What Makes A Great Street Photograph and How Do We Create Them

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This post is written by James Maher – author of The Essentials of Street Photography – an eBook currently onsale at SnapnDeals (25% off).


Pushups, Rucker Park, Harlem

Pushups, Rucker Park, Harlem.

Growing up I obsessed with basketball.

I would skip school; I would play in light rain and sometimes snow; I occasionally failed classes and always fell asleep in them.  From age 8 until 22, it’s pretty much all I did and all I wanted to do.

The best players were often reserved, relaxed, and mentally tough and focused.  The intense look in the child’s eyes above explains it all and shows how innate this mentality and focus can be.

What Makes A Great Street Photograph?

So how does this story relate to you taking a ‘great street photograph?’

I want to share with you what I have learned, because it has nothing to do with tips, tricks, or techniques. The techniques are necessary to be able to take a technically good photograph but they are not the reason why you take great photographs.

Great street photographs say something about life; they speak to us; they fill us with an emotion; or they give us insight.

They are not about light; they are not about shapes or forms; they are not about faces.  Light, shapes, and faces can only aid in the success of a photo; they cannot be the reason for it.  When you look at a great street photograph you should not leave it saying, ‘Wow that light was amazing.’  You should leave it saying, ‘Wow the emotion or story in that photograph really hit me – AND the light was amazing.’

A great street photograph is one that makes a person think or one that brings up a specific feeling, story, or idea.

For a quick example, you shouldn’t be trying to capture a face; you should be trying to capture an expression.

If Only For A Moment

If Only For A Moment.

“If Only For A Moment” – A fleeting moment with a story.  No faces, subtle blue lighting, and no spectacular forms that stop you in your tracks.  What is here is the subtle body language of the pass and that split second ‘what if’ thought going through their minds.  This photo leads you on a mental journey through all of those ‘what if’ moments in your life and youth.  It makes your heart beat.

How Do We Create Them?

So how do we create these photographs with meaning?  Aren’t we at the whims of randomness and our surroundings in street photography?

Not necessarily.

The answer to this comes back to you and it is the reason for the personal stories in this article.

Street photography is a form of self expression.  We go out and we search for the type of content that means something to us.  When we are out there we are basically photographing ourselves, and searching for people, ideas, stories, and thoughts that we relate to and want to share.

Look at the body of work of any street photographer and you will be able to get some consistent insight into their personalities and how they see the world.  They, like us, were at the whims of their surroundings and everyday randomness, yet this meaning still broke through in their work.

That is why you cannot copy another photographer’s style.  You can only learn from them and their techniques and apply them to your own way of shooting and your own personality.  Style isn’t about a look; it is about meaning.

It is about you.

Street photography is about exploring the world through our eyes and sharing the insights and stories that we see and find.  It is showing the viewer how we see and think about the world.

The best photographers are not just interested in photography; they have an interest in people, in life, in social issues or cultural issues.  They read and they explore new places and new ideas.  They are curious both about others and about themselves.  They have a good eye for design, but more importantly they have a good nose for the ideas that are floating around them.

Guess in Red

Guess in Red.

“Guess in Red.” – I grew up with a serious case of Attention Deficit Disorder, which luckily subsided as I got older.  Even simple stimulations would lead my mind way off track.  Because of this and over time, I became very sensitive to advertising and how it intrudes on our attention, because it would break mine constantly.  Walking around the streets was like a sensory overload.  It’s led me to become fascinated with advertising and their intrusive nature and influence on our lives.

Is the above photo a coincidence or is it the result of influence?

If you want to take better street photographs, figure out why you are shooting and what you want to capture from it.  What do you relate to most?  Is there a specific type of content or person you are attracted to?  Are you attracted to specific emotions or are there cultural issues that you want to show us?  There are an infinite amount of ideas that you can go out and capture.

To better understand yourself and your work, study you archives and search for themes.  Group similar photographs together.  You might notice some ideas that you had previously missed.

It’s not easy.

Think about what your personality is like and how that relates to what you see out there.   Maybe you can start by photographing a specific aspect of what life is like in your town or street.

Just because you live in an unpopulated area doesn’t mean you can’t do street photography.  Give us insight into what it’s like to live where you are.  You don’t even have to leave your home and it doesn’t matter if people are in the photographs or not.  If you live in a town without a lot of people, then perhaps out of a series of twenty images, only 5 to 7 of them should actually have people in them.  Photograph that sparseness.  Let us into your world.

