A Complete Beginners Guide to Street Photography
An Introduction to Street Photography
Street Photography is one of the simplest but hardest and most rewarding forms of documentary photography. So what is Street Photography? what makes Street Photography so special and how do you make a start?
I have been shooting Street Photography for over 30 years, both for myself and commercially, I have put this page together to get beginners quickly up to speed with the whole unique approach to image making in public places that is Street Photography.
What is Street Photography?
Street Photography is a form of Documentary Photography that doesn’t have a subject or story any narrower than that of public life in general. In order to make a documentary photographic record Street Photographers make Candid Public Photographs, observing rather than directing the scenes they record.
It is generally considered that Street Photography does not include intervention, staging, manipulating or compositing as these practices would go against the intention to produce a photograph that has a strong relationship to the original scene it records.
Good Street Photographs are powerful because they are highly edited moments of real life that are extraordinary in some way, they may be extraordinarily beautiful, extraordinarily significant, extraordinarily funny, extraordinarily moving, extraordinarily tragic or extraordinarily clever. The extraordinariness of Street Photographs is powerful because we know it existed in the real world and we know we are looking at a genuine extraordinary scene.
This intention to make an observed document of a genuinely extraordinary scene means that Street Photography doesn’t include Street Portraiture as this would mean collaboration and intervention with a subject.
It should be born in mind that there is a great deal of misunderstanding and argument about what is and isn’t Street Photography but I have here presented the traditional view.
What is the History of Street Photography?
The earliest use of the phrase Street Photography that I have found was in an article from the British Journal of Photography in 1878 but it is not used to describe the same sort of candid public photography that it does today. Although street pictures were made earlier, I consider the birth of Street Photography to be the invention of the first Leica Rangefinder camera at Wetzlar in Germany by Oskar Barnack around 1914. By putting a role of film instead of a sheet of film into a small handheld camera, Barnack allowed photographers the freedom to capture moments in a quick and simple ‘snapshot’.
But it was to be in France rather than in Germany that in the 1930’s, photographers like Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier Bresson would really develop the candid observational style of public photography that would much later be referred to as Street Photography. The work made in Paris at this time could be described as playful, romantic and whimsical, it was life affirming and generally positive, the images showed moments that made you smile. Even Henri Cartier Bresson who probably had the most documentary vision of these photographers, was playing with the medium of photography itself, showing us his ‘decisive moment’ with jumping men and passing cyclists caught at exactly the right time, exploring photography’s best trick.
The Second World War brought a period of earnest documentary photography, photographers used the little Leica camera to record D day landings and liberated concentration camps. After the war social documentary photography covered the lives of ordinary people and reported back from events around the world. This was a rare period before Television would take over that role.
It would be in New York City in the 1950’s that something resembling Street Photography would again appear, exported in part by the young Swiss photographer Robert Frank who’s Guggenheim fellowship funded trip across America in 1958 would produce The Americans, a book that presented a subjective view of America from an outsiders perspective. Franks pictures were harsh, revealing and unflinching, photography used to expose and comment on a new reality questioning the validity of the American dream. The Americans set the tone for a generation of American Street Photographers, many of them from the Jewish community, who would walk the streets of Manhattan recording the tension and angst of modern New York at street level. In a 1967 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art called New Documents, this work was legitimised when the Director of Photography John Szarkowski brought together the work of Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus. Garry Winogrand was to be a significant figure in New York Street Photography influencing not just those around him like Joel Meyerowitz, Tony Ray Jones and Tod Papageorge but generations to come, he optimised the bold, ‘nothing is unphotographable’ attitude that appears in the work of many of the current generation of New York Street Photographers.
The 80’s were dominated by glamerous fashion and portrait photography with photographers like Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz and Robert Mapplethorpe blurring the line between art and commercial photography in magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s Baazar and Vanity Fair.
In 1994 the photographer Joel Meyerowitz and the writer and curator Colin Westerbeck published Bystander: A History of Street Photography which was the first comprehensive chronological compendium of Street Photography which lit the touch paper for an international revival of interest in Street Photography for a new generation of photographers including myself. The effect of this book was such that in 1994 I knew all the Street Photographers in London by name whilst now, 25 years later, there are thousands of London Street Photographers working at one level or another.
During the time that New York had been the centre of Street Photography, France, the spiritual birthplace of Street Photography, had enacted privacy laws following the revelation that President Mitterrand had a daughter by a mistress in Paris in 1974. This had forbidden the publication of photographs of people without their permission and had sent a chill through the French documentary photography community. It may well be for this reason that when the pendulum swung back from the US to Europe it landed in London rather than Paris.
