May 23, 2024

Street Photography: A Comprehensive Guide

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I began my journey in street photography without even knowing it was a popular genre. With my trusty Canon DSLR, I wandered the streets of Mumbai, clueless about street photography techniques. I had no inkling that there were specific focal lengths for certain situations. I just took photos. Only after a few months of street photography did I join a workshop, discovering its formalities, past masters, and methods.

I quickly learned there are strong opinions on street photography’s essence, methods, and purpose. It dawned on me that like most popular activities, street photography wasn’t without its gatekeepers and divas. Some of these street photographers omit that multiple approaches exist. Later, I realized rigidness wasn’t ideal for street photography. In my experience, flexibility tends to yield better images, contrary to rigid approaches in street photography.

This article isn’t meant to be the introduction to street photography to rule them all. It’s a guide. There are suggestions, many of which I hope you’ll find useful. These insights stem from a decade of capturing India’s streets and learning from the worldwide street photography community. This introduction to street photography is perfect for beginners who have never taken a single street photo. If you’ve just gotten started, you may find some useful information here that you haven’t considered. At the end of the day, the most important thing you can do is keep shooting and keep learning.

Definition of Street Photography

Street photography is the art of capturing the essence of everyday life and human interactions within public spaces. While typically linked with busy urban city streets, street photography encompasses any setting where public life unfolds, crossing cultural boundaries. Street photography defies rigid definitions, characterized instead by observing and documenting public settings accessible to all.

Street photography practitioners seamlessly integrate it into their daily routines, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary through exploration. Their subjects are as diverse as life itself, ranging from candid human moments to the interplay of architectural forms, from the vibrancy of street markets to the quietude of a park bench. The unifying factor is the public arena in which these scenes are set, making the world a stage for the street photographer’s lens.

Purpose of Street Photography

photo of a man on the street.

The essence of street photography lies in its purpose – to chronicle the transient, often overlooked facets of daily life. For street photographers, the camera is a tool to preserve the fleeting moments that collectively narrate the human condition. It’s a visual diary that captures the poetry of everyday existence, from the banal to the profound.

The motivation behind street photography is as varied as the photographers themselves. For many, it is a documentary pursuit, a way to capture the zeitgeist of an era, understanding that today’s ordinary is tomorrow’s history. Others are drawn to the genre for its aesthetic appeal, finding beauty in the raw, unposed, and spontaneous. Some perceive street photography as social commentary, using images to highlight urban life’s contrasts, paradoxes, and diverse facets.

Street photography, in its purest form, is a reflection of change and continuity. Photographers revisit past masters not only for inspiration but also to acknowledge the passage of time. Through their lenses, they immortalize the universal aspects of humanity amid society’s evolution, preserving fleeting moments for posterity.

Historic Overview

Capturing universal moments revealing human similarity is humbling, as it underscores our commonality despite varying environments shaped by civilization’s rhythms. The historic significance of such visual documentation can’t be overstated. Street photography uniquely captures the present, offering future generations a window into the past, unlike any other visual art form.

Essential Gear for Street Photography

street portrait.

Cameras and Lenses

Veteran street photographers tend to prefer compact and discreet cameras and lenses that balance functionality, portability, and image quality. These kits typically come in the form of film cameras, DSLRs, and mirrorless systems fitted with prime or telephoto lenses. That’s not to say that any functional camera can’t be used. Experienced street photographers often opt for inconspicuous, compact gear to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

Smartphone cameras have come a long way too and it’s not uncommon for street photographers to use their phone cameras whenever they don’t have their main camera with them. Some photographers solely rely on smartphones, a viable option for beginners or those on a budget, offering easy editing and instant sharing.

I suggest experimenting with focal ranges from 28mm to 50mm, with the 35mm full-frame equivalent being versatile for portraits and scenes. Any camera will do if you don’t have any options. If you have a prime lens, maybe a 50mm 1.8 or “nifty fifty”, try it out. If you have a zoom lens, practice taking street photos at one set focal length to get used to how things look in that range. Try 35mm first and then branch out.

Accessories

Accessory preferences range widely for street photographers because shooting styles and camera kits vary greatly too in age, tech, size, and ergonomics, among other parameters. But there are some basic accessories that many street photographers can benefit from owning right from the start.

