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A Brief History of Street Photography
The very first photograph, shot and developed by Louis Daguerre in 1839, shows a Parisian street scene from an elevated window. Look closely enough, and there is the small, blurred figure of a man on the boulevard. Thus, street photography has been around as long as photography itself.
In the early twentieth century, a photographer named Paul Martin hid his camera as he walked the streets of London, documenting unwitting subjects as they went about their day. Fifty years later, one of the famed fathers of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson, coined the term the “decisive moment” to place parameters around what made successful street photography. According to Cartier-Bresson, the “decisive moment” is a completely candid moment that exists for a brief, perfect second in time. Action, setting, light--every element comes together in harmony during the “decisive moment” to create one incredible photograph.
Since these pivotal moments in photographic history, street photography has evolved as a tool to capture everything from protests to quiet, pastoral scenes. Observation and documentation are the core mission of street photography, one that all aspiring street photographers should note before hitting the road and snapping away.
Learn more: Guide to Candid Photography.
Famous Street Photographers and Photojournalists
Each passing year brings new developments in human society, new challenges and tensions. Photojournalists have long taken advantage of documenting these seminal moments in history (though at the time, they’re simply keenly-observed moments). Famous examples include Walker Evans and Helen Levitt, who captured candid street life in New York City in the 1930s. In the 1950s, the rise of jazz music made room for syncopated rhythms and a general disregard for formal form; Robert Frank perpetuated this loose, informal style that often featured blurry or out-of-focus images that felt full of life. Following in Frank’s footsteps, Bronx-based photographers Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz took to the streets of New York, documenting seemingly ordinary encounters with unparalleled verve.
Rights, Releases, and Ethics of Street Photography
Photo Credit: Giuseppe Milo CC
From concealing cameras to snapping pictures of unsuspecting strangers, one of the biggest challenges of street photography is the legality of the whole thing, not to mention the potential awkwardness that can arise if someone catches you photographing them. Each country has its own definition of right to privacy, and what constitutes public places versus private places. In the United States, for example, people in public spaces do not have a right to privacy, meaning they can be legally photographed. Public places count as parks, shopping malls, sidewalks and roads, common spaces in between buildings. Do your research before traveling to see what the local customs and laws are. Sometimes, it is easier to photograph in very busy areas, which is why novice photographers may want to start in densely-populated big cities like New York, London, Paris, or Tokyo.
If you are shooting street photography with human subjects for personal or creative use, you do not need to get release forms signed. If you are shooting street photography with human subjects for commercial purposes, however, the people are considered models, and release forms become mandatory. When possible, ask permission. There might be instances in which a person in a public place will approach you and ask if you were taking their photograph; always be forthright and honest, explaining the purpose and usage of the photograph. If they ask you to delete the image, it is a general rule and considered in good faith to do so.
What You’ll Need for Street Photography
There is no right or wrong camera for street photography. Any camera, from your smartphone to a disposable to digital, will suffice (as long as you know how to use it). As a street photographer, you are surrounded by bodies in motion and ever-changing representations of everyday life. You want to be quick and nimble, so a bulky DSLR is not necessarily always the right option. If you’re just starting out, try working with your smartphone or a low-end point-and-shoot first. The goal at the beginning is to refine your eye and your perspective as a street photographer. The quality of photos will increase with practice.
A beginner might consider keeping a digital camera on a camera strap, to make the camera accessible at all times. Due to the spontaneous nature of street photography, you’ll never know when you might want to grab and shoot. The added benefit of a visible camera is that it, perhaps counterintuitively, puts bystanders at ease. Concealing a camera or trying to snap sneaky shots might make a photographer seem untrustworthy, or like there is something to hide. Be open and transparent while photographing, and people will continue to go about their lives, ultimately providing a better shot.
Street Photography Tips
Over the past century, the genre of street photography has grown to include a large variety of photographic styles. Street photography allows a photographer the freedom to experiment and develop their own unique techniques and points of view. There are no shoulds or should-nots in terms of principles, framing, techniques, or subject matter; the only requirement is that street photography be a candid reflection of everyday life. This allows a photographer to try a variety of lenses, formats, styles, colors, filters, flashes, lighting, and more.
As a street photographer, the most important skill to have is the skill of observation. This is closely tied to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s concept of the “decisive moment.” Amidst a flurry of overwhelming sights, sounds, smells, and sensations, a good street photographer must train their eye to find, and photograph, stillness. It is the street photographer’s responsibility to determine which moments are of note, which should be documented, and which can be missed or left unphotographed. In this way, street photography is a vital art form for preserving human history. The “decisive moment” alleviates this burden by breaking down the elements of a good photograph: form, function, energy, and essence come together perfectly in this moment, which often only lasts for a split second.
In order to find your own decisive moments, watch for people engaged in an activity or with each other. Is a couple nearby about to embrace? Is a mother about to push her child on a swing? Is a basketball player about to dunk? Is a man about to jump over a puddle, umbrella in hand, reflection below him (as Cartier-Bresson so expertly captured)? By focusing on these small yet significant moments, the decisive moment helps a street photographer narrow focus but add depth to images.
Improving Street Photography With Camera Settings
While the only real skills required for street photography are a keen sense of observation, paired with some photographer’s intuition, once you are ready to take your hobby to the next level, consider investing in a mirrorless DSLR, like a Nikon or Canon, for greater control over camera settings. With a DSLR mirrorless camera, you can adjust shutter speed and switch lenses that will give you greater control over focal length. Or, if you’re confident and happy with your smartphone, there are a variety of apps that allow manual camera controls, like ProShot or Lightroom. With manual camera settings, you can take long exposures, portraits, better black and white photos, motion blur, and more.
Street photography is the ultimate art form for the modern-day flaneur. Armed with a camera and a little confidence, anyone can explore the world as a street photographer.