By James Maher
There is an all-too-common path that many people follow when they begin to practice street photography. They grab their camera, go to the busiest place they can find, and capture people head-on over and over again.
While this is certainly something that you should do, it is not the only thing. I want to dispel a few myths about street photography to help broaden the content that you photograph. There is a wide range of ways to capture interesting street photographs for you to try.
1. People need to be present in the image
Street photography is about people, but it does not have to include them. This type of photography is about life, and you do not need to smack a person in the middle of a frame to have it be a street shot.
The goal for this type of photography is to capture unique and interesting moments that mean something to you. There is no rule for how to do this without people in the frame, but the goal is to go beyond the typical pretty landscape shot, and foster some sort of meaning and uniqueness within the image.
No matter where you live, but particularly if you live in a less populated area, it can be good to focus on this idea. Explore your surroundings and try to explain it through your imagery. Include people when you can, and when it furthers your aim, but look for unique shots of your surroundings at the same time.
If you find a great area with beautiful light, then capture it like it is. It is a typical mistake for photographers to mess up a really interesting scene by including any random passerby. Often people seem to think that this passerby is what makes the image a street image, but that could not be further from the truth. If you find a good background and want a person to be in the shot, that person needs to be able to add to the photograph. Otherwise, try to just capture the scene as it is.
2. You can only photograph on busy city streets
Explore the work of Martin Parr, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Robert Frank, and Trent Parke, among others. Some of these photographers have photographed prolifically in very busy places, but all of them photographed, at some point or another, in areas devoid of people. Whether it is a shot of a busy beach/resort scene or a shot of a British pastry, you can still identify an image that was created by Martin Parr. Lee Friedlander’s images all have an eerie and dark quality to them (at least that’s how they make me feel) no matter if they were taken on a New York street corner, in a hotel room, or on an empty street in the suburbs. Study the works of these photographers taken in less populated areas and figure out which images appeal to you the most and why.
Street Photography can be done almost anywhere. Great photographers have a knack for learning how to take strong photographs in areas that others may think of as lacking content. Go to areas that you think would be terrible for photography, and try to figure out how to take a good photograph there. This is a very powerful exercise for your growth.
3. Never photograph a person’s back / You must always include the face
While the face is one of the most powerful ways to show emotion in an image, it is not always necessary to include it, particularly if it has a boring expression. Missing a person’s face because of bad technique or fear is one thing; if the face is good, you should capture it. But gestures, hands, a pose, clothing, or a specific element on a person can all be the most interesting part of an image. In these cases, it might be best to get close and capture just that interesting element. Doing that, and getting in close to the details, can also give an image a graphic quality that makes shapes, lines, and colors stand out.
4. You need a lot of depth and many different things happening in the scene for it to be effective
I very much like shooting this way and if you are a fan of Alex Webb’s work, you probably already understand the allure of a complex image that shows multiple levels of interest, all put together in a single frame. When done well these images can be incredible. They are wow images. These are situations that you should seek out.
However, compositions like this do not make the photograph good. What makes a photograph good is what is happening in it. Search for that first, and then you can figure out whether it will be better to create a complex image with a lot of supporting elements, or whether it will be better to just focus on the main element. It will be counterproductive if you walk out the door looking to create only images like Alex Webb. Look for interesting things and then figure out the best way to frame them.
5. Great street photographs are all about luck
As photographers we create our own luck. There is an element of randomness to every candid photograph, but the reality is that thousands of these “lucky” moments occur around us everyday that we don’t see.
Photography is both about waiting for these moments and about seeking them out. If you put in the time to shoot, you will come across many moments, no matter where you are. As you improve as a photographer, more moments will not occur around you, you will just get better at noticing them.
6. Street photography is about being bold
Some street photographers are very extroverted and bold. Some are quiet and timid. Some get in your face with a flash, and some wait carefully for something to happen in front of them. Work around whatever personality you have. If you are an introvert, then there is a good chance that getting a running start as you pounce on a person with a flash like Bruce Gilden will be tougher for you to pull off. It’s important to create a strategy of shooting that feels comfortable for you. Otherwise, if you are not having fun out there, then you are not going to want to put in the time necessary to get good images.
No matter what, you are going to have to bring yourself out of your comfort zone. You are going to have to figure out what you want your images to look like, and what you need to do to pull that off. If you want to use a zoom lens, use it because you like the look of a telephoto image, not because you are afraid to get close. If you are afraid to get close, use a light wide-angle lens, pick a spot, and let people come to you. Inch a little closer each time. You do not have to jump in there with cameras blazing to capture a good image. Figure out how to locate moments that are interesting and then develop your way of being able to put yourself in the right spot to capture them. Over time you will improve and feel like you belong there.
7. Street photography is about the extraordinary
There is a typical moment that I come across when teaching. I will be photographing with a student and suddenly a person with red, blue, or green hair, or covered in tattoos, will pass by. The student will take that shot faster than any shot they’ve taken the whole day. That hair or the tattoos just clicked as an interesting street image in their minds. Red hair can be interesting, but it is just one element. While it stands out and feels extraordinary and different, it’s not actually that unique.
Street photography can focus on anything. It can be colorful, mundane, ordinary, or something overt. A lot of the most incredible street photography actually captures ordinary moments in ways that feel extraordinary. Street photography is about finding the extraordinary in all types of moments. Do not just sit there looking for red hair. Seek out people and scenes that fly below the radar, and capture what makes them interesting.
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