  • Spare batteries and memory cards
  • Camera bag or backpack
  • Camera strap (preferably a standard full-length strap)
  • Tripod or monopod
  • External flash unit
  • Spare batteries and power bank

There are many other possibilities. But the above list, especially the first three items, can be considered essential for most street photography outings.

Gear Does Matter

person taking picture of a kid.

At the end of the day, gear does matter, to the contrary of some YouTube personalities who claim otherwise while they parade around the city with their new $8,000 Leica system. When you begin street photography, your camera system may or may not suit your shooting style initially. Master the camera you possess, whether it’s just a phone or an old DSLR, as I once did. Take the best pictures that you can, challenging yourself to master the camera.

When you’re able, upgrade to a camera system that you’ve reviewed thoroughly. Then you’ll be ahead of the game because you already developed the discipline to learn a camera system. With this experience, you’ll approach future endeavors with less hesitation and a drive to elevate your street photography further.

Techniques and Tips for Capturing Great Street Photos

Composition and Framing

There are a few key compositional techniques that street photographers can borrow from the world of art and photography. They’re great guidelines, and some would argue that they are, in fact, rules to consider if you want your images to be impactful for your viewers. However, there are exceptions to all rules, especially in street photography. And like all good students, a student of street photography should learn them first and then decide whether or not to incorporate them.

Rule of Thirds

The first “rule” that many discover first is the Rule of Thirds. The setup is simple enough: line up the subject and key features of the image to intersect with the vertical and horizontal lines. Such a rule works wonders because it often gets beginners off the idea that their subjects should be perfectly centered all the time, when in fact, centering your subject should be saved for times when it’s the best option for an image.

Leading Lines

Leading lines are another compositional tool for guiding the viewer’s eyes to the subject. They are a bit trickier to compose compared to the Rule of Thirds simply because any natural or artificial lines would have to be lined up with your subject in most cases. That’s not to say that your subject might first appear right where you need it to be, but it’s unlikely for the majority of the shots where leading lines may be available. Be prepared to move and shuffle around to another position to make it work.

Utilizing Different Angles

two people having a discussion.

Exploring different angles is critical if you want your street photography to stand out. A habit to lose is always shooting from eye level while only tilting your camera up or down to capture an image. Doing so is not only lazy (after you learn there are many other ways!) but also extremely limiting and marks your photography as amateurish if it’s the only perspective in your collection or portfolio.

Utilize multiple levels of perspective and different angles when taking pictures. Take shots from ground level to create impactful images, especially when you want to create portraits with drama. Raise your camera high above your head and shoot down or find a higher vantage point to capture details that would be otherwise unattainable. Tilting and articulating LCD screens are extremely helpful when it comes to these kinds of shots. Make use of them whenever you’re considering different angles in your street photography.

Filling the Frame

Filling the frame is a technique that allows you to showcase the details that matter most. Moving closer to your subject is often the most effective way of achieving this, even if you’re using a telephoto lens. “Zooming with your feet” is something that street photographers using prime lenses are aware of because they’re forced to move closer and engage with their subjects to create an impactful image.

When you fill the frame, you’re also excluding distracting and unessential details that take your viewer’s eyes away from the subject. Practice getting closer than you normally would if your photos are lacking punch. A good quote to remember comes from Robert Capa:

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Approaching and Interacting

Approaching and interacting with your subjects is a delicate art form. It takes a lot of practice for many beginners, but it’s highly rewarding when it all comes together. The approach can be a combination of verbal and nonverbal cues, depending on the situation. The main thing to remember is to avoid hiding the fact that you’re taking pictures; you should strive for interaction with your subjects if it helps get better shots.

Many street photographers consider interaction vitally important because it humanizes the experience, making street photography a practice of sharing and community instead of a solo act that can get lonely at times. Smiling and saying hello go a long way when you’re trying to photograph a person or group who’s aware of your presence and your camera. Be candid and sincere in your conversations, and this will help diffuse potential situations when subjects don’t want their pictures taken while serving to position yourself as someone who isn’t a threat.

