A beginner's guide to Street Photography:1

I think I should start with a disclaimer: I am by no means a Street Photographer or an expert in the field. To be perfectly blunt and honest, I can't even say I have ever been too interested in it, if not as an occasional spectator.

I have recently started experimenting with this fashionable and hip approach to photography, however, due to my 365 project and the fact that it forces me to have my camera by my side at all times (nearly... think I might have left the house without it once or twice in the last 40 days), and as with all experiments in the early stages, there are a lot of observations to be made and doubts to be addressed.

As I think I will be exploring this avenue further in the coming days, weeks and months, I think it might be useful for me to write down the things I think are relevant in this experience, both as a record for myself and as tips or "what-not-to-dos" for any beginner to this style of expression, who might benefit from what another beginner has to say or show. 


Today I would like to share some images that, in my opinion, illustrate different thought processes that come into play when you choose to release the shutter and capture a specific image that you may think is going to be a "good" street shot.


As a premise I will say all three images were shot on the same day, a very average and relatively uninteresting one, a day when I almost had to force myself to go out and look for a shot. I am taking this day as an example because that is what most days end up being, and as photographers we are still required to make the most out of them, whether it is for fun or for work.


So I left home with very low levels of enthusiasm and very few ideas, and decided I would take a walk in downtown Amsterdam, which is a pretty secure source for interesting things.



1. Focusing on the subject


While cycling near Waterlooplein, its flea market  and all the other tourist attractions my eyes were attracted to the bowels of an Amsterdam building, tore open by some serious renovation project and exposed to the curiosity of bystanders and passers-by. 

Amsterdam houses are interesting, often curtainless and open to curious glances, so this skeleton of a house, exposed on the street, seemed to me as a pretty interesting subject, one that might give some form of answer to the curiosity of people, who might stare as long as they prefer at the insides of an Amsterdam house without pissing off any of its inhabitants.


Here is the photo I took:

I consider this to be a failed photo, because, while the subject was important to me, and central to the story I wanted to tell, I had no control on a number of aspects in the frame, and focused exclusively on limiting the aspects I didn't like, while refusing to let the subject go.

Light was not good. It was the end of a dull day, and the subject had no interesting highlight or shadow play. Hadn't I had my 365 project daily delivery to take care of, I might of cycled by without a second thought.

Framing was a nightmare. Branches and trees creeping in from corners  and a massive plastic/metal barrier to the construction site meant I needed to frame the shot not how I would have preferred, but in the only possible way. 

In the end my decision to focus exclusively on the subject I wanted brought a photo that feels weak (to me, at least). I like the broken down building, but there is not much else that touches me in this image, while some things actively bother me, such as the random bottom crop to avoid the plastc barrier and the lack of a more interesting background.

In this case I focused only on what my eyes saw as interesting, but that did not translate to a photo with the same intensity I experienced it.


2. Focusing on what is generally cool


Quite unimpressed by the first attempt, I walked towards the central streets of the city, where lights, people and movement should easily mix into good combinations for a street photographer, but again, things were moving slowly. As I walked I would keep my eyes open on what I thought would make a good street photo, but nothing seemed to truly emerge from the background. 


This is one of the photos I took (it's a pretty violent crop, I know. I'm using it exclusively to support what I am saying in this post...):

In theory the ingredients are all there: end-of-the-day-light, people, movement, street signs, neons and stores... 

This could be one of the many "big city" street shots that capture the fluid nature of the city, but it's not.

It's crap.


The elements don't come together, there is no story, no unusual event, no involment between the photographer and the subject, no active effort in getting the photo (and I can say so for sure, as I took it).

This shot was taken with the audience in mind, in the sense that I tried to find a quick way to frame all the elements that people might like when glancing at the photo online, and this is not an approach I would advise to follow.


Ultimately this is a lazy attempt at getting your average and overinflated street photo, and if you happen to have photos that make you feel like this my advice is to dump them (unless you are using them for educational purposes, of course). 



3. Adapt what you like to what is available and MAKE the shot you want.


At this point I was getting rather depressed, and was considering just going home and trying some DIY macro, when walking along the Amsterdam flower market (it was closed, by then) I saw an interesting spot of light shining on the pavement from one of the spotlights of one flower store. 

It was appealing to me, given the contrast with the evening light behind it, and I decided to take some shots, which were not all that interesting. 

I decided to tryand follow a suggestion I have often heard, that is to wait, once the frame is decided and the camera settings are satisfactory, for the photo to come into place by itself.

I thought I would give it a go, and I framed what I wanted to show, set my exposure, aperture and ISO, then crouched down and waited for someone to walk into the light. 

Luckilly for me, this lady with an umbrella passed by less than thirty seconds later, and decided to glance to her side while walking in the center of my frame, giving me the chance to take this photo:


Is it the best shot ever?

No, it's not, but compared to the two pics I took earlier, there is a world of difference. 

In the first case I was trying to bend circumstances to what my eyes were seeing, while in the second I tried to cut a few corners, and get a street pic, by just piling up variables that are generally received favorably.


In this last case I can say I made the shot. I framed it around a source of light, not around an interesting subject, I had the patience to work my settings and wait. I tried to think ahead, to imagine where someone would pass and how the light would make them appear in the final picture. I waited for what I thought was an interesting subject, and I saw this image be created, try after try. In the end I got something I could go home happy with, and I think this third approach is the one that will make my street photos interesting to me, and hopefully to those who see them, the fact that there is conscious effort put into getting that specific shot rather than a different one.


So, after a lot of words, my first tip to anyone that would like to explore street photography is to not focus on what you see, and not focus on what you think people will like, but learn to adapt the story you want to tell to the circumstances you have available to you in that moment.

Favor light over subject and do not limit yourselves to pressing the shutter button. Build your shots and you will be happy with the results, whatever they are.


Have a nice day everyone!



Any comments on what you think of the photos and the content in this post, whether or not you agree with me, will be much appreciated, thanks!



Write a comment

Comments: 4
  • #1

    Jennifer (Wednesday, 17 February 2016 09:09)

    Interesting article, thank you. I originally liked the middle image because there was more life to it. The bottom seemed a bit to composed, stiff. Like it was modelled. But your commentary makes sense!

  • #2

    Photon C (Wednesday, 17 February 2016 10:13)

    Hello Jennifer,
    and thank you for your comment, I appreciate it.
    Obviously the nice thing about street photography, as I am discovering, is that there is no strict set of rules to follow, so for every day you go out and try to compose a shot, there is an equal number of times when you can just let go and shoot away without too much thought or arrangements. That will be a topic for one of the next posts, though :)

    Congratulations on your website, it looks very interesting!

  • #3

    Cathy (Tuesday, 14 June 2016 06:55)

    I loved this article. Finally someone who makes sense ;-)

    My attempts at street photography so far were cut short by my fear of being fined by attorneys.
    In Germany you are generally forbidden to openly display photographs of people.
    And I always wonder how others get around it ...
    Best wishes,
    Cathy DeVille

  • #4

    Alex (Saturday, 02 July 2016 23:36)

    You make some valid points. I can see the same flaws in my own work. The ones I do like, I know are terrible. I only show people to find new flaws in them.

    But your article seems to be indicating a strong "rule-based" approach to shooting the street. I tend to think less about convention and more about the definition. "Street Photography". i.e: I am on the street, and this is what I see.

    I tend to just walk around my city, and shoot whatever I find takes my attention. The result is thousands of photos which half of I sift through and a fraction I consider using as critique material to see what others think.