Street Photography: The definitive guide

What is Street Photography?

street photography example image of a man smoking
It's not always about candid images

If we are going to talk about something, it is important to define our terms. Wikipedia defines street photography like so: β€œphotography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents.”

The above is the classic definition of the craft. In practice, it's a bit more complicated. Why? Because the straight definition is highly restrictive. If we shoot in the streets and it is “street photography”, what if we shoot in a hospital, is it hospital photography? If we shoot at the beach, is it beach photography?

You get it, it can't mean photography only made in the streets. So what is a more accurate definition, then? I remember meeting a photographer years ago that when he was in school and the teacher gave them photo-assignments, the teacher never used the term “street photography” but “life photography”. For all intents and purposes the assignments were exactly that but the term was never used.

A synonym can therefore be “life photography”. It can be done in color, black and white, with or without humans and pretty much anywhere you are, hence the appeal.

Street photography is much more plastic than you might think.

Life photography

Don't let your definition of get in the way of your images! A great photograph is a great photograph, period.

street photography example of a man walking

πŸ‘‰ Learn more:

  • What is street photography?
  • Black and white street photography guide (soon)
  • Color street photography guide (soon)
  • Best locations to shoot (soon)
  • Project ideas (soon)

Street Photography Sub-genres

Don't see these as restrictive, but more an indication of how rich the craft can be. If you are a beginner, you really don't concern yourself with these. Start shooting and see what you respond to best, and you will naturally gravitate towards one style over the other, or maybe mix a few.

Candid

Candid street photography example

This is what most photographers do. It's mostly about capturing unposed photos of people, slices of life as it develops in the streets. Usually the “point” of the image is contained within: something interesting happens, someone does a grimace, etc. It's all about what's in the image, most likely an interesting event that happened.

Artistic / Fine art

artistic street photography example

While all of the sub-genres of street photography are trying to create art, this style of street photography is mostly concerned with the emotional and the composition aspect of the photo rather than what event is happening in it. So it's less about capturing an event and more about making art with the streets your canvas.

Cinematic

Cinematic street photography example

Cinematic street photography is a popular style that makes the street shot look and feel like a still from a movie. Just like humor street photography it is a very accessible style to viewers, but requires a bit more gear and effort to achieve the cinematic look. Special cameras and lenses are recommended for this but can be faked.

Humor

Humor street photography example

This style is always pre-occupied with photographing funny moments, people doing funny things, etc. This style is popular because it's easy to “get” for anyone who looks at it. An easy way to make these kinds of shots is to find funny juxtapositions.

Urban Landscape

Urban landscape example

This style of street photography (and many would argue that it isn't) the main subject is the buildings and the man-made landscape. Vast sweeping shots of the skyline and details of the sun on the windows fall under this sub-genre.

Street Portraiture

Street Portraiture example

Street portraiture are portraits made in the streets. These are usually posed and do not claim to be anything but posed. Just like the humor, cinematic street style, street portraiture is very accessible to viewers, they “get” it easily.

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What camera do you need for street photography?

Now that we've seen what street shooting is all about, what do you need to shoot? The beauty of the craft is that all you need is a basic camera. You can shoot with a phone, low-end camera, whatever you have. The only exception is if you want to shoot in low light, a high ISO camera and a lens with fast aperture would be requires. Besides that any camera would do, but there are some that are better than others for this task, let's take a look at them…

There is only one camera in the world that is unapologetically designed for streetshooters: The Ricoh GR line of cameras. Three reasons why: It's a pocketable camera so you can take it everywhere, it has a special mode called snap focus that helps you change focusing modes on the fly, and it's handling as far as cameras is legendary.

Shot with the Ricoh GRD IV, good ISO even with such a small camera

While most people have the new Ricoh GR camera, my favorite is the Ricoh GRD IV, it's old but I like it better because it has a small sensor in it. Other favorite cameras of photographers are the Fuji X100 cameras but they are not as small and unless you have an adapter, they are 35mm focal length cameras.

But again, any camera will do. That being said I would however avoid large cameras for streetshooting because they start getting heavy after a while and can cause neck pain if you use a strap. My friend Don Springer (more on him later) had a large mirrorless camera with a very fast 28mm lens on it. Because it was a fast lens, it was also big.

