Define Street Photography In Your Own Words
In this blog post I want to define street photography from my perspective. To explain to myself what street photography means and what I mean when I say I am a street photographer.
This, I hope, will motivate you to do the same. In a way I am urging you to define street photography for yourself.
When you’re done reading this article, I believe you’ll be able to define street photography a little differently. And boldly so. You’ll be able to teach it to beginners as your approach to the craft.
Defining street photography is a thorny issue because almost every street photographer has their own perception of what is or is NOT street photography.
Since you’re reading this blog post, I assume you’re a beginner and want to take your street photography to the next level.
The first step in understanding this genre of photography is to define it to yourself. To explain to yourself what you mean when you say you’re a street photographer. What is street photography to you? How would you define street photography to an alien who had just landed here from space?
I remember reading somewhere that street photographers seem to spend most of their time defining their craft.
This is not surprising because street photography is rather controversial in some circles.
I want to try to illustrate what street photography means to most practitioners of this craft:
Imagine you’re walking in a bush somewhere in Africa. You see a flock of wild dogs eating off a carcass of a buffalo. There are about sixteen of these vicious creatures tearing away pieces of meat and each of them running into a different direction to complete its meal undisturbed.
If you were to ask each dog what they were eating, they would say: ‘Buffalo meat.’ But as soon as they give you that answer, they would start arguing and fighting among themselves. Each animal insisting that only the piece of meat in its possession is buffalo meat.
Meanwhile at the main source of all this meat, more animals are fighting over what is left of the animal.
In this rather poor attempt to illustrate my view of the ongoing and never-ending race to define street photography, the wild dogs represent individual street photographers. And the carcass represent street photography as a genre.
Each street photographer takes a piece and then focuses on it. As time goes on, this particular piece becomes to him or her the definitive definition of street photography. How do you define street photography?
Catch Them Off Guard
It is difficult to find consensus on the definitive definition of street photography.
If you ask me, I’ll define street photography like this:
Street photography is mainly about, but not limited to, people. When you’re photographing people, they normally react in different ways. Take a look at your own ID or passport photo. Is that your best look?
I don’t know about you, but mine looks horrible. This is because when we’re asked to behave or to sit in a certain way that the photographer wants, we become like puppets. We don’t know exactly what this person wants or like but we do our best to please them. That’s the reason most passport photos look like yours or mine.
Let’s move away from the formal setting where you’re required to sit or stand in a certain way.
This time let’s assume you are the one taking photographs. You’re not shooting strangers. You’re the only one with a camera in a group of about sixty people. You know them all.
Some of them will ask you to photograph them. They will pose for you and make various funny and not so funny gestures. You click away and they’re happy. They say: ‘Let’s see how I look.’ You show them the LCD screen of your digital camera and they’re satisfied with their own images.
Whether or not these people will pay you for the snapshots does not matter. What matters is that you are not happy with the photos. They are so pretentious. So unnatural. Boring.
You look around and notice some members of the group doing something interesting. They are so absorbed in their activity that they are oblivious of the fact that you have a camera with you.
You look through the viewfinder and take several shots. No one notices. You review the photos on the LCD screen and voila! You just captured a candid moment. This photo makes you so happy you want to share it with everyone. It soothes your soul.
What makes this candid photo so appealing to you? It was unposed. The subject or subjects were unaware that they were being photographed. You caught them off guard.
There are plenty opportunities of capturing candid images on the streets or in public places such as carnivals, sporting events, festivals, political rallies or religious conventions. The aim is not to ridicule anyone. You just want to record genuine scenes and actions.
It’s inevitable that you’ll shoot without permission if you want to catch them off guard. Shooting without permission is the essence of street photography and what makes this genre challenging and exciting at the same time. It is what defines this craft.
You want to record life as it happens when it happens. You are always ready to shoot as you scan and observe your surrounding.
When something interesting happens, your first reaction is to shoot. There’s no time to ask for permission. In most cases asking for permission will ruin the moment. You don’t want to disturb the prey. Shoot and face the consequences later.
Street Photography Is Serendipitous
Chance plays a major part in street photography. As a shooter, when you leave home in the morning or when you knock off from work in the afternoon and walk the streets in search for images, you don’t know if you’ll capture anything. That depends on chance.
Let me put this differently, street photographers roam the streets looking for something to happen. They don’t know exactly what it is they’re looking for. They don’t know if it will happen. That’s why most of us are happy even if we don’t shoot anything on our street walks.
