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What is Considered Street Photography: Defining the Genre

written by: CLARKE SCOTT 
Melbourne shrine baked in sun

At its core, street photography is an impromptu act of observation and recording, aiming to reveal the rich tapestry of the urban environment. Unlike other genres, where subjects and settings may be predetermined, street photography relies on the randomness of public life and the photographer’s ability to discern the extraordinary in the ordinary. A certain nuance is required to excel in street photography. The photographer must become a part of the environment, blending into the background to capture candid moments. The art lies not just in the scene but also in the anticipation of moments that are both transitory and telling. The vivid snapshots taken by street photographers often encapsulate social narratives, human emotions, and the dynamics of public spaces without the need for posed or staged interventions.

To this end, the approach of street photographers is almost scientific in its rigour, yet artistic in expression. It’s about understanding human behaviors, cultural nuances, and the rhythm of cities. As observers of public domains, photographers must navigate the complex interplay between capturing compelling images and respecting the privacy of individuals in the frame. Legal and ethical considerations play a crucial role in shaping the practice of street photography, ensuring that while the pursuit of art is uninhibited, it remains within the bounds of respect for individual rights.

Key Takeaways

  • Street photography captures unplanned moments and the reality of public life.
  • It demands a blend of invisibility and intuition from the photographer.
  • Ethical and legal considerations are vital to the practice of street photography.

Essentials of Street Photography

In exploring the essentials of street photography, I focus on understanding the genre, mastering composition, and choosing the right equipment and settings for a spontaneous capture of everyday life.

Defining the Genre

Street photography is an intriguing genre that captures the essence of everyday life in a public place. It emphasizes spontaneity over planning, with candid moments being a central element. The beauty of this genre for me is how it portrays the raw and authentic state of human existence, as it usually unfolds without the subjects being aware that they’re being photographed.

Key Elements of Composition

For a compelling street photograph, composition is crucial. Here’s a breakdown of the components I consider:

  • Frame: Constructing the edges of the photograph to harness the viewer’s attention.
  • Leading Lines: Utilizing natural lines within the scene to guide the viewer’s eye.
  • Lighting and Shadows: Balancing light and shadow can add depth and mood to my images.
  • Colors: Bold and contrasting colors help subjects stand out, while muted tones can evoke a sense of timelessness.

I always strive to tell a story or convey an emotion in a single frame, using these elements to strengthen the narrative impact of my work.

Equipment and Camera Settings

When selecting equipment for street photography, I consider my need for flexibility and discretion. Here’s my preferred gear:

  • Cameras: Mirrorless cameras like the Leica or compact systems offer excellent image quality while being less obtrusive.
  • Lenses: I often choose prime lenses with focal lengths around 35mm, as they provide a balance between capturing the scene and maintaining quality.
  • Manual Focus: This can be invaluable for quick adjustments, as the environment is constantly changing.

Finally, camera settings can make or break a street photo. For settings, maintaining a wider aperture (around f/8 to f/16) helps keep most of the scene sharp, while I set my focus around 10 feet to ensure subjects near and far gain adequate focus. This affords me the flexibility to capture candid moments with clarity.

Photographic Techniques and Approaches

In my explanation of street photography techniques, I’ll focus on the decisive moment, the difference between candid and posed shots, and the practice of working the scene.

The Decisive Moment

The “decisive moment” is a term coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson to describe the perfect convergence of timing and composition in photography. It’s about capturing a transient event that is both aesthetically compelling and emotionally resonant. My objective is to let instinct and experience guide me to anticipate these fleeting moments, often requiring me to act quickly to capture them before they disappear.

Candid Photography Vs. Posed

Candid photography is about recording people authentically, without their direct engagement with the camera. In contrast, posed photography involves the subject’s knowledge and often their cooperation. I strive for genuine expressions and spontaneous moments, which convey a more powerful story. This sometimes means waiting patiently, observing potential subjects, and taking multiple shots to document authentic reactions and interactions. Eye contact is not necessary in candid photography and it can often take away from the ‘unseen observer’ feeling I aim for.

