Daily Archives November 6, 2019

Photo by David Burnett

The allure of street photography, at least for me, is rooted in a simple question. Can I create a great photograph that focuses on the most mundane and ordinary moments of public life? Am I capable of effectively photographing something that others would overlook or dismiss?

From my earliest years as a photographer, I knew it was possible. I saw the evidence in the work of great photographers like Bresson, Winogrand, DeCarava, Erwitt, Arbus, and others. In their photographs, I discovered my attraction to the world of the street with all its chaos, beauty and unpredictability.

There was a unique creative experience that I would find only on the street, rather than the controlled space of a studio. It was a palpable experience that sent a wave of excitement through my body when I thought of it. It took years to develop the skills needed to translate that visceral experience into an image. However, I was forever entranced by the magical potential of a street scene.

Street photography is more than just photographing strangers walking down a sidewalk. It is instead the practice of the art of observation. It is about what happens with my eyes and brain that determine my success. The camera is only of consequence because it confirms my observation and makes it permanent.

When I teach street photography, the biggest obstacle that must be surmounted is an inaccurate definition of what street photography is. It begins with the assumption that street photography is solely about walking up to a stranger and taking their photograph without permission. No wonder it elicits such feelings of anxiety of fear. That definition sabotages the photographer even before exposing a single frame. So, it’s important to let go of such a rigid and problematic definition, which only succeeds in self-defeat.

Instead, I suggest making street photography about seeing, making observations of the world, with or without, the presence of people. Instead of “assaulting” a stranger, see street photography as the pursuit of light and shadow, line and shape, color and gesture. Recognize and embrace the beauty to be found in the ordinary and the mundane.

Light & Shadow

Light and shadow is my starting point whenever I walk the streets. Regardless of the photographic genre that’s practiced, it often relies on the quality of light. That is no different for street photography.

Evaluating the quality of the light does more than just inform what ISO and aperture you use. It also reveals whether you can leverage high contrast light for a dramatic image or diffused light to create an image with a softer feel. Recognizing the quantity, quality and direction of light lead you to make both aesthetic and technical choices that directly inform the look and feel of your photograph. When you are aware of the light when making a photograph, you are preconceiving what the final result will look like. You are not leaving things to chance.

With a high-contrast scene, you can purposely expose for the highlights and render the shadows into deep black. Not only does this result in a punchy and striking black and white photograph, but it also obscures distractions that might be present in the shadows. It becomes both an aesthetic and practical choice born from the awareness of light and shadow.

Tip: Look for a high-contrast scene where light abruptly shifts to shadow. Shape a composition that leverages that contrast. Include an element in the brighter area to help draw attention to that area of the frame.

Line and Shape

Line and shape serve as the building blocks of composition. Whether lines and shapes are visible or implied, they become elements by which you compose the photograph within the confines of the photographic frame.