JoziFolk - images of everyday life in South Africa


What the heck is street photography? - and how to be better at it

I knew it was just a matter of time before some kid stopped to interact with the statue of Nelson Mandela. I positioned myself for the angle I wanted, the right light etc and waited for the decisive moment, when all the elements would come together. I figured it someone would show the bronze of Mandela some love - and I was right. Look carefully at the image below.

It seems a simple question: what is street photography?

At first glance the answer appears easy - it's capturing images of people in public places.

But it is both more and less than that.

Wikipaedia defines street photography as:

Photography that features the human condition within public places and does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. The subject of the photograph might be absent of people and can be an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic."

Some would define it as 'candid' photography, implying a sort of 'grab-the-moment-with-little-or-no-planning-in-the shot' and in many cases that can be the case. But, if we accept that definition then, we must exclude all street photography where the author pre-visualized a photograph, planned where to place him or herself, considered the composition, contrast and graphic qualities of the final image and waited for the critical moment that all those elements came together. If a street photograph can only be a candid photograph, then we must dismiss much of the work of some of the greatest street photographers in history.

Must be unplanned?

There are teachers of the genre who strongly maintain, street photography must be unplanned.

"If you’re controlling any of the elements in the scene, then it starts to become a conceptual or even outdoor studio shoot – posed models in public definitely do not count as street photography: the photographer knew (or should have known) exactly what poses, look and lighting he wanted before beginning the shoot," writes Ming Thein.

 "You certainly wouldn’t hire a model and get shooting permission if you had no intention to shoot there, would you? There is also a reactive element to it – spontaneity and the ability to anticipate are both critical tools for the street photographer. You really never know what you’re going to get on any given day, and that’s what draws photographers to the genre: a never-ending source of material."

Point taken but consider the following example:

You're out on the streets looking to capture candid moments when you realise a nearby statue will, later in the day, cast a wonderfully interesting shadow on a wall, below which will be a pool of light. To complete the scene, all you need is a businessman hurrying through the light-pool at precisely the right moment - when all the elements are in place, later in the afternoon.

For the next few minutes you carefully consider where to stand to get the angle you need to turn your mental picture into reality and decide what time you must be in place, ready to shoot the image. You hope an appropriate-looking businessman will step into your 'kill-zone' at the right moment but, one thing is certain, you'll be there, waiting and ready, if and when he does.

Significant moment

There is nothing 'candid', spontaneous or unplanned about the image you PLAN to shoot and I contend it qualifies as a 'street-photograph'. It is more about capturing a 'decisive moment' than a 'candid moment', although a candid moment could also be a decisive moment.

Street photography is about decisive moments - an implication the moment captured is somehow significant.

Too much street photography is insignificant. Images of random people walking the streets, with no indication or context of why the photographer believed they were important enough to photograph. There is no story or implied story. Nothing that makes a viewer stop, take a second look and wonder. No emotion is evoked and all we are left to wonder about is, so it's a picture of people walking on the sidewalk, so what?


To be successful, a street photograph must at least be interesting. At the same time, I accept, something I may find interesting and enthralling may be boring and trite to you. But, at the very least, I should be able to articulate why I thought the photograph was significant enough to me, to take it in the first place.

In my street photography workshops I try to emphasise the importance of planning to students. They should look at scenes and visualize how components within that scene could come together to produce an image that is (to them and hopefully others) meaningful and significant. They must know what the story is they want to tell and why it is sufficiently significant, before they press the shutter. What is that single moment that locks down what they wants to say with their photograph?

Without knowing those elements before-hand, street photography becomes a completely hit-and-miss affair with many more misses than hits.

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