Why street photography?

A typical slice of life street photograph


Street photography is one of my favourite genres, but I think it’s often misunderstood.

Many genres of photography are easy to understand and appreciate. Beautiful shots of landscapes, wildlife, and nature are all widely appreciated. It’s also easy to understand why people shoot events, sporting and otherwise.

Street photography is different. One of the definitions is that it is is “photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places”. In other words, candid snaps of street life, often, but not always, featuring people going about their daily lives. The best street photography captures interesting moments and uses light and composition to elevate it from being merely mundane, but even the more mundane slice of life shots have value.

Capturing something unusual on the street

The long history of street photography includes famous practitioners such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as names less well known outside of enthusiast circles.

Despite it’s popularity amongst photographers, it can be misunderstood by the public. Street photography involves taking pictures in a public place, usually of, or including, strangers. That can lead to questions, as people might not understand why you’re taking those photos when there’s nothing obviously photogenic in the shot. It can also lead to confrontation if people object to being photographed.

I think it’s interesting that many people see the value in historical street photography. Photos of life on the streets from decades ago are fascinating, and provide a time capsule of everything from fashion, to cars, to street furniture and signs. Books such as Robert Frank’s “The Americans” provide a great window into the past. Only by shooting similar material now will we have that to look back on in the future. Yes, it’s true that in the age of the smartphone there are more photos than ever before, but they’re often mediated and posed.

A bit of history. You don’t see phones like that much now.

While I think that’s a good reason for taking street photographs, the public may still be wary of hobby photographers. If you’re a professional documentarian or journalist you’ll be seen as having a “valid” reason for your photography. Doing it as a hobby can often be seen as a bit weird, in a way that being a hobby landscape photographer isn’t.

Again, I think it comes back to how the images are appreciated. People see the beauty in landscapes and understand why you’d want to shoot them, but find it harder to understand why you’d shoot street scenes. The beauty of the mundane is a fairly abstract concept and not everyone gets it.

It’s easy to understand why I’d take a shot like this…

… but not a shot like this

All of which means that, while I appreciate seeing good street photography, I find it challenging to actually do. I feel self conscious taking the pictures. It requires different skills. I can shoot landscapes, I know the technical requirements, and my biggest challenge is making the effort to get to good locations in good light. I know how to shoot wildlife or sports, and the biggest challenges are patience, timing, and practice. I know, in theory, how to shoot macro, but I don’t have a macro lens. Yes, all of these genres require skill, but they’re skills that can be learned.

Street photography, though, is less about technical ability. It’s not even just about having an eye for the shot. It’s about being ready and, most importantly of all, willing to take the shot when it presents itself. You need to be prepared to be challenged, both by members of the public and sometimes by authorities. In other words, it takes skills outside of photography; an ability to put people at ease, and to confidently explain what you’re doing if the need arises.

It’s easier to explain a shot if there’s something interesting happening

Certainly, in the UK at least, there are very few legal restrictions. Photography in a public place, whether it includes people or not, is not legally restricted except in very limited circumstances. You can’t be forced to show or delete your images. I am not a lawyer, so I won’t attempt to enumerate the exact details and restrictions, but it’s worth doing a bit of research to be confident in your rights. This article is a good starting place.

However, asserting your rights probably isn’t the best approach to take if you’re stopped, as it can just escalate the situation. It’s probably best to have an explanation in mind, and be able to talk about why you took a certain shot, and to attempt to engage in a friendly manner. It won’t always work, of course, in which case discretion is the better part of valour and it may be best to just walk away. That’s another skill that must be developed, and depends on your personality.

It’s much easier to shoot street photos at events

So far I’m finding the best way to start is by shooting local events. Events give me a reason to be out with my camera, and are a good way to practice some of the skills as well as providing opportunities to engage with people.

I have tried my hand at pure street photography. I still find the genre difficult, though, and I do sometimes grapple with the ethics. In a future post, I’ll talk more about what I consider to be the different types of street photography, and the ethical questions that can arise.