Definition: Street Photography

Definition: Street Photography | Glossary entry

Street Photography

A genre of photography. Street photography photos are mostly candid and taken on the street, public or open places. Despite the diverse appearance of street shots, they tend to have common elements. This street photography definition shows what they are.

The idea behind a street photography definition

The concept of “street” is open to interpretation. Many “street” photographs are taken in indoor public places, or in popular places outside the urban environment. The use of the term “street” really refers to everyday human activity taking place outside the home. The street photography definition must take account of the places people live and work. Their environment is the context for this. The “man-made” context is the important idea.

Street photogs, often consider themselves documentary photographers. They capture a picture of life as it happens. The essence of the people and the environment together creates the scene. It projects something about the characters in it and the context in which they find themselves. Fixed in time, the photograph tells future generations what it was like “back then”.

The idea of a documentary shot is not the only idea behind a street photography definition. There are lots of ways to think about observations of human nature. The ‘crowd’ approach shows us a group animal. The solitary study shows the nature of a person in the street. A unusual capture shows eccentricity or uniqueness. The idea is to show all aspects of what being human is about. Our street photography definition is therefore about this context and how it is depicted.

Street photography definition – Framing and environment

A street photography definition must take account the context of the art. Without these shots being taken in a street or street related scene the point is lost. One of the unique things about street photography is the context. Our streets are an environment unique to humans. Animals can be found there. But they do not naturally create it or interact with it. Not in a purposeful way like we do. So it is important to ensure the photog depicts the environment as one of the central ideas. The setting is the central part of the art of street photography.

Framing the shot, the composition of the background and the environment itself are basics for a good street shot. The shot can be ruined by many things. Over-lapping subjects obscure the meaning of the shot. Complex activity is a difficult story for the viewer to understand. Worst of all distractions for the eye can draw the viewers eye away from your main point.

Street photography definition – behaviour

The street photographer should work to isolate and highlight the subject. At the same time minimise people and actions which are unimportant to the shot. The essence of good street work is to simplify the shot. Street photographers also aim to capture the subject(s) expressing themselves in some way. Another way to think about a street photography definition is to include human behaviour.

Street photography definition – timing

Another important aspect of street photography is timing. A good street photographer will see a scene coming together in advance of the shot. They will need to visualise the picture. Then take steps to prepare the framing. Also they must be ready for the correct placement. It is important to get your street subject in the right place. Otherwise the impact will be lost. This will all occur in seconds. However, the most important aspect of timing is to anticipate the scene. Work it so it happens in a suitable place. Make the shot uncomplicated and uncluttered.

Street photography definition – hit rate

The chaotic nature of the ‘street’ scene can be a difficult photography environment. Street photos also need a big emotional commitment from the photographer themselves. It takes practice to be good at it. It also takes a certain observational skill to see things coming or to know what your viewer finds interesting. This complex of pressures means a low hit rate is likely. However, with practice, anticipating scenes, encountering interesting situations and knowing where to find suitable scenes will all raise your street photography hit rate and the quality of the shots. The hit rate is not a central idea in a street photography definition. It is however a reminder of how important the observation of human behaviour is for this art. The thinking street photog will consider depicting the interest they see. Good street work rarely results from machine gun button pressing.

A simple street photography definition?

The art of street photography is highly diverse. As diverse and varied as the people it depicts. As a result it is almost impossible to give a strict street photography definition. Instead the common elements we all recognise help define it. Street photography is about showing us in two ways. It shows us as human in a collective. It shows us as individual, unique. The tension between these is the interest. They are drawn together by the environment, the man-made context.

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By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.