A Brief Introduction to Street Photography
Updated: Jan 18
What is Street Photography?
Who better to define street photography than the father of the genre, Henri Cartier Bresson,
"To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event."
This is popularly known as the decisive moment, and is the essence of Street photography. To achieve it the precondition is photographing strangers candidly in public places without their consent, without posing or staging or retakes.
Intent to do Street Photography
A photograph without an intent is a lifeless photo. Photos are meant to have an intent, if you shoot a mountain, you want to show its grandeur, if you shoot a flower, you want to show its beauty. What is your intent to do street photography, why shoot strangers candidly? Why not with permission? If this reasoning is not clear to you, you lack intent for street photography. The intent has to be a personal one, you can’t retain a borrowed intent for a long period of time. Pursue what gives you a purpose, excel at what motivates you, photos of random strangers need not be it.
Is Street Photography Legal?
Yes and No. Shooting anything in public space in plain sight is legal. Shooting at a place with "No Photography" board is not, avoid security institutions and private properties without permission.
How is Street Photography different from Travel or Documentary Photography?
If the photograph is about the place, its people, its culture, customs and its festivals, then it is Travel Photography. One doesn't need to travel, if you shot Taj Mahal and you live in Agra, it's still Travel Photography.
If the photograph is about recording anything in an objective way, show things as it is, without the photograph open for interpretation of the viewer, it falls under documentary photography. The subject can be anything, from people, to birds and rocks, if the photograph has one interpretation, it's a documentation based on the intent of the photographer.
On the contrary, a good street genre photograph should be open for viewer's interpretations, this is what makes a street genre photograph better than average snapshots we see in social media tagged as #streetphotography which are actually just documentation of the streets (or roads as called in India).
Ethics of Street Photography
There are some established ethics in street photography, these are not defined by the government but by the street photography community itself.
If someone asks you to delete their photos or not to shoot them, agree with them. Do not start a fight with them, that gives everyone a bad name and also can turn a locality hostile to other photographers.
Avoid shooting destitute, this is a continuation of the previous point. Usually destitute (beggars, handicaps, mentally challenged, homeless) are not socially empowered and not in a position to object to being photographed. Unless it is for a philanthropic reason, do not shoot and share their photos. Unfortunately, lot of people in India are not only shooting beggars but also tagging their photos on social media with #poorkid to get more likes, this is intolerable behavior.
The general notion of ethics accepted in the street photography community is that the question of ethics is not about privacy of an individual but about representation of the individual. Representing anyone in a negative way is considered unethical in this genre.
What to do if you are caught?
Come on, you were just taking a picture, just smile, show the picture if asked, and talk to people, maybe even make friends. Whatever you do, do not run away and give everyone in the community a bad name. Shoot with a smile, you are not a criminal.
What makes a good street photograph?
That’s a million dollar question, but we know what makes a bad street photograph. It is surprisingly the same as bad photograph in any other genre. Missed focus, bad exposure, horrible composition, lack of background separation, lack of contrast, over saturation and so on. There are lots and lots of ways to create engaging photos in street genre, a few of them would be to look for action, gestures, expressions, eye contact or body language. With practice you will be able to create more and more engaging images.
On the myth of Bokeh
A common guideline in street genre is not to use bokeh. the whole scene should be in depth of field, foreground, middle ground, background, all needs to be visible for the viewer to get the complete story. If some thing is blurred that means, it's not part of story and should not be in frame in the first place. Other genres of photography, like macro or portrait or wildlife, bokeh is preferred as the subject is in foreground and mostly background is irrelevant, but in street photography, bokeh is considered unwanted, there are exceptions but they are few. In general try to keep everything in focus from front to back. The good news is noise is not considered bad in street photography, high ISO in monochrome can look good in fact, that gives you room to use smaller aperture.
Common technical settings & gear
The usual settings for street photography is a small aperture, F/8 or smaller, manual focus around 1-2 meter from you, shutter speed of 1/500 to 1/1000, ISO as high as needed for exposure. This technique of small aperture and pre-focusing is called zone focusing. It is the fastest way to focus as you focus at home and turn off auto-focus before going out 😄.
There are free apps to calculate hyperfocal distance for your camera/lens combination, you can use that to figure out how far you should prefocus. But this needs a wider lens. Kit lens at 18 mm works great too if you don't have a prime wide angle. The common focal length used for street genre are 28 mm, 35 mm, 50 mm full frame equivalent. My crop sensor focal length suggestions would be 18 mm, 24 mm, 28 mm, 35 mm.
Apart from the advantage of getting more depth of field on a wider focal length, it also forces us to get closer to the subject instead of making us stay far while using a telephoto lens. Getting closer to the subject creates more intimate images, generates an emotional connect with the viewer. There’s definitely place for telephoto lenses in street but generally it is not preferred due to aesthetic reasons.
Some tips to get started
Talk to strangers, ask permission to shoot portraits, this will help in getting rid of the fear of shooting candidly, while starting out.
A good street photo is a good photo first, exposure and compositions are the basics, learn the fundamentals.
Look for shapes and colors
Look for light and shadows
Study others’ work, our collective features the best from India on Instagram, seek what matches your taste.
This article is written by Bhabani Sankar Mishra, member of India SPC, you can know more about him at his page on India SPC.