Street Photography FAQ:38 Questions answered

There's lots of misinformation out there about Street Photography, making the beginner's journey quite frustrating, confusing and hard. That has been my story for quite some time, that is why I scoured the internet for all of the frequently asked questions about street photography I could find and I answered them here. This FAQ is probably most fitting to beginners, but everyone is free to dig in.

Street Photography FAQ

There are many questions and answers below, look for your answer or feel free to ask in the comments

What is the definition of Street Photography?

Street photography is 2 terms “Street” and “photography”. Everyone understands the “photography” part. It has to to with pictures somehow. The problem is with the “street” part. It sounds like it’s images made in the streets, right?

But there's a problem: If I shoot an image in a hospital, is that “hospital photography”? If I shoot an image at the beach is that “beach photography”? If I shoot at a zoo, is that “zoo photography”?

You get the gist of it. It can’t really be simply images shot in the streets, although it’s a big part of it. Street photography is an umbrella term. It’s portrait, candids, scenery and a whole bunch more into one…and that is what makes it very hard to define. 

For many older shooters the term street photography didn’t even exist, it was “life photography”. Back in the day I remember shooting some kids in Nicaragua, I saw the picture on the back of my camera and I told myself I would do this type of “life” photography. I didn’t know it but I was doing street back then.

So the strict definition of street photography is “images made on the streets” but a much more creatively charged definition is “life photography” and that doesn't necessarily mean shot in the streets.

What is composition in Street Photography?

Before becoming a street photographer, I was a trained graphic designer. The designer’s task is to take visual elements like text and images and arrange them in a visually pleasing way.

My first month as a photographer, I printed one of my images and one of my photographer friends saw it and yelled, stunned “How do you do that?!?”

I could compose images better than he could because I understood that on a visual level street photography is nothing more than graphic design. What is composition in street photography then? It’s arranging the visual elements like lines and shapes in a coherent manner. A simple way to compose is to group like with like, like repeating the same shapes in a frame. It’s all about creating visual order from chaos.

In depth course about composition here

What lessons can street photography teach us?

Each person will have their own answer to this.
It taught me about being attentive to the details of life. Great street photography can be done anywhere, even if it won't really look like traditional “street photography”.

It taught me about opportunity, because your options are limited depending on where you are shooting.

It taught me about life, because I incorporate my kids in my street photography, and I know on a cellular level that they will soon leave me to make their own path (even if they swore they’d “never leave me”)

It taught me about the passing of time. You shoot one spot, come again next year and you see new buildings and old buildings not to be found.

It taught me to seize the moment, because that dream you have of shooting somewhere…that somewhere might not be there in the future. I have dreamed of shooting Hong Kong’s neon lights, but when I finally got there the neons were LEDs, and the building I dreamed of shooting was leveled.

It taught me to have a healthy distance. Not completely in the world but not out of it either. A semi transparent shield. When my kid was hospitalized at a few months old, all I could do was shoot as the EMT came to take my son to the hospital. I would have lost my mind otherwise.

It taught me to be patient in life. Same location, same time, same camera, and yet different results. Just because you tried once doesn’t mean it will fail another time, things change and might work the next time.

It taught me about process. The final image you see is a series of steps. The final image looks nothing like the original image right out of the camera. Anything you want in life can be had, but you won’t get to the image you have of your life just like that, there needs to be a process.

What aperture for street photography?

It all depends on the situation, but most street photographers want most of their scenes in focus, so the preferred street photography aperture is f/5.6 and f/8. Why? Because these provide a good balance between having (mostly) everything in focus and not having to slow down the shutter speed so much to lose speed.

See the basics course as a free bonus of Phototactic

What shutter speed for street photography ?

Again, it all depends on the situation. However for most situations high shutter speeds are usually the best because that allows for fast operation of the camera ad freezing the moment.

Can street photography make you money?

Yes street photography can make you money. Generally street photography falls under the banner of fine art, and artists have been making a living off their art for thousands of years.

Just to warn you however, just because you might make good street photographer doesn’t mean that makes you good at selling street photography.

Read this article about making money as a street photographer

Can I sell my street photography?

