A Very Personal Definition of Street Photography

Photo by: Federico Alegría

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Today we want to talk about our favorite photography genre, street photography!

No other genre in the history of photography has had a more diverse concept than street photography. Therefore, instead of preaching the ultimate definition, I want to share with you folks my own personal definition of what is street photography for me.

After ten years of walking with my camera on the streets I just recently understood what street photography really means to me. It is just an approximation to society that materializes in the format of still images. And that’s it. No complex or deep thoughts, just a simple approach to our human behavior on the non-wild.

Honestly, enough people have argued about the meaning and purpose of street photography. And this human urge for categorizing and tagging things has even arose a special kind of people that we simply call “the street photography police”, you know who these folks are.

After defining what street photography is for me, I can say that as long as this photographs happen within public places (open and closed), it can be considered “street photography”, to call it by a name. What I’m trying to say is that almost anything can fit inside this highly personal definition, if you are ok with it, hop in!

On Developing Social Skills

One of the biggest fears people tend to express about doing street photography is getting yelled or even injured after approaching a stranger on the streets. This is of course an exaggeration, but you get my point, people usually fear annoying other human beings. And you know what, it is totally fine, what you have to do is start developing some social skills

One of the best ways for developing this social skills is by starting with street performers or pacific riots from to time. This aids in reducing anxiety while reaching others out with your camera. Engaging in conversations can be extremely meaningful sometimes, especially for the other people on the streets.

Many people tend to disguise this fear with a moral safe blanket that states something like “I don’t like getting into others’ privacy”. But we are not going to discuss that here since we are all at least minimally curious about street photography. About privacy there is one thing you have to know if you are respectful, friendly and sincere, people usually don’t mind that you take photographs.

Research Will Be Your Best Ally

Many places talk about photography laws which prohibit taking pictures under specific circumstances, and you can read the most common here. But honestly, laws don’t cover culture, and that is more important since you’ll be approaching society in order to record it with your camera (no, I’m not preaching). 

Alright, fully understanding culture is almost impossible for a foreigner, so the best you can do is to behave with profound respect towards the others. Take some time to get even a tiny glimpse of what certain things mean to others cultures before even taking your camera out. And I’m not talking about exotic trips to undeveloped countries, I’m talking about any social field that is far from your own.

If you truly desire to take meaningful street photographs, then read more and ask the proper questions. Move around and do what people do, blend within society before even taking your camera out!

On The Photographic Tool

“What is the best camera for street photography?”

Does that sound familiar to your browser’s history? There is no best camera for street photography. You can see how diverse camera choices are among plenty great street photographers. Here are two examples, first Daidō Moriyama working with a very inconspicuous point and shoot camera, and you can also get to know Mark Power who works with large format cameras.

Before even thinking about changing a camera, ask yourself the following question: “am I capable of treating my camera as a simple tool and not a newborn?”. If you answer yes, then you can start browsing for the best photographic tool for you. Personally speaking I’ve tried it all, and I feel comfortable with two cameras on the streets. My main camera, a Fuji X100T, and my freedom camera, a Yashica Mat 124-G TLR camera. This last one is so obvious, that people don’t even matter, and is almost as silent as the Fuji.

Before getting these cameras I was a DSLR user, just like the big boys. But after a while, I understood that if I wanted to be prepared for anything (as moments don’t forgive you if you aren’t prepared), I had to be able to have a camera with me at all times. That’s when I saw the beauties of small cameras. I don’t like relying on my phone (it takes decent photos) because it doesn’t make me feel guilty if I’m not paying attention to life happening in front of me. Cameras have this amazing power, and that is key for pursuing meaningful photographs.

Oh, and about settings, stick to apertures between f/5.6 to f/11 (depending on the sunlight of course) when walking on the streets. And any shutter speed from 1/60~1/250 will do it, go down to 1/15 or so if you want to capture motion. ISO will be sweet from 100 to 400. This is not a fixed range, but a safe one for regular light.

The Street Photography Workflow

Simply walk with your camera, and files will start piling up. Some days you’ll return to your place empty handed, and others you might be overwhelmed by so many keepers you captured. It happens, you can’t shoot incredibly meaningful photos every day, and the point is that you shall be prepared for the moments to burst in front of your eyes.

After that, collect your photos in the way it works best for you and:

Editing: This refers to only selecting the best photos only, the raw files that really deserve to be developed.

Post-processing: Anything that happens to your images from raw development to digital retouching after editing (selecting) them.

After that you can publish or print them (I encourage you to do both, invest in high quality prints for the best of the best of your shots). 

That’s all

I really hope that this brief lecture on street photography has the power of taking you out of your house and start practicing daily. Good street photography is something you feel in your entire being once you achieve that precious keepers that will go through your whole workflow. Never stop practicing, and if you can’t take your camera with you always, then start looking for another tool that gets the job done.