I do not believe that any genre of photography should have rules attached to it. Photography as a whole is an art form and rules simply prevent independent creative thinking. There is no photographer who can say that they know it all. So who sets up these so-called rules? Are the rules set up by someone who does not know everything? I rather follow my own rules.
On this page I am going to try to give you just some of my opinions and views on street photography. These are my opinions, my views, these are not rules you should follow when you hit the streets with your camera in hand.
My Definition Of Street Photography
I define street photography as UN-POSED images of PEOPLE in a PUBLIC place involved in something that could be of interest to someone else. When it comes to street photography I also impose two ethical rules on myself, my photos should not belittle anyone and I don’t shoot photos of children without permission or implied permission.
You will notice that the word ‘candid’ does not get mentioned here – more about this later.
What Street Photography Is Not
Posed portraits, shots of cars with nothing in or around them, shots of cats and dogs without a human presence and over-processed photos that look more like paintings cannot be classified as street photos
Cityscapes and shots of people walking away from you (or simply standing with their backs to you) cannot be classified as street photos. There are exceptions to this.
There is one more type of photo I should have added to the list. Photographing people engrossed in texting or other activity on a cell phone really cannot be called a street photo neither. These people are so engrossed in what they are doing they have no idea of what is going on around them. Taking these shots and then still being proud of yourself for getting a candid shot is just wrong. This is like shooting fish in a barrel, it is just too easy.
Go to any social media site and see what I mean. Up to 50% of the street photos you will find are of people on cell phones. This is becoming very boring. I too have shot my share of this type of photo (there are some of them on this blog) but it is something that I try to avoid these days. There are however times when you just have to photograph a person busy on a cell phone.
Sometimes you just see people with their backs turned to you. Somewhere in that crowd could be someone or something that is the main focus of the story you are trying to tell.
Sometimes you are trying to tell a story about something that can only be seen if the photo shows the back of someone. In the following photo I will leave the story I was trying to tell to your imagination.
Sometimes a photo is most definitely a street photo in the truest sense of the word but what if there is a well-known landmark in the background? Does the photo now become a cityscape? I would say that a single photo can have more than one classification.
Now what about those cell phones? Am I going to stop taking these photos completely? No, a cell phone might be the very thing that the story behind the photo hinges on. The following illustrates what I am trying to say.
Camera, Settings and Post-Processing
I only became interested in photography in 2006. At the time I used a Pentax K1000 shooting film of course. In 2010 I decided to venture into street photography. I knew that the volume of photos I would be shooting would increase dramatically and I would have to make the switch to digital. In South Africa the cost of film development and scanning was and still is very high.
I started in street photography with a small Fujifilm camera, I have forgotten the model but it was a fixed lens point and shoot. I did not use this camera for long. In 2011 I purchased a second-hand Canon 400D DSLR with the standard kit lens. For me it felt as if I had the best camera gear in the world and I was totally hooked. For 7 years I shot thousands of street photos with the Canon. The only other gear I purchased during this time was a 50mm f1.8 prime lens.
In 2018 someone stole my beloved Canon. To me it felt as if the world had ended. I scraped and saved and 3 months later I bought myself a second-hand Nikon D5100 with the 18-55mm kit lens. Currently I am happy with the camera but the lens is very restrictive. I am busy saving, I need to get either a 35mm or 50mm prime lens.
The point behind this long story is to show that you do not need expensive gear to enjoy street photography. I am not saying there is anything wrong with the modern DSLRs, rangefinders or mirrorless cameras out there, I just cannot afford them.
When I am out on the street I do not have time to worry about camera settings. I know my camera well. I know what it can do as well as what it cannot do. I trust my camera and I allow it to do most of the work for me.
The streets in this neck of the woods are normally very bright and sunny. I set my camera to full auto focus, ISO 400 and aperture-priority with an f-stop of f/16. All I do now is to watch the shutter speed the camera selects. In dark shadow or rainy days the shutter speed could drop below 1/350. If this happens I raise the ISO or lower my f-stop to compensate.
