What is street photography?

Svetlana November 11 2021

As street photography gains popularity, photographers are starting to wonder what it is that separates street photography from other types of photography. The following article aims to find the answer through exploring the history of street photography, looking at how it has evolved over time and discussing its similarities and differences with other genres.

As well as this, because there is no single definition for street photography or any list of rules governing who can practice it (unlike formal styles like studio portraitures), we look at some common themes found within "street" photographs in order to discover what makes them distinctive.

How long does this style live?

Although street photography has become popular over the last few decades, it isn't actually anything new – and has been a part of art for well over a hundred years. In fact, many historians believe that the first street photographs ever taken date back to the 1840s – when a man called William Thompson became interested in capturing life from his office window!

Thompson realized that he could use photography as a way of celebrating everyday life – and this is something which later photographers have also picked up on. For example, by using their cameras as a kind of diary where they can leave behind a visual record of their daily lives, some people like David Gibson (who appears in Vivian Maier's Street Photography at Le Bal ) even managed to capture some truly captivating shots despite working on the other side of the planet!

Photographers started to change this around the middle of the 19th Century when they discovered that if they photographed people unaware of their presence, the resulting image would have much more interest. This led to photography being abandoned as a scientific tool and instead of being used for artistic purposes. It also meant that the techniques previously employed by portrait photographers were adopted – people began showing off their best sides or dressed in their most flattering clothing.

An image taken at this time shows an individual with no sense of time or place – they are simply there because it is convenient for them. Although there is still a strong element of artifice in these early photographs, things start to change towards the end of the century when photographers become less concerned with depicting beautiful subjects focus instead on documenting the reality around them.

As time went on, street photography became more casual – less formal and posed. Photographers began to capture life as it happened, rather than waiting for the perfect moment to take a picture of someone who had been made up and costumed to look their best.

As well as this, there was an increased interest in photographing everyday people doing ordinary things – street photographers began aiming their cameras at workers, mothers with children, old people, homeless people, etc., instead of simply focusing on majestic monuments or beautiful landscapes.

The early 20th Century also saw the birth of photojournalism – which involved photographing real-life events as they unfolded before your eyes (a move away from pre-planned scenarios). This meant that it was no longer necessary to stage a photograph or wait for a moment that looked good – you could simply take photos of what was happening. In this sense, even though the goals and intentions behind the two genres differ greatly, street photographers and photojournalists are essentially working towards the same end result.

The advent of digital technology has undoubtedly been one of the biggest influences on modern-day street photography. Although many people continue to use film cameras, there has been a huge rise in popularity for smartphone apps such as Hipstamatic which allow people to turn their everyday pictures into stylized "street photography" by adding filters that mimic old-fashioned camera lenses.

For example, Vignette adds a black border around your image similar to the way that a lens would distort the image at the edges – this makes it easier to blur things out of focus and adds an air of "artistic intent" to otherwise ordinary photographs.

How can you find inspiration in street photography?

Street scenes have been photographed ever since cameras were invented – but these early images show little resemblance to modern-day street photography. Early photographs such as Louis Daguerre's (the first man to take photographs, as we would understand them today) "Boulevard du Temple" and Gustave Le Gray's "The Pont d'Iéna" show people either posing for the camera or arranged in a tableau, with their surroundings playing only a minor role.

There is little sense of spontaneity – it is clear that these subjects were perfectly aware of the presence of the photographer and were posing because they wanted to be photographed.

What are the peculiarities of a street photo?

Street photography is usually defined by the way that it subverts the rules of traditional portrait photography. For example, street photographers are more likely to catch people at their "worst" rather than their best – they might photograph someone who has just woken up on the sofa or a man asleep on a park bench. These kinds of images often have much more artistic value than portraits that were carefully posed and constructed in the studio.

Another defining characteristic of street photography is its casual nature – pictures are not set up or planned out in advance, instead, they are simply shots taken as life goes on around you. This means that if you're photographing strangers without asking for permission first, there's always a risk that your subject will be offended by being photographed in this way.

Although in theory street photos can be taken anywhere, they tend to be more commonly found on the streets of cities – where there are a greater population and more opportunities to experiment with different subjects.

For example, you might photograph people on the subway or outside your favorite bar – even documenting all of the visual propaganda that we come across on a regular basis (from advertising posters to billboards, etc.).

The reason why street photography has such artistic merit is that it captures real life as it happens – taking mundane scenes and turning them into something interesting and beautiful. This makes them far less predictable than posed portraits which were usually made specifically for someone's wedding or graduation day – meaning that randomness plays an important role in what makes a good street photo.