Yes you can, but just because you can sell it, doesn't mean anyone will actually want it. If every piece of art looked the same, no one would want it, and yet the average street photographer keeps churning out images that are the same as everyone else.

If you really want to sell your street photography, you really have to hone your style and be different.

Can you sell street photography?

Yes you can. Usually the question of “can you sell street photography” has the underlying question, “is it legal to sell street photography”.

The answer is, it depends. There’s laws and lawsuits, and each country is different. I spent 2 years living in Korea where I wasn’t much of a street photographer because essentially people owned their likeness and I could be liable for these things. Read the next question for legalities.

Is street photography legal?

This is the domain of laws. I am not a lawyer and this is not legal counsel. For most countries, street photography is legal in public places. The problem comes when you are NOT in a public place and your images has people in them. Here are some helpful links for you to read about the country you are in:

Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia (Lawsuit)
Photography and the law: Rights and restrictions (USA)
Photographer’s legal handbook (USA)
French privacy laws (France)
Korean photo law and you (Korea)
Photographer’s rights guide (UK)
UK Photographer’s rights (UK)
Photography laws (Canada)
Australian photography laws (Australia)
Unlawful photography in public spaces (New Zealand)

Is street photography creepy?

Street photography cannot be creepy. Why? Because it's an action. But street photographers can. Here's examples:

There is a kid inside a car, and a street photographer approaches and takes a picture of the kid, the lens protruding inside the window. That is totally creepy in my book. 

I knew someone who stalked their subject from the mall and followed them around in order to get the shot. Creepaholic.

I know someone who gets uncomfortably close to their subjects' personal space and shoves their camera in their subjects' faces. Creeptastic.

A knife cannot hurt you, only people who wield knives can. It’s street photographers that can make it creepy, all under the misguided mantra “get closer”.

Newsflash: Getting close doth not equate a successful image.
If your image is crappy, getting closer will make only make a crappy image bigger.

So yes, street photography is creepy because immature, disrespectful, misguided shooters make it so. For the rest of us? It’s an art. And we respect our subjects as all half descent human beings should.

Is street photography art?

Street photography is NOT art by default, but can be art, it all depends on the intention of the photographer. Not all words are art, some of them form grocery lists, reminders and some form poetry.
So it’s not always art but if that’s what the photographer was aiming for, then it most probably is.

Is street photography documentary?

Street photography can be documentary, it again all depends on the intention of the photographer. Just like the above “is street photography art” It’s not always documentary but if that’s what the photographer was aiming for, then it most probably is.

What’s the difference between fine art street photography vs documentary street photography?

Great question! The real difference is the intention of the photographer. If the intention is to express one’s self it’s fine art street photography. If the intention is to record, then it is documentary street photography.

And generally fine art images stand on their own. They are images that try to express something and try to make you forget about the time and place they were made. Someone going towards a tunnel of light for example is an allegory for the afterlife.

Documentary images on the other hand tie the time and place to the image, and usually those images don’t stand on their own, they also usually work better as a sequence of images. So a homeless man begging in front of Times Square is most likely documentary.

It’s a feeling you will develop naturally so if you can’t see the difference, you will eventually. Also, the lines can be blurred: I personally try to do both at the same time, and expressive record so to speak.

What is the difference between street photography vs snapshot?

The difference between street photography vs a snapshot is deliberation.
In the case of street photography there is some heavy thinking involved. The latter not so much. The difference is the same when I am shooting my kids vs when my mother-in-law shoots.

She simply shots what she sees. I, on the other hand, think hard about the light, the composition, the mood, the angle, etc. 

Street photography is made, not taken.

If the image looks like it was taken without any thinking behind it, it’s a snapshot. If it looks like there’s been careful consideration in the making of the image then it is street photography.

A word of caution: Some street photographers are very good at making it appear like a snapshot while it was 100% deliberate.

What is the difference between street photography and travel photography?

Interesting question. The difference boils down again to the intention of the photographer and not location. Consider this, one photographer lives in India, the other in New York City. While the perspective of the NYC photographer is that the Indian photographer is doing travel photography, the same can be said for the Indian shooter: For him, NYC is travel photography!

