The photos are ordered chronologically – from the early 2004 attempts up to the newest from 2020. Many were taken while out shooting with participants of my photography workshops.
What is street photography?
Most people say that street photography features people photographed in public places in candid, un-posed situations. In my opinion this definition is too broad as it includes portraiture, travel or editorial photography, which might have nothing to do with the genre. Thus, the definition can be refined to define proper street photography by adding just one word – a “twist”. A little twist – something clever, funny, unexpected, surprising or ambiguous. Something making you scratch your head, putting a smile on your face or simply making you say “wow, nice”. So you can also say that street photography can turn ordinary things or situations into extraordinary through the act of photographing them. A street photo does not have to be taken literally in the street – it can be shot indoors, on the beach or in the forest, at any place where photographers can take candid, unposed pictures. But what matters is that little “twist” elevating the photo to a different level. Unfortunately, these twists do not come often. So I don’t call myself a street photographer. I am just a photographer who sometimes manages to take a street photograph.
What are the key elements of a single, good photo? In my opinion it is the content, composition and light. What we are showing, how it is presented and lit.
Content is the most important. The message. Often a not-perfectly composed or lit photograph is good – what matters is the content, the message it conveys. Moments! Emotions! They matter. But if the pictures is well composed and lit at the same time then it is elevated to a different level.
The decisive moment is one of the key concepts of photography and the ingredient of most successful street photos. It is a sort of apogee, the exact moment when something happens. The timing is crucial. If you miss it, it will never happen again. However, this moment has to be captured in an aesthetic way, so it is clearly defined and visible, then it is a decisive moment. Capture moments, but do it well.
Emotions are conveyed by facial expressions, often strenghtened by body gestures and poses. Happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger… They connect the viewer with the subject. They are precious.
Juxtapositions have to be mentioned also, when talking about main concepts of street photography. They can be divided into two main categories – echoes and contrasts. Echoes are similar visual elements in the frame. A circle here and there, a repeating pattern on the wall and somebody’s shirt, a laughing person standing next to a poster with a smiling face – noticing and capturing these similarities can produce entertaining images. Contrast is the opposite of echo. Here instead of similar elements we are looking for contrasting ones. So, happy and sad, young and old, hairy and bold – these contrasting juxtapositions in the frame can make the photo successful.
Ambiguity, or mystery is another concept. Here we are talking about pictures provoking questions rather than answering them. Pictures intriguing the viewers – not understandable at first sight, but somehow keeping the attention of the viewer trying to solve their mystery. The story in the picture is not clear, so each viewer can interpret the image in a different way. Sometimes situations are ambiguous just like that by themselves, but often isolating fragments of the scene from the whole context, or excluding the “explaining factor” can lead to a mysterious image.
Composition is the way elements are placed in the frame. It greatly depends on the distance from the subject. The closer you get the more dynamic perspectives you achieve. You get this sense of being there, right in the middle of things. Then it is all about where the camera is positioned and when the shutter is released. Where and when. They add structure to our composition, make it aesthetic and well readable. The key concepts here are the framing lines along the edges of the picture, lines or curves leading to the subjects and shapes enclosing them. We are surrounded by geometry and being aware of that and using it can make a big difference in our photos.
Here we can also talk about the depth of the composition and distinguish different layers of the composition. They consist of the foreground, middle distance and background elements. Complex multi-layered photographs with multiple subjects can be very exciting to look at, but due to their complexity they are rather appreciated by the photography crowd and not fully understood by the rest. Thus it is worth remembering, that simple is good. A simple, clean photograph with a strong content will most of the time have a bigger impact on an average viewer than a complex, multi-layered compositional masterpiece.
Finally, the light is what illuminates the scene. The natural light comes from the Sun directly (producing shadows), but it can be diffused through the clouds or blocked by buildings. The artificial light is the one that comes from a bulb in the ceiling or from a flashgun on top of the camera. A bad light (harsh mid-day light) or inappropriate handling of it (a subject in the shade with a bright background) can ruin the shot, while a good light (early morning or late afteroon) can make it very special. Once you understand the light and learn how to handle it your pictures will be so much better.
When these three elements come together nicely in one frame you most probably have a great photo. Well done.
Here are some of my favourite quotes that apply to street photography:
- “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough.” – Robert Capa
- “I want people to keep looking, not just move on to the next thing.” – Richard Kalvar
- “The difference between a good picture and a mediocre picture is a question of millimeters — small, small differences — but it’s essential. I didn’t think there is such a big difference between photographers. Very little difference. But it is that little difference that counts, maybe.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
- “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”…”Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
- “Photographers mistake the emotion they feel while taking the photo as a judgment that the photograph is good” – Garry Winogrand
- “There is one problem for me if I try to shoot in the West. There’s an element of privacy . . . even on the street. You can’t go up to someone and put your camera in his or her face. You can sneak a photograph, but you can’t, you can’t intrude on the person.”…”Now, in India, you can do it all the time. No one minds. [And] every Indian person thinks of the photograph – the camera – as something before which he poses. So you might have shot several rolls of someone, you know, but that person… will not think that you have taken a photograph until he’s struck a pose.“ – Raghubir Singh
Street photography collectives
- UP Photographers – upphotographers.com/, formely known as In-Public
- Burn My Eye – www.burnmyeye.org/
- Observe – www.observecollective.com/
- Little Box Collective – www.littleboxcollective.com/
- Street Photography International – streetphotographyinternational.com/
- Un-Posed – un-posed.com/ – Polish collective
- In-street – in-street.com/ – Indian collective
- Fragment – www.fragmentphotos.com/ – French collective
Street photography zines and magazines