What is Street Photography? What You Need To Know

In this What is Street Photography? What You Need To Know article, we will cover a description, its history, the different sub-genres, the best gear and camera settings for the job, and the rules surrounding photographing people in the streets.

If you are new to street photography or interested in learning more about the subject, this article is for you.

1. What Is Street Photography?

Documenting The Daily

Street photography is a genre of photography that mostly records scenes of everyday life in public places. Capturing subjects in a completely candid and natural manner is the primary aim. Maintaining authenticity in images is crucial (in most instances). To not interrupt this approach, street photographers will often shoot from the hip or in some other manner of stealth.

No Rules In The Streets

Although most genres will opt for candid scenes, street photography does not always need to convey organic moments. Changing the rules for street photography is possible, like any other art form.

For instance, a subject will be aware of the situation when a photographer asks to take their portrait. Furthermore, the requirement to photograph people is not always necessary. For example, a scene captured of an afterparty will still tell a human story.

Ultimately, street photography is about conveying the human experience through a lens. The people, scenes, emotions, and interactions recorded will always differ on style and the other preferences of the photographer.

1.1. The History Of Street Photography

Paris

Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre made the first recorded street photographs in 1839 in one pair of daguerreotype views captured from his studio window of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. The second was of a seemingly unpopulated street. Due to the long 15-30 minute shutter times required by the technology, it was not possible to capture individuals on the move. Later, in 1851, Charles Negre would attain the technical sophistication to register motion.

London

Across the channel, in 1877, Scottish photographer John Thomson would publish Street Life in London. Which featured twelve monthly instalments of images captured of people in the English capital. A move that would begin shaping the course of street photography.

Paving The Way

Later, at the turn of the 20th-century leading figures of the medium like Alfred Stieglitz and Berenice Aggot would come to predominance.

Stieglitz used photography to document the effects of inclement weather on the streets of New York and Paris in the late 1920s.

In the 1930s, photographer Abbot would document the urban architecture of New York City from the streets below. She would emphasise the contrast between the light of the skylines and the darks of the buildings, and through forced perspective, amplify the magnitude of the built environment.

1.2. Leica And Street Photography

The camera company Leica sold the first commercially successful 35mm film camera in 1925. It was compact, lightweight, featured a bright viewfinder and (in models beyond 1930) high-quality interchangeable lenses. Through the use of multi-exposure rolls, the revolutionary camera allowed photographers to move at speed through the streets to capture multiple scenes discreetly.

Paris

One of the first photographers to master this camera was Hungarian born Andre Kertesz that worked in the streets of Paris. Kertesz had a bold and somewhat confrontational style of photography. An approach not yet seen in the field of photography. Furthermore, he became a master at capturing spontaneous activity in visually appealing compositions. The likes we typically associate with todays contemporary styles.

London

Another pioneer that used the Leica to accelerate the development of street photography was Paul Martin. The first recorded photographer to disguise their camera. He is known for his candid photographs of people in London and at the seaside.

United States

Across the Atlantic, The photographer’s Walker Evans and Dorothea Langue were developing the field further on the streets of New York.

Evans worked from 1938 to 1941 on a series in the New York Subway. For this series, Evans also used a concealed camera which he strapped to his chest hidden beneath his coat with a remote wire shutter down its sleeve. However, the work would not be published until 1966 in the book Many are called. This was due to his sensitivities about the originality of the project and the privacy of his subjects.

Helen Levitt, associated with Evans between 1938-39, documented the transitory chalk drawings of children’s street culture in New York. Including the children that drew them. In 1939 the MoMA included her work in its new photography section’s inaugural exhibition. The collection was later published in 1987 as In The Street: chalk drawings and messages, New York City, 1938-1949.

1.3. Post WW2

Following the war, Documentary photography had become an established field. And throughout the 1940s, and 50s photographers like Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Roy DeCarva, William Klein, and Robert Frank were making full-time careers out of documenting American culture.

Childs Play

Levitt, a student of Evans, was drawn to document the impoverished neighbourhoods of New York City. His work would often capture children at play in the streets. Secondly, DeCarva, the first African American photographer to embrace street photography, documented life in Harlem and some of the great Jazz musicians of the postwar period. Lastly, Klein and Model adopted a more combative style by photographing their subjects head-on.

Freedom Of Expression

Frank brought to light a new style of documentary photography, which placed a higher value on images that provoked emotion and subjectivity. As opposed to other more traditional methods, which were more focused on making perfectly composed and well-lit images. Instead, he preferred the ambiguity imposed through pictures he considered to be a stream of consciousness. To achieve this, he would often leave his photographs to chance by shooting from the hip. A far bolder move for film cameras of the day. Franks method of artistic expression in street photography would pave the way for later photographers leading into the 21st century.

