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How Do We Capture Those Elusive ‘Keepers’ in Street Photography?

If you are interested in street photography you will no doubt realise how difficult it is to capture a ‘keeper’, that is, an image that you think will appeal to others and that shouldn’t be deleted from your archives.

Many street photographers try to capture something humorous or unusual that will appeal to viewers. Something odd, a strange juxtaposition or an unlikely occurrence usually make for compelling images. They create those unique moments that street photographers look out for.

Alternatively, photographers might try to tell a story through their images. The story might be explicit or just hinted at for the viewer to think about the image and make up their own mind about what is happening.

There are other street photographers for whom the aesthetically pleasing image takes priority. This might entail the use of bold colour or be based on good contrast of light and shade. It might be a silhouette image or even an abstract image. The main focus of this approach to street photography is that the image will have strong visual appeal.

But often, it is on the very occasions that we go out looking for these specific occurrences, that we won’t find them. As German photographer Markus Hartel once said,

'Street photography is like gambling. You get lucky or you get nothing...'

So, how do we try to ensure that we get lucky once in a while?

How do we occasionally capture those elusive keepers?

First of all, it is important to manage our expectations in street photography. If we go out expecting to find an amazing shot straight away, we are likely to be disappointed. All good street photographers agree that great subjects are not just there for the taking. We have to go out often, be patient, accept ‘failure’ and be willing to try and try again to find those compelling street images.

As Matt Stuart, author of ‘Think Like a Street Photographer’, puts it, we need to, ‘get up, get out and go and find things’.

I recently came across this quote from poet Philip Larkin:

‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

When I read the quote I thought, ‘this applies to street photography too.’

How many times do we go out with our cameras and come home with nothing?

Yet I realise also that it is often when we least expect something interesting to happen that it will happen, and it can happen anywhere. We need to be there and to be observant.

As one photographer described it: a lot of walking and looking and then there it is. (Mark Alor Powell)

And that is the magic of street photography.

The second way to guarantee at least a few keepers is to realise that street photography is not just about taking random pictures of people in the street. This just results in boring images that no-one wants to look at.

Good street photography involves making something worthwhile to offer your viewers – a narrative, a unique moment or just something aesthetically pleasing. It also involves employing some techniques to achieve these results, such as using sub-framing to create interest or using layering to add depth.

I recently had a look back through my street images to see if I could identify any that fit into this category; images that I would consider to be keepers. Below are some that go some way to hitting the mark in that I think they provide at least some element of interest for the viewer.

Taking a break

Taking a Break, Dublin 2019

A chat at the market

Morning Chat, Dublin 2019

Shadow walk

Shadows on the Wall, Vila Real, Portugal, 2023

Street cleaner

Street Cleaner, Vila Real, Portugal, 2023

Umbrella in the city

Rain in the City, Dublin 2022

Phil Lynott

Photographing Phil Lynott, Dublin 2023

Boy among the pigeons

Boy Among the Pigeons, Dublin 2019

Fancy dress

The Mask, Dublin 2019

Man enticing gull

I’m Not Playing! Dublin 2019

Dog spotting

Dog Spotting, Lake Garda, 2019

View from the side

Viewpoint, Lake Garda 2019

Street protest

Street Protest, Dublin 2019

Moment of persuasion

Moment of Persuasion, Dublin 2019

A man looking up

What's Happening? Vila Real, Portugal, 2023


If, like me, you take lots of street images and have difficulty recognising those elusive 'keepers' then it might be worth thinking about your images under one of these three headings:

- images that tell a story,

- images that capture a moment

- images that have an aesthetic quality.

These type of images have what might be called a 'captivating quality'. They give the viewer something worthwhile to look at instead of being just more images of random people on the street doing nothing in particular.

For me, the real joy of street photography is that I can constantly be on a quest to capture images that have this captivating quality.

Some day I might find that gem, but in the meantime I won’t get disheartened as I keep in mind this quote from photographer Alex Webb:

‘Street photography is 99.9 per cent about failure’.


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