Discover street photography style and skyrocket your hit rate!
How far do you have to go to discover your own unique street photography style? How long does it take for one to develop a style in street photography? What is style? This blog post will give answers to these and more questions on how to discover street photography style.
Style will help you:
- “Display a message from your mind through your photos.”
- Concentrate on a specific aspect of street photography.
- Leave a “personal signature” on your photos.
- Refine your vision and approach to street photography.
- Distinguish yourself – stand out from the rest.
“Style is more about the content of what you shoot than necessarily in the look of the photographs.” – James Maher
“Style in street photography, for me, is being able to display a message from your mind, through your photograph. We all have different ways of thinking and viewing and that is why, when we are truly ourselves, our street photography differs. To find your style, you must first find out who you are. I always try to find powerful colours, strong light and the humorous in my work. This relates directly to my personality – vibrant, outgoing and lean heavily towards comedy.” – Dan Ginn
Style is “whatever you concentrate on, it could be lighting, composition or subject.” – Harry Teasley
Style is “one’s personal signature on a canvas of chaos.” – Craig Boehman, Streettog.org.
“Style is about the subject, how you look at it and how you approach it. It’s your vision refined. It’s about what you’re drawn to shoot and how you go about shooting it. Being consistent. Style is what defines you.”
– Ross A.Wilson
Style is just a shorthand expression meant to encompass distinctiveness. – Gilker Kimmel
Style is ” … what we shoot is who we are.” – Nicholas Goodden
Style defines itself within you and evolves with you. It comes from your cultural baggage. – Hugh Ardoin
I love the way Gordon Lewis defines style:
“Style is an outward expression of your inner self.”
According to this definition, style is you.
Style is who you are.
The best way to understand style is to ask yourself:
Who am I?
It is clear then that only you can define what style is for you.
Ask yourself these questions:
Why do I like street photography?
What subjects do I like to shoot?
What subjects do I want to avoid shooting?
Do I prefer to shoot during the golden hours?
Do I enjoy shooting at night?
Do I prefer to shoot in extreme weather?
Do I enjoy shooting at any time of the day?
Is the decisive moment more important to me?
Does composition matter to me?
Am I fascinated by the human element in my photos?
The most important question is:
Let me tell you a story that will help you appreciate this question.
I recently sat down to look at all my photos. I went through all my folders on my computer. I checked the images on my external hard drive disk and those on DVDs/CDs.
I wanted to see if there was a thread or pattern in them. Something that could point to my style of street photography.
I used different cameras to shoot all these photos in my archive. So I was not interested in seeing which camera helped me take better photos. Or whether Black and White was better than Colour. Rather, I was looking for a pattern of pictures that were the same in terms of subjects.
I needed to do this because I noticed something unusual in my street photography lately.
I shoot only with my smart phone, and this forces me to look for specific subjects. There’s only so much that one can do when shooting with a cellphone.
As a result of relying only on my smart phone (I don’t have a camera at the moment), I realised that I mostly shoot a certain type of subject.
I caught myself shooting only people who were alone. These people have something in common. They are mostly seated when I photograph them. And they’re either stranded, lost or for some reason, deep in thought.
Some of my subjects look lonely. Others are most probably waiting for somebody or something. The words that I can use to describe these people include: Alone, forsaken, loneliness, solitude, forlornness, isolation, lost, waiting.
I find it easier to photograph these people because they are not alert to their surroundings. They’re so wrapped up in their thoughts that I can get close and photograph them without raising any suspicion.
When I looked at my old images in my archives I noticed the same thread. Even when I was using real cameras I shot the same type of subject.
Why was I so eager to photograph lost/distracted/lonely/solitary people?
It took me a long time to figure it out. But eventually I came to this conclusion:
I was photographing who I am. Or who I’d been in the past.
Who Am I?
My street photography is not only about who I am. It’s also about my past. My history.
I’d experienced hardships in my life in the past. These included or stemmed from my marital problems. My wife and I separated for about eighteen months in 2004/2005.
I moved out of our house in Johannesburg and went to live in the Vaal Triangle town of Vereeniging.
The experiences I had during that period contributed immensely to what I am shooting today. While in the Vaal…
I was lonely.
I was lost.
I was hopeless.
I was alone most of the time. I knew no one in the Vaal. I did not speak the language spoken there. I did not know the area at all.
At some point I found myself living on the streets.
I even tried to buy and sell goods on the streets. Yes, I was a hawker before being employed by a Financial Services company in Beaconsfield Avenue, Vereeniging.
That experience is resurfacing in my street photography. And I was not aware of it.
The point here is that we all have our own styles. Style emanates from deep within our psyche. All you have to do is recognise or acknowledge your own style. And one way of doing that is to study your own work, analyse it and categorise it.
What if you’re just starting out and do not have any photos to analyse?
Depending where you live or work, think about something that really irritates or surprises you. Something that fascinates or frustrates you. If you had a camera and the time, would you like to record or capture it and share that with your friends?
As an example of this idea, think about Black African women smokers in South Africa. Let me explain. In Black African communities in this country it’s almost taboo for women to smoke cigarettes. One expect to see women enjoy their snuff or drinking traditional beer. Smoking is simply taboo. I’m not saying that it’s not done at all. But it’s so rare that when I see a Black African woman smoking a cigarette, I cringe.
It makes me want to capture that moment so I can show people I actually saw a Black woman smoking a cigarette. To put this matter in its proper context, I see White, Coloured and Indian women smoking a cigarette almost everyday in South Africa. This does not surprise me at all. It’s their thing, as far as I’m concerned. It’s just not so prevalent in my community.