I have tried to document the timeline of the recent resurgence of interest in Street Photography here . In 2000 a group of young photographers in London came together to form a collective called in-public named after the place they all made their pictures, it was the early days of the internet and the group used the web to organise themselves and reach a large international audience. For some years the in-public site was the benchmark for good contemporary Street Photography and included photographers such as Nick Turpin (the founder of the group), Matt Stuart, Nils Jorgensen, David Gibson, Melanie Einzig, Richard Bram and the Australians Trent Parke and Jesse Marlow.
An explosion of interest in Street Photography occurred which was driven by the availability of small, cheap, high quality digital cameras that allowed anyone to have a go, the internet provided platforms like Flickr which launched in 2004 and became the home to many Street Photography groups including Hardcore Street Photography ( HCSP). In 2010 Thames and Hudson published Street Photography Now a survey of the contemporary scene, in 2011 the first London Street Photography Festival was followed by the biggest UK photo festival, FORMAT in Derby choosing Street Photography for it’s 2011 theme. The coming years saw more international Street Photography Festivals being started in Miami, San Fransisco, Berlin and Milan as well as a host of collectives and groups being formed around the world. In more recent years Street Photography has become popular in places like Thailand, The Philippines and India. The gender imbalance in Street Photography has also been addressed with the launch of Women in Street in 2016 and 2018 saw the biggest ever exhibition in Hamburg covering seven decades of Street Photography called Street.Life.Photography. As I write this article there are 73,463,406 images using the hashtag #streetphotography on Instagram and Street Photography is probably the most popular form of photography after the selfie.
As a contemporary Street Photographer I see modern Street Photography carrying the DNA of those who have gone before, you can often recognise the humour and optimistic romance of the work made in Paris during the 20’s and 30’s, the fascination with Cartier Bressons moment continues, you can see the unflinching view of the New York photographers of the 60’s and 70’s recording a harsh society under the threats of the cold war period with stress and angst tangible on the cities streets. You can see the enormous impact of recent developments in technology, picture sharing and cheap mirrorless cameras with enormous depth of field, great rendering capability and waist level flip out screens. And there is the influence of some remarkable stand out individuals who have each contributed something visually or conceptually unique like Tony Ray Jones, Joel Meyerowitz, Saul Leiter, Michael Wolf, Alex Webb and Daido Moriyama.
Modern Street Photography is a cocktail of these influences, approaches and attitudes which makes it important to understand that history and the key characters and their work in order to inform your own work and give it context and perspective.
Why do we do Street Photography?
There are many different motivations for doing Street Photography and photographers come to candid public photography from different angles and backgrounds.
As a documentary practice Street Photography can form an important uncensored record of public life and reflect the decisions we have made as a society. Most documentary photographers are commissioned by an editorial organisation who is owned and financed by someone but Street Photographers around the world are creating and publishing an independent survey of how we live. It is this aspect of Street Photography that makes its candid, unstaged and unmanipulated nature crucial.
For many however, the street provides an easily accessible subject for their photographic practice, it requires no travel or lighting or models and can be shared with a large online global community. For some, Street Photography provides a way of getting out and connecting with society.
There is an element of challenge in getting a great street photograph and everyone is in with a chance of making something really special even with a cheap camera or smarthone, this pursuit can be quite addictive. In recent years the Street Photography scene and community has become a very social activity with festivals, photo walks and meet ups occurring regularly around the world.
What is the best camera for Street Photography?
One of the joys of Street Photography is that it really isn’t about equipment, you can take Street Photographs on anything from a big professional DSLR to a smartphone. However if you want to pursue Street Photography seriously you are going to want something that is small and discreet, very quiet, fast to operate with high image quality that will take a lens that is the equivalent of a 35-50 mm on a full frame camera. You will also want to make sure that you can turn off all noises and autofocus assist lights and that the camera has no shutter lag when you take a picture. In recent years mirrorless cameras have made perfect Street Photography cameras, Fujifilm, Sony, Olympus, Canon, Leica and Nikon all make mirrorless cameras that are suitable but my favourite and that of many Street Photographers is the Fujifilm X100 series of cameras. I am currently working with the Fujifilm X100F which is small with a fixed 23mm lens and can be shot with one hand and produces very high quality images.
Is Street Photography Legal?
The legality of Street Photography varies with geographical location but as a general rule you can take photographs in a public place without permission in most countries. In the UK you can photograph anything you can see from a public place and publish it but in France, just across the Channel, you can photograph anything but need permission to publish a picture of a person. It is generally considered important that in a democracy everything that happens in a public place should be a matter of public record.
When you photograph a person in the street without their permission you owe them a debt of responsibility in how the picture is used, you are free to use the image artistically in books and exhibitions and even to sell those books and prints but commercially there are two rules:
- You must not use the photograph in a way that implies an endorsement of a product without the permission of those in the photograph.
- You must not use the photograph in a way that misrepresents those that appear in the photograph.
You can read more about commercial Street Photography here.
