7 Street Photography Rules That Should Be Broken


There is an all-too-common path that many people follow when they begin to practice street photography. They grab their camera, go to the busiest place they can find, and capture people head-on over and over again.

While this is certainly something that you should do, it is not the only thing. I want to dispel a few myths about street photography to help broaden the content that you photograph. There is a wide range of ways to capture interesting street photographs for you to try.

Plant, Chase Bank

Plant, Chase Bank

1. People need to be present in the image

Street photography is about people, but it does not have to include them. This type of photography is about life, and you do not need to smack a person in the middle of a frame to have it be a street shot.

The goal for this type of photography is to capture unique and interesting moments that mean something to you. There is no rule for how to do this without people in the frame, but the goal is to go beyond the typical pretty landscape shot, and foster some sort of meaning and uniqueness within the image.

No matter where you live, but particularly if you live in a less populated area, it can be good to focus on this idea. Explore your surroundings and try to explain it through your imagery. Include people when you can, and when it furthers your aim, but look for unique shots of your surroundings at the same time.

If you find a great area with beautiful light, then capture it like it is. It is a typical mistake for photographers to mess up a really interesting scene by including any random passerby. Often people seem to think that this passerby is what makes the image a street image, but that could not be further from the truth. If you find a good background and want a person to be in the shot, that person needs to be able to add to the photograph. Otherwise, try to just capture the scene as it is.

2. You can only photograph on busy city streets

Front Yard, Burbank, California

Front Yard, Burbank, California

Explore the work of Martin Parr, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Robert Frank, and Trent Parke, among others. Some of these photographers have photographed prolifically in very busy places, but all of them photographed, at some point or another, in areas devoid of people. Whether it is a shot of a busy beach/resort scene or a shot of a British pastry, you can still identify an image that was created by Martin Parr. Lee Friedlander’s images all have an eerie and dark quality to them (at least that’s how they make me feel) no matter if they were taken on a New York street corner, in a hotel room, or on an empty street in the suburbs. Study the works of these photographers taken in less populated areas and figure out which images appeal to you the most and why.

Street Photography can be done almost anywhere. Great photographers have a knack for learning how to take strong photographs in areas that others may think of as lacking content. Go to areas that you think would be terrible for photography, and try to figure out how to take a good photograph there. This is a very powerful exercise for your growth.

3. Never photograph a person’s back / You must always include the face

Hands, SoHo, NYC.

Hands, SoHo, NYC.

While the face is one of the most powerful ways to show emotion in an image, it is not always necessary to include it, particularly if it has a boring expression. Missing a person’s face because of bad technique or fear is one thing; if the face is good, you should capture it. But gestures, hands, a pose, clothing, or a specific element on a person can all be the most interesting part of an image. In these cases, it might be best to get close and capture just that interesting element. Doing that, and getting in close to the details, can also give an image a graphic quality that makes shapes, lines, and colors stand out.

4. You need a lot of depth and many different things happening in the scene for it to be effective

Bags, SoHo, NYC.

Bags, SoHo, NYC.

I very much like shooting this way and if you are a fan of Alex Webb’s work, you probably already understand the allure of a complex image that shows multiple levels of interest, all put together in a single frame. When done well these images can be incredible. They are wow images. These are situations that you should seek out.

However, compositions like this do not make the photograph good. What makes a photograph good is what is happening in it. Search for that first, and then you can figure out whether it will be better to create a complex image with a lot of supporting elements, or whether it will be better to just focus on the main element. It will be counterproductive if you walk out the door looking to create only images like Alex Webb. Look for interesting things and then figure out the best way to frame them.

5. Great street photographs are all about luck

As photographers we create our own luck. There is an element of randomness to every candid photograph, but the reality is that thousands of these “lucky” moments occur around us everyday that we don’t see.

Photography is both about waiting for these moments and about seeking them out. If you put in the time to shoot, you will come across many moments, no matter where you are. As you improve as a photographer, more moments will not occur around you, you will just get better at noticing them.

6. Street photography is about being bold

Hair Tug, SoHo, NYC.

Hair Tug, SoHo, NYC.