Street Photography is more raw and more true-to-life. Travel photography is usually interested in showcasing beauty, nature and colors. Street photographers won't shy away from shooting poverty, while Travel shooters will focus more on the dreamy landscapes.

Should you use a zoom or prime for Street Photography

I have been an avid defender of prime lenses for most of my career. But in the later years, I have grown to love zooms. One body an a fast zoom is all you need, while you would need multiple primes in a pouch without one.
But if you are a beginner, I would recommend earning your stripes with a prime lens first, so that you do not rely on the zoom so much, but you have an intrinsic feel for each focal length. It makes using a zoom much more intuitive.
However, also consider the cost and weight. Fast zooms are usually more expensive than a prime, and are much bigger and weightier.

What is zone focusing in Street Photography?

Zone focusing is having pre-focused “zones” that are in focus. It is faster than auto-focus because it's pre-focused, and all you are waiting for is for your subject to walk-in your force-field. This is how past street photographers could shoot blazingly fast without Autofocus.

Here's an article I wrote about this for Digital Photography school

Is street photography always black and white?

No doesn’t have to be. Street photography can also be in color, but the preference of most street photographers is Black and White. Why? because it forces you to focus on the essence of things and better helps “transport” the viewer into another world.

It's less distraction and also gives the photograph a timeless look. It's also part tradition, color film did not exist back then, and it stuck even when color photography was introduced.

Why is street photography mostly in black and white?

Two reasons, one is preference: Most like their images in Black and white. The second is history. Most street photographer’s didn’t really have a choice, there was ONLY black and white film back then, and no color film. And that of course snowballed to today, if your idol shot black and white, you will probably do so too.

Where to sell street photography?

You sell street photography in marketplaces, galleries or directly to someone. There are physical marketplaces like art fairs or just fairs. Print your images, pack up your wears, and go sell them there.

There are also digital marketplaces where you sell your stuff online like, etc. You will have to check if these sites actually print and ship for you, or if you have to print and ship yourself. 

Selling through galleries means looking up galleries in your area with a portfolio and asking them to carry your work.

Selling directly means trying to find collectors and selling them on buying your work directly. 

Another avenue you have is licensing. You can put your images on stock photography sites, if someone likes it, they purchase a license and can use your image in their books or whatever else project.

Also read this article on selling your street photography

Where to shoot street photography?

On one hand: Shoot street photography anywhere, be open and don’t limit your mind a specific place. On the other hand: shoot where there’s the most people, where “life” happens and intersects. Every city usually has a main road or main street where everyone is, and where there are more people, there are more opportunities for street photography. If you live in the middle of nowhere, like I said at first, keep an open eye, heart and mind for the opportunities that are in front of you and not how you wish they should be. 

Over the years I’ve received enough emails about someone complaining they can’t do street photography where they are…when their images would have been 1000% more interesting if they just could see the beauty of what's right in front of them instead. Remember this: familiarity breathes contempt, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t great images right in front of your nose. Stay sharp.

Which camera for street photography?

Broad answer: Any camera is good for street photography. I’ve made some pretty stellar images with my old clunky Blackberry. Most cameras try to be good at everything so whatever camera you have, you should be covered. There are however a few dedicated street photography cameras, cameras made for the streets. I would only recommend these is you are REALLY into street photography because they are designed to do one thing and one thing well: street photography. 

So which camera for street photography?: The Ricoh GR. There’s a bunch of variants but any Ricoh GR will do. There’s a bunch of film ones and digital ones. Everyone loves their GR but I prefer the older model, the GRD IV. To each his own. Why? Fits in your pocket, Wide lens, legendary handling and just a joy to use. 
There are other also other alternatives like the Leica QFuji x70 and others. Good luck trying to fit these in your pocket tho.

Click here for a more detailed article what are the best street photography cameras

Which film for street photography?

Good question, the most beloved street photography film are the Ilford HP5 and Kodak 400TX. Color street photography? Kodak Porta 400. For more vibrant colors, Kodak Ektar 100. Of course these have a preset look attached to them so your liking of them may vary.

What street photography lens is the best?

