How To's

Why You Should Try Street Photography & 5 Things To Bear In Mind If You Do

If you’ve thought about trying street photography, this article is for you. While I’m a full-time fashion and portrait photographer/cinematographer, I’ve been an avid street photographer for the last eight years and feel it can benefit all of us in similar ways.

Street Photography Tips

Street photography is perhaps the last bastion of photographic genres where it doesn’t matter what equipment you use, or what type of photography you practice. I’ve met landscape, nature, product, and portrait photographers and they have all said street photography has had tangible positive effects. The ‘street’ is a veritable theater of constantly changing conditions which help sharpen and hone our intuitive photographic skill set.

People, light, geometry, the interrelationship between subjects and their environment, gesture, expression and of course composition, are all elements that are always at play. Cartier-Bresson, perhaps the most well known street photographer of all time, defined his ‘decisive moment’ (the moment he would click his shutter) as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”

Street Photography in NYCNYC Street Photography

In an age when it’s easy to take thousands of photos digitally and not really know what we are trying to capture at the point of capture, I find this to be a breath of fresh air. Street photography is about trying to be more aware making us more decisive about what we want to capture.

It doesn’t have to be about seeing and shooting a photograph in a fraction of a second (a common misconception is that Cartier-Bresson had the reactions of a cheetah. In fact he’d often wait for hours for something to appear wherever he was camped out).

Street Photography in NYC

As much as street photography can be about quick reactions, it is more often about being aware of what we want to shoot, and being patient to get the shot we are looking for.

Street photography will heighten your sense of intuition and assessment of a scene, helping you develop a clear vision for your work. Going back to shooting film for the last four years, and slowing down on the street has helped me become much more decisive and efficient with my video work. There is a direct correlation between a greater understanding of what I see on the street, and how I interpret that scene, and how I the capture and edit my video projects.

With all of that being said, many photographers get nervous when going out ‘into the street’, and it can initially be daunting, so I’ve presented five areas to think about to hopefully make it easier if you want to try your hand at street photography:

Street Photography is Whatever You Want it to Be

Many people think ‘shooting street’ must involve a small, discrete camera, a 21mm or wide angle lens, and being ‘up close and personal’ with people.

Street photography is whatever you want it to be. You can shoot with whatever camera and lens combination you like. Many great street photographers shot with longer telephoto lenses (Saul Leiter and Andre Kertesz for instance). Do not let anyone tell you what street photography is or isn’t, decide for yourself and what you’re most comfortable with using.

There is No Wrong Gear

One point to be made about street photography is that there are no wrong answers when it comes to gear. Something like the Canon 70-200mm can give you the focal length, allowing you to separate yourself from your subject and get authentic emotions and scenarios within your street photography. Smaller camera systems, like the Sony a7rIII, allow you to get up close and personal, while still being discreet. I started with street photography using a Canon 50mm f/1.4, and have since bounced between that, to Canon 70-200mm f/2.8Ls, and back again. There are no wrong lens options when it comes to street photography, it’s all about timing, connecting with your subject, or capturing authentic moments that show what life is like for the world around you.

The ‘Street’ Can Be Anywhere

You don’t have to live in a big city or even be ‘on the street’ to make street photographs. Street photographers like Harry Callahan and Lee Friedlander would also often make photographs of graphical elements and light not necessarily even on the streets. Garry Winogrand, one of the 20th century’s most prolific street photographers, shot an entire book project (“The Animals”) at his local zoo in the Bronx.

You don’t need to be on ‘a street.’ Street photography is more about capturing candid and often fleeting moments. If you think of street photography in that way, you will always be ‘out on the street,’ looking to make photographs.

Transferable Technique

The impact of changing light, people interacting with the environment, analysis of background, middle ground and foreground, determining composition, focal length and focus plane decisions all feed into your ‘photographic eye’ skill set. Becoming more aware of your surroundings and becoming more intuitive with your camera, helps focus your vision for what you are trying to express through your photography, and this feeds into other genres of photography and even videography.

Street photography is a very challenging genre, but once you become accustomed to what and how you see, you will often find elements of technique, vision, and approach filtering through to other aspects of your work. Even when I shoot in a very controlled studio environment, I am continually looking at the gesture, movement, the environment, lighting and composition as if I saw things on the street.

It’s Fun – And Free

You can’t help but enjoy the challenge of ‘finding moments,’ and you’ll find that it can push you regularly as an endless source of inspiration, never knowing what may lay around the next corner but ready to see and capture it.

