Street photography is a genre that can be practiced by just about anyone, anywhere. You can grab your camera and find an interesting place where people gather and start shooting. This article, however, will share how the professionals methodically approach this craft. The best street photos are produced with a mixture of curiosity about how human behavior, coupled with bulldog determination and infinite patience. Read on to learn how to improve your skills taking pictures of strangers in that most democratic of places, the street.
Street Photography: Art, or Snapshots, or both?
The genre known as street photography may be the most democratic form of camera work. Anyone with any kind of camera---or even a modern cell phone—can practice this. Its closest cousin is the snapshot, and at first glance, some of the best "street photos" might even appear like an amateur shot them; but if the viewer looks for a moment longer he’ll discover a level of mystery, beauty, and often danger that requires a practiced eye to capture. Work by photographers Alex Webb, Maggie Steber, and William Klein are just a few whose work exemplifies this connection between the snapshot and art.
Although some professional photographers may make a living as "street shooters", it’s just as likely that they do it as an adjunct to paying assignments. Some believe that they do their most compelling work in this discipline, because the street—the quotidian, anarchic, daily environment, usually, but not necessarily, urban—provides a never-ending parade of characters moving through space to be captured in two dimensions. In the flat, rectangular (or square) shape pressed against their eye, photographers show the order in the chaos (or vice versa) in the places where humans conduct life.
Street Shooting Philosophy
One place to examine the best street photography is the Magnum Photo Cooperative’s website, or their Instagram account, or books by their photographers. Founded in 1947 by luminaries Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa,Maria Eisner, and others, Magnum today remains one of the most elite clubs a photographer can belong. This exclusive agency has had only had 95 members in its 71-year history. (Twenty-four are deceased.) Arguably, founder Cartier-Bresson invented street photography with his theory and practice of the "decisive moment"—the instant when light, motion, and composition fall into place and the photographer snaps the picture. This ethos of patiently stalking these elusive elements—with minimal, if any, interference by the photographer—informs the best photography published to this day, whether its classified as "street photography" or not.
Magnum offers destination workshops and online courses dedicated to teaching non- and budding professionals this craft. (They also sell an online course, “The Art of Street Photography,” and provide gratis essays and interviews on topics to improve one’s skills.) After watching some of the online lessons and reading interviews by the photographers, you’ll likely conclude too that although they make it look easy, it is anything but.
“You can go days, even weeks, without getting a good picture…so the only way out of this is persistency,” says member Peter Van Agtmael.
Bruce Gilden, another member, advises that to be successful at this craft, “…you have to be a bulldog, and you have to be very critical of what you produce.”
The course’s video footage of the photographers in action shows them walking---a lot. In fact, they all regard walking as a fundamental street photography skill.
Alex Webb, 67, and a Magnum member since 1979, says: “I only know how to approach a place by walking…. walk and watch and wait and talk, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown awaits just around the corner."
Besides the stamina and patience necessary to wait and walk so much and the "street smarts" to navigate through sometime risky environments, street photographers also profess to be, or at least talk like, intellectuals. Susan Meiselas, who has covered war in Central America and other places, stresses that in order to shoot a compelling picture, you have to establish a connection with your subjects and know the essence of a place—its history, cultural norms and fault lines. (see Davenport, M. (2013). House of Pictures: A conversation with Susan Meiselas)
“Possessing this information can create the opportunity to be stunned when that visual reckoning of that information presents itself,” she says.
Webb, who has photographed widely in Latin America, the American South, and along the U.S.-Mexico Border, says, “…Literature has long been a key to my photography…” as he cites a list of the best Latin American fiction and prose from the last century as his inspiration.
Advice from two Experts: Federico Rios and Melissa Farlow
I interviewed two professional photographers about street photography ethos. Federico Rios lives in my hometown, Medellín, Colombia, and has worked for National Geographic, the New York Times, and other publications, covering the Venezuelan refugee crisis, the de-mobilization of the FARC guerrillas, and conflict in Medellín’s barrios.
Melissa Farlow as been a professional photographer for 45 years. She’s documented cultures and landscapes in dozens of countries for National Geographic, including three books (and another, Wild at Heart, about America’s wild horse legacy, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). She’s won numerous awards in the Pictures of the Year competition and a Pulitzer as a newspaper photographer at the Louisville-Courier Journal. She and her husband, Randy Olson, a professional photographer, teach at National Geographic destination workshops and the prestigious Missouri Photo Workshop, now in its 71st year. (Disclosure: Randy and Melissa were my teachers that University of Missouri School of Journalism in the mid-1980s and I took the Missouri Workshop with Melissa in 1987.)