Understanding Light and Shadows

Mastering light and shadows is essential for impactful street photography. Embrace the warm hues of Golden Hour or experiment with the stark contrasts of harsh sunlight to set the mood. During softer lighting, explore backlit scenes for silhouettes or use diffused light to create even illumination.

Play with shadows in your compositions to sculpt your subjects and create moody scenes. Whether you’re shooting in color or black and white, shadows add depth, interest, and realism to your images. Seek out light sources that add dimensionality and intrigue. If you’re crafting a narrative or a story, shadows can be employed strategically to enhance important frames in a series.

rickshaw driver on the road.

It’s always a good idea to know the laws and rules as a street photographer, where you live, and wherever you may visit. In some countries, like the United States, you can usually take someone’s picture without consent and are free to share or use those photos in any way you deem fit, apart from any commercial exploitation, which requires written consent in most jurisdictions.

The balancing act comes into play when you’re leveraging the rights and privacy of your subjects with your rights as a photographer. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that photographers have rights, too. But as a street photographer, it’s in your best interest to understand the local laws and customs to avoid legal issues and to keep everyone safe.

Rights and Permissions

Wherever it’s legal to photograph people without their consent, it’s still important not to harass or otherwise antagonize your subjects unintentionally. Some people will object to any photos taken of them for any reason. When you encounter such objections, it’s best to move on. There are plenty of reasons for this.

When you move on after an objection, you’re at least avoiding a potential confrontation. A secondary effect, especially in crowded spaces where others can observe your behavior, is that you’re building credibility as a sincere person who’s not a threat. People will likely be more willing to have their pictures taken by you and more open to conversation. Plus, if you frequent a neighborhood regularly, you’re bound to be recognized. Do you want to be “that nice photographer” or seen as an obnoxious interloper who’s to be avoided at all costs?

Dealing with Privacy Issues

A person’s reasonable right to privacy should always be considered. Obtain permission and/or consent whenever necessary. When you’re in a public space where street photography is legal, you may even want to obtain permission if you think it will help you get better pictures. Conversation is always a good ice-breaker.

Respecting your subjects will serve you well. They aren’t merely subjects; they’re human beings with all the concerns and reactions that may come naturally to them when they encounter a stranger with a camera taking pictures of them for unknown reasons. Be courteous and respectful as a rule of thumb. Put yourself in their shoes. Understanding this dynamic will help you navigate issues of privacy much better.

Respecting Cultural Sensitivities

man standing on the road side.

In places like India, it may be perfectly legal to photograph people with or without their consent. But that doesn’t always mean that you should take their photos, especially if there are culturally sensitive situations like religious or political activities underway. When in doubt, you can always ask someone. The best course of action would be to research the locale first to see if there are photography restrictions and adhere to them, if any.

Editing and Post-Processing Street Photos

Editing and post-processing are another set of terms that are often interchangeable but mean something different. It can mean the process of culling or sifting through photos to see which ones you’ll clean up in your photo editing software and maybe keep. Post-processing is the actual image editing with photo editing software.

Photo Editing Software

Street photographers, by and large, have no strong allegiance to any one brand of photo editing software. Some will use industry standards like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, while others still use any number of the other popular offerings out there.

You may not know which software is right for you and that’s okay when you’re starting out. Many companies offer free trials and other try-before-you-buy schemes that may be worth your while if you’d like to try a wide variety before settling. It’s only important that you find something that will suit most of your photo editing needs.

Shoot in Raw

If you have a compatible camera, always shoot in Raw. The Raw file has all the data that’s available for post-processing your street photography images. Most professional photographers shoot in Raw for this reason. To shoot anything else (except film formats) would be like buying a sports car and never getting out of second gear.

Enhancing Photos

It follows that if you’re shooting in Raw then you have to enhance your photos through post-processing. Even if your style requires only minimal edits, small adjustments are vital because a Raw file is like a recipe: all of the ingredients are there, but they need to be prepared. The same is true for most street photography images; post-processing should be a part of your workflow.

Preserving Authenticity

Street photography can be considered a subgenre of documentary photography and therefore keeping the post-processing to a minimum so that what’s seen in the frame matches what was there in reality is often important to street photographers. That’s to say many are following in the footsteps of documentary photographers and photojournalists, in spaces where accurate details are more important than stylistic considerations.