Some street photographers are very extroverted and bold. Some are quiet and timid. Some get in your face with a flash, and some wait carefully for something to happen in front of them. Work around whatever personality you have. If you are an introvert, then there is a good chance that getting a running start as you pounce on a person with a flash like Bruce Gilden will be tougher for you to pull off. It’s important to create a strategy of shooting that feels comfortable for you. Otherwise, if you are not having fun out there, then you are not going to want to put in the time necessary to get good images.

No matter what, you are going to have to bring yourself out of your comfort zone. You are going to have to figure out what you want your images to look like, and what you need to do to pull that off. If you want to use a zoom lens, use it because you like the look of a telephoto image, not because you are afraid to get close. If you are afraid to get close, use a light wide-angle lens, pick a spot, and let people come to you. Inch a little closer each time. You do not have to jump in there with cameras blazing to capture a good image. Figure out how to locate moments that are interesting and then develop your way of being able to put yourself in the right spot to capture them. Over time you will improve and feel like you belong there.

7. Street photography is about the extraordinary

There is a typical moment that I come across when teaching. I will be photographing with a student and suddenly a person with red, blue, or green hair, or covered in tattoos, will pass by. The student will take that shot faster than any shot they’ve taken the whole day. That hair or the tattoos just clicked as an interesting street image in their minds. Red hair can be interesting, but it is just one element. While it stands out and feels extraordinary and different, it’s not actually that unique.

Street photography can focus on anything. It can be colorful, mundane, ordinary, or something overt. A lot of the most incredible street photography actually captures ordinary moments in ways that feel extraordinary. Street photography is about finding the extraordinary in all types of moments. Do not just sit there looking for red hair. Seek out people and scenes that fly below the radar, and capture what makes them interesting.

Fence, East Village, NYC.

Fence, East Village, NYC.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

  • Wayne Beason

    I started out with a cell phone. Living in an urban area street photography and architecture is where I started. This is one of my early shots using my cannon sx30

  • I’m still not comfortable with street photography. I can’t get in people’s faces, mountains are nice because they don’t worry about people looking at them. But the few times I’ve done it I’ve had a lot of fun. I definitely see the appeal, and I’d like to explore that photography more.

  • Mike Schmitt

    Great article. Thanks so much. Much of what you said struck a cord with how I have been feeling.

  • Andrew E. Brown

    Mountains just told me they hate it when we photograph them. They feel bloated and fat, and our pictures show them as lazy and lethargic. They asked that you were interested, then you should try street photography and if someone says something, show them the picture (if you can). And I say this especially for any pictures of kids (being a big bearded guy in a very conservative area of Central Florida, I’d hate for them to think I was a pedo). Sometimes people are more acceptable when they see the artistic value of the picture; if not, just delete it, it’ll come around again.

    Also John Free explained it through the 22° rule. Turn slightly and pretend to take the picture, turn to them and take the picture, then turn a little further and pretend to take another picture. Do this in whatever order you need to so you can get the picture you’re after. Then you’re just someone taking pictures, and they just happened to be in one. It’s helped me, an introvert; may it help you as well.

  • Geoff Naylor

    I like the article James, but your photo accompanying the title ‘Never photograph a person’s back’ is a good example of why faces are important. The positioning of the hands – throat, hair, ponytail – just needs something recognisable (like a face maybe?) to make it work. Shot from the opposite direction I’m pretty sure this would have been a much better image…

  • Thanks for the comment Geoff. I disagree with you here. The point of the photograph is the nervous ticks of the hands. That’s what’s recognizable, particularly with the repetition of the four hands doing similar nervous things. The faces would be minimally important if shown and since faces draw your eyes to them immediately, that would actually take away attention from what is most important here.

  • Happy you thought so Mike – thanks for the comment!

  • Keep trying it Kerensky – unless you’re the most outgoing of people, you’re not going to feel comfortable unless you keep trying it. Park yourself in a spot and wait for things to happen around you. Then go back to that same spot another time. Eventually you will feel like you belong there.

  • Thanks Lethivant! Good comments. And yeah, I love color street images.

  • Jack Gill

    Great wake-up call James, I’ve always headed for the crowds and fell into the must have people trap.