Other Pioneering and noteworthy photographers outside of the USA include Robert Doisneau in Paris, Manuel Alvarez Bravo in Mexico, Bill Brandt in London and Josef Koudelka in Czechoslovakian.

1.4. Street Photography In The Late 20th And Early 21st Century

Leica continued to be the preferred camera by many photographers through the 60s and 70s and maintained the black and white aesthetic, with a few transitioning to colour film.

20th Century Players

Further notable names of this period are Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston and Diane Arbus. These artists continued to look to Robert Frank for their inspiration. However, each developed a unique style and approach of their own. Often choosing a style cohesive with realism as opposed to beauty.

There is also a synergy between Eugine Atget and Friedlander’s images of urban life throughout the USA. However, Friedlander’s photographs of storefront windows are decidedly more depressed than those of Atget’s.

New York: A Street Photography Hotspot

Winogrand’s theatrical and crowded scenes of New York streets captured life in the city with an energy that had not been seen before. While Arbus was drawn towards documenting the marginalised people in society with an avoided invisible style.

Exporting Style

Other notable photographers of the period are Tony Ray-Jones, who adopted street photography on his return to the UK after meeting Winogrand in New York. And Martin Parr’s hyper-saturated and intrusive images focus on documenting British culture.

2. Different Styles Of Street Photography

2.1. Fashion Street Photography

Depending on where you live in the world, there may be a surplus of stylish people putting on a street fashion show near you. Unfortunately, if you live outside a metropolitan city, this style of street photography may prove more challenging for you.

Fashion photography is about documenting the latest clothing styles, trends, and the people wearing the garments. This latter element is perhaps the most appealing to street photography as each individual photographed also comes with a story. A level of authenticity that is not present in social media posts or highly polished commercial fashion shoots. Some fashion magazines will utilise this style to document how people employ the latest styles and trends on the streets to express themselves.

2.2. Portrait Street Photography

Depending on how you approach this sub-genre, some may consider it to not be a form of street photography at all and instead a form of portrait or headshot photography.

For many, requesting participation strips an image of its authenticity and thus its essence as a street photograph. On the other hand, some will argue that an approach is still a form of documentation of people in urban environments and, as such, is a form of street photography.

Both approaches require a different skill set. The candid portrait is the more challenging of the two. In a staged scene, the photographer has the advantage of subject cooperation. And opportunities to retake their shots if the focus, composition or other element is wrong. The candid portrait requires the photographer to exercise their foresight and plan the photograph before it happens. And when it does, there is no promise of it working out.

2.3. Urban Street Photography

Urban street photography is less about capturing the emotion in a face or telling a story about a person or a group of people and more about communicating how they interact with the larger urban environment they inhabit.

Good urban street photography requires a lot of patience as you may find a perfect composition of urban elements but could wait hours for the right kind of subject to interact with that scene in just the right way. Sometimes, even if you have been waiting all day, that person may still never come. For this reason, urban street photographers must demonstrate massive amounts of patience when looking for those high-quality shots.

When looking for the perfect urban configuration, be observant of lighting, shape, shadow, leading lines, reflections and symmetry. Furthermore, for subjects to interact with the scene in a way that creates emphasis or creates a juxtaposition.

2.4. Night Street Photography

Urban environments transform once the sun has sunk behind the horizon. This changing change of pace and subject matter presents a further opportunity for the street photographer to document a location with scenes that would not be present in daylight.

Nonetheless, this lack of daylight does pose the issue of how to achieve correctly exposed and sharp photographs. To overcome this, photographers will use fast prime lenses. Those shooting with full-frame cameras will also have an added advantage in dark conditions. Some photographers may also decide to use a strobe or a flashgun. However, this poses the risk of subjects noticing the camera due to the added bulk.

2.5. Street Art Street Photography

Like Helen Levitts series of chalk drawings documented in the streets of New York in the 1930s, Street art photography is about detailing the expression of a cities inhabitants and how that expression interacts with the urban forms. The art itself is often the focal point of this sub-genre, although there are no rules against including people in these scenes if the photographer chooses to do. However, the two elements should complement each other in some form to not retract the impact of either.

If possible, it will be ethically agreeable to credit the artist if you use their work on your social media feed or other marketing material.

2.6. Film Street Photography

Film street photography and film photography, in general, have always maintained a cult following. And in recent years has undergone somewhat of a resurgence. Many people believe shooting with film retains the soul of the craft. Something is lost in the high turnover of images in the less calculated digital approach.

No matter which philosophical side of the fence you sit on, most of us can agree that it does indeed give photographs a unique style that is hard not to adore. Unfortunately, shooting with film is more difficult than shooting digital, being much more expensive and unforgiving.