That being said, no rule says that you can’t edit your street photography in any way that you desire, even in a fine art style that’s completely different from what was originally there. The genre is open to innovation and arguably thrives when the boundaries are pushed.

Styles and Approaches in Street Photography

photo of a man at the beach.

Street photography is a dynamic genre. There are varying approaches to the craft and the processing of the images. Here’s a brief look at how many street photographers approach their work.

Candid vs. Staged

This is one major dividing line that implies two very different types or styles of shooting. Candid photography is arguably the most difficult to achieve because your subjects are usually unaware of your presence, and you’re attempting to capture an unguarded moment.

Staged is another way of saying portraiture or street portraiture. It means that your subject is cooperating with you or taking instructions from you to get the image.

Both ways should be practiced, at least at the beginning of your street photography journey, so that you’ll be familiar with both worlds. Candid street photography requires situational awareness and speed. Staged photography requires effective communication. When you practice both methods thoroughly, you’ll become a well-rounded street photographer who’ll likely develop a preference for one over the other.

Black and White vs. Color

The choice between black and white and color in street photography isn’t just aesthetic—it’s about the story you want to tell. Black and white can strip a scene down to its emotional core, highlighting contrasts, textures, and forms, making the viewer focus on the subject’s essence without the distraction of color.

Color, on the other hand, adds another layer to the narrative, bringing realism, vibrancy, and context. It can turn an ordinary scene into a tapestry of life, capturing the mood and atmosphere of the moment.

Unless you own one of the few cameras on the market that only shoot in black-and-white, I recommend that you always shoot in color and then convert to black-and-white using your photo editing software. This way, you’ll always have the original color file if you ever want to go back to it.

Documentary and Storytelling

Street photography at its core is documentary and storytelling. It’s about capturing life as it unfolds, preserving moments that might otherwise go unnoticed. Each photograph tells a part of a larger story—about a place, a time, a person, or a culture. The challenge and beauty lie in finding and framing these fleeting narratives, turning everyday scenes into compelling visual stories that evoke emotion and provoke thought.

Finding Inspiration and Developing a Unique Style

Inspiration can come from anywhere—the gleam of light on a wet pavement, the shadow of a tree on a building, or the expression on a stranger’s face. Developing a unique style in street photography is about embracing these inspirations and experimenting with how you capture and present them. Your style is your signature—it sets your work apart and makes it recognizable. It evolves as you do, shaped by your experiences, influences, and creative choices.

But don’t get caught up in your style so much in the very beginning. It takes time to develop and the tricky part is, you may not even be aware of it when you finally do arrive at your signature style. Unless you’re making very strong edits at the very beginning, the natural progression for discovering your style can be a journey in itself. Be patient. Let your inspiration guide you and see where it leads.

Analyzing Master Street Photographers

boy running.

Studying the work of master photographers is not about imitation but about learning. Analyze their compositions, their use of light, and their timing. Notice how they frame their subjects, how they tell a story, and how they use the environment. Each master photographer offers a lesson in seeing the world differently. By understanding their techniques and approaches, you can expand your own photographic vocabulary and vision.

Notable Street Photographers

There are several dozen names of past and present street photographers that will keep coming up when you consult a search engine or YouTube. Here are but a few of them that you can look at to get started.

  1. Henri Cartier-Bresson – Known as the “father of street photography,” his concept of the “decisive moment” is fundamental to the genre.
  2. Vivian Maier – A nanny by profession, her extensive body of work was discovered posthumously, revealing her keen eye for street scenes.
  3. Robert Frank – His book “The Americans” is a seminal work in street photography, offering a gritty, candid look at mid-20th-century American life.
  4. Diane Arbus – Known for her stark, revealing portraits of people living on the fringes of society.
  5. Garry Winogrand – Captured the social issues of mid-20th-century America with energy and an unflinching eye.
  6. Helen Levitt – Known for her work in New York City, capturing the vibrancy and drama of street life, especially among children.
  7. Elliott Erwitt – Famous for his humorous and ironic black-and-white candid shots.
  8. Joel Meyerowitz – A pioneer in color photography, known for his vibrant images of street scenes in New York City.
  9. Bruce Gilden – Famous for his close-up, flash photography of unsuspecting subjects on the streets of New York.
  10. Saul Leiter – An early pioneer of color in street photography, known for his abstract compositions and the use of reflections.

