Taking it to the Streets: The Essence of Street Photography

Street photography doesn’t necessarily require the presence of “streets” or even an urban environment, although big cities certainly give the photographer more opportunities. So although I prefer to go into the heart of the downtown area of my hometown Minneapolis to make street photographs, I find that I can do street photography just about anywhere, even in small towns, foreign countries, and out of the way places.

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Minneapolis, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens, ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/13 second.

That’s because street photography isn’t really about the streets. Instead, it involves capturing stories about people and the places they live and gather. But even more than that, street photography involves capturing ephemeral moments when subject matter, mood, composition, and light come together to create a meaningful or artistic photograph. As such, people, buildings, sidewalks, cars – and less tangible elements such as shadow and light – all become the building blocks of your photographs.

So never forget: the streets are just where you stand. Your goal is to weave the complex visual elements you find there into something meaningful. Your goal is to make art!

Related eBook: Taking it to the Streets: The Art of Street Photography

Add a Human Presence

Although it is not necessary to have people in all of your street photography images, the human presence helps bring life to your photos, and can help add compositional interest. For this image below of a colorful wall mural, I waited for someone to walk by to complete the composition. I carefully choose my compositional elements: in addition to the colorful mural on the wall, I wanted to include the leaning telephone poles. When the man walked by, I waited for a moment when his legs mimicked the shape of the poles.

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Tolar Grande, Argentina. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/400 second.

Related course: Taking it to the Streets: An Introduction to Street Photography

Focus on Composition and Design

Street photography is more than just an exercise in finding expressive or “unusual” people. Too often, photographers rely on the “weirdness” of their subjects, and don’t pay enough attention to overall picture design and composition. Although I’m always looking for subjects that tell a story, composition is always at the forefront of my creative process. I took this photo in the great square of Marrakech; although the woman in the orange robes anchors the shot, I thought very carefully about the overall design and the relative positioning of visual elements. Rather than dominating, she instead becomes merely an aspect of the overall composition. I selected an exposure that was long enough to blur the motion of pedestrians, but short enough to sharply render the old woman in the lower left corner.

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Marrakech, Morocco. Canon EOS 70D, Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD lens, ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/6 second.

Create Motion Blur

Add energy and excitement to your street photos with the creative use of long exposure and motion blur effects. A favorite technique of mine is to put my camera on a tripod to ensure that my overall composition is sharp, and then wait for someone to walk, jog, or bike by (such as with this image). By selecting a relatively long exposure, I was able to render the cyclist as an abstract blur. I experiment with different shutter speeds until I find one that blurs the person, but not too much.

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Minneapolis, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens, ISO 200, f/11, 1/30 second.

Tell a Story

Look for interesting or ironic juxtapositions, and photograph behavior that is unusual or that somehow conveys a unique story about your subject. You can use a time-honored street photography technique, the “ironic juxtaposition,” which involves the juxtaposition of two or more things that don’t quite seem to go together. Or you can tell a story about your subject by catching spontaneous expression, not something staged for the camera. For this photo of people watching a street performance, I carefully selected my position to shoot through a gap of onlookers, making an expressive young man the focus of my composition. I waited for a moment when he applauded in delight.

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Marrakech, Morocco. Canon EOS 70D, Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD lens, ISO 400, f/8, 1/1600 second.

Become a Master of the Moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson, arguably the most famous street photographer, coined the phrase the “decisive moment,” “when form and content, vision and composition merged into a transcendent whole.” The decisive moment involves capturing ephemeral moments when subject matter, mood, composition, and light come together to create a meaningful or artistic photograph. This is a photo of people participating in an interactive display during an art festival. For a brief moment, everyone looked like they were praying while the middle woman raised her arms as if in jubilation. The moment was perfect, creating a story that was in fact very different from what was really going on!

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Minneapolis, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens, ISO 1600, f/4, 1/8 second.

Get Creative with Shadows

Shadows are your street photography “secret weapon.” Many of my street photographs use shadows creatively, and sometimes the shadows themselves become the focus of my composition. For this image, I was attracted to the shadow cast by the sun setting behind a streetlight. I waited for a pedestrian to walk by, adding her shadow to the composition. Timing was everything!

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Minneapolis, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens, ISO 200, f/11, 1/500 second.

Use Reflections

Add a dose of creativity by including reflective surfaces in your photos. For this image, I used a parking garage mirror to capture this portrait of a man walking by with his bicycle. I was careful to select a position where my reflection did not appear in the mirror.

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Minneapolis, USA. Canon 5DIII, Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD lens, ISO 100, f/3.2, 1/100 second.

Stay alert – you never know where you’ll find good pictures

I captured this image at the airport while waiting for my flight. I was attracted to the bold sunlit pattern formed on the floor of the terminal. I decided to include the windows above to repeat the shape and make the composition more interesting. Once I perfected the composition, it was just a matter of waiting for the right person to walk by; I snapped quite a few photos until I got a usable pose from someone. So it is always a good idea to have a camera with you at all times!

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Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens, ISO 200, f/8, 1/125 second.

Conclusion

The challenge of street photography – and its unique appeal – is finding a way to turn the everyday and the mundane into something meaningful and beautiful. I love the fact that I am creating art while photographing people waiting at bus stops, walking down the streets to or from their jobs, or ordering at a food truck!

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About the author: World-renowned professional photographer and Tamron Image Master Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to several leading photo magazines (including Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, and others) and the author of numerous books and instructional videos. You can see more of Ian’s work at www.ianplant.com.

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Discussion
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6 Responses to “Taking it to the Streets: The Essence of Street Photography”
  1. Earl_J

    Very intriguing…
    I enjoy the same sort of street photography. . .
    capturing the moment… or the essence of the moment… without anyone being fully aware that it is being captured…
    * * *
    I also enjoy framing a shot and using a remote shutter release in order to make it even more difficult for people to determine if I’m capturing an image … or even determine that I’m even looking in the same direction as my camera… (grin)
    Even to the point of speaking with a person and keeping the “frame” under watch out of the corner of my eye…
    continuing to capture images while not quite full paying attention. . .

    LOL

    Thanks for sharing…

    Until that time. . .

    Reply
  2. Liz D.

    very nice article. Never was inspired to try street photography before, but found myself wishing I had when we went to Seattle. Your article was inspiring, and was wondering if you do tutorials or anything like that? Im pretty much a beginner, but trying to get better. lol

    Reply
  3. Ajay

    I am a beginner and have a canon eos 700d camera. what sort of lens would you recommend that can be carried around for general use.

    Reply
  4. Jen

    I’m concerned about the legalities of street photography, like people who could sue you for taking their picture or a picture of their building. Maybe someone here could offer an article on that subject matter.

    Reply