Rios: ‘Question Beauty’ and ‘Think Before You Shoot’
Rios has little patience with street photographers who profess to “just follow their instincts” as they hit the pavement looking for serendipitous pictures, or decide that they’re just going to shoot when the light is best, in the hours after sunrise and sunset.
“Instead of relying on these methods, it is much better to do your homework," he says, because “knowing something about the subjects and environment where you’re working will allow you to ‘challenge the beauty’ that is presented before you.”
Rios believes that this notion of "challenging beauty" is important, because “…the last thing the world—or Instagram—needs is one more photo of a beautiful sunrise or sunset, or a rose or a woman…just because the rose or the woman or the sunrise is beautiful doesn’t make the picture so.”
“You need to take a moment to actually ‘see’ before you ‘shoot,” he says.
Rios showed me an Instagram account, Insta_repeat, that collates beautiful, but clichéd, images of sunsets, snowy landscapes, pretty girls with hair flowing, etc. Most photographers would likely prefer that this site not use their work for social criticism like this. (Rios, however, believes that Instagram can be an interesting repository of "street photography"—if one is willing to sift through the chaff to find the good stuff.)
Finally, like Magnum’s Bruce Gilden, Rios advises a photographer to be tough on himself. “You have to ask, ‘is the picture that you just took worth it? It might be beautiful to you—in the same way that a letter that I write to my kids is beautiful to them---but why would anyone else care to look?”
Farlow: How to Hit the Street
Farlow prefers to interact and find some connection with her subjects before firing the camera; securing permission and acknowledgement from the people that she’s photographing lead to the kind of pictures that she likes. But she cautions that this doesn’t mean that she "sets up" or directs the scene but rather that she talks with the participants for a few minutes, and if this goes well, then they can go back to what they’re doing and she can go to work.
This is different then how many other street photographers shoot—many prefer to stake out a scene, and wait for something interesting to happen without necessarily engaging the people passing through. Farlow doesn’t criticize this---it’s just not her style.
“You can be the distant observer when you’re shooting pictures,” she says, “but those pictures will be different than the ones where you’ve interacted with people.”
She advises to pay close attention to body language, especially if you don’t speak the language. This will give you cues about how welcome you might be, and adjust how you shoot.
“Sometimes after watching people react to me, I’ll feel welcome and have free reign, and I can shoot a lot,” she says, ”and other times I have to dial back and give people more time and space to accept me.”
To generate goodwill, Farlow often first shoots with a Polaroid camera so that she can immediately give something back to her subjects. (If that’s not an option, consider giving prints or e-mailing photos.) If you’re photographing in a market or place where food or other things are sold, then another strategy is to buy something, perhaps to share with your subjects. But perhaps the best is to “find out who is in charge, or who are the elders.”
“In almost everyplace where people gather—a village, a church, a playground… there will be someone who everyone else respects and looks up to. If you can find that person and gain their confidence, you’ll likely have free reign to wander,” she says.
Assignment 1 at a Farlow Workshop: Geometry Lessons
At the destination workshops and classes that Farlow and her husband run, they send students out to look for a place or a scene where structure, light, and people all intersect and then wait patiently to snap the picture when the right pattern forms.
"This 'geometry lesson' is a great exercise for getting comfortable on the street; perhaps you’ll have to move where you’re standing, bend your knees, or change the lens, to shoot a good picture,” she says.
“Staying with a scene for a while, and watching the movement change, and how the light hits things, looking for that ‘decisive moment’, is what Henri Cartier-Bresson taught, and what we try to teach to. This also teaches something about interacting with subjects, because someone will likely ask who they are and what they’re doing", says Farlow.
In the research and interviewing I did for this article, not one photographer advocated a specific type of camera or brand to practice street photography.
Magnum’s videos show their members carrying small digital cameras that possibly do not even have full-frame sensors; others carry big, obviously professional, cameras. Martin Parr hauls a large-format film camera on a tripod. But regardless of their equipment, they all appear to be "at one" with their cameras like the parable of the Zen archer with his bow and arrow.
Federico Rios doesn’t even like to use the term "tool" to talk about his cameras: “It’s better if it looks like and is considered more a ‘toy’,” he says.
Rios curates an Instagram account called Everyday Macondo whose contributors usually use cell phones to document street scenes in Colombia. The lesson? One doesn’t need expensive equipment to shoot compelling images.
It’s more important to concentrate on the skills—the quotidian ones like getting to know your camera, so that it becomes a seamless part of your body and eye, and developing the patience and stamina to walk, wait, and observe. Additionally, the photographer must cultivate the curiosity about the reasons humans move and act in a particular place and time, and be willing to interact with them. When all of these variables align, then you might just shoot a street photo that, in the words of Federico Rios, is “worth it.”
Editor's Note: You may also want to join the discussions on street photography in our forums.