He had it on his neck and started to develop serious neck pain. His doctor set him straight on not putting weight on his neck anymore. Turns out, your head is quite heavy and your neck is already doing a LOT of work without you having to add to it with your camera!

The most important part of the craft is not what you have in your hands, but what you have between your eyes.

πŸ‘‰ Learn more:

street photograph example with 28mm
28mm is the lens of choice for many photographers

What makes good street photography?

Good street photography is not about having a cool camera and then point and shooting. There's way more to the craft than simply shooting in the streets. Every street photograph can be divided into 3 parts: What you shoot (your subject and your scene), How you shoot it (Composition, visual elements, etc) and finally WHY you shoot it (the psychology behind it all). What makes good street photography is a combination of What you shoot + How and Why you shoot it.

πŸ“ WHAT [What you can see]

The “What” part is the visible part of a photograph. If you can point to it in a photo, it's the “what”. It is usually made up of buildings, people and whatever scene they happen to be in. In a sense, it's the “physical” part of the photograph.

πŸ“ HOW & WHY [What you can't see]

The “How” and “Why” part are the invisible parts of the photograph. You can point at a person in a photograph but you can't really point at the psychological effect that the person's body language is communicating.

β€œI always try to write on the principle of the iceberg.
There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.”
ERNEST HEMINGWAY

If you look at the graphic above, there's a lot of psychology that goes into a photo, that is because your real canvas is not really the streets, or the blank frame, it's actually your viewer's brain and every element of your photograph will have an effect on it.

What really makes the difference

Street photography can either be shot, or it can be made. The first (taking photos) is heavily focused on what to shoot (like a man in a suit), while the other is focused on how and what to shoot (like paying attention to the color coordination & psychology).

The average street photographer is only concerned with the what. And the result is taking photos…their images are nothing more than mere snapshots, where they take photos rather than make them. How many pictures of people walking down the streets, or someone doing something trivial do we need? Don't think people don't see trough the fact that there has been no thinking behind a shot:

Great streetshots comes from focusing in the How and the Why, rather than just the What (taking photos). No great art has ever been done without forethought, that is why simply going in the streets and shooting won't work.

The why and the how is also behind great portrait street photography

To a large degree humans learn by imitating, this is fine for learning how to walk and talk, but when it comes to street photography, it plays against you. Because what really makes street photography work is for a large part, unseen. Don't take, make.

Imagine a photograph of a woman wearing red in the streets, behind her are some food stalls. What you see is a woman wearing red and food stalls. What you don't see is the psychological effect of the red dress, the color coordination between the dress and the foodstall, the eye travel created by strategically placed lines, how her body language reads.

So focus more on the How and the Why, this is where great art really come from.

The Eye, Heart and Mind

There is a lot to consider when it comes to the Why & the How. Everything within the bottom half of the iceberg can be remembered and categorized in 3 areas: The Eye, Heart and Mind.

When I first learned street photography, just like everybody else I was obsessed with cameras and the What. Photographing in the streets without thinking. My images of course left a lot to be desired. Then I started to look deeper into the iceberg and focused on the technical aspects. While my images looked clean, they didn't have any punching power.

street photography example with shoes

Afterwards I focused on composition, and while my images were visually impressive, they did not leave an impression on any who saw them. It's only when I met my friend Don Springer, who was under the wings of one of the most important museum curators in the world that he made it click. One large part of the iceberg is the emotional aspect.

So what makes good street photography is a combination of the photographer's eye, heart and mind. Good composition + emotional charge + technical/psychological aspect makes compelling streetshots Here's a graphic straight from the street photography course I made with Don:

EYE

The composition aspect
of the photograph

HEART

The emotional aspect
of the photograph

MIND

The technical/psychological
aspect of the photograph

πŸ“Œ If you've ever seen street images that look cool but fail to make an impression on you, they are missing the emotional aspect.

πŸ“Œ If you've seen images that move you but don't attract the attention, they are missing the composition aspect.

πŸ“Œ If you've seen images that move you, attract you, but there's something that feels like it's missing, they are missing the technical aspect.

You will need higher ISOs and a camera that can handle it for low light capture

All three create a wheel, if any are missing, things can still work just like a broken wheel can still turn, but you won't be able to shake the feeling that there's something missing. It's all about capturing art that has depth and meaning to it.