But don’t only limit yourself to photographers. Painters and other artists of the past are traditionally trained and masters of light and composition.

Exploring Diverse Locations

The streets are your canvas, and every location offers its own unique set of subjects and stories. From the bustling markets of Mumbai to the quiet nighttime alleys of a small town, every place has its rhythm and mood. Exploring diverse locations enriches your portfolio and challenges you to adapt your style to different settings, lighting conditions, and subjects, making you a more versatile and observant photographer.

Experimenting with Themes

Choosing a theme can add depth to your street photography, creating a cohesive collection of work that explores a particular subject or concept. Themes can be anything from solitude in the city, the interplay of shadows and light, urban decay, or moments of joy. Experimenting with themes forces you to look beyond the obvious and find connections between seemingly unrelated moments and scenes.

Showcasing and Sharing Your Street Photography

man holding a puppy.

Sharing your work is essential for growth and connection. Whether it’s through online galleries, social media, or exhibitions, showcasing your street photography opens it up to feedback, interpretation, and appreciation. It connects you with a community of like-minded individuals and can lead to opportunities for collaboration, publication, and even professional work.

The reason why I became a professional photographer was because a creative director happened to discover one of my photos on Flickr and wanted to use it for the cover of a popular magazine. Granted, this is a rare event and it shouldn’t be expected. The point I want to make is that even if your work doesn’t get “discovered” in the beginning, you may develop professional relationships with brands and connect with other street photographers in the long run. Sharing is good; it’s how we all learn and grow.

Building an Online Portfolio

An online portfolio is your digital gallery—a curated collection of your best work. It’s often the first point of contact with potential clients, collaborators, and fans. A well-designed portfolio that reflects your style and vision can make a lasting impression, attracting opportunities and helping you establish your presence in the photography world.

Using Social Media Platforms

Social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and X are powerful tools for photographers. They allow you to reach a global audience, engage with followers, and showcase your work in real-time. Consistent posting, interacting with your audience, and leveraging hashtags related to street photography can increase your visibility and grow your following.

Participating in Exhibitions

Exhibitions, whether virtual or physical, are an excellent way to present your work in a professional context. They provide a platform for in-depth engagement with your work and can lead to valuable networking opportunities. Participating in exhibitions also adds credibility to your portfolio and can open doors to gallery representation and sales.

Resources and Communities for Street Photographers

person taking pictures at a park.

The street photography community is vibrant and supportive, offering a wealth of resources for photographers at all levels. Online forums, social media groups, local meetups, and workshops facilitate sharing, exchanging tips, and building connections within street photography communities.

Communities like Reddit’s r/streetphotography, the Street Photography International (SPI) on Instagram, and various Facebook groups are invaluable resources.

Investing in your education is crucial. Books like “The Street Photographer’s Manual” by David Gibson and courses from platforms like Skillshare or CreativeLive can provide you with insights and techniques to enhance your craft. Always be on the lookout for new learning opportunities.

But if you’re on a tight budget or not completely invested in street photography yet, there’s always YouTube University. Here, you’ll find plenty of detailed videos on just about every topic of street photography.

Workshops and Events

Participating in workshops and events can be a game-changer. They offer hands-on learning experiences, personalized feedback, and the chance to connect with seasoned photographers. Keep an eye out for local or travel workshops that resonate with your interests and goals.

And if you find yourself in Mumbai, look me up! I organize street photography workshops and provide abundant free online resources, enabling independent exploration of numerous hotspots within the city.

Start Shooting: Your Street Photography Journey Begins Now!

The best way to grow as a street photographer is to keep shooting. Embrace the unpredictable nature of the streets, be patient, and be open to the stories unfolding around you. Your unique perspective and voice are what will make your work stand out. So, grab your camera, hit the streets, and let the world be your muse. Your journey begins with the next click of the shutter.



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