The camera I recommend most for street photography is the Ricoh GR. It comes with a lens and you can’t remove it. What about those with cameras with lens mounts? Most street photographers prefer 28mm so it’s whatever your camera system has that have 28mm. 
I’ve asked Don Springer who had more lens than me to contribute. General recommendations:

Best mu43 street photography lens: Lumix 20mm
Best Leica M street photography lens: 28mm35mm
Best Sony Nex street photography lens: 35mm
Best Fuji street photography lens :16mmWR23mmWR35mmWR

I have to say, one lens I remember fondly to be the bar none most fun I’ve ever had was the Voightlander 15mm. On an APSC it gives you a 22.5mm. It’s one of my favorite lenses ever. Watch out for the lens protrusion however, it’s very sharp and hard and can damage your gear in a bag.

Which settings for street photography?

There is no quick answer for this one, it really depends on the situation. Just like the answer to the question “Should you wear a winter-coat or a sleeveless shirt?” is it depends, the settings for a rainy day won’t be the same for a sunny day: It’s the situation you are in that determines the settings. 

Many street photographers use zone focusing, where you prefocus your camera to have a broad range of things in focus. It’s a bit complicated for a faq, so you’ll want to go here to learn more.

Which bag is best for street photography?

When I first got my camera bag, I was gitty. It wasn’t long after I started to resent it. The best camera bag is no bad at all for me, slip your camera in your pocket. But if your camera is too big, the worse thing to do is to have it dangling around your neck. You can seriously damage it that way. I would stay away from messengers because of the weight distribution.

So which bag for street photography? It needs to have quick access to the camera (in case you see something happening quick), needs to be light and comfortable (you will hate your backpack if it’s hot and you are spending hours on the streets), and not to scream “camera bag” (that makes you prime target for thieves). I would recommend cozy speed. I interviewed the maker, Thomas Ludwid here. This camera bag was made for the streets and that is why it shines.

Or if you have a bag you don’t want to separate yourself from, just get an insert for it and drop it inside.

Which focal length for street photography?

Most street photographers, including me use the 28mm focal length. It’s been a favorite of street photographers since forever. The second focal length that is preferred is the 35mm, so not as wide.

You don’t HAVE TO shoot with a 28mm or 35mm, it’s just the preferred focal length. Reason? Because these are wide angle, you can put a lot more of the world in your image, and when you make an image where everything looks like you posed everyone in it, it makes for a satisfying experience.

Click here for 10 tips to make the most out of your 28mm

Why is street photography good?

Street photography is good because it is approachable. No special gear, no special lenses needed, all you need is life, yourself and a basic camera. This provides an easy creative outlet for people, it allows for the release of the pressures of life like career, family, etc.

Why is street photography bad?

Street Photography can be bad because certain street photographers make people feel uncomfortable in the streets rather than treating them with respect.

Why do street photography?

This is one of those questions everyone has to answer for him or herself. However most street photographers do it as a creative outlet. Some people take on drawing, painting, music and some take on street photography, and usually they take it up because it’s easy to start.

But that very fact causes a problem: unlike music or drawing where you have to practice hard until you can play something vaguely resembling a person or a tune…street photography is instant. Shoot and you get an image, that’s why street photography is nowadays not much more than snapshots walking in the streets rather than some effort to make an image while in the streets.

How to do street photography portraits ?

This depends on what you want. There is no definite settings, however if what you want is a flattering portrait with creamy background, put your lens at 50mm 1.8 and approach the person.

Explain that you are a street photographer and that’s what you do. It’s better if you actually have previous images so that you can have something to show. 

While talking to them, make a mental note of their lazy eye, and tell yourself to focus on their dominant eye and try to look for a place that is under the shade. 

If they say yes, put the subject in the shade so that the light is nice and even on their face. Pull your camera, focus on the dominant eye. Take a shot right before they are starting to pose, while they are posing and right after. That’s 3 shots.

When they ask to see, show the middle one because it’s most likely the photo they like more, but between me and you the shots when their guards were not up will probably be your keepers.

My book Street Photography Blitz contains a word-for-word persuasive script that helps you get more “YES” to your requests. Put in your email and it will reveal the deal for the book.