2.7. Candid Street Photography

The sub-genre most associated with the field of street photography is the candid approach. The goal is to document people naturally and spontaneously as they go about their daily lives. Requires high levels of skill to make use of lighting, composition, and storytelling. It is not possible to capture good street photographs by simply pointing a camera at people in the street.

Great street photographers combine these elements to compose beautiful images that give viewers a glimpse into the subject’s world.

While photographing people in the street, one will inevitably be noticed. If people become confrontational, calmly describe why you are taking the images. It may also be helpful to show what you have captured. All situations will vary, and how you react to them will develop over time.

2.8. Intrusive Street Photography

Getting up close and personal with your camera without consent requires high levels of courage and audacity. Because of this invasion of personal privacy confrontational, street photographs covey emotions of surprise, resentment, and non-surprisingly hostility. But as Robert Capps once famously said, “if your photographs aren’t good enough, You’re not close enough.”

2.9. Fine Art Street Photography

The key to capturing captivating fine art street photos is to photograph a subject or scene obscurely. Enough to communicate an imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual message. Instead of the viewer decoding a story, these photographs must spark questions on a more subjective and philosophical plane.

For this reason, fine art photography is a challenging genre to master. For instance, If you want to become perceptive enough to understand and communicate philosophical messages, you must first understand philosophical concepts.

2.10. Geometric Street Photography

Geometric street photography moves the focus away from the people and shifts it towards the man-made environment. People still feature in these images but are often used as a reference or to compliment or enhance their inhabited environment.

This style of street photography concentrates on finding visually appealing arrangements of patterns, textures, shapes, lines, tones, colours, and light and composing them in such a way to give the viewer a visually pleasing experience. Much geometric street photography takes on an almost shrine-like appeal to the modern man-made world.

2.11. Juxtaposition Street Photography

Juxtaposition street photography involves capturing two or more elements in a photograph that share a relationship or create a distinct contrast or another effect. These could be anything from colours, shapes, people, clothing, buildings and so on. For example, someone could be standing looking at a smartphone underneath an advert of someone looking at their smartphone. Likewise, two twin children could wear a pink dress which contrasts with the colour of the background. A limo of partying youths driving past some miserable OAPs using Zimmer frames. You get the picture.

Juxtaposition is so challenging in street photography because it is so rare. It is difficult enough to capture an interesting candid shot, let alone sit for such instances to occur at random in the street. However, when they do, they make magical photographs.

Conclusively, it may not be the best idea to head to the street without taking juxtapositions alone. If you do this, numerous days and nights may be spent with little to nothing to show for it. Juxtapositions will often come every once in a blue moon but are something one should always be on the lookout for.

2.12. Modern Street Photography

Modern street photographers capture scenes slightly differently from the more traditional street photography approaches. Although people still play an integral role in the imagery, their importance is balanced with other elements like colour, repetition and juxtaposition.

Modern street photography is moving away from the traditional gritty scenes associated with it and injecting a little more humour into the genre. Trends that are popular in other fields of photography will often feature here also. Furthermore, due to the growing popularity of street photography elements of commercialisation are influencing new photographers in the field.

2.13. Abstract Street Photography

Abstract Street photography uses reflection, blurs, shadows, silhouettes, and colours to give impressions and feelings of scenes rather than recording an event. The rules for this sub-genre are as hazy and undefined as the images themselves. Photographers often use their surroundings in some fashion to help abstract their photographs.

These images are sometimes difficult to create, especially on days with clear weather. It is during spells of cold and bad weather that abstract street photographers excel at creating their compositions. For example, on a cold winters night, condensation will gather on windows, and the cold morning will offer fog that will cause objects to disappear into the scene. Rain, snow, sleet and hail will further offer ways to abstract images.

3. What Makes A Good Street Photograph?

Choose Your Target

The first step in taking a great street photograph is deciding which type of street photography you are going to shoot. Knowing this, a photographer will be better able to direct their attention towards disseminating the information around them and composing it into a shot. Going outside with a camera and simply pointing and shooting it at people and things will not achieve good results.

Utilise Photography Principles

This leads us to the second point. A photographer must take the time to concentrate on their surrounding environment, see things in frames, follow rules of composition, finding and use good light, and have the foresight to see how the picture will look and what messages it could potentially communicate.

This level of concentration and attention to detail is necessary to achieve a good photo before pushing the shutter button.

Be Brave

Another point is if one wishes to become a street photographer, for the most part, they are going to need courage.

Street photography is not for the faint of heart, as it will undoubtedly push you outside of your comfort zone. Talking to strangers and dealing with conflict will become habitual. For a photographer, the compulsion to document street life must be greater than their shyness or fear of confrontation.

