What is Street Photography & How Do We Know When We are Doing it Right?

To describe what is Street photography we should understand that it is a relatively new way of describing the practice of using urban neighbourhoods and cityscapes as the subject of photography.

Poster of a running man juxtaposed with a man wearing an orange worker's vest

Image by Author

Taking street photography shots is very much about wandering through neighbourhoods, keeping an eye open for promising compositions. This can be groups of people who are involved in an action that creates high interest, or a single person juxtaposed against a building that reflects light and shadows.

This is an opportunity to create photo compositions with a strong graphic design feeling.

Often street photographers take photos that appear similar to graphic novel settings. The framing of a shot can be varied. It’s entirely up to the photographer how he or she angles the shot, composes the frame, and what they personally see as the centre of attention in the shot.

There are no hard and fast rules in street photography. Only that it should, ideally, be in a city street, people or signs of people can be optional; some photographers would argue that people must be in the shot, otherwise it isn’t street photography. Others argue that it should resemble a street portrait, otherwise it isn’t street photography. The argument extends into many aspects and demands of what street photography really is.

What street photography really is, is photography in an urban setting. Many great street photographers have specialized in taking shots of road signs, and street markings like double yellow lines combined with white posts, lampposts, gateways, the colours on modern cars offer great foreground compositions to create vivid depictions of urban life.

Some photographers concentrate fully on street photography only. The great “street photographers” of the twentieth century, Fred Herzog, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, to name three at least, would not have described themselves as street photographers – only photographers.

Most street photographers who are known for their creativity on the street are also commercial photographers who make their income through selling prints of their work, or portrait, editorial, and event photography. They are only street photographers while they take street photos, they are only event photographers while do a gig at an event. Photographers wear many hats, as is the case for many self-employed people these days.

The introduction of digital cameras has allowed street photography to become more accessible to anyone wishing to practice a creative visual pursuit.

Harry Gruaert is a Belgian photography who has developed a reputation as one of the best street photographers in present time. He concentrates of colour – and has proved himself to be master of colour street photography.

Sean Tuck, an English street photographer and commercial photographer sells prints of his work. He also shares the experience of street photography and creativity with his followers. The objective for him, it seems, is that street photography is the vehicle he uses to express a life of creative pursuit.

Many street photographers say that the practice of photography on the street creates a balance in their lives; it enhances happiness, their creative flow is present in daily life, and that the process of street photography is more important than the final outcome. In spite of that, the aim or goal of the photo is foremost in their thoughts while out and about on the street.

A street photographer aims at achieving a high standard, But, the high standard is often set by their own limits and aspirations. Some photographers attempt to emulate another photographer, but this can lead to frustration, yet it’s a great way to learn about what street photography is by trial and error.

Most photography who emulate other photographers learn that they must eventually find their own style and reason for taking street photos. Street photography is a process of learning which creates a healthy learning atmosphere, and realistic creative pursuit for a person – I’ve never met an unhappy street photography. They are always thinking about the next shot, where to go to find it, how to set up the camera.

Street photographers don’t have the luxury of a studio setting. You have to go with what’s on offer. The colour schemes on the street are fixed, people wear strange clothes, the weather chops and changes by the hour. When winter comes a street photographer has to completely change their approach. The weather is no longer bright and sunny. So they are confronted with flat light, pale shadows, dull colours, and drab looking city streets.

This doesn’t deter most serious street photographers. The challenge to make something out of drabness, or find an interesting shot of a city in winter can be exciting and enjoyable for the patient street photographer.

Understanding street photography as a discipline is fine, so long as we don’t try and put it into a box and destroy the creative process that motivates it.

Creativity in artistic pursuits is paramount to success, academically thought out procedures do not promote creativity nor do they help a photographer become more successful in their work.

For these reasons, finding out what street photography is, is a process of mixing the flâneur with the photographer. The photographer wanders through the city streets without a specific plan of where to go, sometimes street photographers prefer to find a spot where they stop and watch, taking many photos of a tightly chosen corner that is always changing because of the foot traffic.

Experimentation is a big part of the process of finding out what street photography is.

When I am out doing street photography, I enjoy hanging around close to black and white pedestrian crossing on a wet day. People encounter a puddle of water, then feel forced to leap over it, or in the rain a person will run to avoid getting wet.

Bus stops and train stations offer scenarios of rushed people, sweaty red faces, anxious movements, meetings, lovers, friendships, and tear welled eyes, as people say goodbye.