Why is street photography so popular?

Street photography has been a popular form of art for well over a hundred years – but its popularity has definitely fluctuated. For example, during the 19th Century, it was incredibly fashionable to take photos of royalty and grand landscapes – whereas, by the 1920s, people had become more interested in capturing everyday life instead.

The reason why street photography is so popular these days is that it offers an easy way for amateur photographers to embrace their creativity without putting too much effort into finding an interesting subject matter. In other words, you don't need to be an experienced photographer or spend hours searching for your next shot – instead, you can simply walk down the street with your camera and take a picture of whatever happens to catch your eye!

This means that anyone can take part in street photography – indeed, even the most basic digital cameras usually come with a "street mode" which allows you to change some of your settings for this kind of photography.

How can you make your street photos more interesting?

Although it's fine to take a picture of something that simply catches your eye (for example a random stranger on the subway), if you want to take good quality street photographs then there are a few key things that you should be aware of. For example, try and look out for the following subjects:

  • patterns - If you notice that there is something interesting going on around you, pay attention to any patterns or shapes which help draw people's eyes towards them. For example, if there is an unusual arrangement of building blocks or if someone has placed a few chairs in an unusual way – it might make for an interesting photo.
  • things that don't seem to belong - If you notice that something looks out of place, why not take a picture? For example, if you see two women sitting outside their house having tea with the garden gnome then that's definitely something worth capturing!
  • people who look like they're lost in their own world - Another great thing about street photography is its ability to capture people who are clearly too preoccupied with other things to notice what's going on around them. For example, perhaps someone suddenly notices that they've got split ends and becomes so distracted by this realization that they completely forget to pay attention to what's going on around them – making for a very amusing image.
  • interesting juxtaposition - If you notice that something out of the ordinary is happening, why not capture it? For example, perhaps there are two people having an argument – and right next to this conflict there happens to be someone dressed as a clown juggling flaming torches. By using your camera's zoom function and focusing on different things at different times (so that you don't interfere with other people's lives), you can capture some truly unique images which will make people do a double-take when they see them!

Develop your skills

Although it's not compulsory to take a photograph of everything that you see on the street, there are some things which you can do in order to help develop your photography skills. For example, if you find yourself taking multiple photos of the same subject then perhaps there's something worth learning from them? Why not keep copies of these photographs and look at them whenever you're unsure as to what kind of images to capture – or even just use your favorite ones as inspiration for future shoots?

There's no way that we could've listed every possible topic worthy of photographing here – so instead we'll suggest that you spend time looking around and thinking about what sort of photographs would be most appealing to others. Just remember: the more effort and thought which you put into your photography, the better you will get at it!

Minor tip regarding blurriness: If you're using a more advanced camera then there are plenty of different settings which allow you to make your photographs look blurry if that's what you want.

Although this isn't something that is usually associated with street photography, it does have its uses – for example, perhaps you spot someone walking towards the camera and wish to get their face in focus while everything else looks blurred. If that's the case then just try slowing down your shutter speed until everything outside of that person becomes fuzzy!

Does street photo always contain action?

Although it's commonly believed that street photography should capture images of active subjects – this is not actually the case. It is perfectly fine to spend time capturing someone who looks so lost in their own thoughts that they don't realize you're taking a picture of them!

What kind of equipment do I need?

Some people like to walk around with DSLR cameras and telephoto lenses – but we actually recommend that you start off with something simpler – such as your standard point and click camera or even your mobile phone if you prefer!

After all, street photography is meant to be an easy way for amateur photographers to take creative photos without investing too much money into expensive equipment (and complicated settings). As such, feel that using more advanced gear can actually end up getting in the way of your creativity, as you'll often find yourself worrying about what kind of photos to take rather than simply immersing yourself in your surroundings.

If you are planning on taking photographs with a more advanced camera then it's definitely worth buying an external flash (as these usually come included with DSLR cameras) – but otherwise, there are no specific items that may make or break your street photography journey. The most important thing is that you enjoy taking pictures and remember the advice mentioned above!

Bottom line

If you want to get involved with street photography then all you have to do is simply pick up your camera and begin walking. After that, feel free to experiment with different camera angles, subject ideas, shutter speeds, and even just the framing of your images. The only real rule here is that you should avoid getting in the way of other people's lives – which means no hiding behind buildings or knocking on strangers' doors!

Although it may seem like there are too many rules in street photography (in the sense that they limit what you can do) – these points are really just reminders for how we should behave when around others; something which isn't obvious to everyone!