Professional street photography guide.

From French photographers experimenting with street photography through painstakingly long exposures to the mass proliferation of street photography through advances in technology, street photography has always been a compelling genre of photography. It focuses on the observation of human behavior in the public sphere. Street photography has had a storied history, made through various technological changes and by captivating photographers and artists. There are many different types of street photography, including fashion, urban, portrait, street art, and fine art street photography, and many techniques involved that make the genre and different street photographers unique. Issues around privacy and consent have also entered the dialogue around street photography. Read on to find out more about the genre, it’s history, types, techniques, and styles.

street photography image from overhead, showcasing the long shadows of people walking in the street

What is street photography?

Street photography can be characterized by every day, chance, or improvised encounters, in public places, usually an observation of a person or people interacting with their environment, but sometimes a public space devoid of people, yet showcasing the human aspect of the place. The type of photography is usually candid in nature–the observing photographer will use timing and framing to capture a moment in the public space. 

Brief history of street photography.

Street photography has had a fascinating evolution, from the use of daguerreotypes and cumbersome large-format cameras, to the development of handheld devices. What is often described as a subgenre of documentary photography, street photography has captured the modernization and urban development of rural and urban areas, cultural moments and changes, periods of war and economic instability. 

Early street photography.

Street life has been captured through various art and documentation practices for centuries. Record of it happening through photography, however, wasn’t documented until the mid-1800s, when French photographer Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre attempted to photograph the Paris streets from his studio window using a daguerreotype. Charles Nègre later ventured out into the street and used a calotype, which rendered images much faster.

Subsequent developments in camera technology and mastery of technical skills led photographers and everyday people to document life in public spaces through increasingly affordable handheld film cameras, including Kodak and Leica models.

The introduction of handheld cameras.

Eugene Atget, another documentary photographer in Paris, and French flâneur captured street scenes between 1890-1920. Despite the newly available handheld cameras, Atget used a large-format bellows camera, and focused his photography on the city’s architecture, documenting its change and development. Atget gained notoriety after his death largely due to Berenice Abbott, an American photographer who took similar photo records in New York City.

In the 1920’s Hungarian photographer André Kertész used a Leica to capture Paris streets in a way not seen before, due to the change in freedom the handheld camera offered.  Another Hungarian photographer, Brassaï, also worked in Paris capturing night scenes using a larger-format Voigtländer camera in the 1930s, later finding his way to a color Leica.

The decisive moment. 

Master Leica user, French photographer Henry Cartier-Bresson made a name for himself through his street photography and seminal book, The Decisive Moment. Published in 1952, the title and phrase were coined by Cartier-Bresson to describe the time a photo was taken, when form, content, vision and composition matched up in the camera frame.

In the US, European street photography was featured in two major exhibitions at MoMA in the early 50s. In addition to Berenice Abbott, other photographers came to make names for themselves in street photography.

Walker Evans used a 35mm Contax camera to take photos of unknowing NYC subway goers. Helen Levitt documented chalk drawings, showing children’s own street culture. Street photography during this period depicted modernization, urban growth and development, economic hardship, and everything in-between.

A shift in focus. 

After World War II, subject-matter turned slightly toward documenting American culture. Roy DeCarava documented life in Harlem and the emergence of American jazz music. Robert Frank made a name for himself by creating new forms of expression when it came to documenting the street.

Frank and other street photography pioneers informed the subsequent work of artists such as Diane Arbus, Joel Meyerowitz, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, who produced a variety of NYC street photography in the 60s and 70s.

Meyerowitz, like his famous peer William Eggleston, was known for his use of color photography. Arbus, for her stark, sometimes eerie, portrayal of marginalized subjects. Winogrand for capturing the frenetic energy of NYC streets. Friedlander for his portrayal of the urban social landscape.

More recently, Academy award-winning documentary film Finding Vivian Maier brought notoriety to a previously unknown photographer. Maier had taken more than 150,000 photos in her lifetime, many while taking children she nannied out and about in Chicago and New York in the 1950s and 60s, primarily using a medium format Rolleiflex.

Types of street photography.

