Why Do I Find Street Photography So Compelling?
Updated: Mar 21
I love to travel and when I visit new places, I enjoy doing street photography.
Street photography is very different from landscape photography in that subjects are often moving rather than static, moments can be fleeting, photographs often have to be taken quickly with very little time to think and plan.
But it is also exciting, meaningful and rewarding.
Sometimes when doing street photography I just have my phone camera with me, rather than a dedicated camera, but it does the job because I am not looking for amazing compositions or pin-sharp images. I just want to find interesting subjects, compose well, capture the small moments and document everyday life in a place that is different from my place.
There is something uniquely compelling about street photography, something that draws me back again and again.
What exactly does street photography entail?
There are many views on the topic.
For some photographers, street photography must include people; to others that is street portraiture.
Some photographers believe that including buildings is best called urban photography, while many others give a narrow definition of street photography and believe that what is known as street photography could be more accurately termed travel photography.
James Maher, writing in The Ultimate Guide to Street Photography defines street photography broadly, as ‘candidly photographing life and human nature.’ Maher says that people don’t need to be present in a street photograph nor does it need to be taken in a city. He believes that street photography can be taken anywhere as long as it is a candid image, not something that is posed or manipulated.
It is a topic to which I have given some thought and I find all the conflicting definitions very confusing. For my purposes I agree with James Maher’s definition and recommend reading his ultimate guide.
In my opinion, street photography is candid photography, which may or may not include people, and it either captures a particular moment of everyday life in the place or it captures the essence of the place - its buildings, distinctive features, iconic landmarks, alleyways, markets, squares, meeting places, shops, cafes, as well as the people who frequent the place and the objects they may use there.
The main word here is essence. We want to find out what the place looks like, what it sounds like, what people do there, how they interact with each other and with their environment; essentially, we want to discover what makes the place tick. Then we want to try to convey this essence through our images.
What is it that makes street photography so compelling?
Street photography is about life, it is about story, it is about giving people cause to feel a certain way about what they see.
Street photography is also about self-expression; it is about showing others what we value, sharing our view of what is important to us.
Some people would argue that a building or part of a building does not constitute street photography, but for me, if it draws my attention it is telling me something about the place, about the influences on the place over generations, so it is a valid subject.
When I am in a place that is different from where I live, I often find characteristics that are distinctive of that place, and these have meaning for me. If that is more accurately called urban photography, that's ok with me. It's the feeling, the experience of capturing this essence of a place that is important to me.
When shooting people, I don’t just want to see faces, I want to see expressions, interactions, people talking or laughing or engrossed in what they are doing.
I want to see images that I relate to, that resonate with me in some way.
The focus for me is on capturing people in relationship to other people or places, capturing man-made objects that have a human connection and capturing scenes that tell a story, that bring the place alive.
Some of the best street photographs are produced when the images give a real sense of what it’s like to live and work in the place.
I also believe that having a definite subject makes for a better street image. A subject adds interest and helps to tell the story of the place.
The subject can be anything. An interaction between people is always a winner but it can also be an interesting building which is characteristic of the place, or it can be an object such as a bicycle, motor bike, cart or boat placed strategically.
An interesting stall can make for a good subject, so too can a street corner or alleyway, especially when bathed in good light.
A subject can be something that seems incongruous or out of place, it can be a pattern or shape that gives a flavour of the place, in fact anything that catches the eye can become your subject.
The importance of composition
By its very nature street photography is fast moving photography.
It is often quick and spontaneous.
We don’t set up a tripod or spend time composing the scene in a certain way.
We often have to take our shot before the moment passes, which is all the more reason to have a good grasp of the principles of composition.
If we need to shoot on the run, we need to know how to compose on the run also.
It would be easy to just keep snapping and end up with nothing worthwhile, but with a little attention to our range of composition tools we can create images that look somewhat more aesthetically pleasing.
To sum up
Although I was reluctant to start street photography (see an earlier post, What Everyone Should Know About Starting Street Photography), it is a genre that I have grown to love.
I might spend months doing landscape photography yet I am eventually called back to this candid photography on a street or in a town or anywhere that people gather.
I find this type of photography uplifting and life affirming.
Street images can capture real life human behaviour and human interaction and also show human influence on the built environment.
Street photography provides visual stimulation, hustle and bustle, colour, texture, pattern, variety of human poses and expressions.
In street photography I tend to be more spontaneous.
I love to wander around, finding things to photograph.
I go out with an open mind without any preconceived notions about what I want to shoot, and I allow my curiosity to lead me.
It might lead me down an alleyway or following a shaft of light.
It might lead me to experiment with reflections in shop windows or prompt me to look up to see what is overhead.
Curiosity might encourage me to wait at a certain spot to see who or what comes along or it may keep me moving - checking out different streets in an area to find different scenes and different potential images.
I believe that street photography captures the essence of what it is to be alive. It encourages us as photographers to be curious and to be fully engaged in the moments as we capture the fullness of life around us, and this is what I find so compelling about this type of photography.
In a few weeks I will be returning to Portugal. I will take my Olympus O-M10 and 14-42mm pancake lens with me for organised street/urban photography outings and my phone will serve as my second camera for those spontaneous moments that can crop up at any time.
I am looking forward to the opportunity to capture the essence of the places I visit through my photography.
If you enjoy street photography and would like some tips on improving your skills in this genre you might like to check out this article by Brandon Ballweg, photographer and founder of ComposeClick, which is described as 'a resource and community by and for photographers.'
Updated Feb 23