What makes street photography so compelling and captivating? One of the main reasons is the power of storytelling.
Storytelling is the art of creating images that tell a narrative, evoke emotions, and provoke thoughts. It is not just about capturing what you see, but also what you feel and imagine. Storytelling in street photography can be done in diverse ways, such as using a single shot or a series of shots, using composition, lighting, color, symbols, gestures, expressions, and timing.
However, unlike other forms of storytelling, such as literature or cinema, street photography does not have a fixed plot, characters, or dialogue. It relies on the viewer’s interpretation and imagination to fill in the gaps and create their own story. This is what makes street photography so fascinating and unique.
The story behind a photo is influenced by many factors, such as the photographer’s intention, the subject’s situation, the context of the scene, and the technical aspects of the image. But more importantly, the story behind a photo is influenced by the viewer’s perception, perspective, and preferences and even their conscious and sub-conscious biases. The same image can have different meanings and messages for different people. For example, a photo of a woman smiling at a man can be seen as friendly, flirtatious, sarcastic, or nervous depending on the viewer’s point of view.
As a street photographer, you should be aware of the potential stories that your images can convey and how they can affect your audience. You should also be open to the possibility that your images can be interpreted in ways that you did not intend or expect. This can be both exciting and challenging, as you never know how your images will be received and what stories they will inspire.
One way to understand how different viewers will interpret the story behind a photo very differently in street photography is to look at some examples of famous street photographs and analyze how they can be interpreted differently by different people.
For instance, consider this iconic image by Henri Cartier-Bresson taken in 1937.
The different takes on this image can evoke different emotions and thoughts in the viewer. Some may find the image amusing, others may find it alarming, others may find it innocent, others may find it aggressive. The story behind the photo depends on the viewer’s imagination and experience.
Despite these differences, getting to the real story can sometimes be guessed or may even be impossible. In the example image above, I always loved the image because it is intriguing. It can be hard to figure out exactly what is going on. Is the man at the bottom asleep, knocked out or dead? Why is he down there? Was he pushed by the young boy that is looking at the camera? Based on clues (the empty space where the young boy is) you could guess he fell and perhaps that is why he is unconscious. Was he pushed?
Iti s not until you find out about the story (read more here https://www.magnumphotos.com/events/exhibitions/king-coronation-london-crowds-hcb/ ) that you learn that Henri Cartier-Bresson was sent on assignment to photograph and document the coronation of King George VI. And, luckily enough for us, he didn’t concentrate on photographing the King and entourage but rather he turned his back and chose to photograph the crowd as he found it more interesting.
Here is what Henri had to say about the image.
“People had waited all night in Trafalgar Square in order not to miss any part of the coronation ceremony of George VI. Some slept on benches and others on newspapers. The next morning, one who was wearier than the others, had not yet wakened to see the ceremony for which he had kept such a late vigil.”
There is the actual story. Or is it? Weary? Or still asleep from a long night of drinking? A late Vigil or a full evening of celebration? You never truly know and THAT is the magic of street photography.
This is just one example of how different viewers will interpret the story behind a photo very differently in street photography. There are many more examples of street photographs that can have multiple interpretations and meanings. As a street photographer, you should embrace this diversity and complexity of storytelling. You should also respect your viewers’ opinions and perspectives, even if they differ from yours.
Storytelling is one of the most important aspects of street photography. It can make your images more engaging, meaningful, and memorable. It can also challenge you to grow as a photographer and as a storyteller. So next time you hit the streets with your camera, don’t just take pictures; tell stories.
Note: When naming any images, DO NOT tell the story or give the story away with your title. Let your audience create their own story without guiding them!
See you on the Streets.
Just like it’s very important to know and understand what Street Photography is, and specifically, what Street Photography is for you, it is essential to understand your own boundaries with respect to what is acceptable to you in terms of street etiquette, respect, boundaries, privacy, and personal spaces.
If you have set boundaries for yourself, and they are fairly strict in that you do have boundaries and you abide by them, then I applaud you. If, on the other hand, you have few, if any, boundaries, then I ask you why? It’s easy just deciding “photographing homeless people is OK” or “bumping into people to photograph their reactions is OK” because why not? Other people do it.
