The rules of Street Photography

When you get in contact with other street photogtaphers, there's a big chance that you also get in touch with the different "rules" surrounding the genre. Street photography is by far the most rules surrounded genre with opinions on how a photo should be or not be. As allways; rules are made to be broken, and here's my thoughts on the different rules.

Never photograph someone's back

Statement

Only cowards take photos of peoples backs, and it's a sign that you are afraid of taking full frontal photos.

Truth

There are many examples of great photos shot from behind. Sometimes the fact that the photo was shot from behind, can help building cognitive stress in the photo. This occurs when your mind is forced to fantisize and build it's own story around the shot.

If you're only photographing peoples backs or people from the side, you should challenge yourself to take frontal photos.

The fact that this photo is shot from behind, give the spectator a feeling of being lonely and not part of the group.

Blurred photos are crap

Statement:

All photos must have crisp sharpness, otherwise it's a sign that you have failed with the shot.

Truth

As a novice everything depends on how close your photo is to the scene you saw. This makes technique more important than the feeling of the photo. As the years passes you grow past this, and along with a bigger confidence you learn to create and take advantage of technical deficiencies in your photos. Have you ever wondered why your personal favourites among your photos, rarely are the photos that other people like the most. Likewise that other peoples favourites from your photos usually aren't the ones you like the most. The reason for this is likely that you associate your photo with the emotions you had when you shot the photo. It's important to master your techniqie, but it's equally important to deliberately do the opposite.

The focus is bad, image is blurred. These techical deficiensies creates a higher cognitive stress when you view the photo.

Street photos must be black'n'white

Statement

If the photo is not black'n'white then it's not traditional street photography.

Truth

Many of my photos are black'n'white, but it's not obvious that a photo should be black'n'white. I carefully each of my photos and compare it in color and bnw. In urban environment there are usually colorful elements in the background, pulling attention from the subject. In those cases you can easily calm down the photo and help the eye focus if you make it black'n'white instead of in color. In some photos, color is everything. Converting one of these photos to black'n'white is a sin. In some cases you deliberately want the color noise to make the photo less easily digested in contrast to a bnw photo where your eyes instantly finds it's way through.

In my street portraits I usually want to show personality and not style. I think personality is more easily enhanced in a bnw shot. In a color photo you see clothes and style more than personality.

But why did the old masters of street photography allways shoot in black'n'white? The reason is simple; Technique was limited. Color film was a bit more expensive to use than black'n'white film. If you do your homework and research a bit, you realize that it's a myth that they only shot black'n'white. Study late works of Viviane Maier and William Klein, and you'll see that these photos are usually in color. Surprised?

Gatufoto i färg
Color is everything in this photo. Converting it to bnw would make it flat.

Street photography must be candid

Statement

If the photo is not candid, it's not street photography

Truth

I want my subjects to see me. In fact I usually wait until they look straight into my camera before I press the shutter. This gives me a higher presence in my photo. If you study the works of Vivian Maier you'll notice the same thing; many subject look straight in the camera. With the statement above many of Vivian Maiers photos would not be considered street photography.

Gatufoto med blicken i kameran
Without the look straight in the camera, this photo would have a remarkable lower presence.

Street photography must be shot on the streets

Statement

Photos that are not shot on the streets, are not street photography.

Truth

Martin Parr. A legend in street photography. Many of his most famous photos are shot at the beach. It's rather the feeling of street photography in a photo that's more important, than the actual place it's shot on. The more street photography you study, the more easily you will spot the feeling of street photography in the photo.

Gatufoto från Turkiet
Shot in a small village in Turkey and not urban environment.

Street photography must contain people

Statement

If there's no people in the photo, it's not street photography.

Truth

There's a famous street photo shot by Nils Jorgensen (Click to see the photo) . It's a photo of a shoebox at a street corner in London. No people in sight. The feeling of street photography is imminent, despite the lack of people in the photo. Once again; the feeling of street is more important than definitions. Most photographer do agree that a street photo should contain traces of people though, but as always; rules are made to be broken.

Gatufoto från Berlin
Traces of people are more important than the actual people.

Don't take photos of homeless people

Statement

Beggars and the homeless are "sitting ducks", that just amateurs photograph

Truth

If you take photos of homeless people just because they're easy targets, you do it for the wrong reasons. But if you do it on their terms, for a good cause it's completely different. Famous street photographer Lee Jeffries started his career photographing the homeless. He did it for a purpose; to make their lives better by donating his profit to the homeless.

Baksidan av julen. De utsatta människorna som ingen ser.
The back side of Christmas; no one notices the homeless.

Never photograph women in veils

Statement

It's against religion to depict a woman in veil.

Truth

This is a common misconception that it's against religion to depict moslem women. Take your time and talk with them to understand how wrong you are. Since street photography is about documenting the everyday life, it's extremely wrong to censor your photos depending on peoples culture. If you want to show reality, you must include all people in your documentation. It's quite prejudiced to believe that all moslem women wears a veil. If you open your mind you'll soon understand that a moslem woman can be blond and blue eyed and not wearing any veil.

It's exaclty the same thing with photographing immigrants in your country. What do you think offends the most? To be seen and photographed because of your great looks, or to be unequally treated and NOT being photographed because of your foreign background?

