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Street Photography

Street photography is a type of documentary photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places such as streets, parks, beaches, malls, political conventions, and other settings.


Street photography uses the techniques of straight photography in that it shows a pure vision of something, like holding up a mirror to society. Street photography often tends to be ironic and can be distanced from its subject matter and often concentrates on a single human moment, caught at a decisive or poignant moment. On the other hand, much street photography takes the opposite approach and provides a very literal and extremely personal rendering of the subject matter, giving the audience a more visceral experience of walks of life they might only be passingly familiar with. In the 20th century, street photographers have provided an exemplary and detailed record of street culture in Europe and North America, and elsewhere to a somewhat lesser extent. Many street photographers adopt a specialization. For example, some street photographers might emphasize the ugliness of modern society by depicting drug use, prostitution, and other forms of crime and/or exploitation. Others might focus on the humorous moments that usually go unnoticed. Either form is a constituent part of street photography.

Many classic works of street photography were created in the period between roughly 1890 and 1975 and coincided with the introduction of portable cameras, especially small 35mm, rangefinder cameras. Classic practitioners of street photography include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Alfred Eisenstaedt, W. Eugene Smith, William Eggleston, Brassa?, Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau and Garry Winogrand.


Overcoming shyness

Some photography instructors have recommended starting out by trying to be stealthy and using long lenses. Others suggest bypassing such crutches, instead leaping into the "deep end of the pool" and heading into the street with a normal or wide-angle lens. Sometimes using an extreme wide angle lens and appearing to be pointing the camera somewhere other than at the subject can help, but at the expense of direct involvement with the action. Other photographers stand at one spot on the street and wait for the proper subject to appear. This was done most notably by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, who actually has set up elaborate strobe rigs on street corners in advance of unknown action. Magnum Photos photographer Bruce Gilden's famously direct method of just suddenly walking up to people in New York at close range with a powerful strobe shows that the demeanor of the photographer before and after the moment of exposure is a key element to interaction on the street, with the latter more important. Gilden has claimed to have never suffered an aggressive response. Gilden also has said, "The older I get, the closer I get," showing that experience is often the key to overcoming shyness.


It is said[who?] that Henri Cartier-Bresson would wrap a large handkerchief around his camera and pretend to be blowing his nose while he took the picture, or would wrap the camera's body in black tape. There are many variations to the stealthiness theme, some involving the use of waist-level finders in cameras, but the general idea is to keep the subject(s) from being aware that he or she is being photographed. Another aspect of invisibility involves "blending in" with the crowd. Dressing like an archetypal foreign correspondent, wearing a Trilby hat, photographer's vest and over-the-shoulder camera bag generally will guarantee that everyone is aware of you. Observe the ways of the crowd and try to dress and behave in an inconspicuous manner, according to the circumstances.

Some photographers, however, thrive on directness. Martin Parr, for example, is typically quite open and direct about his business, and photographs using a hard-to-hide ring flash unit on a large camera. Street photographers who are fond of wide-angle lenses will often work so close to their subjects that they will almost certainly be seen. Each practitioner must find his own balance.

While exceptions do exist, in general, street photographs made from a distance, with a long lens, are considered flat and uninteresting — the dominant aesthetic has stressed the photographer's presence "in" the scene, potentially interacting (subtly or otherwise) with the subject(s) but nearly always from a nearby, almost tactile, distance.

Since the days of Paul Strand, some photographers, such as Helen Levitt, have also used trick lenses which shoot to the side, rather than directly in front of the camera. Leica and other manufacturers have long made such mirror attachments.


Street photography has been made with equipment as varied as cellphone digicams to large 4x5 film press cameras. Even the Diana and Holga 'toy' film cameras have been employed, sometimes with prize-winning results. The "classic" street photo camera has been the 35 mm Leica rangefinder. The attributes praised by Leica users define a canonical set of features desired in street photography equipment.

A good street camera should be light, quick to operate, reliable, quiet and of good quality. 35 mm cameras dominated this ideal until digital cameras appeared. Currently, there is something of a gap — compact digitals are inconspicuous, quiet and light, but slow in both image capture and lens speed, making no-flash photography difficult or impossible at low light levels. Digital SLRs are quick to operate, but are generally large, heavy and relatively loud. Some attempts have been made at producing a digital 'rangefinder' style camera with quiet operation, such as the Epson R-D1 and Leica M8, but high cost and other disadvantages have stymied any significant use of such cameras.

The number one criterion in choosing a camera for street photography, unless some external consideration (such as large negative or stealth) is of interest, is that the camera be comfortable to operate in the hand of the specific photographer. It is important to note that, as in every other area of photography, each camera type has its benefits and each has its limitations. For example, the aforementioned cameraphones, which tend to be light and quick to deploy, usually feature extremely low resolution and minimal controls over most of the aspects of photography (i.e., focus, exposure control, etc.). Additionally, these cameras, in their contemporary form, have built-in shutter sounds--which usually cannot be easily disabled. This measure was lobbied into existence in response to those voyeuristic photographers with prurient intentions.

Other cameras limit street photographers in other ways. Many digital SLRs attract unwanted attention to their users because they are large, loud, and ostentatious. Their users are often presumed to be professionals who seek to gain commercially from their images. Once they are recognized (rightly or wrongly) as such, the behavior of their subjects often changes in ways which defeat the street photographer's true intentions.

All text of this article available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License (see Copyrights for details).

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