Working the Scene

When working a scene, I explore it from various angles, looking for the best composition and waiting for interesting subjects to enter the frame. This method involves a lot of patience and perseverance. I might take dozens of shots, varying my position, and reassessing the elements within the frame to finesse the composition. It’s not unheard of for me to spend significant time waiting for everything to align — the right subject, the ideal lighting, and the perfect backdrop — to construct the narrative I envision for my photograph.

Ethical and Legal Considerations

In street photography, it is crucial for me to navigate the complexities of law and ethics responsibly. My work often interacts with the public sphere, and understanding the legal frameworks and the importance of respect is fundamental to practice.

Understanding the Law and Privacy

In most countries, capturing images in public spaces does not require explicit permission. Nevertheless, I am aware of the privacy laws that vary from location to location and often hinge upon reasonable expectations of privacy. For instance, taking photos of someone through their home window, even from a public street, is illegal and unethical, as it infringes on a person’s personal space and could be deemed intrusive.

  • Public vs. Private: Legally, what can and cannot be photographed is often clear-cut—public spaces are mostly fair game, while private property typically requires permission.
  • Model Releases: For commercial use of images, obtaining a model release from the subjects is often necessary to avoid legal complications, especially if the person’s identity is distinguishable.

(I, and I do not know of any street photographers, that shoot street for commercial reasons, so model releases are never thought of to be honest. But I felt like I needed to add this here for clarity.)

Respect and Etiquette in Street Photography

When I photograph candidly, my intent is not to compromise the dignity or security of the individuals I capture. Ethical considerations call for a balance between my creative expression and the respect of my subjects.

  • Personal Space: I strive to maintain a respectful distance to avoid being perceived as intrusive.
  • Behavior: Engaging with subjects respectfully and ceasing photography if confronted or asked to stop is crucial for ethical practice.

By closely considering these legal and ethical nuances, I ensure my street photography is both legally sound and respectful.

Creative Exploration and Storytelling

In street photography, my aim is to transcend ordinary snapshots and engage in a visual storytelling process that captures profound emotion and human connection within the frame.

Capturing Emotion and Story

My goal is to tell a story by capturing moments that highlight emotions and gestures. When I photograph street scenes, I focus on facial expressions and body language, knowing they are powerful channels for conveying emotions and narratives.

  • Emotion: I observe and anticipate poignant interplays of sentiment among individuals.
  • Gesture: I find that an individual’s actions, such as a tender embrace or a hurried stride, can suggest an entire story.
  • Tell a story: Each shot aims to encapsulate a slice of life, compelling the viewer to ponder the backstory.

In the context of capturing emotion and storytelling, I:

  • Seek out scenes that reflect underlying social dynamics or cultural significance.
  • Explore rural areas or urban settings to uncover diverse narratives.
  • Create street portraits that showcase a person’s character and environment, thus telling their unique story.

Expanding the Boundaries

While I capture the essence of street life, I also strive to push the boundaries of what is conventionally expected from street photography.

  • Abstract: I sometimes create images nuanced with abstraction to challenge viewers’ perceptions.
  • Culture: My photography often represents a tapestry of human activity, painting a picture of a place’s cultural fabric.
  • Architecture: Occasionally, I integrate architectural elements to foster a dialogue between the environment and the subject.

Here’s how I expand the boundaries:

  1. Abstract elements: By including abstract patterns or forms, I add a layer of complexity and invite interpretation.
  2. Cultural representation: I document the vivid expressions of culture, from bustling city squares to quiet street corners.
  3. Interactions with surroundings: Whether rural or urban, I show how individuals animate and are shaped by their surroundings.

In my work, I’m aware that platforms like social media have changed the landscape of street photography, broadening both the audience and the concept of what can be deemed ‘street’. Through my lens, I embrace this shift, utilizing digital spheres to share and inform perspectives.

Further Reading