I can’t think of many things that sound more interesting than that.

Waiting in Grand Central

Waiting in Grand Central.

New York is a city where there are a lot of people, a lot of stimulation, and a lot of things happening all at once.  However, it is also a very lonely city.  Living here, you feel like everyone is competing with you and that everyone is moving so fast that you can barely keep up.  This shot was my way of portraying these feelings visually.

A great street photograph is one that comes from your soul and explains how you see the world.  Light, faces, composition, and forms are all part of the recipe but they are not the reason why you click that shutter.

And you can create better street photographs by better understanding yourself and your world.

What are your thoughts about what creates a great street photograph?

This post is written by James Maher – author of The Essentials of Street Photography – an eBook currently onsale at SnapnDeals (25% off).

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.

  • raghavendra

    capturing the moment and showing the culture of people makes a good street photography

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.in/2010/09/one-fine-evening.html

  • I think the more contrived the photo is, the less interesting it is. If it looks like it was pre-planned, it’s just not as fun. It IS possible to make a completely contrived photo, I’m just saying that looking at it it shouldn’t be so obvious. It should be something surreal, simple, and as stated above evoke some kind of emotion.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/45517597@N07/7580199266/

  • The legs don’t appeal to me at all. The others are very nice.

    http://portraitinspiration.com/inspiration-for-the-day/

  • First time for me to post in a few days and the system tells me to “slow down, posting too many too quickly.” Ummm….. sorry?

    Flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Scottc

    Street is not my style, but I do believe that the people make the photo.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5282689491/

  • Clicknlearn

    I might not be seeing something obvious, but what makes these photos great?

  • James
    I think I read this in one of your. I appreciate what said about living in a smaller populated area like I do. It can be very challenging. I just spent a week in Cancun and was able to steal some time to go to an area which was more local than the Hotel Zone. This and market 23 is a street photographers dream. http://www.ibtimes.com/us-coal-production-14-over-past-week-794214. Keep posting James. I enjoy your input.

  • Clicknlearn – they may not seem great to you but they are from my heart and great to me, they’re things I’m interested in, that was the point of this article.

    Robert it’s interesting to hear that. This type of photography does not need to have people or strangers in them. They could even be of family and friends, what the culture is like where you live. It could be anything.

  • Referencing Jean-Pierre’s comments above–the shot appearing “pre-planned” is tricky, as a too-perfect image can make a street shot not seem street.

    The award-winning author Man Martin recently wrote about my photography and that exact question:

    http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-surprises-that-pull-our-story.html

    As for John’s comment regarding color, it is MUCH hard working in color but that is why I like it–it’s part of the challenge. I think for many “street” is defined in black and white; I clearly disagree.

  • Thanks for posting such a helpful article. It inspired me to think and take action. The area where I now live is very different from where I grew up… I see myself as that city kid dropped into a neighborhood that thinks Rodeo Drive is its main street. I am inspired to attempt to capture the mood and personality of my new home and contrast it with that of my childhood neighborhood 30 miles away.

  • Fantastic article. Great writing and great insights. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the encouragement to show what is around you, usin your eyes and feelings and not getting too technical.good Stuff, James. Thanks.

  • Richard Haas

    Great pictures and article. The moment matters. Everything else is extra.

  • Rob

    I don’t feel you ever create great street photography, its all about finding the moments. You just have to learn how to see in a certain way. There is a lot of so called street photography that I see flooding the internet today that is just uninteresting photos converted to b&w. Your examples are very interesting, and although number 1 looks posed it is still an amazing portrait.

  • My pleasure William – that sounds fascinating. Go do it!

    Thank you emily and richard.

    Rob I agree with you sort of but I also do think you create them at the same time. They’re personal moments that you find, but it’s still an act of creativity. Shot number one was candid and caught at the second the boy looked up at me.

  • Thanks James for sharing your ideas and your great photos. And it is encouraging to see colour street photos as opposed to only B&W street shots preferred by serious street shooters. I for one prefer colour most of the time as colours can be interesting in so many ways. And being an Asian myself, you can see vibrant colours all the time…..

    Somy of my street shots in colour:

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/e2f63f335
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/e93219ce
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/e1569d32
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/eb72e9d

  • D. Nguyen

    Great article, thanks for posting!
    I love the “lonely” feeling emanating from the “Waiting in Grand Central” pic!