Gatufoto med muslimsk kvinna
You cannot exclude people by their background if you are documenting.

Street photography must be shot in existing light

Statement

To use a flash or other tools is to manipulate the photo.

Truth

The list of street photography legends using flash is long; Bruce Gilden, Martin Parr, Anders Petersen. The flash creates a certain feeling of the photo, quite different from shots in existing light. I use a flash from time to time, when I want to achieve a certain look in the photo.

Utan blixt, hade denna bild inte varit möjligt
This photo would never been made without the use of flash.

Street photographers never use zoom lenses

Statement

Real street photographers uses prime lenses. They're better than zoom lenses.

Truth

I use my zoom lens 24-70mm 80% of the time. This makes me far more flexible compared to when I use my prime lenses. Night time and indoors I usualy put on my prime lenses. The reason is simple; prime lenses are usually faster and allows more light on the sensor compared to zoom lenses. During the years I've learned to mainly only ose one lens, and truly learn how it behaves. Today I can see the photo before I shoot it, since I know my lens so well.

I find it more important to use a lens that you feel comfortable with and truly learn to master it. When the photo comes it's all about reacting. Prime lenses are usually very affordable, and if you only have the money for one lens then I'd say go for a prime 50.

The zoom will be invaluable when you don't have the time to run closer.

Your camera should be as small as possible

Statement

It's important to use a small camera to avoid being seen.

Truth

I use a Canon 5D MKIII + Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 USM L. This is a heavy bastard with a weight close to 2kg (4.4 lbs). People see me on the streets, which is exactly what I want. The fact that I use a big camera gives me advantages and higher legitimacy, when people see me as a serious photographer. The few times I've encountered upset people, have been when I've used my small FujiFilm X100S. With a smaller camera you always run the risk of being considered a "sneak".

Always looking through the viewfinder. Here with my smaller lens Canon 50mm f/1.4

Post production is cheating

Statement

A post produced photo is manipulated and can not be considered street photography.

.

Truth

It's a big difference between post production and retouching. Post production is about converting the photo to black'n'white and other small fixes. The same work as you did in the darkroom in the old days. In my opinion you create one half of the photo during the shot, and the other half during post production. To retouch, clone or manipulate a photo is completely different and makes the photo something else than documentary.

The truth is that you should always work your photos in post production to make them closer to reality. Did you know that most cameras has a built in filter that blurs your photo? This blur must be compensated with a bit of pre-sharpening. Another truth is that you must always put RAW photos through post production, otherwise they're quite useless.

Post production is where the photo is converted to black'n'white.

Never talk to the people you're photographing

Statement

If you talk to people it's no longer street photography.

Truth

Street photography is extremely social. I usually talk to people after I've photgraphed them. I give them my business card, and in most cases they start following med on social media. If I miss a shot before they see me, I approach them and ask if I may take a photo. That's when I call it street portrait instead of street photography.

A famous shot by legend William Klein pictures a young boy pointing a gun towards the camera. The story behing the shot is that William Klein asked the boy to point the gun and look cool. I love this photo as much as I did before I found out the story about the shot. It's still street photography. There are many examples of street photography legends talking to people before they shoot; Bruce Davidson, Jill Freeman and many more. Check out the BTS-videos from Erick Kim, he also talks to his subjects. A great shot is a great shot regardless of how the shot was made. Don't reveal how your photo was made, I want to keep the magic when I view your photo and fantisise about it.

I missed the first shot before she saw me, and asked to take a street portrait.

Don't photograph children

Statement

If you publish photos of children, pedophiles can use them.

Truth

If the city you're documenting is full of children, your photos should reflect that. Otherwise you have deliberately censored parts of the everyday life. Many photographers find it hard photographing children. There's a concern being blamed as a pedophile. But wait a minute; what exactly do people think a pedophile would do with a photo of a fully dressed child? Don't you think the pedophile has nude photos in his computer to jerk off to?

If you feel uncomfortable photographing children, make sure the parents sees that you're photographing their children. A nod and a smile, that's all it takes. Don't complicate things. Most parents appreciate if you also send a copy of the photo. How often do they get the chance of getting professional photos for free?

The city is full of children which should be reflected in your photos.

Allways shoot in RAW

Statement

If you don't shoot in RAW, your photos are useless.

Truth

I allways shoot in RAW. I want to edit my photos in post production without any loss of quality. The file size is huge and the post production gets a bit more time consuming. Storage is cheap though so it doesn't bother me.

Many cameras deliver brilliant JPEGs straight out of the camera. My FujiFilm X100S is a great example with lots of possibilities to tweak out crisp and contrasty black'n'white photos straight out of the camera. My good friend street photographer Mats Alfredsson only shoots in JPEG. The photos are used for exhibitions, prints and publishing on Facebook. If you've seen his prints I think you'll be quite surprised. If you ask him why he don't shoot in RAW the answer is simple: "I expose my photos correctly in the camera".

Gatufoto från Göteborg
Black'n'white JPEG straight out of my FujiFilm X100S

Conclusion

Listen more to your intuition than opinions and rules surrounding street photography. Invest more time photographing than to discuss, and you'll develop you street photography skills far more than your discussing friends. By the way: if your friends ONLY discuss rules and have opinions on every photo; find new friends.

Tags: tips, motivation, philosophy, fear, laws and rules