, but you don't know if that's what you like until you go."

(Taha Muharuma)

Give yourself something to chase

Once you're in action, you'll need to be observing anything and everything. It's just that "anything and everything" is a lot of things to take in.

Campbell's advice? "What I tell people is don't start with a blank canvas. Try and have something that you're looking for." In other words, when you're on the street, imagine that you're working on a photo series. Campbell, for instance, looks for people reading. It's a tip that Vivian Maier followed, as well. "She had a couple of series that she looked for, like, women and children, or men sleeping, or women in hats. And if she was out in the street, she'd look for that."

"I'm still looking for anything and everything, but it gives me something as a starting point."

(Taha Muharuma)

Go where the action is

You can shoot anywhere, but because you're out to photograph people, the busiest places are best. Says Muharuma: "That could be Union Station at 5 p.m. or it could be Chinatown when people are looking to buy groceries. [...] Any time of rush hour."

Adds Campbell: "If you're starting out fresh and brand new, it's best to pick an event." A summer festival, for instance — something that draws an outdoor crowd. "And what I recommend to people is pick an event like that where there's lots of people; you can fly under the radar a little easier and try and shoot some street there."

(Taha Muharuma)

Watch and wait 

"A scene could be anything," says Muharuma, and it's your job to spot it. "People, colours, textures — I'm always looking for one unique thing."

Be patient. Pick a spot and hang out for a moment, waiting for something special to come together. That doesn't mean you have to hold an eight-hour stakeout of your nearest bus stop. If Muharuma's out for a walk, for example, he'll dawdle a while before cross the street. "A lot of times, I'll wait at a light, leaning against the pole. Everyone's in their own world, anyway, waiting for the light to turn, and usually you see someone."

(Monique Campbell)
(Monique Campbell)

To Campbell, the best street photographs tell a story. "I look for a lot of moments," she says — something as simple as a mother and son sharing a laugh while reading a storybook, for instance. "I just typically like to find those little moments that people pass by and walk by and barely notice and I point them out."

Get close

Shy about secretly taking pictures of strangers? It might feel like you're invading someone's personal bubble, but both Muharuma and Campbell say there's nothing to worry about. "In general, I'm an introvert, so it's very weird to be in big crowds all the time," says Muharuma. "But I learned that nobody's really watching you. You think they are, but you're not as important as you think you are. That's what I learned."

Obviously, don't do anything that makes you — or anyone else — uncomfortable, but you won't be able to snap the best shot from two blocks away. Campbell recommends getting as close to your subject as you can. "I started shooting with an 18mm lens, so a fairly wide angle, and I'll come up beside someone," she says.

(Monique Campbell)
(Monique Campbell)

Be stealthy but respectful

Yes, you'll want to get close to people, but that doesn't mean shoving a lens in their face. Campbell always shoots from the hip so she can grab a picture discreetly. "Shooting from the hip, I'm trying to angle the camera in just a way that I catch them or catch a gesture that they've made."

When he's taking pictures with his phone, Muharuma holds it in front of his chest so it looks like he's just another dude walking and texting. (He'll put in his earbuds, too, to complete the illusion — and also, well, because he digs podcasts.)

(Taha Muharuma)

"I really don't want people to be looking at me," he says. "They won't be natural. Some of my favourites — like Vivian Maier, she's my favourite photographer — she did that since the '50s and she really showed that you can capture a scene and just keep it moving. So I try to do that."

And trust your gut. "If you feel like you're taking something from somebody," says Muharuma," then it's not going to be a great feeling." As Campbell puts it, she's all about capturing "positive moments." Be kind to your subjects, and try to capture them in their best light — in all meanings of the word. Says Muharuma: "Because you're doing it candidly, your duty, to me, anyway, is to make them look as special or unique or timeless as possible."

If you're spotted, be honest and play nice

"Once in a blue moon, you'll see somebody who knows that you're taking their photo," says Muharuma. What's the right way to react? Be friendly and come clean.

"I'll compliment them right away," says Muharuma. "And I'll say, 'Do you mind if I take your portrait?' And most times people say, 'Absolutely.'"

"If they discover I took a picture, humour and an explanation — and business cards — go a long way," says Campbell. She always shares her contact info (phone number, website, Instagram) and offers to send people photos.

And if they're not cool with it, be respectful of their wishes. "It's just a photograph," says Campbell, "and if it means that much to a person, then just delete it. There's no point in getting into a fight or an argument out on the street for an image."

Shoot, shoot, shoot — but try not to peek until you're done

Unless you're shooting film, it's time to go HAM on your shutter. "Take a lot of pictures. A lot of them aren't going to turn out," says Campbell, "but it's all a learning experience."

Practice, be curious and have fun. Every situation is different, so it's really up to you.- Taha Muharuma, photographer

And while it'll be tempting to swipe through your camera roll to see how everything turned out, Muharuma suggests waiting until you're done for the day. "If you look at the shots you've taken while you're taking it, you miss new scenes; you miss new moments," he says. 

When it's time to review your pics, focus on evaluating what did, and didn't, work for you on the shoot, and then keep those lessons in mind next time.

(Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection Ltd./Associated Press )

Follow other street photographers

One of Campbell's top tips? Stay inspired by studying the work of other street photographers, whether we're talking about flipping through an art history textbook or searching #streetphotography on Instagram. 

And try bringing along some friends or meeting up with local street photographers. Says Muharuma: "It's fun to go out on your own, but it's nice to have one or two other photographers if you can so you can feel a little sense of community, especially nowadays. We're online a little bit too much, so if you can just get out with other people who do what you do, that will make it more exciting. That's a huge thing."

Get out there!

Again, it's all about practice, practice, practice — and to keep things fresh, Muharuma suggests visiting new-to-you neighbourhoods. If you live in the east end, spend a Saturday shooting on the west side.

"Practice, be curious and have fun," he says. "Every situation is different, so it's really up to you."

(Taha Muharuma)


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.