Love it or hate it, street photography has a very long history and has brought fame to a fairly extensive list of photographers. Gary Winograd, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Mary Ellen Mark, and many more focused their lenses on the life in city streets. Why does street photography capture the imagination and attention of so many people? Over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and in the US, that percentage is closer to 80%. Urban life is the only life the majority of the population knows so street photography shows them interesting moments in settings they are best able to relate to.
What is Street Photography?
When discussing street photography, people aren’t talking about just any photo taken on a street or in city. Even small towns and villages can be the settings for street photography in some cases. Street photography is more than a snapshot and more than a city background.
In general, street photography:
…is not posed.
…is often somehow gritty or raw with a slightly unsettling atmosphere such as something seeming out-of-place.
…is usually candid.
…is often without the subject’s knowledge.
…is not always in a city.
…is very often black and white.
…is focused on the human condition.
…is less concerned about technical perfection than the subject.
Privacy and Legal Concerns and Street Photography
Street photography has a long history in most “developed” countries but tends to vary drastically based on societal customs. In the US, it is generally ok to publish street photos as long as they were scenes that occurred in public where there was no “expectation of privacy.” In other countries, this is not the case. Some countries, such as France, requires express consent of subjects before any photo (even ones taken in public) can be published. Know your rights and the rights of your subjects before you start snapping. Remember to check with local authorities if you are unfamiliar with local laws and customs.
How to Take Street Photography Images
Camera Gear for Street Photography
Like everything about street photography, the camera gear you use is the subject of many heated arguments. Many insist that you should never use any lens stronger than 50mm. This requires the photographer to get fairly close to subjects however and has led to some very intrusive actions by unscrupulous shutterbugs in their zeal to “get the shot” the way they think “it should be done.”
Others take a zoom lens (usually up to about 300mm) stance with the argument that it helps remove the chance of physical confrontations with subjects and prevents the photographer from interfering in the scene they are trying to capture. Think of the zoom lens stance as a Prime Directive (if you are a Star Trek fan) of sorts for photographers.
Camera body choice is less important and if you are shooting mostly daytime scenes even a mobile phone camera works quite well for street photography in many cases.
Street Photography Subjects
Street photography focuses first and foremost on the human condition. An ordinary moment in time that is often overlooked by passersby can take on a powerful impact when captured in a photograph. Remember that street photography isn’t about making a judgement on the scene; it is about visual impact of the scene in relation to the human subject of the image.
Special events and holidays are great sources for street photography subjects when you are just starting out with this style of photography. The costumes, street performers, decorations, and additional people out and about will help you find an interesting composition more easily.
Street Photography Composition
Street photography is famous for breaking all the rules of composition but it really isn’t breaking the rules so much as finding new ways to use those rules. The rule of thirds, leading lines, and depth of field are all-powerful tools but in street photography the scene is often complex enough that only experienced photographers can pick out exactly what techniques were used to direct the viewer’s focus.
In street photography, don’t be afraid to use every trick at your disposal to draw the viewer’s eye. Change your point of view (what angle you shoot the scene from), make smart choices about vertical or horizontal position for your camera, watch for shadows or highlights that can draw attention, and even the body language of the subjects.
This type of photography isn’t so much about following specific rules as taking what you have and remixing them into a powerful visual finished product. Many street photographers insist that the subject’s eyes must always look into the camera but there are many powerful street photographs where you can see only the backs or sides of subjects.
The only real constant in street photography composition is to make the human the focus.
Is Street Photography Always in Black and White?
Street photography was original black and white because all film was black and white. As technology has evolved, so has street photography. While black and white images will probably always be very popular in street photography, there is no reason why your street photos cannot be in color…or even sepia or spot color if you want them to look that way. Try different treatments with your photos to see which ones best draw attention to your subject.