The question I have is, how did you get to that conclusion? Did you put any thought into it, or did you “decide” that easy, self-serving decision? Did you only think about yourself? About how it will make your Street Photography life easier with no decisions to make while shooting and no boundaries? And, did that decision-making process include any thoughts about the homeless people themselves, their situation, the people you run into, or other people’s personal spaces?
There is way too much to think about and talk about but let’s talk about a few points when it comes to the homeless, and then I’ll let you know about some of my boundaries.
The homeless are not homeless. The streets, or rather, certain places on or near the streets, ARE their home. They often pick and live within a community because they like the feel of the community, or perhaps the community is more respectful than other areas, or perhaps they get more handouts in the community they choose to live in, or perhaps it’s the neighborhood they grew up in. There could be a multitude of reasons but remember that some have mental disorders, others have addictions, and some choose to live on the streets, perhaps because of financial difficulties. You and I have what we would consider “Homes” to live in. A place with walls, a roof, heat, water, and bathrooms.
More important than all those physical constructs is that we also have our Privacy. The laws are very clear on this; within our walls and in our homes, we can and should expect privacy. The homeless are not afforded that privacy by law in North America. Some countries have made it Illegal, including a general ban on Street Photography, to protect their citizen’s privacy. Think about this for a moment; you have Privacy when you eat, sleep, read, or do anything in your home. People with homes on the streets do not have that privacy. But they should. Perhaps the laws do not afford them that privacy, but your decency and respect should. And, in that truth, I always give them that privacy.
I think about where they eat and sleep as their homes.
Another thing Street Photographers do is trade coins or food for photos thinking this is acceptable. Again, an easy conclusion is made without any thought. From a respect perspective. Think about this, they are caught in this trap they cannot get out of, perhaps because of alcohol or drugs, but more likely because of mental disorders and often just because of bad luck, but in any case, they are stuck, trapped. Then a photographer comes along and offers them food in exchange for their photos. Think about this situation. They have no money and no food; they may be extremely hungry. How do you think they will answer? And, more importantly, do you think they have a choice?
If someone asked us the same question if we walked down the street, we WOULD HAVE A CHOICE to say, “No Thanks!” Our next meal would not be dependent on whether we let someone take our photo or not. The only reason most homeless would say yes, would be because of the predicaments they are trapped in.
If you think offering someone that is starving and may not have eaten any real food in several days is a noble deed in exchange for their photo, think again. If they turn down your offer, they may retain a little dignity and respect, but they will not get to eat. If they accept your offer, they will eat, but they will lose some self-respect that they are already very low on. Please do not put them in those situations. If you want to do a noble deed, give them food, no strings attached.
For me, I handle these situations in a different way. If I see someone that is not sleeping (I will never photograph homeless people sleeping) that I believe are photo worthy because of their look, or the space and lighting they are in, I will decide beforehand that I will give them money. Period. I will give them money whether they choose to let me photograph them or not (See my photo of Tony in a previous post.) I will then talk to them and will eventually introduce myself as a photographer, and if given permission, I will photograph them or not. Once our interactions are complete, whether I have images or not, I will give them the money (or often gift cards) that I had already decided to give them.
Using this method, they choose to allow themselves to be photographed or not without the pressures of deciding to starve or not. And, when I leave with or without photos, I know I respected them and their privacy in their home.
I frequent some neighborhoods over and over and often meet the same people that may have turned me down in the past. Once in a while, these same people have asked me to take their photos without any compensation. I will always abide if it will make a great photo or not.
I used to always go by this gentleman that was missing a leg and in a wheelchair that I spoke to on many occasions and would give him $5 most Fridays during my lunch break. He had originally turned my ask down, but I continued to talk to him, find out about him and his family, and his predicament, and one day, several months in, he said, “Hey, why don’t you take my picture and he gave me a huge smile, missing teeth and all.
I also carry these photos with me and hand them out when I see them again. Once I have photographed them and met them several times, and befriended them, I always ask them if they would like their portrait taken so that they can send photos to family. I have even given out envelopes with stamps.
I hope that this post makes you revisit your decisions on respect and privacy and that it makes you give it all some thought. If, after some real considerations, you decide that taking photos of the homeless is acceptable for you, perhaps because you are doing a ‘project’ on the homeless or not, then at least you have contemplated it and made an informed decision.
