Street photography can be either easy or difficult to pick up, depending on your perspective. On the one hand, you have a wealth of interesting subjects to photograph. You don’t need to plan a photo shoot or buy special gear to get awesome shots. If you live or work in a city, great street photography is right at your front door.
On the other hand, street photography comes with ethical challenges that other photography genres don’t have. Questions of privacy and respect are often discussed, as not everyone appreciates being photographed unknowingly.
Street photography can be beautiful, fascinating, and even necessary for photojournalism. But it can also be obnoxious and disrespectful, causing anger and resentment. In some areas, you could even get into trouble for taking street photos.
For example, France has strict privacy laws, which includes street photography. And in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, street photos of sex workers are forbidden. You could try it, but your camera might end up getting thrown in a canal. (Try one of these beautiful Amsterdam neighborhoods instead.)
In many places, though, street photographers are given a lot of freedom. They can legally take photos without asking permission as long as they’re on public property where privacy can’t be expected.
But then, the law isn’t everything. As photographer Jamie Windsor says in this thought-provoking video about street photography, “Just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it’s ethical.”
When you start dabbling in street photography, you have to consider what your ethical standards are. For instance, is it okay to publish humiliating photos of people? Should you ask for permission before taking photos of children? Are any photos off-limits from an ethical standpoint?
These are tough questions you’ll have to answer for yourself. But regardless of your standpoint, here are some techniques and ideas you can apply to your own street photography.
The following ideas and techniques can help you take stunning street shots that are candid and authentic, yet also respectful.
Play with silhouettes and shadows.
Shadows and silhouettes are classic elements in street photography. They’re mysterious and interesting, yet familiar and commonplace. You can find good silhouettes and shadows everywhere in a city. As a bonus, they help disguise the identities of the people you’re photographing, so they can remain anonymous.
Capture the environment.
Much of street photography focuses on people, but the surrounding environment is no less important. Like including people in architectural photos, including architecture and other surrounding elements in your street photos can help provide context and depth, making your images more powerful.
Frame your subject.
Framing is a compositional technique used to guide the viewers’ attention to the main subject. It’s like putting a frame around a piece of artwork to make the artwork stand out. Only in photography, this frame doesn’t have to be a four-sided box. It can be anything that highlights your subject by surrounding it on one or more sides.
Juxtaposition is when you place two subjects close to each other, so the viewer will naturally compare them. Of all the techniques in this list, juxtaposition is perhaps the trickiest. You have to find a comparison worth photographing, and then you have to wait for both subjects to be positioned just right.
And then there’s the question of respect. Sometimes, juxtaposition is used to misrepresent people or mock the culture being photographed. However, you can also create humorous and interesting juxtapositions without this mockery, as the photos below demonstrate.
For more examples of juxtaposition in street photography, check out the work of Ilan Ben Yehuda, who uses humorous yet insightful juxtaposition in his street photos of a Jewish community in Jerusalem.
Symmetry can give a street photo a sense of organization and harmony in the middle of a chaotic city. While you might not spot exact symmetry very often, you can find elements of symmetry quite easily. Consider the symmetry of streets, windows, stairs, and other urban features which may seem unremarkable at first, until they’re composed perfectly in a photo.
Experiment with motion blur.
Cities are constantly active. Day and night, you see movement on the roads and sidewalks. Cars, cyclists, trams, pedestrians, buses… There are a lot of moving subjects to photograph. Instead of freezing these subjects in a moment, try working with motion blur, so your photos capture the relentless energy of the city.
Empathize with individual people.
Candid photography and street photography often go hand-in-hand. While some street photos are posed (like the Humans of New York portraits), the majority capture genuine moments, expressions, and emotions. This authenticity is one thing that makes street photography so compelling.
To get nice candid shots in street photography, you’ll need to work on taking shots without being noticed. (For tips on that, check out our post: 8 Ways to Get Candids Without Being Noticed.)
Besides invisibility, you’ll get the most meaningful candid shots if you empathize with the individuals you’re photographing. Step into their world and see what they’re seeing. This empathy will deepen your understanding of the situation and allow you to capture the real picture.
Watch social interactions.
Emotions are most likely to come out when people are interacting. Whether it’s the joy of friends laughing, the boredom of kids shopping with their parents, or the love of a mother and daughter walking together, you can capture a wide range of emotions when you watch people interacting. Every conversation is a story waiting to be photographed.
Look for unique scenes and situations.
When all else fails, look for something unusual. As every urbanite knows, unique scenes happen every day in a city. If you walk around for a while, you’re sure to find something interesting to photograph.
However, if you prefer certainty over spontaneity, search online for local events and peculiar city sights, then plan your photo walk around those. At the very least, it’ll give you a good place to begin.
Many of the above photos were selected from our fantastic Flickr community. Next time you take some cool street shots, post your photos in our Flickr group or tag #thephotoargus on Instagram, so we can appreciate your work!