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By now you should have your camera ready and a better grasp of the craft than before. Now it's time to get into the nitty gritty and capture that decisive moment like Henri Cartier Bresson liked to say.

10 tips for Starting Street Photography

Ready to start photographing the city? At first you might feel some fear and be afraid to approach strangers. This feeling of fear will gradually get away the more and more you shoot. Grab your camera and let's get ready with these 10 tips to get you started right away…

1. Use contrast

What if I told you there is one thing, if you put it in your images, it would immediately make them more compelling to look at? There us such a thing, and that “thing” is contrast. Contrast is the difference between two things, like tall vs short, big vs tall, saturated vs unsaturated.

It is contrast itself is not that compels attention. It is the energy between two extreme points that makes something compelling to look at. So use contrast in your your photos!

There are many ways you can use it, but to start, focus on the contrast between light and dark. See this image here:

Using contrast

The original image is on the left. For all intents and purposes, the whole image is pretty dark but the man sitting down is light. On the right I pixelized the image and you can see in a clearer manner how contrast works.

2. Use the photographer's “paint”

In the word “PAINTer” you hear “paint”. It makes sense that a painter needs to know his materials in order to paint, right? They need to know what paint looks like when it's mixed, it's qualities and more. What about photography? It literally means “painting with light” so you need to know light just like a painter knows paint.

There are techniques you can do to start noticing light like a pro, but as a beginner, make it a point to notice light around you. Look at it's qualities and it's effects. Look at how different it looks depending on the time of day. Besides composition, nothing will have more impact on your images visually then the light that is in it.

Use light and shadows

Light can make or break an image, and nothing makes the difference between a masterful street photograph and a snapshot than light. Excellent photographers can recognize great light, and mixed with good composition it makes for some really stellar images. So start noticing light all around you.

3. Watch out for Steve McQueen in your background

Ever seen “The Magnificent Seven”? it's a movie where a bunch of cowboys rescue a town. Here's why it's important for you to know: In it, Steve McQueen wasn't the lead actor, Yul Brenner was, but he did something so sneaky he stole every scenes he was in. How did he do it? He detracted the viewers eyes by doing things like playing with his gun or making movements to lead their eyes away from the main actor towards him.

Your background is important

What does this have to do with photos? Once you figure out what you want to capture, aka your subject, the most important element becomes your background. Why? Because the background either attracts or it detracts, and just like Steve McQueen. Pay extra attention to your background, work your angles and ask yourself if it adds or takes away from your subjects.

In the image above, I was going in Miami when this drunk guy started to develop a liking to me because we both are from Haiti, and he just couldn't get enough of the fact that I looked more Asian than anything. When picture time came, I wiggled a bit right and left until I saw that nothing in the background was detracting from him and made the capture above.

Then the guy on the left just gave me that stare, and I just made the shot. Sure he detracts a bit from the main guy, but he adds to the photograph. Good thing my camera didn't bring attention to itself. A good camera really let you slip in situations incognito.

4. See like a painter

The world is a very complex place. But at the same time, everything is built out of simple atoms. It's both complex and simple at the same time.

Can you see the basic shapes here?

There's a similar concept in SP too, while the world is visually complex, it can also be reduced to simple shapes. Everything in the world can be simplified to 6 basic visual elements, and one of them is shapes.

When you are out, look out for the simple shapes that end up being the “skeleton” for your images. These are the foundations of your image, and just like foundations of houses, it determines the overall look of your image even before getting into the subject.

Painters have a leg up on street photographers when it comes to this. My friend Don and I coached streetshooters a few years back, and one of them was a painter. And you could see in their image that they get that everything visual in the world can be simplified in to simple visual elements.

Using basic shapes in your street photography

You will also want to think about how your shapes are perceived because shapes have psychological meanings attached to them. Your camera is your paintbrush!

5. Use the “karma” principle

When you watch TV, look at any ad. Ever noticed how all the people in them are smiling to the moon? What these advertizers want to do is try to trigger what's known as mirror neurons in your brain. Just like it sounds, you have a tendency to mirror what you see. That is why if you are in company of somoene who is depressed, it kind of rubs off on you.

