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Documenting the Streets: Tips from Dominic Stafford

Cambodia-based freelance photographer Dominic Stafford focuses his work on Southeast Asia. Here, he offers tips and examples for photographing the streets — anywhere in the world.

Image by Dominic Stafford

A street photographer must adapt, improvise, and blend in to any situation — and be ready to find beauty in even the dullest of scenes.

Photographing on the streets is like no other form of photography. It’s real, it’s pure luck, and most importantly it shows life as it is, in real time. A street photographer must adapt, improvise, and blend in to any situation — and be ready to find beauty in even the dullest of scenes.

When I brave the streets of South East Asia, I never really think about anything else other than: “Would that be a good shot? Would that be a good shot? Or would that be a good shot?” I’m in photo mode, and it can become quite tiring. After thirty minutes I’m sitting down, enjoying a soft drink. But even then, I think: “That would be a great shot, and that would be awesome!”

Here are some things to think about when you’re out on the streets, armed with a camera and ready to document the world:

Stand and wait at busy intersections

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For this shot, I hung out at a busy junction next to a pagoda and a bridge. I was almost in the middle of the road; locals on their morning errands were unknowingly driving right into my lens. It resulted in a couple of interesting shots.

Look for diamonds in the rough

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While walking about, you’ll occasionally come across a diamond in the rough: a flower growing out of the concrete, a little girl among businessmen, or — in Phnom Penh — a monk in vibrant-colored threads on a nondescript city street. These make for appealing photographs.

Find calming colors

Certain shades of colors come out well in a photograph. After observing the streets for a while with a photographic eye, you can pick out these scenes (and colors) with ease. In this shot, a faded Coca Cola umbrella complemented a lone faded green wall. Scenes like this can be simply executed — but noticing them takes time.

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Apply the “Rule of Thirds”

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There are three clear parts to this shot of a truckload of young women, on its way to a festival. Train your eyes to look for a shot divided into thirds. Begin by walking about and looking for these kinds of compositions, and eventually it will become second nature.

Go wide

I usually use my 10-22mm wide angle lens on the street. It’s satisfying being able to fit so much into one photograph! Here, I squeezed the entire front of a market in Battambang, Cambodia. Try opening your lens as wide as possible to fit in an entire sidewalk or square.

Capture spectators

I enjoy taking photographs of spectators around me: I feel it gives the whole story of a scene. Here, in Cambodia, people watch as a lit-up ferris wheel spins round and round and round. Stand back to capture everything within your frame.

Look up

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The environment in which we’re photographing is as important as the subjects themselves. Look up, focus on architecture, or on some traffic lights. These kinds of shots complement others well. Experiment with some angles, as shown in this shot of a building front in Battambang, Cambodia.

Be ready

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Anything can change and anything can happen — especially when we least expect it. Have your camera around your neck, on stand by. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I caught this flock of birds in the nick of time.

Use sunlight

At the right time of day — particularly in the morning and evening — the natural light can enhance your subjects wonderfully. Try shooting into the sun to define the outline of your subject. This child in Siem Reap, Cambodia, was at the right place at the right time for me to make the most of this technique:

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Inspired now? Grab your camera and head outside — wander the streets and capture the world around you, wherever you are.

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      1. Once you have asked for a release–if done beforehand–that spontaneous moment is gone and you don’t really get the candid. I suppose you can get people on the street to pose for you, though.

    1. You can follow The Daily Post by clicking the “Follow” button in your black admin bar above, to the left. To follow Dominic’s blog, visit dominicstafford.wordpress.com and click on the same “Follow” button.

  1. Photography eyes – I wish I have that. Wondering if thats a trainable skills that comes with practice or really required talents? :)

  2. I am not professional photographer, but I love capturing moments in time thru photos. I am always ready with my smart phone, which takes awesome images. I love taking pictures of people in the street and buildings, I love bridges and nature. I can’t wait to go out with my camera now that Spring has come to do some nice landscape pictures. Just for the fun of it. I believe photography allows you to capture time in a precious way. Thanks for the tips.

  3. One of my favourite kinds of shots is definitely up towards the subject and waiting for a moment in motion, tricky but the result is so worth it :)

  4. One of my high school teachers used to talk to me often about street photography. He told me about a time he was in Morocco taking pictures from the hip so he wouldn’t be caught because if someone saw you taking a picture of a Muslim woman, you could go to prison. Street photography can be very cool, and is definitely one of my favorites, but it can also be very dangerous depending on where you are and who the stranger you’re capturing is.

  5. Beautiful photos and great tips. Can you recommend a really good point & shoot camera? or a good one you can fit in a pocket? I take mine everywhere with me and so take a lot of similar ones to you, but I can’t stand to lug around my big (good) cameras all the time. My point and shoot takes great pictures as far as subject, composition, etc but quality is not ‘good enough’, apparently due to lens quality. Any suggestions?

  6. This is a wonderful article filled with knowledge !!! I love this as I am trying to get my ideas together about attacking this beautiful art of photography. I am finding that many of the principles of art in general , even interior decorating , apply to photography.

  7. Great points. I agree that it takes some patience and a proper ‘eye’ to capture the wonder of the streets. Being based in SE Asia is a plus I’m sure. In my own visits I felt like I could drop my camera and still come away with a great shot

  8. Fabulous photos and high quality content. Thanks for publishing this article and sharing both tips and examples of street photography that highlights people and places in exciting ways that make you feel you are right there.

  9. I’m just wandering around with my camera phone while walking for exercise in the mornings and evenings. I know just the intersection I’d like to photograph now, thanks to you!

  10. Great tips! I use many of them already, but hadn’t thought about how I should look for certain color combos. Just like they do in fashion. Thanks!

  11. Thank You for posting this article on Street Photography Dominic. It refreshes my photographic mind of all the stuff in school that I learned but have put on the back burner. I use to carry my camera every where I went. not so much any more. Reading articles like this helps to remember why I love this artistic craft. Very good article. The examples are right on the button.

  12. Loved reading all your tips. I need to relax more and just shoot. Sometimes I just try too hard to get great shots when all the while I realize I’m missing awesome ones by overthinking it

  13. Thank you Dominic. I have a load of good quality equipment just waiting to be used. Your post inspires me to get it out and get going. Really enjoyed your photo. tips which I am going to incorporate in my brand new blog.

  14. All great ideas. Lately I’ve been experimenting with the law of thirds, and although I have only an iPhone to snap my photos with, it seems to make a lot of difference (in a positive way). I also like to “look up,” especially up at trees. Again, this would work better if I had another type of camera, but still, I’ve been somewhat pleased with the results.

  15. I like reading that.it is very instructive as usually when I take picture I just frame my target and push the button. But this was like a short courses. I love reading too the story about your travel to Asia.

  16. An absolutely amazing post about what to look for when you’re out shooting on the street. I’ve been taking my street work much more seriously recently, and the results have been pleasing.

    I always follow some of the points you’ve mentioned, such as the rule of thirds, looking for pleasing colours, and keeping an eye on how lines affect the image.

    You have outlined some great new tips as well such as waiting at a location and letting the scene come to you, and shooting into the light… which I don’t do enough of.

    A terrific post, and great images… thanks for sharing!