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Street Photography: How-to Photograph Strangers

by David Peterson 5 comments

The grandfather of street photography was Henri Cartier-Bresson. His image here of the young boy carrying bottles of wine under his arms, and looking quite proud in doing so, is one of his most popular. It's street photography at its finest because it's spontaneous, fun, and it tells a story. Cartier-Bresson's photographs of children were some of his best. Perhaps that's because kids are spontaneous by nature, too.


Cartier-Bresson passed away in 2004 at 95 years old. He left behind a string of street photographers who were inspired by his work and fans who simply loved to view it. But, there are many photographers who are too afraid, too shy, or for a variety of other reasons, won't photograph strangers. If this is you, read on and see if you change your mind.

What Defines Street Photography?

Street photography has been around since as long as cameras became portable. It's simply the photographic art of capturing people and places within the public domain. It's a myth, perhaps an urban one, that street photography has to include people. It doesn't. It also has the reputation of being edgy and urban, and for some photographers, this doesn't fit their brand or style. Additionally, photographers who don't visit or live in cities might feel distant from this genre. And yet, it doesn't have to be either edgy or urban. If it's an activity on a street that is impulsive and tells a story, you're in the realm of street photography.

The subject and scene or location can vary, but notable elements of street photography are that the images are unplanned, non-posed, and utterly spontaneous. Because of this, street photography is often crossed referenced as photojournalism. Though photographers of both genres would argue their side, there are still overlaps by interpretation. Whether the photographer is on the street waiting for the scene to happenstance or if they attend a planned event, but use impulsiveness as their guide, they're performing the art of street photography. As such, this makes event photography a bit tricky. If you go to a parade and photograph the participants, that would be photojournalism because you are specifically documenting the parade. However, if you turn around and happen to capture an image that is more about civilization or a particular person as opposed to the parade itself, it would likely be considered street photography.

Street photography is best described as a way of photographing, and that means that the images should be spontaneous with little to no interaction between the photographer and the subject. I think this is where people get nervous and shy. They feel like they have to explain to the subject what they're doing taking pictures of them and why. And yet, that's the first hurdle to get over to be successful.

Approach

So, how do you overcome that hurdle? Think of it this way: if you saw this woman, who looks angry while holding her camera, you probably wouldn't want her photographing you. So, don't do this! Watch your body language when you're out on the street with your camera. Lay low in terms of the energy you're putting out there, although literally laying low could result in some great composition shots.

Keep a distance of at least 10 feet away from your subjects and be non-invasive. Ideally, your subject will never know you took their picture. If for some reason they do notice and ask you about it, offer to show them the image. In today's world of technology, you could offer to email it to them if you need a peace offering or simply want to share it. You want to have fun on the street, not make enemies.

You'll want to know your rights as a photographer too. Don't get into trouble by photographing things you shouldn't.

Gear and Settings

In this genre, there are three powerful techniques to becoming an accomplished, or at least decent, street photographer. Here they are:

  1. Many of the pros recommend using wide angle lenses, or at least a 50 mm lens (click here to understand what the mm means on a lens). Like casting a wide net to catch fish, the same goes here. A 20 mm lens is ideal, but naturally it doesn't have to be a fixed lens, although Cartier-Bresson would encourage it. With a 20 mm lens, you'll have greater flexibility with depth of field (depending on your lens, this might be as low as 1.4). The downside of a fixed lens is that you can't zoom in on a subject from afar.
  2. It's also suggested that you bump up your ISO. This will give you more flexibility with your shutter speed (for stopping moving subjects). To avoid grainy images, stay around 400 to 800 unless low lighting really requires a higher level. At 400 to 800 you can still enlarge your image quite a bit before any noise will show.
  3. Use a fixed shutter speed. The combination of a higher ISO and a wide angle lens works great if you also use a fixed shutter speed, for example by setting your camera to Shutter Priority mode and shooting at around 1/800s or 1/1,000s. Again, this is just a guideline. If you're going for an artistic blur, then by all means, slow that shutter speed down to 1/80s or so.

Color versus Black and White

Most photographers prefer to shoot and process street photography in black and white. There's something about this format that complements its subjects. It's almost as though stripping the subject of color and just seeing them in simple black and white makes the image more complex and interesting. Color can distract in a shot of a busy street, while black and white tends to enhance. Of course the original street photographers, like Cartier-Bresson, worked in black and white and set the stage for future generations of the genre.

Composition

It's often the composition of a street photograph that will make or break the image to viewers. Like any photograph, composition is very important, but with the spontaneity of street photography, it holds even more weight. Cartier-Bresson was known for incorporating geometric shapes into his images. This gave the eye somewhere to go. He had a knack for integrating lines (be they vertical or horizontal or diagonal), curves, circles, triangles, and squares. This quality made his images unique. Find your own special trait, what makes you uniquely you. When you figure out what that is, you'll have a better vision when you venture out.

Not just for DSLRs

It's not surprising that many street photographers use iPhones. In fact, it's quite the rage! Someone with an iPhone won't stand out as much and you probably wouldn't even notice them taking your picture (Yeah, I know. That can be unsettling, too). The shutter release is quiet in mute mode. iPhones are unobtrusive because it's not uncommon for people to be playing with their phone in the street. And they're easy to zoom with the squeeze of your fingers. Though the pixels don't match DSLRs, they've gotten better and if you can get the right composition, that's more important.

Whether you head out the door with your DSLR or an iPhone, keep in mind the main ideas of being unobtrusive, spontaneous, and having fun! Street photography is usually less depressing than photojournalism, so get out there, observe your surroundings, and snap away. And if you're still too afraid to photograph people, perhaps start with dogs?

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Comments

  1. Sebastian says:

    Antony is still waiting for the answer! I guess

  2. Umar Jamil says:

    Street photography is really awesome! I mean all these experiences and the stuff is really nice to be looked upon it! I appreciate it!

  3. S. Graham says:

    It was highly unlikely Cartier-Bresson would have needed a model release form for his street photography for numerous reasons. Starting with, he was doing what very few others throughout the world were doing at the time, so his subjects, mostly everyday people, would have been more curious than annoyed at the camera pointing at them. Also he was doing his work at a time long before money grabbing 'Z list' celebrity wannabe's were invented by a 'Redtop' media and paranoia propaganda rife.
    If it occurred to the subjects of Cartier-Bresson or they were told their image could be shown in galleries or books I think they would have been proud of the opportunity rather than thinking of the legality of the situation.
    You have to try to understand the times - Sadly they are gone forever which makes his work and that of other street photographers of his time all the more important.

  4. Anthony M. Camilletti, Sr. says:

    street photography can be very enjoyable, BUT, what happens legally? Did Cartier-Bresson have model releases for the people he photographed, or is there a way around that? I would think that if a photograph is published with out a release, it could be serious.

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