How to edit street photography?

Street photography out of camera is usually bland. That is why the shot is only the starting point. Just like flour and sugar is just the starting point of a cake. The real magic of street photography happens in post processing. 

Most street photographers use Lightroom to edit their images. And this is where JPG crumbles, RAW can handle much more processing when JPG gave up the ghost 5 sliders ago. 

You will want to pay attention to the Black and white settings, clarity, contrast and exposure. You can make magic with these settings alone. 

You can also use Street Photography Presets
Also check out “How to edit street photography in 30 minutes”. Put your email in and you will receive a special deal for it.

What makes good street photography?

What makes good street photography is a mix between the eye, heart and mind. The image is great in terms of the technical, composition but also in the emotional arena. It is not just a snapshot, it is essentially a transfer of feelings between the photographer and the viewer. A successful street photograph then, moves you.

Do you ask permission in street photography?

Most street photography is done without permission. Check the laws in your country for this.

Why shoot without permission? People are more real. When I ask my kids for a picture, they give me the exact same face every time, and they make a peace with their hands. When you ask for permission, people are very aware they are being photographed and will put their guards up.

It also plays on serendipity, the very thing street photographers thrive for. Things happening by chance, when you ask for permission it is no longer serendipitous.

But at the end of the day, it is a matter of legality and preference. If you want to ask, ask.

In my street photography course, I reveal my top trick that makes images super close and still have your subjects not pose.

Can you shoot street photography without humans?

yes you can do street photography without people in them. You’ll have to find another subject however to keep the attention of the viewer, because nothing draws the attention more than another human being showing emotions.

Look for Shapes, buildings, light, etc. 
From time to time we interview street photographers who shoot without humans in Inspired Eye Street Photography magazine.

Can you shoot street photography without a viewfinder?

Yes you can do street photography without a viewfinder. You will however need to know your camera like the back of your hand however, and it will become second nature. This is also the biggest argument for getting a camera and keeping it until you can control it with your eyes closed (or the viewfinder closed)

See this article about shooting without looking

Is street photography hard?

Story time. It was my first day at kindergarten, my dad, my hero and strength left me in a room full of strangers. I started to cry my lungs out, the teacher tried to calm me down…and I bit her like a rabbid dog. I can still remember the marks of my teeth on her skin. Compare that to the story of a dad who, the day before his son went to school showed him the school and told him how much fun he would have, all the friends he would make. That kid had a fine day at school.

The story is about expectation. If you’ve never painted a canvas in your life, what’s your expectation on your first day of painting? It will be while before you get good.

Street photography is different because it is instant. There is absolutely no difference between what you do day 1 and what another street photographer will do on day 999. That is why street photography looks easy, but it is harder than you think.

Street photography is hard because of expectation. It is also hard because there’s lots of bits and pieces of the puzzle everywhere, leaving your perplexed. If you had the correct expectations (it takes a while to get good at anything) and if you have a step by step roadmap to street photography, it’s rewarding, fun and challenging.

Should you use a DSLR or a mirrorless in Street Photography?

I do not recommend dslrs for street photography. Why? 3 reasons:

1 Because these get heavy, and have a few hours in the streets and you will get tired.

2 You cannot do hand gymnastics because they are heavy. A small camera allows for freedom of twisting your hands in weird ways to get odd shots but cause of weight and grip it’s not possible with dslrs

3 Your subjects spot you from a mile away and nothing screams “photographer” than a dslr in your hands. More guards will be up making it hard to be stealthy.

Also, whatever you do, do not lug your DSLR around your neck, especially with a heavy lens, you can mess up your neck that way.

Mirrorless cameras are better, at least the small ones. There are some who are chunky cameras, or even if you have a small body, a large lens can make it reach DLSR size.

Mirrorless aren’t as heavy, you still can’t really do hand gymnastics but I find them more approachable and not as intrusive as DSLRs. With that being said, I’m a fan of pocket cameras for Street Photography like the Ricoh GR line

That being said, you can make great street photography with pretty much any camera. If you only have a DSLR, use it! 

Also read the article Why I shoot small sensor cameras

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