Just like street photography can be thought of as a subgenre of documentary photography, there are also various subtypes of street photography. Street photography can capture the styles of the time through fashion street photography. It can be a type of portrait-style photography, by bringing portraiture into the street. It can make a point of capturing the urban streets as well as the street art that sometimes occupies urban environments. It can also evolve into a kind of fine art photography if the photographer has a distinct enough message and creative vision. Read on to learn more.

Fashion street photography.

Also known as street style photography, fashion street photography documents unique styles donned by human subjects the photographer encounters out in public. Like other forms of street photography, the attitude of the subject is also conveyed, but layered differently with the focus on their personal style, adding to the visual story of that person or moment in time. Some fashion street photography can resemble fashion editorial or portraiture. Subjects can appear quite candid or appear as if they’re walking a catwalk. 

Street portrait photography.

Street portrait photography brings portrait photography to the street. This type of street photography documents the subject as they are and the way they’re interacting with the environment, while still taking into consideration composition and the way the natural light is hitting the scene. Sometimes the subject is unaware of being photographed, and the shot requires more quick thinking than a typical portrait. 

Urban street photography.

Urban street photography aims to capture a whole urban scene. It showcases many elements of an urban environment and can combine other types of photography such as landscape, architecture, portrait, and even photojournalism. Like other forms of photography, this one requires a lot of waiting. Scouting your location, understanding the area, waiting for streetlife to fill a previously identified frame, will all help make for a great urban street shot. 

Street art photography.

Simply put, street art photography captures public art, such as murals, and graffiti. This form of street photography is all the more compelling when the photographer also focuses on composition and bringing other elements of the street into the photo. This also comes into play when these photos are displayed or sold. Photographers who capture art on the street need to be mindful of crediting the artist featured, and if a piece is being sold, may need to make contact with the artist to discern proper compensation. 

Fine art street photography.

Fine art street photography involves taking your vision or idea and conveying it through street photography, taking into consideration the message or emotion you want to come across. Fine art street photography may involve going outside of the box to break some rules, and might incorporate creative elements such as blur, abstraction, movement, macro, or any type of shooting that will convey your artistic vision. 

Street photography styles.

Like street photography types, there are many different styles of street photography. The style of photography is usually dictated by the photographer unless it’s a strict commission or assignment, and likely depends on their own shooting preferences, as well as how they see a scene or would like a scene to be depicted to the viewer. Street photography style can include distilling a scene using minimalism or abstraction, making a decision to use color or black and white, or finding scenes to shoot where high contrast is a worthy avenue. Read through these styles and consider when you might use one over the other. 

Minimalist street photography.

Minimalist street photography distills the frame or scene using a “less is more” mentality. Simplicity, isolation, abstraction, and negative space are a few elements that minimalist street photographers incorporate. While composition is important to any photographer, it is especially demanding in minimalist street photography, as there isn’t much else to rely on to make the shot compelling.

Abstract street photography.

Abstract street photography uses different techniques to convey the feeling or mood of a street photo. Techniques can include the use of movement or blur, silhouettes or shadows, reflection, and even harnessing the power of natural light and unconventional perspectives.

Black and white street photography.

Black and white street photography is a style of street photography that changes the mood or feeling of an otherwise color image, a decision that gets made by the photographer. The decision may be made to make a photo more timeless and classic, to simplify a shot, or if the tones and light in the photo make for a stronger visual in black and white.

Color street photography.

Now the default on nearly all cameras, color street photography is extremely popular now. In decades past, this technology wasn’t even an option for photographers. Color street photography is a way to demonstrate the true nature of a scene, but also lean into certain characteristics of a scene, such as the vibrancy of an outfit or building color. Color communicates a lot of emotion and can be used as a signifier for other elements, or to create relationships between otherwise unrelated components of a photograph.

Street film photography.

Street film photography is again a stylistic choice made by the photographer on how they’d like to show the scene they’re photographing. As street photography has a strong history in its use of film, this may encourage current photographers to make this style choice. Film photography has made a massive resurgence in photography in recent years, with photographers all over the world bringing their work back to a more traditional process of image making.

High contrast street photography.

High contrast street photography highlights the differences in a scene on the street, such as light and dark areas, highlights and shadows. Similar to abstraction and minimalism, high contrast street photography brings the viewer’s eye to interesting and powerful aesthetics such as leading lines and interesting shapes encountered in the street.

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