I will later post part two to this blog, where we will discuss Bruce Gilden and his adversarial Street Photography tactics.
For now, I’ll see you on the Streets.
Dear Street Photographer,
I hope this letter finds you well and that you are enjoying your wanderings in the city. I am writing to you as a fellow Flaneur, a lover of the urban spectacle and the hidden stories that lurk behind every corner.
I admire your work and your ability to capture the fleeting moments of life in the city. You have a keen eye for the beauty, the humor, and the drama that unfolds in the streets. You are not just a passive observer but an active participant in the urban scene. You interact with your subjects, you provoke reactions, and you create connections.
I share your passion for the city and its inhabitants, but I have a different approach. I prefer to remain anonymous and invisible, to blend in with the crowd, and to observe from a distance. I do not carry a camera, but a notebook and a pen. I write down my impressions, my thoughts, and my feelings as I stroll through the streets. I do not seek to capture reality but to interpret it.
You see, I do not aim to capture or create reality but to reveal it. To reveal its beauty, its mystery, its poetry. To reveal the stories that are hidden in plain sight, the stories that are waiting to be told.
I think that is what makes me more poetic and more romantic than you. I do not limit myself to the visible reality, but I explore the invisible one. I do not impose my vision, but I discover new ones. I do not expose myself to the world, but I let the world speak to me.
I think we have a lot in common, but also a lot to learn from each other. I would love to meet you someday and exchange our experiences and perspectives on the city. Maybe we could even collaborate on a project that combines your images and my words. I think it would be a fascinating experiment.
If you are interested, please let me know. I hope to see you soon.
– – – –
Thank you for your letter. I was pleasantly surprised to receive it and to learn that you are a fan of my work. I appreciate your kind words and your interest in my approach to the city.
I am intrigued by your proposal of meeting and collaborating on a project. I think it could be an interesting challenge and an opportunity to explore the city in a new way. However, I have some reservations about your style and your attitude.
You say that you are a lover of the urban spectacle and the hidden stories, but how can you truly appreciate them if you remain anonymous and invisible? How can you interpret reality if you do not engage with it? How can you write down your impressions, your thoughts, and your feelings if you do not express them?
You say that you challenge the ugliness, the boredom, and the monotony of the city, that you create the impossible reality, that you surprise yourself. You say that you are more adventurous and more fun than me because you make the world listen to you.
You see, I believe that the city is not just a stage but a playground. It is not enough to observe; one must participate. It is not enough to write; one has to create. That is why I use my camera as a tool, as a weapon, as a friend. I do not just capture moments; I create them. I do not just document reality, I transform it.
I think that is what makes me more creative than you. I do not limit myself to the existing reality, but I invent new ones. I do not follow the rules, but I make my own. I do not hide behind a notebook and a pen, but I expose myself to the world.
I hope you do not take this as an offense but as a challenge. I respect your choice to be a Flaneur, but I invite you to try something different. Step out of your comfort zone and join me in the adventure of being a Street Photographer.
If you are still interested, please let me know. I will be wearing a fedora, my camera, and a smile. I hope to see you soon.
A Street Photographer
People often read photography books or take classes or workshops to “get inspiration,” as they say. When asked why they are not shooting, ”I need inspiration” is often the answer. They would rather sit on the couch, watch TV or do anything but head out.
From experience, firsthand, and based on fellow photographers’ responses when questioned, it is often not inspiration they need but rather “motivation” they need. Or what I like to call “A Kick in the Ass.”
I have seen this many times. If I call someone up and ask them to head out and shoot, it’s not the inspiration I give them that makes them come out; it’s the motivation, the little nudge or push. I have even had photographers not want to attend a weekend workshop they have already paid for. After a little coercing, they relent. Usually, after I remind them about the money they spent, is money, or the potential wasted money, inspiration, or motivation?
I have often thought about why that is. Why do they use “I need Inspiration” as an excuse? The answer is L O V E. Ok, not hot wild passionate love of another person, but passion for the photography you do. I have found that those wannabe street photographers usually only head out in groups or with friends. They never head out on their own. On the other side, passionate street shooters tend to want to head out all the time. When in town in Vancouver or any other city, I always want to head out and shoot. I have even found myself heading out without a camera just to “observe” people, the streets, the city, and the hustle.
