What is street photography?

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Calling in to check if the city is really there. Sony RX100

Sometimes, I think I’m a bit of a masochist. I actually like to shoot difficult subjects, and increasingly of late I’m also starting to write a lot about difficult topics. Today’s article seems like a very simple question to answer: what is street photography?

The more I try to nail it down – and I spent a considerable amount of time on this before the Finding Light workshop – so I would know what to cover, and more importantly, what my students would expect me to cover. The first point of confusion comes when you try to decide what is ‘street’ and what isn’t: what about public spaces? What about museums, galleries, fora etc? Stairs? Restaurants? Hawker centers? Public transport, like the Underground?

And here’s another question: does street photography always have to have human subjects in the frame? And when does street photography turn into travel reportage?

You can see how this becomes confusing. I’ve decided that in general, the genre is loosely defined around several broad guidelines (at least for me; your mileage may vary). Let’s take a closer look at these.

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Hands up. Leica V-Lux 3.

Street photography is unplanned.
If you’re controlling any of the elements in the scene, then it starts to become a conceptual or even outdoor studio shoot – posed models in public definitely do not count as street photography: the photographer knew (or should have known) exactly what poses, look and lighting he wanted before beginning the shoot. (You certainly wouldn’t hire a model and get shooting permission if you had no intention to shoot there, would you?) There is also a reactive element to it – spontaneity and the ability to anticipate are both critical tools for the street photographer. You really never know what you’re going to get on any given day, and that’s what draws photographers to the genre: a never-ending source of material.

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Breakfast. Sony RX100

Street photography mostly uses available light.
In fact, the only exception I can think of to this rule is the work of Bruce Gilden and his imitators. Setting up lights on the street corner or using a big flash tends to make the photographer extremely conspicuous, which that removes the unplanned element. People either go out of their way to be photographed, or alternatively, avoid you completely. Part of the challenge and attraction to street photography is the very fact that the light, amongst other things, is not under your control. A photographer has to train their eye to see interesting light, and their muscle memory to be able to take advantage of it – sometimes under extremely fleeting circumstances.

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Rojak. Sony RX100

Street photography may or may not involve people.
This is a question of scale; at the near or human scale, you have that which are dominated by people as the primary subject; at the large scale you have entire cityscapes and street scenes, that use people to give context and scale to the image. The farther away you go, the more the image becomes about the atmosphere and the feeling of the place, rather than the people who inhabit it. That said, there is no reason why you cannot take photos of something which you happen to see while walking around looking for these scenes or people; this is the kind of thing which I like to call ‘street furniture’ – interesting lampposts, mail boxes and other geometries are also fair game. I think it is also possible to make an argument to include casual architecture in the genre; I know that when I travel, I tend to shoot a lot of interesting buildings with or without human context involved – simply because these are things I see while walking around, and they add a lot to the context and general feel of a place.

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Morning papers. Sony RX100

Street photography, if involving people, tends to do so under situations where they generally do not expect to be photographed.
I suppose this sounds both a little bit voyeuristic, and slightly contradictory when it comes to frequently photographed public tourist attractions such as Trafalgar Square, but in general even though a person may know that you are photographing them, they certainly didn’t leave the house preparing for in the morning. This variety and unpredictability of people is yet one more aspect of what makes street photography interesting.

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Door symmetry. Sony RX100

Street photography, if involving people, generally has subjects that are unfamiliar or unknown to the photographer.
Perhaps this may be an overly fine distinction to make, however if a subject is known to the photographer and the photographer is familiar with the subject, there is usually some form of interaction between them. This relationship is usually clearly reflected in the photograph. I personally find that one of the things that makes street photography interesting is the fact that for that brief moment while you’re photographing somebody, there is that instant of connection between you and your subject which is then preserved for posterity – even if you never happen to see them again.

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Sometimes, smaller is better. Sony RX100

Street photography must always have a subject, regardless of any of the above restrictions.
This rule is a fundamental of photography in general, not just street photography. However, I feel it necessary to draw attention to this specifically because there are so many images out there on the Internet which claim to be ‘street photographs’ – yet they fail fundamentally as photographs because they lack a clear subject or idea. Even though the photograph itself may not be planned, this does not mean that you can’t have an idea in the instant instant when you see a potential frame, which is then executed immediately.

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Evening. Sony RX100

Street photography must observe certain ethical restrictions.
This is very much a personal thing. There are certain people or things that I will not photograph because I do not feel comfortable doing so. In general however, a good rule to go by is not to do to other people what you would not want done to you; this includes intrusion into personal space, photographing people in potentially compromising positions, or under duress. I do not believe in taking photographs of the homeless, because I feel this is both exploitative and does not help them in any way. Similarly, paying somebody money to take their photograph may be an acceptable way to make a living in certain countries where there is no choice, however this is not something I want to encourage because I feel that widespread proliferation of this both discourages social documentary as well as taking away from the authenticity of the image.