Now if I decide to go out with a camera and photograph only Black African women who smoke cigarettes, that would be my style. I would be focusing my attention on this particular topic or theme.
Another example involves the same group of women. This time they’re not smoking but are riding bicycles. Not exactly a taboo. But something very seldom done. The other day I saw this woman riding a bicycle to work. It was at around 05h30 in the morning. Two things came to my mind.
Why would this woman be riding a bicycle? And why would she be doing this so early in the morning? The mere fact that she was on a bike attracted undue attention to her. In addition to that, this was an unholy hour. People get mugged or raped in this part of the township.
As a street photographer, I now have two ideas of subjects that I can concentrate on for a project. This could very well be my style of street photography.
Study Other Photographers
I quoted a number of street photographers at the beginning of this blog post. You can learn a lot from other street photographers. Take a workshop with a street photographer of your choice.
Read books written by those whose work you admire. Check their portfolios. Read everything written about them. Listen to their podcasts or interviews. Better still, interview them if you can.
In preparation for this article I stumbled upon the work of Troy Holden. This San Francisco based photographer is the epitome of street photography for me.
Troy relies on serendipity or happenstance for his work. And it works for him. Unplanned and unposed interactions of life on the street – this is what Troy aims his lens at. I love and am very fascinated by this accomplished snapshooter. His is a classic street photography style.
What Troy does in San Francisco is what I want to do in my home town of Middelburg. A glance through my archive reveals several photos that resemble those of Troy. He’s my hero.
This is how Troy defines his work: “No choreography. Candid photos of strangers in public.”
Who do you admire? Who is your hero or ‘master’ in street photography? Why do you like his or her style?
Discover Street Photography Style – Components of style
Think of style as something tangible. Think about things like, if you have to choose between Colour and Black-and-White, which one appeals to you most? Do you have to make that choice at all? Or are you happy with both mediums?
Your answer to this question will help you find a style.
Let’s take a look at the following portfolios of three street photographers who each have a distinguishable style.
I will refrain from using their names because I want you to try to figure out who I’m talking about here.
Style: Black and White. Gritty, contrast. No grain. Harsh shadows and bright highlights. Silhouettes.
Style: Black and White. Clean, detailed and natural looking greys. This is how the man describes his style: “My street photography style over all centres around Black and White renditions of public life, more mid-tones than contrast with an emphasis on pixel-clean imagery with less grain (noise).”
Style: Black and White. Focuses on quality of light and composition as his strong points.
Takeaway point. They all like Black and White. But Black and White is not the same thing to all of them. Each street photographer prefers a certain look of Black and White. What’s the look you like most? I like Portfolio Z. This does not mean I want to imitate him. I just love his take on light and composition.
There are images that look best in Colour. This is why street photographers such as Vineet Vohra shoot in this medium. Forrest Walker also shoot in Colour as does Rammy Narula. Again , these street photographers see and treat colour differently.
You can settle on your own street photography style based on aesthetics alone.
The subject of your street photography depends on many things. Like where you live, your childhood experiences and your current state of mind. As Hugh Ardoin would put it: “Style comes from your cultural baggage.”
I mentioned solitude and loneliness above. These are two aspects of human life that are almost similar but vastly different. What moves me to photograph on the streets is loneliness.
Nicholas Goodden however, prefers his own company. That’s solitude, not loneliness. Which one of these would like to work on as a personal project to see if you like it?
Still on the issue of feelings, there’s a second style of street photography that I discovered from my archive. This one emanates from my time as a hawker. Hawking refers to buying and selling goods on the street. Hawkers sell their wares from a stall or they walk around looking for customers.
I used to do this to make a living. And this manifests itself in some of my photographs. To illustrate this point, sometimes when I go out to shoot I allow the streets to surprise me. By this I mean that I do no have a specific theme to work on. I just explore the streets to see what will happen.
And what usually happens is that I come back home with pictures of hawkers. Why? Because hawking is something I understand. It’s edged in my psyche. I understand what these men and women are going through. I sympathise with them. I appreciate their plight. I know why they’re doing this.
Takeaway point: It’s possible and acceptable to have more than one style. You don’t have to stick with one style. Keep exploring and challenging yourself. You might discover something new and interesting to work on. Who knows, that might be the style that will set you apart from your peers.
Without getting lost in the Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) debate, equipment does play a role in your street photography. What camera you have will dictate your choice of subjects. It will affect your decision to shoot at night or during the day.
If you shoot with a smart phone you cannot get the same quality as someone who shoots with a DSLR.
The society you live in or want to live in will also help you refine your style. You may like politics or religion. Or you may hate these two ideologies. Perhaps you’re a tribesman or woman in a village somewhere in Africa or Afghanistan. That will influence your style. Your work will differ much with that of a street photographer based in New York.
It’s Not Out There – It’s In Here
Street Photography Style or Style in Street Photography is not something that you need to travel around the world to find. It’s within you. It’s personal. It’s what you like. What you want. What you hate. What you despise. It’s your take on life. Your commentary on the things as they are.
Have I left something?
How would you define style in street photography to a complete beginner? What’s your take on my attempt at defining street photography style?
How did you discover your own street photography style? How long did it take you to recognise your own style?
I hope I did not leave you with more questions than answers on this topic. Do you have any street photography related topics that you would like me to write about in future?
If you enjoyed this discussion of street photography style please share it.
Till next time,