This article courtesy of the Adorama Imaging Resource Center, part of the Adorama Camera retailer.
You’ll never get rich doing street photography. And unless you’re Martin Parr, Joel Meyrowitz, or Jeff Mermelstein, you probably won’t become famous, either. But you’ll hone your skills as a photographer, and grow as a person.
I’ve been a street photographer since 1976, when I had the good fortune of attending a workshop with the legendary Garry Winogrand. While my career has gone more towards writing about photography and editing photo magazines and contributing to photography-related web sites (like I said, street photography won’t make you rich), the streets always entice me back.
What is street photography, and why are so many photographers enthralled by it?
First, let’s define street photography. The quick definition is that it’s taking candid photos of strangers in public places. Most street photos are taken on city sidewalks, but they’ve also been taken in zoos, amusement parks, airports (before camera use was banned), rodeos, and parks. In fact, anyplace where people might be is fair game.
Traditional composition rules (such as keeping horizons straight, placing subjects in the center or along the intersection of invisible lines that divide an image in thirds) are less important than capturing the moment when interactions between people and their surroundings peak.
For example, horizons may not be perfectly horizontal; however, one well-known street shooter would always look for a vertical line near the edge of the frame, and used that as a rule for including photos when editing his work.
Street photographers tend to take a lot of pictures, and have a low “success” rate. That’s because they are photographing the most challenging of subjects, the rapidly changing real world, full of unpredictable moments and infinite variations. The ratio of images where everything comes together compared to those that miss is quite low. And so, careful image editing is an important aspect of street photography.
When all the elements–action, composition and exposure–come together, it’s sweet. And addicting. Ask any street photographer.
And that’s the first reason why street photographers keep doing what they do. Here are some more reasons:
Street Photography hones your photographic vision
Sports photographers, photojournalists and even fashion shooters can benefit from doing street photography.
If you are shooting on a bustling city street and can manage to find order in all of that chaos (a skill that doesn’t come overnight) then catching a basketaball player making net will come more easily because shooting a lot of street photos will quicken your reflexes and ability to anticipate key moments.
Street photos often have several things going on at once–sometimes creating a humorous or ironic effect. So, many street photos deliberately choose to shoot in places where a lot is happening. This is similar to the photojournalist’s technique of “stacking the composition” with multiple subjects that somehow interact, enhancing the photo. Look at the work of photographers like James Natchwey and you’ll see the influence of street photography. Or, simply flip through any issue of Time or Newsweek.
Street Photography improves your technical skills
Automatic cameras may have difficulty keeping up with rapidly changing lighting situations that are common on the street. Many street shooters instead rely on their ability to manually set their cameras based on their experience. I know, for example, that if I’m walking down the street on a hazy/overcast day in New York and am shooting ISO 800 film, the exposure will be 1/500 at f/8. With experience, you learn the nuances of exposure without having to consult a light meter.
Street Photography improves your reflexes
Leica users love The Tab. This is a protrusion found on many older (and some newer) Leica lenses that you use to focus the lens. Using a Kobolux 28mm f/3.5 lens (a fantastic lens which Adorama used to sell), I know that when The Tab is at 6:00, my lens is focused at 7 feet. At 4:00, it’s 5 feet, and at 7:00 it’s focused at 15 feet away. By the time I’ve raised the camera to my eye (and I NEVER shoot from the hip!) I’ve already focused.
The ability to see multiple subjects, anticipate the peak of the action, and calculate distance and focus your camera while raising your camera to your eye to catch the Decisive Moment takes years of practice. But this brain-eye-hand coordination can be done and will help you in other aspects of life.
Street Photography helps you overcome shyness
It’s surprising how few people notice you’re taking their picture (or care) once you’ve learned how to relax and be casual about it. But initially, it is an act of bravery to step into a crowd and take pictures of total strangers. Keep smiling, don’t be afraid to make eye contact. Eventually you will be at ease, and you may be surprised at how little people notice your activity right in front of them!
Street photography is historic
Look at the above photo: It was shot in late July, 2001, in the plaza at the base of the World Trade Center in New York, just weeks before the attack on the Twin Towers. (You can see the base of one of the towers reflected in the windows in the background.) It’s not one of my better shots, but this photo is one of several I made that day that I value due to their historical and emotional value.
Street photos show what we looked like during a specific time, how we dressed, and sometimes, show what life was like in what might later be considered part of an historic record. Just look at the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, for example, and you’ll see history unfold!
Is street photography legal?
If someone objects to your taking their picture, it’s best to be polite and explain that you’re working on a personal photography project. They may no longer object at that point but if they are still upset, simply explain that you won’t use their photo. Remember: As long as you are in a public place, you are legally permitted to take their picture! (If you stand in a public place and shoot into someone’s private home and catch someone in a private moment, that’s another story.) And you are allowed to make prints, exhibit the photos or even publish them as long as they are not used to promote a company or product.
Still uncertain about the legality of street photography? Ask a lawyer for advice based on legal precedent.
A few words about gear
Keep it simple. Use cameras with no lag time. While some street shooters use SLRs, a rangefinder is better so you can see what’s going on the split second when you take the picture. An SLR’s mirror slap blocks your view at the all-important moment of exposure. And while there are rangefinders out there like the Voigtlander Bessa R2A or Zeiss Ikon M, nothing beats a Leica M-series rangefinder.
If the Digital Leica M turns out to be too rich for your taste, consider the relatively affordable Ricoh GR Digital, a camera designed with street photographers in mind. It offers a 28mm (35mm equivalent) lens and has virtually no lag time.
I’ve had my M3 for over 20 years, and it is a smooth, reliable camera that is quick and responsive. I’ve used later M cameras and love them as well. The digital M will, no doubt, provide all that and digital too. For street photographers who burn a lot of film, this will also be a boon if Leica can keep sensor noise under control and use a sensor with a dynamic range that rivals film.
Street photographers tend to use either normal or wide-angle lenses; most are in the 28-50mm range. A telephoto lens places the photographer too far away from the subject and the intimacy of the image is lost. Besides, odd as it may sound, the closer you are when you’re taking someone’s picture the less likely they are to notice (or believer) you are photographing them. However, a too-wide-angle lens (24mm and shorter) distorts the scene.
Most street shooters still use film, and tend to prefer the fast stuff. Fujicolor 800 Press film is quite popular for its wide latitude and low grain (unless it’s out of date) if you prefer shooting color. Black and white photographers still love Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP-5 Plus, both ISO 800 films.
If you’re just getting started, don’t buy anything yet. Just go out and shoot with whatever you’ve got.
Remember: relax, walk slowly (walk too fast and you might miss something; besides, you are more likely to jostle the camera), and take lots of pictures. The more you shoot, the faster you’ll learn. Study your results. Look at other street photography, like the images found at in-public.com. Put yourself and your subjects at ease: act like you belong there and that you should be taking pictures. Don’t worry if you get funny looks. If people see you’re nervous, they’ll think you’re doing something wrong. But if you’re having a great time, others will pick up on that and relax, too.
Mason Resnick is the Editor-in-Chief of the AIRC – Adorama Imaging Resource Center. He recently curated a group show, “Crossroads: Contemporary Street Photography,” at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2006 Adorama