What Is Street Photography and 7 Key Tips to Get You Started
One of the biggest challenges for beginner photographers is finding a way to define their work. This is something many struggle with as they reach the stage in which they want to create a photography website to share their images with the world.
Among the most popular labels, the majority are quite straightforward, as is the case with landscape, travel, pet, or fashion photography. Others, such as street photography, can be a bit harder to understand.
While the term “street photography” might sound quite self-explanatory, the truth is that you don’t actually need to shoot in the street. In fact, you don’t need to be anywhere near a city or even a small town. If you’re curious to know more about street photography, keep on reading to learn what it’s all about and find out some tips to help you get started in the field.
What is street photography?
Street photography is a visual documentation of everyday life and society. It’s commonly referred to as a candid representation of humanity, however, a person doesn’t need to be in an image for it to be considered street photography. This type of photography takes place exclusively in public areas, albeit not necessarily on the street.
Within three sentences, you might have already realized that there isn’t a clear definition of what street photography is or isn’t. And yet, once you see a street photography image it’s just so clear that it couldn’t be classified as anything else. As Bruce Gilden once said, “If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it's a street photograph.”
The best way to understand what street photography actually means is to deep dive into the work of its photographers. From photography movies dedicated to legends in the field to the photography hashtags used by fellow amateurs on social media, each moment spent studying one of these images will take you one step closer to becoming a street photographer yourself.
The laws and ethics of street photography
Unsurprisingly, the rules of street photography can be just as confusing as the definition of the genre itself. Each country has its own laws about photographing people in public spaces, as well as different delineations between public and private lawns. So before you take your camera out on your first street adventure, make sure to read up on what your country laws have to say about it.
For example, in the United States street photography is legal as long as the pictures are only for artistic purposes. This means you can photograph people in public spaces and sell those images as prints, include them in books, or simply share them on social media. However, if you intend to use them for commercial purposes, such as advertising or selling stock photos, you’ll need a signed model release.
While it can give you some limits and guidelines on how to act on the field, law is not the highest force when it comes to proper street photography conduct. Ethics and respect should always be put above all. If someone doesn’t want you to take their photo, or asks you to delete it afterwards, simply smile and do so.
Respect might just be the most important quality of a street photographer. Always put yourselves in the shoes of the people you’re shooting, and ask yourself whether you’d be happy to be photographed under such circumstances.
How to do street photography
There’s much more to street photography than pressing your camera shutter on a public location. In a way, its essence is quite similar to that of fine art photography. Its purpose is to represent how the photographer sees and experiences the scene, which offers a significant amount of creative freedom. At the same time, however, its visual appeal resides in the photographer’s ability to define a subject and use the different photography composition rules wisely to convey the right message.
But there are many things that make this genre unlike any other, and might take some time to master even for the most experienced shutterbugs. These seven street photography tips will help you get started in the field:
Conquer your fear
Choose the right gear
Think outside the box
Look for the decisive moment
Tell a story
Find your own style
Stay in touch
01. Conquer your fear
Fear is probably the hardest part of street photography, and the main reason why so many decide to not try it out. But as the popular quote goes, “the fears we don’t face become our limits.” Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone will help you develop new photography skills and become a more well-rounded professional.
If you’re too scared to dive head first, start by putting some elements between you and your subjects. For example, shooting from a bus or through a cafe window may offer a sense of security as you take your first steps in the field. Think about how to react if someone catching you in the act of taking their portrait, and don’t forget to smile.
Once you become comfortable enough to shoot without that protection barrier, you might want to take your street game one step further by integrating a portrait photography approach. The best way to get people’s permission is to tell them who you are and why you want to take their photo. Do so in a nice, amiable manner, and make sure to have your camera ready in case they agree.
02. Choose the right gear
When it comes to the best types of cameras for street photography, less is more. Since you'll be carrying your equipment around town, you should travel as light as possible. Furthermore, if your goal is to capture candid scenes, you'll want to pass as unnoticed as possible.
As for which type of camera lens to carry with you, most street photographers work with prime lenses between 35mm and 50mm. These pieces of gear allow for fast shutter speeds that will come in handy in hectic scenarios.
Regardless of the equipment you decide on, it's recommended to consistently use the same setup. This will help you inherently interpret scenes as they'll appear on your frame, and be able to rapidly choose the necessary camera settings.
03. Think outside the box
When thinking about street photography, most people immediately envision 35mm cameras and black and white images of people walking on a city street. But in reality, each genre offers the perfect platform to bring all your creative photography ideas to life.
As you prepare to start your journey as a street photography, think about how you perceive society. Are you more of a city person or a countryside lover? Do crowds make you feel dizzy or energized? Are cities defined by its habitants or the absence of them? What characteristics better represent contemporary society?
All of these questions will help you define the type of scenes you want to shoot. Put your photography style to practice in these situations and the results will be the perfect representation of your reality, setting you apart from others in the field.
04. Look for the decisive moment
One of the most well-known photography quotes of all time was pronounced by Henri Cartier-Bresson as he talked about his approach to street photography: "To photograph is to hold one's breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It's at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy."
Known as the "decisive moment," this mentality rapidly spread over the genre and changed how we understand the discipline. Eventually it led to the development of a whole new field known as lifestyle photography.
Being able to anticipate these crucial moments comes largely from experience, but there are certain steps you can take to improve your chances of success. Once you envision the scene you want to capture, frame the scene and patiently await for the right person to walk by. Shooting a burst of images will increase your odds to capture the exact moment you had in mind.
05. Tell a story
The best street photos are those which transmit an emotion and reflect on the human condition. Upon seeing your work, people should be able to connect with the scene you captured and wonder about its backstory. Think of it as atemporal, third-person people watching.
Mastering the art of photography storytelling is essential to be able to capture and convey powerful emotions through your work. You’ll need to learn how to read people’s expressions and put yourself in their shoes, and then frame the scene in a way that matches those feelings.
Of course all of this is easier said than done, as the moment will be gone forever in a matter of seconds. This is why you should practice these skills as often as possible, especially when you don’t have your camera. When sitting at a cafe or using public transportation, set your thoughts aside for a bit to simply look at the people around you. See how they interact with one another, watch their expressions change, and pay attention to how they merge with their surroundings.
06. Find your own style
The early stages of your street photography journey should be all about experimenting. Try out different equipment, visit diverse locations, test out how your settings affect the scene, see how comfortable you feel in certain situations, etc. Even if you have a certain idea or goal in mind from the get go, allowing yourself to explore all possibilities is crucial to ensure you truly develop a unique style.
This doesn’t mean you need to limit yourself to a certain type of images, but rather than you should transmit the same vision throughout the entirety of your portfolio. People should be able to tell you’re the person behind a certain image as soon as they see it. In order to do so, you’ll need to develop a consistent style that guides your entire creative process.
Is not enough to find a way to distinguish your images from the crowd by, say, using a less popular technique such as long exposure photography. Everything from the type of subjects and framing to the settings used on the camera and photo editors should be perfectly in sync.
07. Stay in touch
Being out in the street offers an incredible outlet to put some photography marketing ideas to practice. Make sure to always carry a handful of business cards with you to share with the people your photograph or simply with passersby who seem interested in your work.
In addition to your name, make sure to include your logo, an email where they can contact you, your social media usernames, and the address of your professional photographer website. Its design should match the style of your portfolio. For example, if you work is primarily composed of underexposed monochromatic portraits, your business card should probably not be neon pink with green letters.
You can easily create your own brand assets using the Wix Logo Maker, which will allow you to achieve professional results even if you don’t know anything about design.
By Judit Ruiz Ricart
Editor of the Wix Photography Blog