Lighting is a key component of great street photography. After all, by carefully working with the light, you can capture shadowy photos, silhouettes, upbeat shots, ethereal images, and so much more.
But what type of street photography lighting is best? And how can you use it to your advantage?
In this article, I share plenty of practical lighting tips. I explain the best types of light for street shooting, and I also offer tricks and techniques I’ve developed over the years that’ll help you achieve consistently gorgeous photos.
Let’s get started.
Here’s the thing about street photography:
You can do it at all times of the day, in sun, clouds, rain, sleet, hail, snow, and more.
And no matter when you decide to shoot, if you use the light carefully, you can achieve stunning images.
Street photography isn’t like landscape photography, where you generally want to shoot in the early morning or late afternoon. And it isn’t like flower photography, where you’ll often benefit from a flat, overcast sky.
Instead, street photography is infinitely flexible. Want to shoot in a downpour? Want to shoot at night? It’s possible, and I highly recommend you try it.
That said, the best street photographers don’t ignore the light. They learn to work with the light, so that no matter the situation, the light elevates the shot and gives a top-notch result.
I recommend you start by asking yourself, as soon as you pull out your camera:
Then use your answers, combined with the street lighting tips I share below, to get beautiful photos.
One of my favorite times to shoot street photos is late in the evening, when the sun has dropped below the horizon and the streetlights have come on.
You see, the night adds a new dimension to street photos. There are so many interesting light sources to work with, such as street lights, traffic lights, car lights, neon signs, and more. Even bright smartphone screens can illuminate their user’s faces, which makes for a fun shot.
But because the light is so limited at night, you’ll need to approach your photos carefully. First, make sure you crank up your ISO; noise isn’t a big deal in street photography, especially if you’re shooting in black and white, and maintaining a decent exposure is more important. I’d recommend using a shutter speed of at least 1/60s or so, but don’t worry if you end up with some motion blur. In fact, a little bit of blur can actually enhance the atmosphere, as demonstrated in the photo below:
You’ll also want to learn to zone focus and/or manual focus, because many cameras struggle to lock on subjects in the darkness.
When you head out at night, don’t just wander in random directions. Instead, keep an eye out for light sources. Try to put your subjects in front of the lights or wait until they walk near the lights (for decent illumination).
Silhouette street photos can look amazing, but only when done correctly. Remember that not everything makes for an interesting silhouette subject; instead, look for people or items with clear outlines, and adjust your composition and angle so that they’re carefully framed against a non-distracting background.
Also, whenever possible, pick subjects with added elements of interest, such as umbrellas, bicycles, and hats. If you can get a subject that’s gesturing – rather than simply walking or standing – that’s even better.
Watch for obstructions in front of and behind your subject, and if they’re moving, make sure you don’t catch them in between steps. Put your camera in burst mode to increase your chances of getting the right pose.
Note that silhouette street photography requires a strong light source. At night, you can use street lights and the lights from windows, but during the day, you’ll need something more – either light directly from the sun, or from windows/cars/buildings reflecting the sun. That’s why silhouettes are often most effective early or late in the day, when the sun is low in the sky and you can easily place it behind your subject.
Finally, when adjusting your camera settings, don’t be afraid to drop the ISO low and crank up the shutter speed ridiculously high until you get the result you want.
Street photographers love shadows, and for good reason: carefully positioned shadows can look moody, impactful, and just all-around gorgeous.
Of course, not all shadows are nice. I’d recommend you get the darkest, most well-defined shadows possible, and you can do that by shooting around noon on clear days. If you can find a well-defined subject or an interesting texture on a sunny day, then the shadows will turn out amazing, like this:
I’d also recommend you carefully adjust your angle for the best result, and don’t be afraid to wait for an interesting shadow to “move” into position. In the photo above, the dogwalker’s shadow is highly visible on the textured ground – but if it had overlapped with the stairs in the bottom right corner, the result would’ve been messy and the photo would’ve lost a lot of impact.
If you’re after long shadows, then shoot early or late in the day. Make sure various shadows don’t overlap and try getting up high for a unique vantage point.
Sometimes it’s all about the shadow, and the subject doesn’t even need to be fully included. This approach, when well executed, can add an element of mystery.
Pro tip: Find buildings and other features that create interesting shadows, then wait for the right subject to walk by. For instance, I loved the dappled effect of the shadows in this scene, so I waited until a trio of people came through:
If you shoot at sunny midday, you’ll run into plenty of interesting reflections – in windows, puddles, car hoods, and more.
So incorporate these into your shots whenever possible and don’t be afraid to experiment.
For instance, you might juxtapose a (real) person and a (reflected) building in the same frame. Or you might use a reflection to create symmetry by “doubling” the scene.
If you’re feeling especially adventurous, you can even include a self-portrait reflection in the shot!
Also, when you’re photographing window reflections, you can mix the real scene (i.e., the scene behind the window) with the reflection scene for a beautiful result.
High-contrast lighting is great for street photography, because it simplifies scenes, produces interesting shadows, and can add plenty of mood.
You can often find the best high-contrast effects around noon on bright, sunny days, though the golden hours can offer nice high-contrast lighting, too, especially if you’re willing to use backlight.
Try positioning the sun behind or off to the side of your subject. Then incorporate buildings, which will block portions of the light and create interesting shadow effects:
Also, don’t worry too much about exposure. If you clip some of the shadow details, you’ll still get a very interesting result. And if you blow out the sky, that’s okay, too; the more contrast, the better!
Yes, rainy days are often cold and wet and uncomfortable. But they can provide some of the absolute best street photography opportunities, so whatever you do, don’t leave your camera at home when the forecast predicts bad weather.
Why? For one, people on the streets behave very differently when it’s raining, which can lead to interesting situations. You’ll see people running with newspapers over their heads, you’ll see people walking with umbrellas, and you’ll see them huddling under bus stops and awnings.
Plus, the raindrops can add mist and atmosphere to otherwise bland scenes – and you can take this further by doing some selective focusing through windows, car windshields, bus-stop walls, and more. It’s how I got this shot:
One caveat: Rain and electronics don’t mix, so you’ll need to carefully protect your gear from the water. I’d recommend carrying a raincover in your camera bag and whipping it out whenever the rain starts to fall (alternatively, you can use a ziplock bag or trashbag if you’re in a pinch!).
I’ve spent lots of time emphasizing the value of harsh light and bad weather – but what about the golden hours and the blue hour, which offer soft, flattering lighting?
If you’re deliberate with your camera, you can get great street shots during these times, too! During the golden hours, you’ll need to determine the direction of the sun, then position yourself for interesting backlighting, sidelighting, or even frontlighting. As I mentioned above, the golden hours work well for silhouettes, and you can also get nice reflections off of cars and windows.
During the blue hour, you’ll want to increase your ISO for a decent exposure. Then do what you can to capture a cool, ethereal look in your photos, like this:
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know that you can shoot street photos in literally any light – from early morning blue hour to harsh, sunny midday to several hours after dark.
So what are you waiting for? Head out with your camera and take some powerful shots!
Now over to you:
Which type of lighting for street photography is your favorite? And do you have any tips that we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
There is No Bad Light for Street Photography