On the other hand, when you see something and shoot it, there are no guarantees that the photo will come out exactly as you envisioned it. Conversely, you might be surprised by something other than your intended subject in the frame.
Not Only About People
Remember I said street photography is not limited to people? The word candid presupposes you’re talking about people. Inanimate objects cannot be candid. And you don’t need to act swiftly to photograph them. Yet these are equally perfect subjects of street photography.
If an object reminds you of humanity or human behaviour such as negligence, consumerism, materialism – it tells a story. Your duty as a street photographer is to capture the essence of such a story and immortalise it in a photograph.
Tools Of The Trade
One of the most thorny issues in street photography is the type of camera one needs to practice this craft. Again it depends on who you ask.
The purist will advice you to buy a Rangefinder camera such as a Leica or Yashica. The modern-day shooter might suggest a Mirrorless or Micro Four Thirds camera. MFT’s as they are often called, are small and versatile.
On the other hand, many street photographers are still using DSLRs for their work. I took the photos on this blog post with a DSLR – a Nikon D3200.
There are people who shoot with their iPhones. I use my Android smart phone these days to shoot street photography.
What camera is best for street photography? My personal favourite is the Fujifilm X70. Valerie Jardin likes the Fujifilm X100S. And so does James Maher. Levi Sim shoots with the Panasonic GH8. It doesn’t matter what camera you have. Shoot with whatever you already own. But if you’re looking to buy a new camera for street photography, my advice is:
Look for something small.
With fixed focal length.
With a fast shutter speed (1/4000th)
With a fast lens (F:1.4 or F:2)
These are but some of the things that are important to me. What is important to you? Get the camera that meets your own personal requirements. Don’t let me or anyone tell you what camera to buy.
There is a difference between street photography and street portraiture. Street portraits refer to photos of people on the streets or in public places where the photographer asks permission to shoot. Levi Sim has mastered this branch of street photography.
In street portraiture you find the person you want to photograph for whatever reason. Ask their permission and then shoot. You can ask them to pose for you. Or to pretend they’re doing something.
He or she cooperates with you in the making of the photograph. You might take one shot or try several compositions with your model. Yes, they become your model.
Film Or Digital?
For me this question is easy to answer. I used to shoot film in the past. The cameras I used then were Pentax ME Super and Canon N3000. I had a love/hate relationship with film.
I loved the look and feel of film prints. But I couldn’t develop or process my film. So I relied on others to do it for me. I hated the darkroom. I still do.
When digital cameras arrived on the scene I was happy. The immediacy of seeing your pictures right after taking them was simply astonishing to me.
My first digital camera was the Fujifilm S5700. I loved it so much I carried it with me wherever I went.
By now you must have deduced that I am a digital shooter.
I am aware that film is making a come back and that many serious photographers shoot film. But it is simply not for me.
I still hate the darkroom, more so than I ever did before. This is because I just cannot afford film. The cost of film in my country is prohibitive. And I don’t have the time to develop my film.
There are no commercial outlets in my town where I can take my exposed film for development and printing. I can’t find film in Middelburg. If I want to shoot film, I must buy it from Johannesburg or Cape Town. But who will process it for me?
The choice between film and digital is so obvious I don’t even need to go into the merits for and against.
If you like to shoot film and you can afford it, why not try it? It is just NOT for me.
A friend of mine gave me a film camera the other day. She asked me to show her how it works. She was apparently under the impression that this was a digital camera.
When I realised it was a film camera I told her that it was useless. It was a Pentax ESPIO 928. I thought to myself: What if I buy film and try my hand at film photography again?
Problem is that there is no one selling film in this town. After asking on Twitter somebody send me a link where I can buy film in South Africa. The cost did not make sense to me. Let alone that I don’t know how to develop the film myself.
Black-And-White vs Colour
It’s about taste and personal preference. Some photos look more appealing in black-and-white. Others more so in colour. I use both. For this article I decided to use colour, just to make a point.
The point I want to make is that I can choose to use colour or black-and-white. There’s no rule that stops me from doing so. Remember, street photography is a personal pursuit and only you can decide how to approach it. You don’t have to copy anyone.
I hope you can now define street photography in your own terms? How would you define street photography? Why do you shoot street photography?
I nailed my colours to the mast. Now it’s your turn. Please leave a comment and keep the conversation going.
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