  • Eva

    Very insightful article about street photography….very thought provoking, thank you for sharing….

  • Mobeen Siddiqi

    One thing always restricts me to take outdoor photographs is that, is it appropriate to take photographs of people without keeping this in their knowledge. Also is it legal?

  • Ben Chapman

    The last image makes me feel very sad for the lady who’s waiting.

    Great shot

  • “Street photography is about exploring the world through our eyes and sharing the insights and stories that we see and find. It is showing the viewer how we see and think about the world.

    The best photographers are not just interested in photography; they have an interest in people, in life, in social issues or cultural issues. They read and they explore new places and new ideas. They are curious both about others and about themselves. They have a good eye for design, but more importantly they have a good nose for the ideas that are floating around them.”

    Thanks for the article which sums it up nicely.

    Tried to comment before, but the comment was lost, so i keep it basic now.

    Kind regards
    Thomas

  • Koombassi

    James, your article is thought-provoking for me because I am very new to street photography (less than 6months); and I might add in my 7th decade. Your suggestion regarding “thinking before pressing the shutter” are, for me a great help. And, the idea of “revisiting” my inventory of pictures to discover my emerging style is another gem for me.
    Thanks. I try and follow your articles whenever I can catch them.

  • pig_boy

    Nice incite James. Like a great painter that can create a masterpiece from a blank canvas or a sculpture with a slab of marble releasing the figure from within. A great street photographer can take the chaos of a busy Manhattan street and isolate a seemingly random story of the people with their lens. By using their incite and their experience based on years of honing a unique genre of photography they also create a masterpiece.

  • Shaz

    One of the best yet simplest ‘Street’ articles Ive read. I find though, most people want to be spoon fed a pretty picture that doesn’t require too much thought, photos that hold powerful narratives don’t tend to appeal to the masses which is unfortunate because I think they are missing out on appreciating the incredible serendipity and power of so many good street pics.

  • Magenta

    I like your work James, the legs photo was thought provoking and had me thinking about their conversation and the whole scenario. The young boy photo just screamed courage to me and your article was well written and easy to understand. I like your humble approach James, keep doing the great work that you do….

  • Magenta

    I also want to add that the photo ‘Guess in Red’ was well caught with the lady walking past ‘in red’ matching the window displays, and the ‘Grand Central’ just captures the isolation and lonliness of some peoples lives and how invisible they are to those rushing by. You have inspired me….

  • Srijib Neogi

    This is a highly convincing article. I have read many things about street photography and most of them give some very binding rules like obligatory presence of human figures etc. But this article has cleared all the doubts and has lucidly explained everything. I live very close to the city of Kolkata , India which are considered as a heaven for SF. James have inspired me to go out with my camera once again and look at my city and explore its images.

Some Older Comments

  • Thomas November 5, 2012 10:00 pm

    "Street photography is about exploring the world through our eyes and sharing the insights and stories that we see and find. It is showing the viewer how we see and think about the world.

    The best photographers are not just interested in photography; they have an interest in people, in life, in social issues or cultural issues. They read and they explore new places and new ideas. They are curious both about others and about themselves. They have a good eye for design, but more importantly they have a good nose for the ideas that are floating around them."

    Thanks for the article which sums it up nicely.

    Tried to comment before, but the comment was lost, so i keep it basic now.

    Kind regards
    Thomas

  • Ben Chapman October 23, 2012 08:44 am

    The last image makes me feel very sad for the lady who's waiting.

    Great shot

  • Mobeen Siddiqi October 22, 2012 05:27 pm

    One thing always restricts me to take outdoor photographs is that, is it appropriate to take photographs of people without keeping this in their knowledge. Also is it legal?

  • Eva October 21, 2012 01:52 am

    Very insightful article about street photography....very thought provoking, thank you for sharing....

  • D. Nguyen October 19, 2012 04:04 pm

    Great article, thanks for posting!
    I love the "lonely" feeling emanating from the "Waiting in Grand Central" pic!

  • Zain Abdullah October 19, 2012 02:16 pm

    Thanks James for sharing your ideas and your great photos. And it is encouraging to see colour street photos as opposed to only B&W street shots preferred by serious street shooters. I for one prefer colour most of the time as colours can be interesting in so many ways. And being an Asian myself, you can see vibrant colours all the time.....