Even in the non-street genres, many “photographers” only head out with others. It’s not photography but rather the social aspect of shooting with someone else or with a group or club that many people love. And frankly, that’s OK.
But, as an active instructor, teacher, judge, and photographer, I have noticed firsthand that photographers who often head out on their own create the majority of the best images I see, whether at a club, in competition, or within artists’ circles. By heading out, I mean shooting on their own, even just in a studio or darkroom.
These photographers are not loners, well, not all of them, but rather they are fixated on their task of shooting or creating. It’s the photography and not the social aspect that drives them. It’s the love of the craft and the art that both motivates and inspires them. It is easy heading out when you love to do something or be in a situation or location that allows you to photograph what you love, whether in the wilderness photographing bears, on the coast shooting seascapes, or in the city shooting the streets.
Whether these photographers love the situation or location more than doing the photography itself, I do not know the answer. Still, I will get some answers from fellow photographers in the weeks and months ahead.
Where do you fit in? Is it about photography, travel, location, friends, or social interaction? Do you find yourself heading out on your own or just with others? Is it Inspiration or Motivation you need? Do you even know what the difference is? Let us know.
Last Sunday I partook in a Photowalk with the Vancouver Street Photographers Consortium. It was a planned outing with the Delta Photo Club. We met at The Gallery George in Vancouver where some images from the VanSPC was on display. There were some great images on display. After some time we headed out in three groups led by members of the VanSPC. We lucked out as the weather was spectacular.
They challenged us with a Scavenger Hunt by handing out a card with a list of ten things to photograph. I have had very little (read NO) shooting in the last one and a half years because of personal reasons. Add to that the fact I headed out with a new camera I am not familiar with including a new focal length lens. Trying out 27mm vs 23mm focal.
Here are the results. Not keepers, but not bad for a 1 hour 45 minute walk while mostly chatting with both members of the walk and some individuals I met on the street. I think, all in all, not a bad day.
I like the Scavenger Hunt card as it focuses you to look and find images. It’s why I love ‘projects’. We will touch on Projects in an upcoming blog. Not the Learning Project but specific, detailed art projects that can elevate your work and can help you through uninspired dog days.
I am fairly happy with the results. I loved being back out in the street shooting. It reminded me of why I love Street Photography. The ‘people.’ It also was a great prep for tackling Paris in nine days.
I missed many shots on this day. Practice, need more practice. Almost all the images were shot blind either from the hip or from a quick lift without using the viewfinder or back display (which I usually leave off.)
As you probably noticed most of my imagery is ‘square cropped.’ I love challenging myself to that format but sometimes it just doesn’t work. As with this next image I struggled with making it square. I will probably return to it and spend more time exploring if square will work.
This day was another first. It was the very first time in all my years of shooting digital that I did not shoot RAW. All my shooting was in JPG, all in B&W. Done. No decisions to make. It is what it is. All the images have less than 10 seconds of editing and that includes the cropping decisions. I will revisit and re-edit my favorites.
This last image of the ten on the list is far from perfect. But there are elements I like very much. This is the kind of image or scene that you can revisit and work on until you get all the stars to align properly. Perhaps something to work with in Paris. What would it look like at night? With Lights?
It was a great way to spend a gorgeous afternoon with friends doing what I love to do. It would have been a great day, with, or without a camera.
Another way to learn from the masters is to study them. When we use the term study, however, many people fail at how to actually study a master. It’s not a simple act of just looking at images. That helps, and, you can learn a lot from observing images. But how do you truly ‘learn’ from them?
Part of that is understanding ‘what’ you can learn from them. Are you wanting to learn that this photographer was born in 1908 and died in 2014 and was responsible for coining the phrase “the decisive moment?” There is more to Henri Cartier-Bresson than the decisive moment.
When we look at the ‘what’ do we want to learn from them, ideally, we want to learn everything. We want to learn the five W’s and the H. The Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How, and we want to learn a bit more than that. The 5 W’s are important, but the ‘How’ and the ‘bit more’ are where you will learn and grow as an artist.
If we look at Saul Leiter for example, the important stuff is that he was an iconoclast and he used various signature framing techniques such as out-of-focus areas and other devices such as reflective surfaces; He used bold Colors (part of his iconoclast philosophy of the time) and somehow managed to create visual poetry. All of this is important. And knowing this is less important than knowing ‘how’ he did this, how he created the poetry, and more importantly, how to re-create these techniques and how to use or incorporate those devices in your work.
