What is Street Photography?
Street photography–or what I also like to call documentary photography–does not necessarily have to take place on the street. It’s sort of a colloquialism that has grown out of the early 20th century when photographers traversed their cities and took discrete photographs of people living their lives in the city. It’s a way of capturing the candid world around you; people, buildings, relationships, quirkiness, sadness, humanity, and so on. I find that what many would call street photography also fits into other categories: documentary, candid, photojournalistic, etc. These are all along the same line and I use the term street photography to generally talk about photographs of the world around us. However, there is some debate that street photography can be more artistic than documentary-style… go with whatever works for you!
Despite not really marketing myself as a street photographer, it is one of my favorite things to do and I absolutely love it. It’s a passion project, for now. 🙂
There is a debate about the merits of street photography. It is seen as voyeuristic, preying upon the obliviousness of people on the street to snap a photograph you then use for your own reasons: in a show, in your home, to sell for commercial gain, etc. This is actually a concern and something photographers need to think about. The days of no ethics are gone; one must try to be as responsible as possible. I find that asking people for permission for a photograph does not necessarily take away from the ‘candidness’ of a moment; you can still get a great photo, a laugh, a dour look, etc. It does feel a bit weird though. I also know that I don’t like even my friends and family to notice my camera; you can instantly tell a shift in how they are holding themselves and acting. Unfortunately, this is a battle I cannot answer. Every photographer just has to try and do what makes them (and their subjects!) comfortable.
My Street Photography Woes; and Yours Too?
I have a crippling fear of being called out in public. I try to discreetly lift up my big ol’ camera and snap photographs from the shadows. Then I will try to look away inconspicuously, shuffle around, fiddle around with my camera. It is scary stuff, and I’m still learning. That’s why I wanted to make this post: what do YOU do to take successful street photography photographs? I would love to hear more tips!
So how do we get over this hump? My first suggestion would be that if you are interested in pursuing street photography ONLY, to grab a smaller point and shoot camera: such as a Ricoh, a Canon G-series, or Fuji. It’s still a goal of mine to grab one of these little babies. I am jealous of the Brownie era, when one could walk around with a camera box discreetly hanging from your side and take great street photographs. I mean, some of my favorites have been on my iphone!
Another is to just take photographs CONSTANTLY. Get used to taking your camera out in public. People may look at you and wonder what you’re looking at. They may avoid you. That’s fine. Just keep doing it! Take photographs of everything. I have usually 1 photograph I actually really like to every 150 photographs I throw out. That’s the magic of the digital era. Take them all of the time! Soon you will get comfortable and have no problem whipping out your camera when you see a great shadow falling across a group of people.
Another suggestion is to use an old film camera. I am blessed that my dad gave me his old SLR Nikon. These cameras are very discreet (well, more than the new DSLRs) and with a 50mm attached they take beautiful film photographs. Go out and try! I am a huge fan of film. Something about knowing there is a set number of exposures makes you really think about the positioning, angles, shapes, and expressions in your photographs. Nothing helps you perfect what you are looking for like film (sorry, interjected personal opinion).
What to Look For
So what do I look for on the street? Here are just some ideas to get you going!
a) light and lack thereof: shadows and shadow shapes make great photographs. Look up Henry Callahan for some beautiful examples of light and space in street photography.
b) angles. Building corners, leading lines, symmetry, poetry in shapes.
c) people. This is sometimes the hardest one to do. The thing is, many think you have to take photographs of people doing something interesting. That’s not the case. Many of the best street photographers of the early 20th century took photographs of people walking across the street, turning a corner, or talking to others. The ones with people looking directly into the camera are a bit of a different story: in the past, when people had brownies and other similar camera, they would often take a photo just at the moment the person looked at them and noticed the camera. We never see the moment after, which may include people getting angry, or asking questions, or leaving. It’s that second of realization. Again, today, it has to be a bit different. So how do we as photographers take street photographs of people without stepping on the toes of privacy? Questions, questions…
d) composition. Composition is SO important. Street photography is not just random snapshots of the street. Well, it kind of is! But out of the 200 photos you take, not all of them will work. The best ones are the ones that have a composition you like, whether it’s quirky, different, or the standard rule of thirds. Composition matters and the best way to get better at it is to just keep practicing! But I really do think composition and taste is so subjective. What I may see as a lovely stark shot someone else might see as boring… it really all depends, so just go with your gut!
e) action. I know I just said they don’t have to be doing anything, but sometimes they are. Try to capture those moments.
f) on that note, emotions of one kind or another. This delves more into the photojournalistic/documentary style of photography. However, I see them as two halves of one whole. They are different words and frames for telling stories of the candid world around us.
Those are just some of the things I look for. Try them out or try taking photos of what catches your attention: a used candy wrapper on a sidewalk, two people chatting on a park bench, the architecture of a particular street… Try to come at it from a photographer’s eye and just go for it! I am definitely still learning, so let’s all go get better together. 🙂
I love street photography: I love looking at it, studying it, learning about it, and taking it. The reason I love it, even with all of its problems, is that it’s a second snapshot of the world around the photographer. It can show viewers glimpses of cities, shadowed back alleys or graceful highway lines. It can show the dusty streets of prairie towns or the eclectic pile-on of urban streets to people that might not know it’s out there. We see people wearing clothes or expression we might not see elsewhere. I love just witnessing the world. When I walk or travel I am always staring, trying to absorb everything around me. Street photography is way to capture the world in a certain time period that wouldn’t exist otherwise. I can envision American cities in the 40s and 50s because some of my favorite street photographers are from that era. That’s the gift they’ve given us photographers today. I find that the more I do street photography, the more I start to see the world around me as possible photographs; a weird byproduct!
So go out, try to be a little sneaky (but not in an evil way), and take some photos of your city, your town, your community, your world! The first step to understanding photography is to take as many photographs as possible. And many of my favourite street photographs have not been the picture-perfect photograph. That’s the best part about street photograhy; everything is something.
Now go out and explore!