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.
Lines can be used to guide the viewer around the frame and to the subject. While shapes, especially repeating patterns, can deliver a visual rhythm that is both pleasing and alluring.
When the light is flat and diffused, It is line and shape that you will rely on to build an effective photograph. The weight and strength of the image rest on the shoulders of how you observe and leverage the lines and shapes of the scene and subject. You can use it to create a complex graphic image or use lines to guide the viewer through the frame. It becomes less about what you are photographing, but instead how you are seeing it.
Tip: Explore a scene with strong graphic lines and shapes. Attempt to simplify the composition, by eliminating distractions and create an image that is about the graphic nature of the scene.
Color and Gesture
Color and gesture are the most difficult graphic elements to leverage in a photograph. The first because we take our perception of color for granted and the latter because its significance can be so subtle and fleeting.
Developing a skill for analyzing color begins from one’s observation of light. When considering light on a red surface, you immediately recognize how vibrant the red appears when hit by direct sunlight. Look at the same red when it is in shade and it appears less saturated, even dull. Observe a color in isolation and then see what happens when that same color is juxtaposed against another color. Feel the energy when blue is juxtaposed against yellow. Suddenly, those hues possess more impact together than they held in isolation.
This is important to remember whether the color itself is the subject of the photographic or a secondary element.
A gesture is frequently associated with a human gesture: the lilt of a head, the wave of a hand or the flurry of a foot. But gestures can also be subtle elements that have the power to transform a shot from good to great.
While it could be a gesture of a woman’s hand touching her lover’s cheek, it can also be the presence of a natural leaf stuck in a chain-link fence. Though the image might be satisfactory without it, the presence of the gesture adds a visual flourish that brings a synergy to all the other elements within the frame.
Tip: Photograph someone in an activity e.g. combing their hair, cooking dinner, assembling a chair. Keep an eye for moments of emotive body language and facial expressions.
Everything is Photo-Worthy
Some novice photographers venture out into the street and come up empty-handed. Their excuse is that there wasn’t anything interesting to shoot. I admit that I had just such days in my early photographic journey. However, I learned that it wasn’t that I lacked an interesting subject matter. It was that I had walked out with a set of preconceived conditions and subject matter that I would consider photo worthy.
I wanted high-contrast light, but it was overcast. I wanted interesting characters, but everyone was ordinary. I wanted a dramatic moment, but all that I saw was mundane and boring. I was making judgment calls on everything I saw, based on what I thought those things should be rather than what they actually were. I dismissed them, never bothering to raise the camera to my eye or worse, making only one image and walking away in frustration.
When I instead focused on the visual graphic elements of the things I was seeing, the world opened up to me. By evaluating the world based on light and shadow, line and shape, color and gesture, moments were revealed that I would never have considered for a photograph. I sensed potential in a scene and worked all those elements, trying my best to compose as effective a shot as I could. I wasn’t always successful, but I nevertheless practiced a way of seeing and shooting that was systematic and repeatable. It was a way of working that would increase the chances of me rendering an effective photograph.
By approaching street photography in this way, I had more choices than simply repeating the same tired cliches often associated with the genre. I didn’t want my creativity to be defined by how successful I could be in duplicating another photographer’s vision and technique. Though that admittedly did and does happen, I understood I was capable of so much more.
Just as landscape photography can be defined by a pretty sunrise or a portrait by a well-placed light modifier, street photography is more than a high-contrast black and white rendering of a raw file. It is an opportunity to practice and share one’s unique way of observing the world and transforming it into a finished photograph. It is a chance to share how we each see and share those beautiful and fleeting moments of discovery with each other.
Ibarionex Perello is a photographer, writer, and educator. Since 2006, he has served as the host and producer of The Candid Frame photography podcast which has featured conversations with some of the world’s best established and emerging photographers. Some included Mary Ellen Mark, Elliott Erwitt, Eli Reed, Joe McNally, Dan Winters and hundreds of others. He also has authored half a dozen books on the subject of photography including his latest Making Photographs: Developing a Personal Visual Workflow.