Street photography is a tough genre to define. Although there seems to be general consensus that street photography should reveal something about humans in their environment and that it should be captured in a candid way, discussions and arguments abound about whether specific specimens do indeed belong to the genre or instead should be pushed into a different category.
This nebulous identity makes street photography difficult to critique as there are no sets of characteristics or properties that can be used to evaluate particular images. Instead of listing characteristics I believe are likely to produce a good street photograph, I will instead discuss some the most important factors I believe contribute to a bad street photograph. Most of the time, street photos fail in some classic and consistent ways and I will address these “failures” under three categories: Technical failures, compositional failures, and emotional failures. Technical failures are about mistakes in camera settings, compositional failures are about mistakes with respect to where the camera is placed when pressing the shutter and emotional failures are about the viewer’s emotional response (or lack thereof) to a photograph.
The first category is about stuff related to how the camera is setup and essentially is about focus and exposure. The good news is that technical failures are relatively easy to fix. The bad news is that avoiding technical failures does not guarantee good street photos…
One of the most common mistakes in street photography is bad focus. For example, if your main character is crossing a street and focus is set on the building behind it then I would call that a missed shot. No matter how good the image would have been with proper focus, no amount of rationalization in my opinion will make that image salvageable. Camera autofocus systems can be tricky to understand and to work with so mastering your camera’s auto-focus is essential. One of my first cameras when I got into street photography was the Fuji X100. It’s an amazing little camera but its autofocus was often too slow for street photography so I preset my focus (a concept called zone focusing). Regardless of how you decide to set your focus, make sure that it is set where you want it to be. Start reading your camera manual, go on YouTube, and practice. A good way to practice your autofocus skills for street photography is actually with sports photography as there are many analogues between the two genres.
Exposure is a fair bit more complicated than focus and basically refers to the proper light exposure on your sensor or film at the time of the image capture. As you know, exposure is determined by three camera settings: Sensitivity, aperture, and shutter speed. While it is possible to let the camera’s algorithms do most of the guessing when it comes to proper exposure, I invariably find that I can attain a more pleasing and satisfying exposure when I set al three parameters manually. Setting your camera in manual mode can be daunting at first but rewarding at the end and here again, practice is the way to go.
Before talking about the camera’s exposure settings, let me briefly explain the concept of under- and over-exposure. The best analogy I can think of is with a paper towel used to wipe a wet surface. If the paper towel is allowed to contact the wet surface for too long, the paper towel absorbs too much water, it saturates and when lifted from the surface, it breaks. This is the equivalent of over-exposing your film or sensor. Too much water (light) has accumulated on the paper towel (film or sensor of the camera) and the paper towel (film or sensor) is saturated. Over-exposed images are overly white and detail is lost in the highlights. People often talk about blown highlights in photography, which describe this exact situation when portions of the sensor or film have been exposed with light beyond the ability of the sensor to respond. The opposite situation is when the paper towel is not allowed to contact the water for long enough and hence little water is absorbed from the surface. This is the equivalent of not enough light hitting the sensor resulting in an under-exposed image. Under-exposed images are overly dark and loss of detail is again an issue but this time in the shadows. Proper exposure is when the paper towel is allowed to collect just the right amount of water so that the table can be cleaned without the paper towel breaking down. A properly exposed photograph has shadows and highlights in balance, with fine details visible in both highlights and shadows.
As a quick guide for getting you going on street photography in manual mode and hopefully attaining proper exposure, I suggest your start with setting sensitivity or ISO. Setting sensitivity should take your camera to its optimal dynamic range for a particular lighting situation. If you are shooting in the sun, I recommend starting off with the lowest sensitivity setting on your camera (ISO 100 or 200). If in the shade or during a cloudy day, try a sensitivity setting a bit higher like ISO 400-800. Nighttime street photography can require much higher sensitivity settings up to maybe ISO 4,000-8,000.
Once sensitivity is set, based on the particular situation, you need to decide what is more important in the images you are trying to capture. If temporal aspects of the scene are what you want to control (e.g.; freezing the movement of fast moving subjects or create some motion blur), set shutter speed accordingly (fast to freeze motion and slow to create motion blur). Again, as a rough guide, I suggest a shutter speed of 1/250 or higher to freeze humans walking and yet higher if your subjects are moving faster. If depth of field is what you are after (for example, if you’d like to isolate your subject by blurring the background, set your aperture to as wide as your lens will allow (e.g.; f1.8). The last adjustment is for the setting you care the least about. If you set your shutter speed at a relatively high 1/1,000 sec to freeze bicycles going by, then final proper exposure is set with aperture. If, on the other hand, you have set aperture to f1.8 to isolate your subject (shallow depth of field), you might have to set shutter speed relatively high to achieve final proper exposure.