The idea is not to copy the works you are studying, although learning how to copy images is always a great learning opportunity, but rather to learn new skills and techniques and choose which of these techniques and devices will enhance your works and will better reflect your voice and vision so you can create your own visual poetry and develop your own style.
This post is not about breaking down Saul Leiter’s images, but rather giving you a guide and pathway on how you can get there yourself, studying any photographers’ images. Interestingly, you can use the same tools to study your own images! More on that later.
Part 1 – The Images
The best way to do this is to have a bunch of the photographers’ images on hand. One can do this using a book and then using memory and image-by-image comparisons, but the best way is to print out a bunch of 5×7 images. The more images the better. They do not need to be ultra-high quality, but they should be good enough to see some details and somewhat accurate colors. This is difficult to accomplish if the images are too small. 4” x 5.5” is not too bad if you print them yourself as they are simply 8.5” x 11” sheets cut into quarters or packs of 4” x 6” paper is available.
You need 20 to 40 images for this to work well and to help you spot smaller little devices that may be used less seldom than the 2 or 3 blatant devices that are easy to spot even from memory when browsing a book. You need more than 10 but even small numbers can work well, especially when assessing your own “projects”.
Part 2 – Observing and Studying
Lay all the images out on a surface in a grid and start observing and studying them. Look at EVERYTHING. Look for ANYTHING.
Where are the images sharp and think about why those particular areas are sharp? Do they make sense? Is the main subject in focus or is the focus on a secondary background element that the maker wanted you to look at?
Where are they out of focus and why are those areas out of focus? Are they simply shallow Depth-of-Field from a large aperture or are the out-of-focus caused by compression of areas objects that include objects near the camera? In Saul Leiter’s case, those blurry areas and negative space act as bounding or framing areas and are often blurred on purpose, shallow DOF, or caused by elements near the camera being incorporated into the image.
Is there any blur? Out of focus? Is it intentional? Why was it done? What shutter speed was used from a stationary camera or was the camera manipulated?
Are the majority of the images Black & White or Color? What is the importance or significance of that choice? How does that choice affect the work? Note that the choice of Black & White or Color can greatly change how your images are viewed and what message they will convey.
Are the Black & White images somewhat Flat or are they very High Contrast? Are shadows exaggerated, on purpose, or, are they naturally dark shadowed locations on bright days? Remember to always look at the light and the dark areas.
Do the Black & White images show any grain? Is it in all the images or just some? Is it constant in texture and size (based on the original source and, how you have printed them, the grain and other details, may or may not be visible.)
Are the B&W Images toned? Or split-toned?
Are the colors muted, pastels, or big and bold like Saul Leiter’s? Are most of the colors all the same? Is it on purpose, based on local, or a natural attraction of the photographers? Do the Color images look natural or are the colors off? Are the colors different because of a choice of film or digital filter or manipulation? If so, what film was used, or what digital technique or digital film simulation was used to change or manipulate the colors? Learn to recognize what colors are off and what colors have they shifted to.
You can see from the above questions just how complex this all can get. We haven’t even touched on Compositional Elements or Techniques or Photographic Devices, technical elements such as choice of lens or format, or even on how (what technique) was used to get the images. Then we need to look at physical components within the images themselves including subject matter and other secondary or supporting objects. What creative elements are being used, if any?
And let’s not forget about the mood or the story. What is the photographer trying to say, if anything?
Even simple little things can show up in images. A solitary rock somewhere off on the side or even on the sidewalk or curb within the image. It may be there or it may have been planted by the photographer on purpose as a ‘trademark’ or device that shows up in ALL their images. The variables are limitless.
What you will find is that most photographers who have a style will have some or many of these elements and devices show up in most of their images.
Part 3 – Identify
The goal is to Identify what all these elements and devices are. This can get tricky based on how long a photographer has photographed as their style may have evolved and changed over the years. It may also change based on a subject matter or even based on the photographer’s projects.
Identify and create (write down) a list of the elements and devices you spot.
Part 4 – Grouping
This is where grouping images can help. It’s sometimes a good idea with a prolific long-time photographer to group images by date. Or with a photographer that shoots different projects to arrange images by project, but before you do, try this.
