What is Street Photography?

It involves the photographer taking unplanned, spontaneous, informal, un-staged photographs of people in public places, within an interesting setting or intriguing backdrop. As well, street photographers often make social  commentaries about people and their surroundings. The photographer also takes pictures of the trivial, the commonplace, the ordinary, the banality, the simplicity of everyday life in the city or other urban place.

Street photography  is a popular genre of traditional and contemporary photography, which  has a tradition as old as photography itself. Many of the masters of photography have recorded or documented images of street life, such as Henri Cartier Bresson, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank.

A common misconception is that street photography is related to street art or graffiti. Another misconception is that street photography involves only the street. In other words, the photographer can only capture people on the street. On the contrary, the photographer can take a photo of a person on the beach, in the library, public park,  a mall—any public place. Finally, street photography does not require the photographer  include people  in the photograph, though images of people are what often what make the image of a street scene interesting. Sometimes, however, the photographer can make a social commentary about a lifestyle without the images of people.

What Street Photography is Not

When is a photograph not street photography?  If the person is aware that they will being photographed, then the captured image is an informal portrait, not street photograph. If the photographer request someone to pose for a photograph within the setting of the street or in front of a building, like the Statue of Liberty, it is not street photography, but an informal portrait. If the image is of a march or demonstration, it would be considered photojournalism.  If the image is planned or setup, then the resulting photograph is not street photography.  If the image is taken away from the street–it can still be considered street photography, so long as the photograph was captured by the photographer in a public place. Street photograph can travel into other genres of photography, such as travel,  urban landscape, portraiture.  The image should be spontaneous, involve people, but not always, and be captured by the photographer in a public place, often the street.

Characteristics of Street Photography

Street photography has the following characteristics:

  • Unplanned  or un-staged. Some photographers set up or arrange people in a street scene, such as Jeff Walls. This is not street photography. Street photography involves taking unplanned and spontaneous photographs of people in public places, such as a street vendor selling hot dogs, or a street performer juggling balls, or a pretty woman walking along the street against the backdrop of graffiti, or a tourist taking a photograph of a well-known building, such as the CN tower in Toronto.
  • Un-posed and spontaneous. The person is captured spontaneously and un-posed within a public setting. The person is unaware that he or she is being photographed.
  • Public place. The photographer captures the image of everyday life  from the street, neighborhood, beach, mall, baseball stadium–any public place.

How to take Street Photographs

Anyone can capture images of people in a public place. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Select an interesting public place. Find a public location where people frequent, such as outside the hockey rink or a city street with lots of advertisements, signs, billboards.
  2. Set up in the background. Carry your camera around, but watch from the sidelines, out of the way of people. You want to be unnoticed and unobtrusive to anyone who passes by.
  3. Seek out surprise. Look for the decisive moment. Often you only have a faction of second to capture something unique, odd, peculiar, fascinating.
  4. Seek out images that challenge the conventional wisdom.
  5. Write a social commentary with your camera.  In other words, capture an image that tells a story.
  6. Take notice of the backdrop.  You can capture interesting images of people in public places against modern architecture, billboards, signs, graffiti, anything that adds interest or makes a commentary about urban life.
  7. Select the right lens and camera. To capture the widest angle of view, use a wide-angle lens with your digital SLR camera. That being said, you can take street photographs with a point and shoot digital camera or smart phone. With a smart phone, you can post your images with Instagram, a popular photo organizing and editing tool, to the Web or to Facebook.
  8. Shoot in RAW. It is a digital negative that captures maximum detail and allows you to edit colour, exposure, white balance, and much more.
  9. Capture both colour and black and white images. Many photographers convert their digital images to black and white. Others prefer colour. Use colour to evoke an emotion  and create a mood.
  10. Point your lens from a unique viewpoint. Capture the image with your digital camera from high up, down low, or from a distance.


To find out more about street photography, visit the following photography websites:

Photos by Robert Frank: Street Photography of Robert Frankl

Photos of Diane Arbus: Street Photography of Diane Arbus

Henri Cartier Bresson: Street photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson

The Art of Street Photography: Contemporary Street Photographers from Around the World