  • Yvonne

    Just couldn’t resist snapping these two standing in the pouring England rain with the standard accessory, the umbrella

  • Erin Peacock

    James, thanks for this article. Numbers one and two resonate with me a lot, especially since I don’t live in a large city. There are definitely beautiful and interesting things in my community though. I hope you are well! I look forward to more words of wisdom and many more beautiful photos from you.

  • Thanks Jack!

  • Hi Erin! Glad you feel this way and hope you’re well too. Hope I inspired you to go out shooting more!

  • janet.taylor24
  • That’s a cool photo

  • Like Erin, I too found 1 and 2 helpful. I love to look at others’ street shots but living as I do in a very small island rural community, it can be challenging to find suitable subjects. I took myself out to the neighbouring “big” island and wandered around town with my camera, trying to look unassuming. I got what I think may be some good shots but am inhibited from sharing them due to the very small size of our islands (Orkney) – somebody is bound to see photos of their-selves, a friend or a relative and I fear the fireworks! Anyway, being brave – here is an example of a shot I might have done better with if not shooting from the hip like a scaredy-cat. A considered shot might have focused on the interesting shoes, getting the second girl’s boots fully in the frame, and the bag in juxtaposition with the shoe shop window. I quite like the shot as it is, with the added interest from the wet ground reflections but I do see how taking time over the composition might have resulted in something far better. What do you think?

  • Is it “Street” if it’s an indoor shot? I really love this sneaky coffee shop shot, taken whilst pretending to review my images on the back of the camera

  • Klaus

    Street photography without people is called architecture or street art. Everything that can not be unambiguously classified is called Street. This is superficial. Nowadays,
    when many photographers use mobile phones to capture God and the world
    as a memory, to call this and many so-called street pictures as street,
    is almost a disrespectful attitude towards the old masters and those who
    are serious about it today.
    Even the lack of studying
    the past 40 – 70 years is superficial, but this is not the case that
    there are not a few outstanding talents.

    So please check their statement and attitude and respect the demands that street photography should meet.

    Greetings Klaus KDKPHOTO.de / Twitter: KDKPHOTO

  • KC

    Great points. Street Photography is about being a part of a public space. When people are involved it gets into a gray zone of “private space”. You can either be incredibly obvious about what you’re doing so people have the ability to “opt out”, or near invisible. Then there’s the “paparazzi” factor and all the negative baggage that that has acquired.

    Fortunately, we have a long history to fall back on. There’s the subtlety of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Dorothea Lange come to mind. Then you go to the other side of the spectrum to Weegee (Arthur Fellig) who was about as subtle as a brick to the side of your head. It’s not just the images, but their backstory that informed their
    techniques. Very different artists with very different cameras.

    Jumping back to the present, it’s a technique. I think some of it is based on visualizing and awareness. Some of it is based on camera handling. I don’t see a lot about either topic these days. Awareness doesn’t need much explanation. Visualizing is a bigger topic. Are you seeing as your camera “sees”? It’s a bit easier with a fixed focal length (or setting a focal length on a zoom). It takes practice. Once you have that, it becomes one fluid motion to bring the camera up and capture the image and bring it back down.

    The opposite technique is make the camera and your actions really obvious. You become “background noise” and invisible. Maybe. Some cameras are noisy.

    Here’s a thought that just popped up and I may not put this into words correctly/precisely. When you have a “big camera” people react differently than when have a “small camera”. There’s something intimidating about having a big camera and lens pointed at or near you. Maybe it’s the photographer’s face being covered up, the break in eye contact, the action itself. That’s just an observation. I’ve toyed with that long enough to be aware it happens in the studio and on the street.

    I’m not going to drift into “what camera is best” for this type of photography. I’ve done it with anything I have with me at the moment. I lean towards a pocket camera just out of experience. Fortunately, there’s some excellent ones out there.

  • Moira Lavigillante

    One of my favourite street shots. I call it Guns and Roses.
    Taken in Valencia. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/857158d4aa49ac3114cbcf21034ba08cbcf34b63e31e6d093ee4921fc06f086b.jpg

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