The first thing to understand about street photography is that there is no right way of going about it. Street photography is raw and unplanned. In fact, the only right way to “do” street photography is to capture as much as you possibly can for as long as you possibly can.
Before we jump into the settings, I want you to know that the light barometer is only a guideline. Once you get a grasp of the settings and their effects on a photograph you will come to rely less and less on getting that barometer to balance – especially if you shooting at night.
Starting with ISO, this is the sensitivity of the sensor or film to light. How it works is that the lower the ISO number, the less sensitive the sensor or film is to light. ISO is related to noise for digital photographs or grain for film photographs. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive to light the sensor becomes and the more noise the photograph will be left with. The lower the ISO number, the lower the light sensitivity and the less noise or, the finer the grain of the photograph. Moreover, the ISO gives you the opportunity to shoot at higher shutter speeds in a lower light which is great if you want to avoid motion blur. I shoot with an ISO between 100 and 400 during the day and an ISO of between 200 and 800 at night if I am using a flash.
Next up is AF-Area. AF-Area is the area of the frame the camera autofocuses on. The area that the camera will focus on can be seen by highlighted or bracketed dots representing focus points in the viewfinder. I set my camera to single point AF-Area which is usually for stationary subjects and can be controlled by moving the selected focus point using the navigation keys on the camera body. This takes some getting used to, but if you spend enough time shooting through a viewfinder, your fingers learn where all the keys are. The reason I like single point AF-Area is because it acts as a “laser sight” of sorts. If the selected focused point is on your subject, your subject is in focus. Moreover, I use a selected focus point as a type of anchor to ensure my focus is correct and then by using the focus adjustment ring on the lens, I can slightly adjust the focus to get the look and feel I want. Plus, after three or more hours of shooting your eye will get tired and this is a neat trick to ensure you have the right focus. However, this is a catch 22 as it can cause the rest of the image to blur out unless this is your intention.
The single point AF-Area can be set to work well with your Metering setting. Metering is used to measure the brightness of a subject or scene with a built-in sensor. If you set the metering to spot metering, the same highlighted or bracketed dot in your viewfinder can represent both your focal point and metering point. I use both spot metering and single point AF-Area. What happens is that when you press down halfway on your shutter-release button or shutter button, the sensor will meter on the selected dot in your viewfinder and the lens will focus on the same spot. Keeping the shutter-release pressed down half way will save the metered light so you can always adjust your focus by using the focus ring on your lens, this gives you the flexibility of metering for specific lighting and focusing on a separate subject.
Lastly, shutter speed and aperture which you will have to balance out according to the other settings and the environment you shooting in. Shutter speed is the speed at which the shutter opens to expose the sensor and closes; while aperture is how “open” the lens is to let light in. Faster shutter speeds mean less light, a darker image, and less motion blur. Slower speeds mean more light, a brighter image, and more motion blur.
Lower f/stops (opening the aperture) mean more light, a brighter image, but less “depth” in the image as the background will lose details. Higher f/stops (closing the aperture) mean less light, a darker image, but the background maintains its detail. A fast shutter speed and a closed aperture may result in an underexposed image as there is little light reaching the sensor. However, if you set a high ISO, you can overcome this lack of light with a “more light” sensitive sensor or by metering on an extremely bright light source. Photography is about balance and learning to play with that balance.
And street photography is about playing with the balance I mention while attempting to capture people’s unplanned moments on the streets, at a party, or anywhere really.