What does hat mean for you who wants to capture ? Simple: The streets react to you, and the way you are. If you look and act suspicious, people will react accordingly. If you put out confidence, people will react accordingly and leave you alone. If you are grumpy, people will tend to grump back. In the streets, it's human nature and people tend to reflect what you put out. Nothing magical or woo-woo, simply mirror neurons.

So next time you are in the streets, put out friendly vibes, and what do you know, it goes right back to you.

6. Set up your trap shot

Capture the right moment by making multiple photographs with a time difference

Unlike other genres like fashion photography, you cannot make the shot the way you want it, you have to work with what you have in front of you. So if you go somewhere and you can feel there's something there but not quite, set up camp there for a few minutes. Very often the location, scene and light are perfect for a whot, it's just that the subject is not quite right.

And since you can't direct anyone to walk in your image's view, you will have to be patient. Patience is a street photographer's best friend. So when you are in the streets and not getting the shot you want, simply be patient and wait for a better subject to walk in the frame. A lot of street shots you see, while it could be the one off shot, often enough it's one in a series of shots with various subjects coming in and out of view.

7. Use this simple design principle

A simple graphic design principle for capturing strong frames, but remember it's primarily about capturing emotions

Nothing will upgrade your street photographs more than putting graphic design principles in them. There are 8 in total and they are like “grammar rules” for photographs. If there was no grammar, you would have no idea what I am saying!

Here is one of the 8 graphic design principles to know. It is one of the easiest ones, the principle of repetition.

I've said above to use basic shapes. One way to compose easily is to simply repeat those shapes. Have you ever walked down the streets and see a couple with matching clothes? Your brain went “Zing!” and it made the link between the two people. This is the same thing that will happen when you repeat elements in your picture. You are not limited to two, you can repeat 2,3, 4 times, etc.

“Like with like” shapes works for the same reason as it works for colors

8. Look for reflections

Capture the reflections, time of day is important for this

I've said above to go for simple shapes in your frame. Then I suggested you to use the simple design principle of repetition. What if I told you there was one subject in the streets that did all of that easily? The subject is simply reflections. Reflections make for interesting, graphical images because the reflections repeat part of the picture.

Mannequins can substitute for capturing people without fear

So look for reflections wherever you are. There are way more reflections than you think in the streets, but since you've probably never looked for them, you've never found them. Also look for semi-transparent surfaces, surfaces that half reflect but also let you see through them, aka windows. These not only make reflections they also create a cool effect that makes for a graphically rich image.

9. Don't get close

Ok I got close. So what? Just shooting people doesn't make it a great capture

Ever seen “The incredible Hulk” at the movies? Before they made him smart and able to talk, all he knew was mostly two words “Hulk!” and “Smash”. Those two words and yelling was all of the extent of his vocabulary. There's a lot of streetshooters that are like Hulk, all they know is two words “Get close”.

Because somehow, if you got closer to your subject, it would make for a better photograph.

Nonsense. Get in close enough for sure. But just because you've inched closer to someone doesn't make it a good street photograph. I mean, how close do you need to get to make a pile of crap look good in a photo? A bad picture is a bad picture, taken from afar or close. So instead of getting close (physically), get emotionally closer to your images.

Close enough is all you need in street photography

Really get in close and familiar with your work. Feel it, question it, work it. This is the kind of closeness that will work wonders, rather than infringing on someone's personal space.

Did you even once say “Wow, he was close” when looking at my images? Nopes. So won't your viewers either. “Getting close” doth not make a good photograph by default.

10. Use the juggler's secret

When I was a teen, I fancied myself a game designer. So I picked up a book about it. I don't remember the author's name, the title or even what the book looks like. But inside I read something that would change my life, including my street photography. In the book there was the story of a juggler, one of the best in the world. Once they asked him what his secret was an he revealed it: instead of taking inspiration from juggling only, he took it from everywhere, hip-hop, snakes and everything else.

For this street photograph I was inspired by old PC98 games. It's the same emotion I tried to capture.

A lot of what makes my images work comes from graphic design (I am a professional graphic designer) and renaissance art. I have a whole series of photographs based on an old computer graphic style I used to love as a kid. All I did was take inspiration from these and put them into my street photography.

What can you incorporate into your street photography? The biggest reason why my compositions work is only because I had the unfair advantage of being a designer before picking up the camera. So if you want to make compositions that impresses others, start there.