We all need to be pushed and challenged, and street photography indeed is an excellent means to push us photographically. I’m constantly analyzing my surroundings and trying to remain open to what I see. More than anything, once you look back at what you shoot, you can begin to think about why you shot what you did. It provides an insightful feedback loop that opens up bigger questions like “why do I like this image?” or “how could I have made this image stronger?”.

Best of all, it’s only you, your camera and what you find as you wander, and it’s totally free of cost or organizational elements that sap your time and energy. It can be wonderfully liberating to be free from clients and just take your camera and walk and observe.

 

I hope this has inspired you to go out and shoot or shoot more if you’re already a budding street photographer. Let me know how you got on and what your experiences were; I hope shooting on the street provides you with as much challenge, joy and fun as it continues to do for me.

 

This article is a guest contribution from street photographer David Geffin. Images by David Geffin and Used With Permission.

Author: David Geffin

Full-time photographer, videographer and video editor based in NYC. I love fashion, portraiture and street/documentary photography, and often work share my knowledge and experiences on photography and videography in my spare time as a guest contributor.

Born and raised in London, England, now living in NYC.

Posted in How To's
  • DaveGeffin

    Thanks very much, appreciate the nice words.

  • DaveGeffin

    Thank you John. For almost everyone I know, getting over the fear of getting close is extremely common. I’ve come up with techniques to allow myself to get very close and not be really observed, or to go relatively unnoticed but it’s difficult and at times I’ve been confronted, and then it’s down to how you manage the inevitable “did you just take my photo?” question.

    I actually tend to shoot more medium/wides these days than close ups. As mentioned, I don’t think street photography is just one focal length or distance to subject – I think wider shots with single figures can be just as intriguing as extreme wide angle close ups with multiple subjects. As long as you’re happy exploring what you define as your own “street environment” and enjoy what you’re creating, I think that’s great and all we can ask for. Best of luck out there on the streets!

  • DaveGeffin

    Thank you very much, appreciate the nice words.

    I love what you said about carrying a small camera to remind yourself to just look and see. That’s precisely what I try to do myself, and it completely bleeds over into my digital stills and video work for clients, so I’m right there with you.

    Thanks again.

    Dave

  • taildraggin

    Great article and great pictures! Genuine talent. Anyone who can put up 2 interesting picture of the overshot Flatiron has got to be good. 😉

    I’m carrying a little camera to work with me just to be reminded to “Look” and to “See”. I can’t say it always works, but it can provide a diversion and a certain sort of therapy during the work day. It clears my head for a few minutes to concentrate on ‘Seeing’.

    Nice work, Cheers.

  • Wesley

    Internet trolls

  • I enjoy the challenge of street photography, and work around my general reluctance to get too close. I live in a mid-sized midwest city, and there just are not so many people on the street, and they see me coming (or waiting). The one exception is summer in the tourist area, where I do hang out and can get better candid shots. Enjoyable article and great photos, thanks.

  • Turniphead

    Thank you for a thought provoking article, and sharing some excellent photography alongside it! Love the shadow and reflection shots in particular, although that staircase shot is outstanding too 😀

  • DaveGeffin

    Great suggestions about approaching people and conveying your intent, I do the same. And yes, you’re right about Bresson often waiting for hours in a spot, an often overlooked fact by some who think he just was very quick to react to what he saw as he wandered around randomly.

    I personally don’t think there’s a “better” or preferred way of shooting whether it’s waiting versus being ready to shoot something that just appears before you randomly. I actually tend to do a mix of both. I think it’s more about understanding what you want to express or communicate. Sometimes that’s a very composed and precise scene where we may just look for an element to wander in (the shot of the bird in the puddle and the reflection of the guy in the Flatiron building are both examples where I was waiting). Othertimes we might sense what we can get and get a fleeting moment (the shot of the woman’s hair blowing up in the wind being a quick moment I saw as I was walking by her).

  • Carleton Foxx

    From what I’ve read, Cartier-Bresson would often find a background that he thought would make a great photo and then post up and wait for something interesting to happen—as you say sometimes for hours. But nowadays it seems like most street photographers rove around the streets never stopping.

    Do you think one method works better than the other?

    I do have one suggestion for budding street photographers: Don’t worry about what people are thinking or whether they’ll notice your camera. As long as you’re not shooting their children, pedestrians are generally too wrapped up in their own heads to notice much of anything around them.
    When I do catch people glaring at me I smile, wave and hold up my camera, sometimes I even walk over and tell them what I’m doing and ask if I can take their picture. This always either calms them down or makes them ignore me.
    The reason I do this is because humans are herd animals and they pick up on fear cues from other herd members; like a good cowboy, it’s part of your job to keep the cattle from getting restless.

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