You can read more about the legality of photographing in public around the world here
For London, you can read the Metropolitan Police Photography Advice here
Do Street Photographs have to be candid?
CANDID Adjective: From the Latin, Candidus, Pure, Impromptu, Unposed, Unrehearsed.
For some, this is a controversial question in Street Photography but for me it is absolutely clear that being shot candidly is one of the pillars of Street Photography. Candid shooting is one of the non negotiable qualities of a Street Photograph because as soon as someone is aware of the camera, they modify their behaviour and the picture ceases to be an observed document of life and becomes about the relationship between the photographer and the subject like a portrait. You only have to work on the streets for a little while, get spotted making a picture and you feel the difference. If the person you are candidly photographing sees you, you missed the shot. Of course street pictures that are not candid and street portraits are perfectly valid approaches but should not be mistaken with Street Photography.
Do Street Photographs have to have people?
Street Photography is an approach to picture making in public places, it is not defined by the place or by the subjects. Taking the loosest definition of Candid Public Photography then no people are required in the shot for it to be a Street Photograph. Objects can provide ample opportunity for observational humour, surrealism, beauty and implied narrative.
Should Street Photography be Colour or Black and White?
For a significant period of the history of Street Photography shooting in black and white was the only option and it has provided a wonderful visual historical record of life during those decades. When colour film was introduced by Kodak in the 1930’s it was initially used largely for commercial advertising until a few photographers like William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz started using it to record life in public places in a way that was much more descriptive of the world we saw about us than could ever be recorded in black and white. Within just a few years most contemporary Street Photography was being made in colour and choosing black and white on the streets was considered nostalgic and an effect. For most Street Photographers documenting a modern colourful world, colour is the obvious choice. This has been reinforced by the development of digital cameras that inherently record the whole colour spectrum.
As a photographer I find it much easier to make pictures in black and white than in colour but the resulting images don’t capture and document the scene accurately enough for me. I’m not just playing with light and shadow, making something aesthetically pleasing or romantic or poetic, I’m trying to record the way we live now in a bright, brash saturated world. Only colour will do. If you come on a workshop with me and shoot black and white, I will ask you to justify your decision to remove one of the most powerfully descriptive and evocative elements of the image.
Most Street Photographers who shoot black and white tend to be trying to replicate the classic images of the past, the work they admired when growing up or first entered photography. The challenge in modern Street Photography is really finding new ways forward, using all the technology available to us to describe the world in accurate, innovative and engaging ways rather than copying our heroes of the past. I’m certain if Henri Cartier Bresson wash around today, he’d be shooting 11 fps in colour.
How do you set up your camera for Street Photography?
There are many tutorials online for setting up cameras for Street Photography but when you are starting out, here are some good basic settings to consider to be quick and discreet with your camera on the street. The aim is not to be noticed and to have the camera set up so you don’t need to think about it too much and set up to fire a shot without hesitation.
- Turn off Autofocus assist lights, all sounds and automatic flash
- Start with an aperture of around f8 and a shutter speed of 1/500th second so you can freeze movement and have good depth of field.
- Use auto ISO if your camera allows it otherwise don’t be afraid to use a high ISO even in good light.
- Consider setting up back button focussing in your custom functions, this allows you to focus with your thumb and trip the shutter with your forefinger. Most Street Photographers and Documentary Photographers work in this way because it means the camera will always take a picture wether it is pin sharp or not.
- Use a lens of around 35mm equivalent depending on your sensor size, this gives you a slightly wider view, a little more depth of field but not much distortion.
- If you have a zoom set it to 35mm equivalent and leave it there, zoom with your feet.
For your first outing, think about setting yourself up as well, I take a small light rucksack and the following:
- Wear comfortable shoes
- Take a waterproof and/or sunscreen and hat
- Carry enough memory cards and batteries for your whole day
- Tissues and Headache tablets
- Bottle of water
The unspoken rules of Street Photography
Just because legally you can do something doesn’t mean that ethically or just as a nice human being, you should always do it. Street Photographers are out in the public realm, their pictures record the relationship of the photographer with society and most people out in public are fair game wether they look funny, fall over or are kissing somebody else’s wife, that is their responsibility. Some people do not have the choice to be in the public realm, however, and some people do not have the mental capacity to judge their own behaviour. It is for this reason that generally Street Photographers do not photograph the homeless or those with mental health issues. There is also an issue with photographing children to some extent, legally you are perfectly entitled to photograph children but some sensitivity needs to be employed and I generally only photograph small children once I have been able to acknowledge the parents are ok with it. This can often be done with sign language and is a better approach than trying to hide the camera and do it secretly.
Although Street Photography can be quite a subversive and confrontational approach in that you are making pictures without first asking permission, I think that is justified by the candid historical record that is produced. That doesn’t mean that you have a license to menace or invade the personal space of subjects so treat people as you would want your own family to be treated. Street Photography is harmless but not all see your intentions the same way.