These uncomplicated settings suit my style of shooting. Doing things this way means I do not waste time worrying about camera settings, I spend my time on the more important things, finding that great scene and composing that perfect shot.
When it comes to post-processing I go for the easy and inexpensive methods. I do not have Photoshop or other expensive software. I make use of GIMP and I am more than satisfied with what it can do.
I always shoot in RAW. This I do as a precaution for when I make a mistake, rather safe than sorry. If there are no changes I need to make in the RAW file I simply convert to JPEG and scale the size down to 2048px on the longest side (I find this size works well on social media). I very rarely have to crop an image, in fact I get cross with myself when I do have to crop. I rather get the composition correct while I am shooting. If I am going to go black and white I use the GIMP filter called ‘pseudogray’. I like the effect this filter gives.
That’s it, that’s all I do. I backup all my RAW files but the JPEGs I delete once I have published them on social media. Should I ever need an image again I simply repeat the process from the original RAW file.
Candid Or Not
I find the word candid too restrictive, I prefer using the word un-posed. I really do not mind a subject spotting me in that last split second, as long as they do not have time to pose in some unnatural way. This being said I have to add that I will not stage a scene in any way.
Let’s use the following as an example. It is obvious that this couple spotted me in that last moment. They did change their pose and facial expressions but I would like to think that this scene is better than the original I first spotted. The scene was definitely not staged and it shows the subjects in a nice natural way.
One cannot get permission for a shot before you take it and still get an un-posed shot. The following illustrates this. Imagine getting a shot like this if you ask for permission first.
Asking for permission after taking the shot is something that I will occasionally do, it all depends on the situation I find myself in. Should someone request that you delete a shot the answer is simple, just delete it. If the shot is worth it I might try to convince the subject by explaining to them exactly what I am doing or maybe offer to send them a copy of the image. If this does not work, I will delete the image and move on.
I never take street photos outside the city so I have never put much thought into this. Just recently on social media I saw some marvellous photos taken on a dusty little track in a totally rural environment. These photos were fantastic and I would most definitely classify them as street photography. A person or persons will be necessary in these shots and that person(s) will be the main focus of the scene. A small figure in the foreground with a majestic mountain behind them might not work.
Human Presence Or Not
This is not an easy one to answer. I have seen some beautiful street photos with no people in them. I think that if there is no person in the scene then there should be a strong implied human presence.
Take the following as an example. There are no people there but the objects being shown imply that there is a person involved somewhere. Is this a street photo? The objects being shown are not everyday objects. There is a story behind this as these are not things one would normally find on the roof of a car. There is even a bit of humour here. Yes, I think this is a street photo.
Again this is a touchy subject and things will differ depending where you find yourself. In South Africa all the malls and the inside of trains and railway stations are non-public spaces and all of them show signs prohibiting photography. The sporting stadiums are also non-public spaces but most of them will allow photography. There are also security rules prohibiting photos of sensitive security areas such as military bases, police stations, railway installations, bridges etc. This all means that I do not have many places to practice my hobby, I just have the sidewalks, most sporting stadiums and the parks.
A street photographer needs to shoot in public places. Photos taken in your own home or in a friend’s home just will not cut it. This all does not mean that I will not attempt a sneaky shot in a shopping mall, or on a train on occasion, but that is just me being me.
Colour vs Black And White
The so-called masters of street photography preferred black and white. Streets photos should tell a story, colour detracts the viewer’s eye from the story. Yes, I have read all these things. Personally I publish 95% of all my photos in black and white but that is because I like it that way. Black and white for me is just a personal choice.
The only thing here that is important to me is that I publish in colour or in black and white but never both in the same photo. I am speaking about ‘selective colour’ here. The reason for this is that these shots look pretty awful.
