A Common Misconception About Street Photography – Just Take Photos of People Walking

Dior, 5th Avenue.

Dior, 5th Avenue, NYC

A common misconception about street photography is that it is that it is about capturing any person that looks slightly interesting walking down the street in front of an interesting background. It’s actually about trying to capture a story, idea, or emotion through an image. While this largely can take place on the street, it can be captured anywhere.

What comes to mind when you see the term street photography? Is it a person walking down the street?

Whether or not you you have practiced street photography, I am assuming that you have come across this idea or seen images like this – a person with a blank look just walking down the street. Maybe they have some interesting clothes, beautiful hair, or the background looks interesting. But nothing is happening. There is no idea or emotion present.

Go beyond shots of people walking

Good street photography, and good photography in general, goes beyond that. Street photography is not just about capturing images of people. It is about capturing candid and natural photographs about life. There has to be something there.

My favorite street photographs make me feel like there’s something behind the curtain. Of course there needs to be something interesting and beautiful on the surface. There has to be a mix of both content and form, but behind the curtain there is some sort of idea or feeling, something that makes you think.

I can’t tell you how many boring shots I have of a person with a blank look walking down the street. We all take these kinds of images. There is a lot of spontaneity and hand-eye coordination in this type of photography and most of the time you see the potential for the shot, react to take it, but there’s just nothing there. That is normal.

Go for the expression


The above image has a lot going for it. The main subject is up close and sharp, the angle is dynamic, the woman looks interesting and fashionable, the lighting is great, and the background is colorful and interesting. However, this image lacks for me what the top image has. There is no expression or emotion. It’s tough for me to feel anything under the surface of the image. Because of this I consider this image to be good but not great.

What we are looking for however, is something to be there. This could be a strong facial expression whivh is one of the first things that I look for when I’m out there doing street photography, particularly the look in someone’s eyes. Fashion, the background, the light, are all important elements of a strong photograph and you should pay attention to them, but in my opinion, a good expression can trump them all. The photograph at the top of this article is a person walking down the street, but there is so much more to the photo than that, because of her facial expression.

Watch for gestures

Gesture, SoHo

An example of gesture, SoHo. NYC

Gesture is also very important. I prefer to think of gesture as an expression with the body. Pay attention to how people carry themselves and what hints that might give us about them. A facial expression could be considered a gesture as well, but look at the hand in the top image. The way the hand is position with the sharp nails makes it look like a claw. When you mix that with the facial expression, this becomes a very frightening image, at least to me. Or take a look at the gesture of the legs above with the weight all on one leg and the other turned gracefully. You can get a sense of this person just from that body position.

Also, a street photograph does not have to have people in it. This goes beyond an urban landscape. Search for images that have the same effect as a good street photograph with a person. Search for an image that give us hints about life or makes us think or feel something, without people in the shot.


Gowanus, Brooklyn NYC

The more you get involved with this type of photography, the more you will notice themes and consistency in your work and hints beneath the surface of your photographs. Focus on this when editing and group similar photographs together. This all takes time to develop and the more you think about your photography in this way, the more it will improve.

What do you focus on when you do street photography? Do you have any other tips to share? Please do in the comments below.

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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.

  • ‘A means to an end’ means that someone does something with the only purpose to get something in return. It usually has a negative sense and implies that someone does something negative (uses people) to get something they want. In the case of Thomas Leuthard, he will do anything to get a good expression even if it means the person (the victim) will be left used, abused and feeling frustrated or diminished.

  • Richard Davies

    I’m happy to be a weirdo if weirdo means I am doing something with a camera that is more than just pointing an oblong box at my own face again and again and again. Only pausing every now and again to point it at my breakfast.

    You are right, I am a weirdo. I have always been shy and better at observing than participating but that doesn’t mean I have weird and negative motives behind my photography. I enjoy trying to find beauty in the random coincidences of people, light and form. I’m a weirdo because I enjoy and am very very good at studying humanity.

    Thankfully, being a weirdo also means that I don’t care overly much about people calling me a werdo either. The rules don’t really apply to me since you all think I am a weirdo to start with.

    All the very best.

  • Karen Rogers

    This has long been a question I have had. So let me understand. If I am taking photographs and find an interesting subject, shoot their photo I can publish it as long as I am not using it for say advertising? Just for art? and if I get paid for that photo for “art” it’s legal? I am asking because I just started taking photo’s of individuals in my city but have never put them out there for this very reason.

  • Debs Stitt

    I tend to take photos first and then try to approach the person if appropriate and explain I’m looking for interesting people to photograph. I show them the picture and they’re usually fine and want an emailed copy!

  • Raghav

    Here are three of my favorite street shots and none of them involve walking. Nice article with some valid points.

  • German Osorio

    Take a look at my fotos and tell me what you think about them.Most of them are old and recent street shots.Enjoy

  • Jan

    “Street photography” has gotten so bad now and unfocused. In the classic sense the term meant photographing streetscapes that showed 2 or more people interacting (even by studiously ignoring each other) while surrounded by the ephemera of the streetscape (storefronts, signs, other figures, cars, etc.). There is no clear message or “joke.” Candid portraits, documentary, street fashion are not really street photography. The authors examples are not really street photography, just random shots taken on street.

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