Good Street Photographers are sensitive and have a lot of empathy with their subjects, the best Street Photographers are not even seen.
Can you make money from Street Photography?
I always say that Street Photography is the least commercial form of photography because most commissioners of photography want a photograph to elevate a subject to something that is aspirational and purchaseable when Street Photography very much deals with reality. Having said that there are a small number of Street Photographers who do make a good living around the world by adjusting and compromising the way that they work in order to shoot briefs for editorial, advertising and design clients. There are a lot of very good Street Photographers but very very few of them are able to take and shoot a brief. Working to somebody else’s agenda can be very difficult especially when there are tight time constraints. Street Photography by its nature, is generally a slow process.
One of the easiest ways to make money from your street work is to offer prints for sale, these can be open editions or limited editions and if your work is quite aesthetic, can make a contribution to your annual income. I have made a film specifically about how to sell prints here. My Street Photographs don’t really sell as prints but some of my more beautiful documentary projects like On The Night Bus have sold extremely well with collectors paying £2400 for the largest prints. You can see my print sales page here.
The next way to make money from existing images is to license them for commercial purposes, this can be complicated as you don’t have model release forms for your Street Photographs. But many street images show a crowd or don’t show anyone recognisable and these may be licensed. It is important to know the value of your photography and take some advice. I am aware of images being licensed to banks for £7000 and to Apple for £35,000 it all depends on three things:
1. The number of media over which the image will be used, internet, out of home posters, point of sale, merchandise etc.
2. The number of territories the images will be seen in, Europe, North America, Worldwide etc.
3. The period of the license, 2 years, 4 years etc.
This is a complicated area and I have often advised Street Photographers to speak to an expert in these negotiations like commercial photography consultant Tim Paton who has negotiated many such deals for Street Photographers.
The main source of work for Street Photographers is commissions and for this you will need to have a good consistent portfolio of street work that shows your unique way of working. You will only get paid large sums of money if commissioners can’t go anywhere else to get what you do. Your work must be available for their creatives to view online or in printed form. It is still advisable to keep at least one physical portfolio that they can have for client meetings. At one time I had 16 portfolios in the UK and USA but these days I only maintain one, your website and instagram are very important in showing your work off. Portfolios can be a book of prints in sleeves which is convenient as you can swap the content about for different styles of job but they are expensive to put together and maintain. I now use printed books that I design and layout myself and reprint every few months to update. The folio should show off your personal work, your ideas, your uniqueness but it should also have some examples of commissioned work to show that you can shoot a brief and control a budget.
When you land your first commission you will need to establish the usage of the pictures that you produce, most commissions will either be:
- Editorial for newspapers or magazines.
- Commercial below the line which is design and branding usage, printed matter, annual reports, point of sale.
- Commercial above the line which is advertising in magazines, newspaper, posters and increasingly online.
You should establish a basic rate for each of these usages which you can quote during initial negotiations, later on your rate will go up if they want more media, territories or a longer period. It is generally bad practice to agree to a buy out, which means you hand over all rights for one fee.
Once you know what the usage will be and you have landed the job, you will be able to decide how you need to work. Because real candid Street Photographs are not model released, you can’t go and shoot candid photographs for advertising. Instead you will have to recreate Street Photographs using models and the cost of that will be included in your quote.
Below the line usage can include Street Photographs as long as no endorsement of a product by the subjects is implied in the way the pictures are used. An example of this kind of work would be a project I undertook for a property company that was developing residential accommodation in Peckham in SE London. They wanted me to capture the multicultural and esoteric nature of the community. My photographs just said, this is what Peckham is like, it didn’t say these people endorse the property company in any way. I was able to shoot candidly without models or model release forms.
So it is very important for us as Street Photographers to establish how the pictures will be used right up front.
Some last pieces of advice for shooting commissions is to shoot them in your way, use the same camera and as close to the same working method as you can or you and the client are likely to be disappointed with the results. Identify what it was about your work that they liked and make sure you deliver that. On every job there will be one person who you have to please, identify who that person is, usually the art director, designer or picture editor and liaise only with them. If there is a client with you, they are not your client, they are the art directors client, let him/her deal with the client while you deal with the art director. If the job requires skills that you don’t have, hire good assistants to bring those skills to the shoot, a good digital operator will watch your back and let you know that everything is sharp and going well, if its a car shoot hire an assistant who works with car photographers etc. Finally be nice to work with, everyone likes to have a good time on a shoot and if you’ve done your production well, the shoot day should be fun and enjoyable for all.
Video Intro to Street Photography
Finally here is a short 30 min video that was commissioned by The City of London. In this video I introduce you to Street Photography, take you out shooting and leave you with three tasks to try yourself.