There are occasions when I just have to publish a colour image. The following photo I titled ‘Lady In Red’. Somehow I doubt if this would have worked if I had gone black and white.
As a parent and a grandparent I will definitely get upset if some photographer walks up to my kids and simply starts snapping away. I do not take street photos of children on their own without some form of permission from a parent or guardian.
The following photo should illustrate this point. Recently while passing a still standing bus I spotted this little girl staring out the window. I could see the parent sitting next to the girl but I could not speak to her. This left me with a problem. I lifted my camera to the parent in the bus and pointed towards the girl. This was my way of trying to get permission. The parent smiled and nodded, this was enough for me.
Scenes To Look For
The following types of scenes are definitely not an exhaustive list of scenes that could make good street photographs. Hopefully just tomorrow I will go out there and find a scene that I have never seen before.
Look for meaningful expressions or emotions displayed in the subject’s body language. Be careful that you show people off in a good light, do not attempt to belittle them.
Look for interesting shadows and silhouettes. These darker shots normally tell an interesting story.
Juxtaposition is the fact of two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect. These type of scenes are not easily found but they almost always result in a good photo. The following should illustrate this point. Check the contrasts, the statue is of an old man the other guy is young. The statue has its left knee raised, the youngster has his right knee raised. I think you get the idea.
Look for those humorous scenes. Just remember, there is a fine line between being funny and ridiculing someone.
Go up or go down, look for those scenes where you see things from another angle.
Reflections can lead to some awesome photos, lookout for them.
Action scenes are always a big hit, they are however not always easy to capture.
Scenes with interesting body language or gestures.
Lookout for scenes of things that might be everyday in your country but totally strange to someone somewhere else.
Lookout for a scene that tells a story, here you will need an active imagination.
Lookout for the so-called cute factor. These scenes do not only make nice photos they are fun to shoot as well.
I have often been asked for advice on what is the most important thing to remember about street photography. I normally answer with just two little words ‘HAVE FUN’. This is what it is all about.
Street photography for me is just a hobby, I make no money from it, in fact it costs me money. I just have to think of the costs involved in this blog, the bandwidth used up visiting social media sites etc. Just like any other hobby I do it because I enjoy it.
Just being out on the streets experiencing the sights, the sounds and the smells is something else. For me there is nothing more exciting.
Please do not worry about the technicalities of the photography as such. Shoot whatever catches your eye and do so in any way you want to. All that matters is that you get shots through which I or anyone else can see your streets as they were the day you took the shots. I am the viewer of your photos, tell me all those great stories you saw unfolding right before your eyes right there in your photograph.
When you venture into the streets do not kill yourself by walking vast distances. Get to know your city, find those spots that offer photo opportunities. I tried something different a couple of years ago. I shot 100 photos all on the one side of the street in the same city block. This I did in the morning. I came back to the same side of the street in the same city block that afternoon and shot another 100 photos. The very next day I walked the other side of the street in the same block and repeated the experiment. 400 photos in one city block and each photo was completely different.
Never stress about how many photos you have managed to get on any particular day. I have been out there on many occasions and come home with nothing. These days were not bad days, I still enjoyed myself, I still met different people and I still got to see many things. A good day on the streets should never be judged on the number of photos you managed to take. The hobby is all about the process not the photos themselves.
When you are on the streets you are not there as someone who intends to invade other people’s privacy. Always be courteous to everyone. Greet passers-by and smile until your face hurts. You will find that other people out there will treat you in exactly the same way as you treat them.
One last thought, always have a notebook and pencil with you. I often get stopped by people who want me to take their portrait. These are not street photos but I take them and then mail them to the person. You need that notebook to get the email details. You might also have to get the email details of someone you captured in your street shots and they requested that you send them a copy of the photo.
I do believe that if you enjoy yourself out there on the streets, that enjoyment will somehow translate into your photos and I, as someone looking at your photos, will get to see that enjoyment.