Art history also provides a wealth of possibilities for street photographers, namely the renaissance masters. Incorporate those into your images too, or dig in deep to find what you can do to provide a unique spin on your images. Many famous street photographers had previous experiences that they drew upon, Henri Cartier Bresson for example drew heavily from painting.

There are millions of photos uploaded to Facebook, Flickr every minute. You are either different or invisible.

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Processing Street Photography

Once you are done with capturing your images, what do you do? You edit and process them.

Here's the deal however: Post-processing doesn't CREATE your photograph, it REALIZES it. If your image sucks, there is no amount of post processing that will save it. It's like trying to put perfume on a pig. But if your image already has everything it needs, post processing is mostly an act of “bringing out” what is already there.

Before and after processing

In the image above shot it might look like the post processing “created” the photograph, but it only brought it out. The image you see on the right is the one I had in mind all along, I just needed the raw material to work from.

But post processing is not just about making images look good, it is also about commanding the gaze of your viewer. As a street photographer, you are a director of an image, and as a director you want to control what the person sees, when. You want a controlled experience, or else your images is nothing more than a snapshot.

Two people with umbrellas. Captures like this cameras that can handle high ISO

You do your best of course to get everything right in camera, but rarely does the photograph make the cut in it's original state. There's just too many moving pieces and your image simply probably won't have the eye travel it needs to shine. That is one of the strongest reasons for processing your images the right way, above the aesthetic reasons.

The program most street photographers use is Lightroom. Here's a simple formula to bump up your images in Lightroom: Ramp up the contrast a bit and ramp up the clarity a bit. This will make your images pop more immediately. Of course there is much more to post processing than this (like how to direct the attention of your viewer), but as a beginner these two sliders are enough to make your images pop more.

Psychology also plays a big part in post processing. You must know how your “real canvas”, your viewer's mind will interpret your processing. Change the color temperature, and you completely change the meaning and feeling of your image.

Another feature that street photographers use is presets. Just like in the old days you could select film stock for your film camera, nowadays you can do the same but after the image was shot. Presets help keeping a consistent look and also saves you an insane amount of time. Plus unlike film, you can edit the presets to taste to your liking. We have street photography presets here.

For capturing people, moments like these need patience and a decisive moment to release the shutter

Learn street photography

If you want to learn more about the craft, here's some of the best resources below:

Phototactic Street photography course

The only street photography course you will ever need with everything covered in a step-by-step manner.

Inspired Eye street photography magazine

Monthly magazine with video insights, filled with tips tricks and more for inspiration.

Streetwise book

A collection of interesting, fun and insightful articles written on the craft for the last 10 years.

πŸ‘‰ Learn more:

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I get started?

The beauty of street photography is that you can get started right away with any camera, no special equipment needed. Simply take your camera and head for the streets. You will want to keep composition rules in mind, for example “Like with like”

What is composition ?

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.

What is good street photography?

Good street photography is more than simply walking down the streets and shooting strangers. Good street photography is layered, there's the composition aspect, the technical aspect and the emotional aspect. A good street photograph is more concerned with those than simply point and shooting.

Does street photography have to have people in it?

You don't need to have people in your images to make a great shot. One of the pioneers of the genre, Eugene Atget had barely people in his work. There's always the urban landscape, animals and more you can shoot.

It is popular because it's so easy to start and so. But because the average streetshooter simply focuses on the “what” rather than the “how”, Facebook is littered with snapshots rather than photographs. So standing out takes some effort.

Note: This is not legal counsel. This depends on the country. In Korea for example, people have the “right to face” and they could potentially sue you for photographing them. You have to check with your local laws to see if it is legal. In the USA, and a few other other western countries, you have to be in a public space for it to be legal.

Do you ask for permission in street photoraphy?

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

Why shoot without first asking? 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. Even more when you ask for a portrait.

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.

Is it illegal to take a picture of a random person?

Note: This is not legal counsel. In the USA and a few other countries, it is legal as long as you are in a public space.

Do I need a model release for street photography?

Note: This is not legal counsel. You usually do not need a model release for street photography in most cases as long as you are in a public space. See the street photography legality article for a jewish man who took a street photographer to court, and lost.

Street Photography: Conclusion

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About the author

Olivier Duong is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese pro photographer and graphic designer turned street photographer. He co-created Inspired Eye with Don Springer.

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