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Christo comes to Kuala Lumpur. Sony RX100

Street photography has an element of reportage or the documentary to it.
Given that a strong photograph must have a distinct subject and a clear idea, the easiest way to do this in a street photography image is by capturing a moment. This is where HCB’s idea of the decisive moment becomes critical; in that one moment, all of the elements in the frame come together to tell a story. There is only one decisive moment for each story, but many possible stories for any given scene. If all street images have a story to them, then becomes clear that what we street photographers are collectively doing is capturing daily life for posterity. In areas where the pace of change is increasingly rapid – especially in developing countries – I feel there is a certain element of social responsibility here for all able photographers. (Or, at very least, the desire to show your descendants what life was like during your time.)

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Outside the W. Leica M9-P, Zeiss ZM 2.8/28

Street photography is not restricted to black and white.
There are many reasons why historical street photography was done in black and white; most of them because that was either the only film available, or because it was a lot cheaper than color – especially in the quantities that prolific street photographers tend to shoot. Today, I sometimes get the feeling that black and white is overused as a distraction to cover up the fact that the image itself is fundamentally mediocre. Instagram certainly does not help things. Is important to remember the fundamental rules of color and composition to decide when black and white or color may be more appropriate. (Black and white works well for strong luminance contrasts and oblique lighting; color should be used when it is the primary means of isolation of your subject.)

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Looking up. Leica M9-P, Zeiss ZM 2.8/28

Street photography takes place in public spaces.
In a private, or restricted access space, the people who use the space tend to be known to each other, which changes the dynamics of interaction between them (and the photographer). Public spaces maintain a degree of unpredictability simply because you never know who is going to be your subject.

Street photography doesn’t always have to have a purpose, but each image must aim to say something.
In fact, most photographers tend to shoot in the street genre simply because they feel like going out to photograph, but may not necessarily have any specific subjects in mind; I do this all the time. This of course does not mean that week images are acceptable!

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Contemplating the markets. Leica M9-P, Zeiss ZM 2.8/28

Street photography doesn’t require you to fill the frame with a random stranger’s face.
One of the common misconceptions is that street photography always requires a clearly identifiable stranger or or person dominating the frame; let’s take a step back and think about the way we perceive the world when we are out walking on the streets. Our eyes scan around us, taking in the entire scene, and this generally corresponds to something around the 28mm field of view. It is very rare that our attention lingers on any one particular person or point, unless they are strikingly outstanding. Personally, my photographic style is developing in a direction that makes me want to replicate and reconstruct what I see both in reality altered by the filter of my mind’s eye, which means that the perspective I choose to frame my images tend to correspond to what I see. These tend to take one of two distinct perspectives, the first of which is slightly wide, corresponding to my general field of view; the second is narrower, akin to when you are focused on something and the rest of the scene gets ignored – 28, and 85mm.

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Escape route. Leica X2.

Street photography can be done with any equipment.
Although there are some cameras that are better suited to street photography than others, there is really no reason why you can’t use anything you happen to feel like using on the day. There are two ways of shooting street; the first is always to be set up and ready, which requires you to preset focus and exposure and work solely on framing at the instant of capture; the second is to be reactive and have a camera that is capable of both focusing and exposing very quickly. However no matter how fast the camera, a degree of anticipation is required in order to capture the decisive moment – there will always be some lag between you seeing the moment, due process happening, and the shutter firing.

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Shadows. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

Street photography and travel photography are largely interchangeable.
The only difference between the two is purpose and intention: the former can be when you are shooting with no specific goal or project in mind; the latter is almost always when you want to capture the feeling or mood of a place that happens to be both unfamiliar to you and fleeting or temporary; there’s a time limit on how long the photographer has to absorb and observe. That also introduces a perspective difference: when you travel, you look at a place through different eyes than a local; however, most street photographers operate primarily in their home cities.

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Bangkok bus. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

Having broken down my thought process in this article, I’m actually no longer sure that there is a concrete definition of street photography. At the same time, I don’t think that it should be a catch-all genre for everything else that doesn’t have its own category. Perhaps the simplest, and most accurate, definition is simply to think of it as ‘reporting on life’; through our images we are documenting the daily life of the people around us. I wouldn’t go so far as to think of ourselves as social anthropologists, but who’s to say what these extensive collections of images – assuming they survive – may be used for a few hundred years from now? MT


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