A person walks along a street

What is street photography?

By BBC Maestro

In today’s world, there’s someone taking a picture on their smartphone at every corner you turn. Whether it’s an edgy influencer spotted posing in the wild or a group of tourists enchanted by a historic monument; most of us have witnessed the work of modern-day street photography.

But what is street photography? When did this art form hit the mainstream? And how can you become a good street photographer? Read on to find out.

What is street photography?

The genre of street photography is all about documenting everyday life. It involves the photographer taking their camera into the public realm – capturing the activities and interactions that take place in public spaces (think parks, supermarkets, galleries and the streets, for example).

In many cases, street photography attempts to record people going about their everyday business, unaware of the photographer’s presence. Because of this, it’s similar in style to documentary photography, the distinction being that documentary is usually dictated by a specific topic or theme, whereas street rarely has a particular focus in mind, other than to capture something interesting.

Take a look at the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Place de l’Europe. The famous work shows a man playfully leaping over the flooded ground behind Paris’ Gare Saint-Lazare. It’s simple, but the joy for many viewers lies in witnessing a fleeting moment in time (one that is particularly candid and innocent in this case), living on in a photograph.

For Vivian Maier in the United States – whose talents were only recognised after her death – it was similarly momentary aspects of day-to-day life that commanded her attention too. Her work contains endless charming snapshot portraits of the hustle and bustle of the world around her. From lovers embracing and crowded commutes to selfies taken through the streets’ reflective surfaces; her work tells stories of the different faces and figures simply going about their days.

Both Cartier-Bresson and Maier are just two iconic names in the street photography world, but if you want to widen the scope of your research, it’s well worth exploring the works of other famous street photographers like Andre Kertesz, Diane Arbus and Eugène Atget too.

Two people sit alongside water

Tips for street photography

Nowadays, anyone can be a street photographer, thanks to the smartphones sitting in our pockets. If you’re wondering which camera is best for street photography – whether it’s a digital camera, film camera or the one on your phone or device – it really doesn’t matter. As long as you have one to hand that works, you’re in a good place.

Before you start stalking the streets, let’s take a look at some tips to help ensure you get the best results.

1. Get to grips with your camera

You might think there is nothing worse than missing that perfect shot – that moment when the perfect opportunity presents itself and you reach for your camera, look through the lens and hover over the shutter, to discover that its battery is dead. Frustrating right?

Well, thinking you caught the perfect photo and that your camera settings weren’t right, is arguably a little worse. So, it’s important to get to know your camera. What functionalities does it have? Has it got any pre-fixed settings you can explore? How long does the battery (if it has one) last?

The same goes for lenses. If you’re using a real camera and you have more than one lens in your possession, get to grips with their focal lengths and depths of field.

Of course, the best way to learn about your camera is through play and experimentation. Understanding the parameters you’re working with will really help you in that split second when you need to act quickly.

2. Let the action find you

You never know what you’ll capture when you’re taking photos of people in places. That’s because you’re at the complete mercy of the environment around you and the people in that environment. So you can never plan exactly what your shot will look like.

Part of the magic of street photography is exactly that – you have to let the opportunity find you. That might mean lingering in areas a little longer than you may have planned if there’s something there that piques your interest. Or it might mean moving on to a different place when your first setting starts draining your inspiration. You’ll know when the moment arrives because your hand will likely already be reaching for your camera.

a person crossing the road in the rain

3. Know your lighting

In street photography, you can be confronted with plenty of different lighting situations. Whether you’re capturing urban environments after dark or your subject of interest is standing against white walls in beaming sunshine; it’s important to understand how lighting impacts your final shot.

If you’re using your smartphone or opting for automatic settings on a DLSR, then understanding the roles of ISO, shutter speed and aperture may not feel relevant to you. But if you’re opting to work in manual, understanding the role of these three components are crucial to taking a great photograph, particularly when you may need to act quickly.

If you’re in a particularly dark environment, you’ll generally need to set your camera to a higher ISO, increased shutter speed and a lower aperture.

Lowering the aperture will allow the maximum amount of light to enter the camera, operating a slower shutter speed will help avoid any blur in your images and increasing the ISO will make sure your camera is prepped to be more sensitive to the light coming in.

If you’re shooting in the daytime or using artificial well-lit environments, lower that ISO, decrease the shutter speed and increase your aperture.

4. Be respectful to your subject

When you’re taking photos of people in public, you can’t always be discreet. Whilst it’s generally OK to take photographs in public spaces, some people find it a sensitive subject. Many could find it alarming or discomforting if they see they’re being photographed, particularly without permission. So, while you’re entitled to your creative freedom, it’s important to be respectful of those around you. Be prepared that some people may interrupt you and ask what you’re doing.

One way to ensure a little more discretion is to experiment with your device’s self-timer (if it feels safe for both you and your camera).

So, there you have it, a few tips to help get you started on your street photography journey. Ready to take your own portfolio-ready photos? Take a look at Rankin’s course, An Introduction to Photography

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