Lastly, like anything in life, if you want to get good at photography, you will need to dedicate yourself to it. Which means choosing nights and weekends in the streets instead of on the sofa watching Netflix.

4. Gear For The Streets

There are no rules to what you can and can’t use for street photography. You can shoot with DSLRs, Smartphones, or even a vintage box camera if you like, although the quality of photographs from the latter will be questionable. Despite there being no rules, some preferences will help achieve better results. Firstly, when choosing a camera, it is important to choose something with a high level of functionality.

Essential Functionality

Fast zone focusing, a quiet shutter, articulating screen, no lag when you take a picture and an ability to turn of all lights and noises are all important features. Mirrorless cameras, which are small in size, have come a long way in recent years and are now perfectly able to replace DSLRs.

Lenses

The lenses used will often be primes with 28mm to 50mm focal lengths. To increase their field of view photographers will use wide-angle lenses. Ultimately, the focal length of the lens used is entirely down to each photographer and their preferences. Some street photographers also choose to use flashguns.

Personal Preference Trumps All

Your default camera and equipment you use for street photography will most likely change from whatever you start with. Ultimately, each person’s preferences will be different and unfortunately, you will only discover this through practice, trial and error with different approaches with varying equipment.

5. Techniques For Shooting People

Anyone that has already attempted to shoot street photography will understand how difficult it can be to capture moving subjects. Challenging low light situations increase the difficulty further. Fortunately, two alternative focusing techniques help photographers increase their chances of shooting tac sharp images. These are Zone focusing and hyper-focal distance.

Zone Focusing

When a photographer uses the zone focusing technique, they are setting their focal point to a preassigned distance. This means that the camera won’t need to compute the calculations needed to achieve sharpness with autofocus. This computation besides being short can make the difference between achieving the shot or not. The trade-off when using this technique is that the photographer will need to remember and maintain their distancing between all subjects they shoot.

Hyper-Focal Distance

Secondly, using the hyper-focal distance technique has the opportunity to add even more convenience to a shoot. When using this method, the photographer will use their focal point to a fixed point particular to their lens focal length and then decide on their aperture. The point of focus often being as close to the camera as possible to have everything else behind that point in focus. The wider the focal length of a lens and the larger the aperture the closer this point will be.

Shoot From The Hip

Outside of the camera settings, shooting from the hip is a popular technique amongst many street photographers. Mostly because it affords them a level of discreetness so as to not reveal themselves to the subject and spoil the shot.

6. Street Law

Public Place? No Problem

People often misunderstand the rules surrounding street photography. On one hand, people will think that it is unacceptable for someone to photograph them. Yet, on the other hand, will think it ok to record a police officer, fight, or some kind of public disturbance. The bottom line is, that it is perfectly legal to take photographs of other people in public spaces in most countries. These laws coincide with protecting citizens’ freedom of expression, journalistic freedom and protection.

Don’t Be A D

Despite these freedoms, there are limits to what is acceptable and when these lines are crossed laws will protect people from paparazzi, harassment and defamation. Furthermore, photographing children is deemed as unacceptable. Especially if they are on their own without guardians to give permission.

Use Common Sense

When shooting street photography, it is always best to use your common sense and rationalise each situation as it unfolds to decide if it is acceptable to shoot or not. Remember, taking photographs of people in public places is perfectly legal. However, if the situation calls for it, the photograph may be better deleted if it will avoid trouble.

7. Conclusion

It’s Easy To Start

Fortunately, street photography is incredibly easy to begin practising. Most modern-day smartphones have cameras that are more than capable to embark on a journey into street photography. The hardest parts are stepping out of the front door and engaging in confrontational situations. But if this form of documentary/art appeals to you the discomfort will be worth it.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you are new to street photography, then spend a day practising all of the different styles mentioned in this article to see which one resonates with you more. Just remember to stick to that style when you are on the shoot. As mentioned, reminding focused on a single approach/topic while shooting is essential to yielding the best results.

Keep Exploring

And that is it for this introduction to street photography. Hopefully, it has been of some use. Don’t forget to follow the links to read up on certain aspects of street photography in greater detail.

Share Your Experience

What do you think of the information provided here? Is anything missing? If so, please let us know in the comments section below.

David Davis
David Davishttps://shuttergang.com
Hi, My name is Dave, and I am passionate about photography. I am currently travelling to document the world's most interesting people and places. I have started this blog to share these incredible sights and experiences with you, including all the knowledge I gain as a photographer/videographer along the way. If you share a passion for street, documentary, and travel photography, join the mailing list and stay up to date with the latest posts and resources direct from the field.

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