What is street Photography? – Lets keep it simple!
Although I will stress this is meant as a beginner’s guide to street photography, it is always helpful to discuss and hear other ideas on the genre. I hope you enjoy it and find it of some help! – The following information is based on my opinion. I am by no means an expert but I am very passionate about street photography and would like to share what I have learned so far 🙂
If you are new to street photography, consider subscribing to my street photography magazine F/8. F/8 magazine is a very informative publication designed to showcase images and the stories behind the images. F/8 also includes interviews and featured cities from photographers around the world! – Im very proud of it and i’ve learned lots from the photographers who have featured..
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… ” Elliott Erwitt
What is ‘street photography’? – Keeping it interesting!
Surely any photograph taken on the ‘street’ can be classed as a street photo right? – True, but we like to think that there is a lot more to it than just a random snap of someone walking along the street; if that were the case it would be too easy right?
Before we get into detail I would like to say that for me street photography is about being ready for anything and everything. Taking full control and ownership of your camera and settings will ensure you are ready to capture anything of interest which happens in front of you. I always shoot fully manual and wouldn’t personally allow my camera to have any technical control over how my images are captured, that way I know for certain if the image will be sharp or blurry, over-exposed, or correctly exposed. I’m a firm believer in owning your camera settings but we will get to that in another post.
The basic principles of street photography are, to capture an image that contains elements of the following:
Candid & Interesting
A Human ‘Element‘
Each of These can be applied to the following sub-genres of street photography:
Candid, humorous, fine-art, abstract and urban-landscape.
Many feel that true street photography should include a human element in a dominant proportion of the frame otherwise the image could be considered more documentary or architectural and environmental. The human subject should be of interest and relevant to the scene.
A human element can also offer scale to a scene, and if done creatively can be considered fine art or candid as long as the human element is intentional. It’s important not to confuse architectural and environmental photographs with street photography. An architectural and environmental image would draw the viewer towards the environment or the building more so than the human elements or story captured in the frame. Documentary photography however is closely linked to street photography in that you are capturing day-to-day life. However documentary photography doesn’t have to offer specific interest or humour to the scene. Simply recording day-to-day life would class as documentary photography.
What’s so Interesting?
This is of course subjective. However, in my opinion, this is the most important element in my street photography and what I look for in an image.
I want the viewer to be interested or intrigued even entertained by the image as opposed to wondering what it is they are supposed to be looking at. It is very easy to walk down the street and capture day-to-day life. It is far more of a skill and challenge to capture ‘interesting’ or humorous scenes. For example, somebody simply leaving a shop carrying shopping bags wouldn’t be interesting if you were to witness it; it’s something we see all the time, therefore wouldn’t make a good street photograph. If however, that same person, had left the shop and tripped up – sending the bags flying into the air or did something interesting or entertaining and you manage to capture the moment that same scene would be considered a good street photograph as it displays more interest and an element of humour.
- Ask yourself is this scene, interesting or boring and why? – But not just to you!
Sometimes something as simple as a facial gesture acknowledging something humorous can make a fantastic image. Many of the images I am drawn to by other photographers tell a fantastic story just with the expression of the subject in the frame. The trick is to make this subject obvious in the frame so the person viewing the image immediately sees and recognises The photographers intent
- We all find different things interesting it is very subjective and this is where the skill comes in.
Over time you will be more in tune with what is going on in your surroundings and you will develop a second nature to what would make an interesting image. It is important also to look back at your images and try and remember what it was you found interesting in your early days as a street photographer and how they have developed with experience. I find most of my old images now to be very uninteresting.. even boring and pointless! This suggests my ability to look for an interesting scene has improved, the standard I consider for my images has also increased. What I consider interesting now greatly differs to 3 years ago when I started street photography. This is a very important part of your development process and shows a clear and important progression.
It is worth setting yourself a challenge to look for specific items of interest to avoid the cliche images of people walking down the street with their dogs. Also please don’t confuse attractive and appealing people with interesting, it could be considered strange to photograph someone just because they are attractive – attractive is not interesting, the opposite is more often the case.
I strongly suggest spending some time researching street photographs in books on social media and YouTube videos, decide for yourself which images you find are interesting and very importantly also decide which you feel aren’t interesting and why?
The ability to see and an interesting scene and walk away from it is a very important skill. It will stop you taking unnecessary photographs, also allow you to appreciate the fewer images that you take – making your success rate feel much higher! – I also find that this challenge means I am instantly improving my ability to see ‘interesting’ as opposed to ‘average’ scenes and people.
As difficult as this might be initially, I strongly advise people to learn how to critique other photographers images as well as their own (keeping your opinions private of course). Break down what it is about an image you like and dislike. Does it have an interesting story? Is it humorous? Is it the composition that you like? Is it the lighting or colours that you are drawn to? Or something as simple as the reflection or simplicity in the image. Fine art street photography is considered very fashionable these days. This may be down to the simplistic elements or creatively use of light and shadow. Check out my good friend Mark Fearnley’s Instagram for examples of this.
Technical knowledge, what if i can’t use a camera?
A good street photograph consists of an interesting and unique scene, perfectly timed and well-framed, your technical knowledge of your camera doesn’t always make a huge difference – full auto will work fine! (even an iPhone can do the job.. ish!)
If you are familiar with the basics of camera settings and the exposure triangle; When researching interesting images, try and work out the camera settings the photographer would have used. For example f/8 for a great depth of field and 1/250 to freeze the moment; but also decide whether the camera settings and exposure would make a big difference to the success of the image. For example, if that photograph was slightly blurry or slightly darker would it take anything away from the image. Very often with street photography, the technical aspect of the image is not as important as it would be for example in landscape photography. In contrast to this assess whether or not the success of the image is down solely to the camera settings used, for example, a slow shutter speed to create the idea of motion or a wide aperture; eg f/1.8 to isolate a subject against a blurred background or foreground – Very often these variables are not that important!
There are some very successful and famous street photographers of the past whose work is often out of focus or badly exposed. This may be largely down to the limits of technology, however, The important thing is they were able to see and capture an interesting candid public scene or story. – camera settings and technical skill will come later, it is far more important to focus on training your eyes to see first, read the scene.. and preempt an interesting moment happening! And of course, have your camera ready!
⁃ A great technical photographer may be able to use his camera and know all the settings but can they see an interesting and candid scene in a public and uncontrolled environment?
I strongly advise you to learn the basics of photography. You’ll need to understand Aperture shutter speed ISO and the histogram – however, this will come with time and is most definitely something that you will develop over time. I do however encourage you to take every opportunity when out and about even without your camera to look for interesting scenes. Ask yourself; why are they interesting? and is it interesting to you or would anyone find that seen interesting or humorous.
⁃ Imagine a non-photographer friend looking at your photographs would they find them interesting or is it only a photographers appreciation you desire?
Fundamentally street photography is all about capturing interesting candid and public scenes and interactions. This may be subjective but I firmly believe that a good street photograph yields strong interest as well as some technical ability.
Though there have been many amazing street photographs over the years where the technical aspect of the camera might not be right but adds to the aesthetic. I think it’s very much down to the photographer and the viewer to decide what works and what doesn’t this is all very subjective of course. – After all its art!
⁃ Concentrate on learning how to see The difference between an interesting or boring scene. Learning the difference between the two is an invaluable lesson.
Many thanks, i hope you found this useful! Do consider checking out F/8 magazine to help you on your street photography journey.