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Street Photography

by Catherine Ramsey (follow)
Blog (395)      Tutorials (61)     

For almost as long as cameras have been available, street photography has had a steady presence. At the beginning of the last century, and before the events of WWII, cameras were being developed small enough and cheap enough for the average person to own. People began documenting their lives and what was going on around them, and expanding the genre of documentary photography.

While many aspects of documentary photography have changed over time, including the equipment and the processes we use to produce our images, the same basic principles for creating enticing imagery remain the same. The different sub-genres of documentary photography (photojournalism, lifestyle photography and street photography) all rely on well-timed and cleverly composed images. However street photography is unique in that it often has a very raw, urban and sometimes gritty feel about the images, compared to lifestyle images or photojournalism where the setting is not necessarily on the street. Images are often converted to black and white to enhance this sense of realism.

So what counts as street photography?

Street photography involves capturing lots of different activities, occurring within a public space. People interacting with other people or their environment, on public transport, at festivals or markets, and street art could all be considered common street photography subjects. But it’s important to make sure that you tie your subjects together by creating a visual story – such as choosing to focus on homeless people, youth, tourists, street artists or commuters.

Image taken by Ahmed Harbis

What equipment do I need?

The great thing about street photography is that it really only requires a camera and lens. In the early days, point and shoot film cameras were usually equipped with a compact, fixed focal length lens, around about 35mm. These relatively inconspicuous and quiet cameras were perfect for documenting candid daily life but had limited ability to zoom.

Today we have a lot more options. For the shy street photographer, a longer lens length of 100-300mm is perfect for capturing portraits and action, whilst remaining at a safe distance. Traditionalists might prefer to opt for a range of 35-50mm, which gives us a focal distance that is more natural to the way we see things with our own eyes.

Tips and tricks for taking better street photography

Get out of your comfort zone! For most of us, the thought of photographing strangers in the street is a daunting activity, but it needn’t be. Ease yourself into it by using a longer focal length and staying out of eyeshot, then bring yourself gradually closer. People may react a number of different ways, such as looking awkwardly away, smiling or frowning. Be polite and be prepared to explain what you’re doing. Even if it takes a while, once you’ve built up the confidence, getting close to the action will be easy and you’ll be rewarded with amazing photos.

Image taken by Dieter Mueller Photography

As well as putting yourself where the action is, the key to a successful photo is waiting for ‘the decisive moment’ (a term first coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson). A good documentary photographer will use their foresight to determine when and where a great photo opportunity will present itself. This may involve positioning yourself in a particular spot or waiting and watching as things unfold. The moments captured in the photos below are all examples of intimate interactions happening in a public place, observed from a bystanders point of view. Just make sure that you have your camera at the ready, because once that moment passes, you’ll never see it again.

Image taken by Ahmed Harbis

Image taken by Ahmed Harbis

The idea is to capture things exactly as they appear, so flash or artificial lighting is rarely used. Make use of pools of light, such as street lights and shop windows at night, and wait for people to step into them from out of the shadows (like Australian photographer Trent Parke).

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