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7 Street Photography Rules That Should Be Broken

street photography rules that should be broken

Street photography, like most genres of photography, comes with rules: oft-repeated ideas about how you should structure your images, where you should shoot, and the types of subjects you should capture.

But should these street photography rules really be followed? I don’t think so. Sure, they work up to a point, but if you pursue them too diligently, you’ll start to feel trapped, and your photos will start to look like everyone else’s.

In other words, if you want to capture sophisticated, unique photos that really make viewers stop and stare, you’ve got to go beyond the rules. And that’s what this article is all about.

Below, I share seven commonly repeated rules of street photography. And then I explain how you can – and should! – break them whenever you get the chance.

Let’s dive right in.

1. Street photography must contain people

Street shots often contain people, and many beginners only raise the camera when a person is nearby. Yet street photography is really about life, and you do not need to smack a person in the middle of a frame to get a beautiful street image.

street photography rules chase bank

In my view, the goal of street shooting is to capture unique and interesting moments that mean something to you. You can do this by including people in the frame, but you can also capture meaningful images that are devoid of human life.

For instance, you might photograph:

  • Storefronts
  • Buildings
  • Trees in the park
  • Bridges
  • Houses

All of the above are fantastic street photography subject ideas, and the presence of people will often just act as a distraction. Therefore, if you’re prone to including people in your street photos, I’d encourage you to spend some time looking for some non-human subjects. Explore your surroundings and try to describe them through your imagery. Include people 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. Don’t mess up an interesting scene by including random passersby! If you find a good background and want to include a person in the shot, that person needs to add to the photograph. Otherwise, wait for any people to walk on by, then just capture the scene as it is.

2. You can only photograph on busy city streets

Front Yard, Burbank, California street photography rules

A lot of the most famous street photographers did get their start in busy cities, and their images are often full of the hustle and bustle of city life.

Yet if you look deeper, you’ll find that many pioneering street photographers – such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander – worked, at one time or another, in less populous areas.

So if you don’t live in, say, New York City, don’t fret. You can still capture beautiful street photos in the suburbs, in small towns, and even in rural images. You just have to change your approach.

Instead of trying to capture images full of people and energy, look to match the energy of your location. If you live in a small town, try to think in terms of minimalistic compositions and stunning light. If you live in a suburb, consider capturing people working in their yards or going about their daily lives.

Even if you live in the city, I’d encourage you to spend some time shooting in the quieter areas. Go to areas that feel boring and lifeless, then try to figure out how to take a good photo. (It’s a very powerful exercise that’s practically guaranteed to level up your photos.)

3. You must always include your subject’s face

Hands, SoHo, NYC.

While capturing the face makes it easy to show emotion in your street photos, it isn’t always needed. In fact, if your subject features a boring expression, their face may detract from the overall shot!

Of course, if a face looks interesting, go ahead and photograph it. But don’t feel that you must include faces in your photos. And spend some time looking for other elements that convey meaning: gestures, hands, poses, clothing, physical interactions, even slight shifts in posture.

If you find an interesting element, it’s often best to get close and capture just that element. That way, you can highlight the parts of the scene that matter most. And you may even give the image a graphic quality that makes shapes, lines, and colors stand out.

4. The best street photos are complex

Bags, SoHo, NYC.

Sophisticated, layered images are often quite beautiful – check out the work of Alex Webb to see what I mean – and there are plenty of photographers who dedicate themselves to creating complex images that show multiple elements of interest in a single frame.

However, complex compositions don’t make a good street photograph. Instead, what makes a good street photo is what is happening inside.

So instead of seeking out layered compositions, start by searching for interesting subjects and scenes. Then you can figure out whether it makes sense to create a complex image with a lot of supporting elements or whether it’s better to just focus on the main element.

If you walk out the door only seeking to capture complex compositions, you’ll get in your own way, and you’ll often end up frustrated. Look for elements of interest, and then figure out the best way to compose.

5. Great street photographs are all about luck

It’s true: Street photographers do profit from a healthy dose of luck, and the best street photos often include an improbable combination of subjects, lighting, and careful composition.

Yet it’s a mistake to think that luck alone will make great street photos. As a street photographer, you must maximize your own luck. Yes, the best street scenes are lucky, but you must search them out. Thousands of “lucky” moments occur around you every day, and it’s your job to see them.

How do you maximize luck? Here are a few simple ways:

  • Find good backgrounds, then wait for the right subject or interesting event to appear in front of your camera
  • Spend lots of time on the street with your camera in hand
  • Work on expanding your awareness of your surroundings
  • Head to areas with a lot going on; that way, you increase your chances of encountering interesting moments

If you put in the time, and you learn to look, you’ll notice many “lucky” moments, no matter where you live. And as you improve as a photographer and gain experience, you’ll see more and more opportunities – not because you’re luckier, but because you’re better at identifying the right moments.

6. Street photography is about being bold

street photography rules hair tug

Some street photographers are very extroverted and bold; they get right up in the subject’s face, maybe even with a flash.

Yet that isn’t the only approach to street photography. Some street shooters are quiet and timid, and they take a different approach: They watch, they wait, and when the moment is right, they snap off a shot.

Work with the personality you have. If you’re an introvert, then you’ll struggle to pounce on your subject with a flash, and that’s okay. You don’t need to push yourself to become fearless if that’s not your thing. It’s important to create a strategy of shooting that feels comfortable. Otherwise, you won’t have fun. And if you’re not having fun, then you won’t want to put in the time to get good images.

So if you’re afraid to be noticed, that’s okay. Use a small, light camera and lens, pick a spot, and let the people come to you. Figure out how to identify interesting moments, then develop your own way of putting yourself in a position to capture them. Alternatively, try your hand at telephoto street photography, where you work from a distance with a longer lens. (Yes, it’s unorthodox, but it’s a great way to capture unusual images!)

Over time, you’ll refine your strategy. And who knows? Maybe you’ll eventually feel comfortable enough to try a bolder approach.

7. Street photography is about the extraordinary

When I’m photographing with a street photography student, I’ll often encounter a typical moment:

A person with red, blue, or green hair, or a person covered in tattoos, will pass by – and the student will raise the camera to their eye and take that photo faster than they’ve shot all day.

But while you can certainly capture great street photos of extraordinary subjects, the best street photographers don’t confine themselves to these images. Street photography can focus on anything. It can be colorful, mundane, ordinary, or astonishing. It can highlight unique-looking people, but it can also emphasize the beauty in the everyday.

A lot of the most incredible street photography captures ordinary moments in ways that feel extraordinary. And if you just stand around looking for colorful hair, you’ll often become bored! Instead, seek out anything and everything, and capture what makes it interesting.

Fence, East Village, NYC street photography rules

Street photography rules: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re familiar with the most common rules of street photography – and you know when and how to break them.

So head out with your camera. Do some street photography. And break the rules. (Oh, and have plenty of fun in the process!)

Which of these street photography rules do you plan to break? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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James Maher
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.

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