Based on all the images in front of you, re-arrange the images into groups of images that look similar or work well together. Do they ALL work well as a group of images or do they seem to naturally split up into various groups? Are there any outliers (images that do not fit within the framework of the other groups?)
Part 5 – Identify by Group
Now try identifying the elements and devices by the group. This will usually be easier as you will be working with similar images. What makes them similar?
How is one group different from the other groups?
Are there any elements, devices, or similarities that are in several groups?
If you found some outliers, why are they outliers? Identify why they are different and notice the elements that are missing and not making fit within any of the other groups.
Part 6 – Observe the Natural Groups
This often is the fun part. These groups you created often will group themselves by date, or a different phase of a photographer’s development, or often by the different projects the photographer works/worked on.
It’s possible these are not projects but rather the photographer’s affinity or attraction to specific elements, devices or subjects. Some photographers NEVER actively work on projects.
Check to see if these groups have any significance. If the photographer has iconic images, are they mostly from the same group? Are they from a similar period in the photographer’s development or are they scattered in time?
With some photographers, you can get a history of different phases in their life. It’s a bit more work but sometimes the groups or certain types of images will come from certain periods in someone’s life. Pre or post-drug addiction, loss of a spouse or child, a move from photographing one genre to another, you get the point.
Part 7 – Chose a Group
Find a group you like best or that you are attracted to. Once you have identified and written down all the elements and devices used within that group, set out to detail all the elements. What are they, and how are they created? Was a specific lens used? What was the aperture or shutter speed? Distance? Lighting? Composition?
Be specific with all your details. Write them down. This list will become important.
NOTE: A reminder that writing things down is a great way to learn but more importantly a great way to force yourself to learn about your emotions, your art, and how to verbalize what your art and emotions are about. A large part of this is learning what vocabulary to use.
Part 8 – The Blueprint
Search in books or online how a photographer photographed. What equipment did they use? What camera? What lens? How did they specifically shoot? What settings did they use? Fixed focus? From the hip? Find out all you can and then look at the images again. Is what you have read about the photographer’s work reflected within the images in front of you?
If something isn’t clear, i.e. doesn’t make sense, make some guesses and write them down. You can do this photograph by photograph.
Part 9 – Shoot!
Now you are equipped with a roadmap to photograph just like the person you are trying to emulate and learn from. This site is about Street Photography but the same applies to ANY of the genres.
Equip yourself with the camera and lens you think you need to re-create the images (no, you don’t need a Leica). Familiarize yourself with the Exposures (over/under) you will need, the Shutter Speeds and Apertures you will need, and set your camera appropriately.
Head out and shoot using the same skills and techniques and be mindful of the elements and devices you are trying to mimic. Think lightness/darkness, shadows, silhouettes, composition, Color, and whatever elements you had on your written list.
If you are heading out on a different day or on different days, it’s a good idea to re-read the list as a reminder just before you head out to shoot. This will help you with visualizing and spotting the elements subconsciously when you see them.
Part 10 – Print Your Work
Print some of your better images and put them into the images of the group you used for creating your studied photographer’s blueprint. How well do your images fit in? What works? What doesn’t? What needs to change? How will you change it?
Part 11 – Shoot and Repeat
Shoot again until you get it right. It may be a technique, or it may be composition or any of the elements. Make notes on what’s right and not right. Figure out what you need to change to make it right. Ask fellow photographers for help if you need it. Another eye can be very helpful.
Repeat this process until you master their style. Every step along the way will be a learning experience.
Part 12 – Final Step
Once you have mastered the style and look you are after, you can choose another group of images to emulate, or you can move on to another photographer to mimic.
The idea is to learn all the techniques and shooting styles you can and then incorporate these into your work. You want to shoot with specific elements and devices that will complement your style and will enhance your voice and will help you tell the story you want.
You want to choose elements and devices that speak to you, and you want to photograph the subject matter that speaks to you. By this, I do not mean shooting ‘Street Photography’ but rather small slices or parts of Street Photography that you like and that speak to you. You need to love what you are doing and photographing, and you should shoot for yourself, not please others. This is another post for another time, just remember to be true to yourself and your images will be better.
See you on the streets.