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How to Tell a Story With Your Street Photography

Street photographs on the surface may seem like they are independent of one another and can only go so far at telling a story, unlike say photojournalism. In some cases, this can be true, but there actually is a lot of crossover between documentary and street photography. Your street photographs can certainly tell a story.

How to Tell a Story With Your Street Photography

If you look at the individual books or even the entire bodies of work of photographers like Martin Parr, Trent Parke, Garry Winogrand, or Josef Koudelka, you can see that these photographers had a point of view. They were able to tell real stories with their photography.

How to Tell a Story With Your Street Photography

How do you tell stories with street photography?

But how do you do this? If you are just starting out with street photography, you’re most likely focused on taking good shots and not on overarching themes. You never have to start trying to show comprehensive themes in your work, many great photographers don’t. But if you want to, plan on developing this over time.

The reality is that there is nothing more important than consistent time spent shooting. But while you are developing, here are some tips to help you get there.

*The photos used in this article are all part of a series called Luxury for Lease, which is about the disconnection, hyper-gentrification, conformity, and consumerism that has noticeably increased in New York since 9/11.

1. Create collections in Lightroom and group your images based on ideas and themes

How to Tell a Story With Your Street Photography

When you’re out shooting you want a clear head. Be open to whatever happens, so you give yourself the best chance to get lucky. Sometimes, if you’re too focused on one thing, you will miss everything else around you.

But during the editing phase is when you can really start to figure out what you are shooting. This is where you can develop your voice. Look through your photos, choose your favorites, and start to put them together. Pick out your images that seem to have some similarities in content, tone, or look.

They don’t have to perfectly relate, just in some way. Brainstorm, try a lot of things, and just have fun with it.

How to Tell a Story With Your Street Photography

I use Collections in Lightroom to do this. Collections allow you to put images into a folder without moving them physically on your hard drive. It is a great way to build portfolios of your work and to build and change around stories and ideas.

Over time, these stories will develop. Sometimes they will turn into nothing and you will scrap them, but other times they will morph. Sometimes the seed will develop into a fully formed idea over years of shooting, and the end result will be something that you couldn’t have imagined at the beginning.

That’s the fun part, and it will help you to think critically while you are out shooting. It will add a new layer to your abilities as you are photographing since you will begin to notice things that will fit into your projects.

2. Study the work of other photographers

How to Tell a Story With Your Street Photography

I can’t state the importance of this enough. It is hard to truly fathom the power of this type of photography unless you look at the work of photographers who have lived it for decades. Sometimes seeing what others have been able to do, particularly when looking at how diverse the ideas and styles are, will help you to form your own ideas. You may pick a characteristic from one photographer and a different attribute from another photographer and blend them both into your style.

Some photographers that I recommend you look up for street photography are; Robert Frank, Martin Parr, Trent Parke, Garry Winogrand, Josef Koudelka, William Eggleston, Todd Hido, and Daido Moriyama. Although, there are so many others that I could have mentioned here.

3. Go to the same areas consistently to shoot

How to Tell a Story With Your Street Photography

I like to think about style as consistency in what you shoot versus just how those photographs look. Yes, there is a large element of how your photos look that go into your style, but it’s more than that. It’s about the feeling behind the images.

By repeatedly shooting in the same areas, you will allow this consistency to rise to the surface. You will begin to understand the place better and give yourself more time to come across the right images. Most likely you will know the area well since you can only really photograph consistently in places that are close to where you live – so you will have a nuanced understanding of the place already.

Try to show a feeling for what the area is like under the surface. Capture the feeling of being there. Is it happy or sad, are there fun aspects or stressful characteristics? What makes the area interesting (or not interesting)? There is so much you can do with this.

4. Capture emotions and gestures

How to Tell a Story With Your Street Photography

This is street photography 101, but you can portray so many ideas and feelings based on the expressions on people’s faces or the gestures in their bodies. When putting together a cohesive body of work, this will be a way to add some powerful emotion to push a story forward. Try to understand what people are feeling and attempt to capture them as they show those feelings.

5. Look for images with something going on beneath the surface

How to Tell a Story With Your Street Photography

This is a tip that is hard to explain exactly how to do. Look for images where there is something going on beneath the surface. What that is you don’t exactly have to answer – it could be left for the viewer to decide.

These images will begin to show themselves more often as you start following the other tips in this article. In addition, the more you photograph in the same place and start to understand the place, the more these images will begin to pop out.

6. Think about yourself

How to Tell a Story With Your Street Photography

There are some photographers who show something about themselves in their images. This feeling makes their work that much more powerful. Happy photographers often take happy images, depressed photographers often take depressed images. Some photographers who seem happy on the surface, use their photography to express emotions that they are holding inside. Think about what emotions you are feeling and use them. The more you know yourself, the more you can let that shine through.

Josef Koudelka is one example – he grew up behind a wall so to speak during the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968. He eventually got out, became a stateless person, wandering and traveling, and he spent much of his life photographing travelers. He has also been working on an ongoing project on the Israeli-Palestinian Walls and on the bleak landscapes that have been influenced by contemporary man. He grew up behind a wall and he was drawn to photographing walls. You can see in his images, even in random places and at random times, that the subjects he was drawn to were the ones that showed his inner feelings.

Putting it all together

This may all seem difficult to do, particularly if photography is your hobby. Don’t get me wrong, it is hard. But if you photograph frequently enough and think about all of this, you can really see your work transform in just a few years. The more you are in tune with it, the faster it should come, and it is very enjoyable to see.

So go out and keep shooting!

If you’d like to learn more about Street Photography, then please check out my ebook The Essentials of Street Photography.

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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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