    Somy of my street shots in colour:

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/e2f63f335
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/e93219ce
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/e1569d32
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/eb72e9d

  • James Maher October 19, 2012 03:24 am

    My pleasure William - that sounds fascinating. Go do it!

    Thank you emily and richard.

    Rob I agree with you sort of but I also do think you create them at the same time. They're personal moments that you find, but it's still an act of creativity. Shot number one was candid and caught at the second the boy looked up at me.

  • Rob October 19, 2012 02:38 am

    I don't feel you ever create great street photography, its all about finding the moments. You just have to learn how to see in a certain way. There is a lot of so called street photography that I see flooding the internet today that is just uninteresting photos converted to b&w. Your examples are very interesting, and although number 1 looks posed it is still an amazing portrait.

  • Richard Haas October 19, 2012 01:59 am

    Great pictures and article. The moment matters. Everything else is extra.

  • Emily Gomez October 19, 2012 01:33 am

    Fantastic article. Great writing and great insights. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the encouragement to show what is around you, usin your eyes and feelings and not getting too technical.good Stuff, James. Thanks.

  • William Jones October 18, 2012 03:54 am

    Thanks for posting such a helpful article. It inspired me to think and take action. The area where I now live is very different from where I grew up... I see myself as that city kid dropped into a neighborhood that thinks Rodeo Drive is its main street. I am inspired to attempt to capture the mood and personality of my new home and contrast it with that of my childhood neighborhood 30 miles away.

  • Farrish October 17, 2012 10:39 pm

    Referencing Jean-Pierre's comments above--the shot appearing "pre-planned" is tricky, as a too-perfect image can make a street shot not seem street.

    The award-winning author Man Martin recently wrote about my photography and that exact question:

    http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-surprises-that-pull-our-story.html

    As for John's comment regarding color, it is MUCH hard working in color but that is why I like it--it's part of the challenge. I think for many "street" is defined in black and white; I clearly disagree.

  • James Maher October 17, 2012 02:15 pm

    Clicknlearn - they may not seem great to you but they are from my heart and great to me, they're things I'm interested in, that was the point of this article.

    Robert it's interesting to hear that. This type of photography does not need to have people or strangers in them. They could even be of family and friends, what the culture is like where you live. It could be anything.

  • Robert Rosen October 17, 2012 01:45 pm

    Oops! http://www.flickr.com/photos/appleledge/8073741798/in/photostream

  • Robert Rosen October 17, 2012 01:43 pm

    James
    I think I read this in one of your. I appreciate what said about living in a smaller populated area like I do. It can be very challenging. I just spent a week in Cancun and was able to steal some time to go to an area which was more local than the Hotel Zone. This and market 23 is a street photographers dream. http://www.ibtimes.com/us-coal-production-14-over-past-week-794214. Keep posting James. I enjoy your input.

  • Clicknlearn October 17, 2012 11:46 am

    I might not be seeing something obvious, but what makes these photos great?

  • Scottc October 17, 2012 09:58 am

    Street is not my style, but I do believe that the people make the photo.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5282689491/

  • John Hooton October 17, 2012 05:06 am

    Black and white lends itself to street photography, but It is quite hard to get good colour shots. However, I am quite pleased with this... http://johnhootonphotography.smugmug.com/Photography/Just-For-Fun/Just-For-Fun/14030804_Ss3V7#!i=1320243874&k=nsktNgr&lb=1&s=A

    and this... http://johnhootonphotography.smugmug.com/Photography/Just-For-Fun/Just-For-Fun/14030804_Ss3V7#!i=1036617780&k=WgGmJND&lb=1&s=A

  • Brian Fuller October 17, 2012 04:52 am

    First time for me to post in a few days and the system tells me to "slow down, posting too many too quickly." Ummm..... sorry?

    Flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Jai Catalano October 17, 2012 03:47 am

    The legs don't appeal to me at all. The others are very nice.

    http://portraitinspiration.com/inspiration-for-the-day/

  • Jean-Pierre October 17, 2012 03:30 am

    I think the more contrived the photo is, the less interesting it is. If it looks like it was pre-planned, it's just not as fun. It IS possible to make a completely contrived photo, I'm just saying that looking at it it shouldn't be so obvious. It should be something surreal, simple, and as stated above evoke some kind of emotion.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/45517597@N07/7580199266/

  • raghavendra October 17, 2012 01:23 am

    capturing the moment and showing the culture of people makes a good street photography

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.in/2010/09/one-fine-evening.html

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