Street Photography Bible: The Lightness of Seeing

There are many other ways. This is the purist’s way. One of the beauties of the purist’s street photography is its lightness. Carrying around a big tank? Might be the death of this art that is what you make it to be. Street photography is relaxing, no one assigns your time, but the whole world becomes a stage with everyone an actor on it. This unconstrained ease, this play without an end and everyone has a role, it’s what lies at the heart of street photography.

World's Fair, New York | Garry Winogrand
World’s Fair, New York | Garry Winogrand
Trying to influence a scene kills street photography. Street photography is the unfiltered way things are.

What tool’s required? Any camera. Film, a smartphone, mirrorless, just try to avoid big bulky gear. Why? You’d be more easily distracted.

No matter what budget, there is always a camera. Improvise… that’s the street. An art and way of life. It’s there. Always. No matter what gear.

Part of the street’s fascination is that it makes all of us feel part of a bigger whole without changing a thing. Street photography doesn’t impose itself upon anyone. It’s a silent observer lying in wait for the decisive moment. Or try the indecisive one. That’s the beauty of street photography. No one knows what to expect next. The few who are masters of the craft tried and failed and stood up again only to try and fail and stand up again. There is no lucky moment. Just the cumulation of place and time and the eye.

Street photography is a play that’s never played twice. Just always carry that camera and blend in. Sure we’ll want the occasional portrait. Just don’t get noticed. Glancing at each other quickly is fine, go for the shot. Then disappear again, silently. You’re a hunter in the thick of it. Go kill that deer with a knife. That’s the work that will impress.

NYC | Matt Weber
NYC | Matt Weber
A zoom? Taboo in street photography. You’re voyeur, fetishist, a ghost up close and so personal to live and feel the moment others live and feel. Street photography is like witnessing others’ sweat and tears like feeling your own sweat and tears.

A wide angle forces you to step in and be intimate with your subject, albeit you’re just a bystander, have nothing to say or add or judge. Even asking for permission to photograph contradicts the very essence of street photography. You’re an invisible witness who previsualizes for that through the aesthetic rendition of your lens even the monotony of a sleepy suburb fills with life.

It’s the daily everyday routine that’s the story. Many don’t and will never see it. Unnoticed many stories pass… until someone with a light bag and nothing else needed notices.

It’s not street photography if it doesn’t come naturally. There are no rules and no laws, just exposure and composition. A building is hardly ever a subject or object. Street photography is about the human being, human condition and human zoo. Pain and sorrow and laughter without any posing and faking, that’s the photography you’re after.

Broken | Ronn Aldaman
Broken | Ronn Aldaman
Is street photography black and white only? The world is never black and white, but black and white is a language universally understood. We all see colors differently. The choice is yours.

The most iconic photos are wide angle, minimal bokeh, often not even sharp — and black and white. They’re intimate and up close. The image does not show anger. It is anger. It doesn’t show joy. It is joy.

Worrying about perfection is the death of street photography. Just practice. Light is everything. Know your distance, metering, angle of view.

Operating the camera must become second nature. Practice, fail, be patient, never shy and always respectful because you care. Street photography has to do a lot with loving and respecting each other.

Street photography is applied psychology. Only knowing and understanding the human condition will reveal the human condition to the lens. Inherent compassion for fellow human beings will shine through the photograph.

And screw those MTF charts. A good photograph doesn’t care about MTF. Care about grain that can be beautiful, mind noise that’s ugly and play with light.

Now forget everything you just read. Be yourself. Let go.

You love the street, you love life, you’re passionate.

Take the camera everywhere.

Then choose the best 100 images.

Throw away 99.

Repeat again.

And again.

Until there’s only one left.

You just captured life.

Start anew.

  • Pan


  • Who wrote this, Jack Kerouac? Boy those were the days, “Dharma Bums”, “On the Road”. Kerouac’s introduction to Robert Frank’s “The Americans is wonderful”.

    While there may be some things to correct in this short piece it has a flair we need to respect, and overlook some inconsistencies.

    There are two things though.

    One is I think when out and about taking photographs (I do not think of myself as a street photographer but, seeking people I tend to find myself a lot n the street) there is a certain interaction, and participation in the world and of the world too. Some call it accident. I think it is the result of how the world and you, as a photographer get along.

    Photographer as purely observer in my opinion is not only an error but an impossibility. The world is not a thing to be observed, it is to be participated in. And like it or not, you do, even if you think you are just an observer. Standing there “observing only”? The world will know. And even if you get a structurally great image, it will be lacking life.

    Yes I agree there is truth in “worrying about perfection is the death of street photography”, as one who looks only to show what he or she is capable of as a photographer can lead to a show of sterile images, no matter how well composed.

    You need allow the zen, forget yourself, and possibly find yourself by losing yourself.

  • Valid points Ronn. With invisibility I mean:

    It always takes time to make yourself “disappear” when mingling with people.

    After a while people start ignoring you and go along their business as if you wouldn’t be there.

    It’s these expressions I’m after, when people don’t seem to be aware of the photographer’s presence anymore and drop all artificiality.

    Interaction with the subject/object yes, unavoidable and necessary, but only to the point of making the camera become irrelevant a.k.a. there’s no need for people to act any different with a camera in their presence.

  • Homeros

    I do street photography all the time, with some success, and violate everything you say. I can give you chapter and verse as to how the greats of SP have done so as well.

    You have done no work, no research and no discussion with more knowledgeable people before issuing you cliches.

    Reader should ignore this post.

  • Would you mind to elaborate if you reject the non-imposing approach, the light gear, the letting go?

  • Lighten up Homeros, this is a fun article and no need to be hostile. It is not a thesis.

    If you would be so kind, give a link to your own SP.

    In my opinion you are taking this, and possibly yourself far too seriously.

  • Street photography is such a attractive field to be in. I am totally fascinated to street photography, but yes the capture of the moment should have to be artistic. The way of seeing the things need to be creative as well, a simple scene can be made extraordinary by capturing that in an artistic way.