If you find that you cannot achieve the desired outcome by setting your shutter speed and aperture, then you might have to go back to adjusting sensitivity. For example, if your shutter speed is set at 1/500 and you must set your aperture at f1.8, which results in an awkwardly and unpleasing shallow depth of field, increase your sensitivity by several stops. This will allow you to keep your relatively fast shutter speed and will allow you to close down your aperture to increase depth of field.
One last pointer I would like to share. I find that with today’s modern cameras, shadows can be recovered in ways that were simply impossible just a few years ago (this is especially true if you shoot RAW). I therefore tend to UNDER-expose all my images. Not only do I personally prefer strong shadows and bold contrast but I also know I can recover an impressive amount of information in post-processing from shadows, if need be. The same cannot be said of over-exposed portions of an image. A blown highlight, in my experience, is much harder to recover.
To conclude, focus and exposure are technical aspects of street photography that are clearly very important but problems related to these are relatively easy to rectify. The next two types of failures are much more difficult to define, explain and naturally are also harder to address as a photographer.
Composition is as old as photography. Actually, it’s much older than photography and a tremendous amount can be learned about composition by exploring classical impressionist painters. Composition, simply put, refers to the geometry of the rendering of a two-dimensional image. Vision in humans and animals starts with retinal images that are two-dimensional. Subsequently and almost magically, the brain extracts the third-dimension from these impoverished two-dimensional images. One of the keys to good photographic composition is to create two-dimensional images that are suggestive and lend themselves well to the extraction of the third-dimension by the brain. For example, if an image is flat in that it does not contain many cues to depth the human brain will find that image uninteresting.
Composition is a complex topic and I encourage the interested reader to seek additional resources. Here, I will only focus on two aspects of composition that I think are most critical for street photography. One mistake I often see in street photography is that the photographer is simply too far away form his/her subjects. An interesting character that is shot from far away leads to viewer frustration. The viewer wants to be taken right near the interesting subject. As a photographer, it can be intimidating, awkward or even dangerous to get close but as a viewer, it is essential to be taken right there, near the interesting subject. By the way, using a photo lens might seem like an ideal solution to “getting close” but it is not because optically, a telephoto offers optical distortions that result in an image that looks unnatural for street. Such distortions are not present with a wide angle lens (e.g.; 24-50mm). This issue is actually relatively easy to address as well: Get closer.
The second compositional failure results from a lack of informational detail in depth in the image. This aspect of composition is sometimes referred to as layering and essentially refers to capturing multiple aspects or stories of a scene in depth. For example, a nicely layered street photo might have closest to the lens a hand spinning a ball, a bit further might be a group of children playing marbles, yet further away a group of adults engaged in a lively conversation while furthest back a classic car rolling down the street. Such layered images are a delight to view because it is easy and fun to get lost in the multiple stories and it is possible to go back and forth between the stories. I personally find this aspect of composition to be most difficult to achieve well in a candid scene (candid, as you recall, is one of the pre-requisites for street photography). In addition to exploring the classic masters of street photography and look for that particular aspect of composition (layering), I again suggest consulting classic works by impressionist painters, some of whom mastered such compositional concept.
Unfortunately, it is possible and in fact quite common to have street photographs be technically good, follow basic rules of composition but to still fail. How can that be? A street photo can be technically sound, adhere do basic rules of composition but fail to elicit an emotional response. An image that does not elicit an emotion in the viewer is a failed image. I don’t believe it matters what emotion is ultimately felt by a viewer and can be a positive or negative. It can be joy, happiness, outrage, anger, surprise, amusement, curiosity, etc., but an emotion must be triggered by an image; viewers must feel something when looking at your photo. In fact, I would argue that the stronger the viewer’s emotion the more memorable and hence successful the image. The emotional response to an image is the most important component of a successful (street) photo and indeed can make up for other shortcomings such as technical or compositional issues.
For the photographer, emotional failures are hard to recognize. The reason is because the photographer’s own emotional response attached to an image is projected onto the viewer. There is always a story about how a particular photograph is obtained and the photographer has his/her own emotions attached to a particular photograph. Unfortunately, it is often the case that the photographer’s emotions differ from the viewer’s emotional response (or lack thereof). As a result, it is often very hard to objectively curate ones’ own images because it is difficult to leave the photographer’s emotion in check. Some suggest (and I tend to agree but it’s not entirely practical) that a photographer should not look at his/her images for a long time, maybe 6 months to a year, after initially taking them in order to reduce or eliminate that photographer’s emotional attachment. The good news is that it is relatively easy to get feedback on various specialized forums. Regarding soliciting feedback, remember that opinions and quality of feedback varies widely. If you feel a particular critique is unjust or misses the point, be gracious, appreciate the person’s time, be thankful, and above all, do not get defensive. Maybe your critique really did not get your image, or on the other hand maybe he/she really did…