Street photography

Street photography

Street photography is a type of documentary photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places such as streets, parks, beaches, malls, political conventions, and other settings.


Street photography uses the techniques of straight photography in that it shows a pure vision of something, like holding up a mirror to society. This genre of photography is present in contemporary times and is usually done as black and white photographs. Street photography often tends to be ironic and can be distanced from its subject matter and often concentrates on a single human moment, caught at a decisive or poignant moment. On the other hand, much street photography takes the opposite approach and provides a very literal and extremely personal rendering of the subject matter, giving the audience a more visceral experience of walks of life they might only be passingly familiar with. In the 20th century, street photographers have provided an exemplary and detailed record of street culture in Europe and North America, and elsewhere to a somewhat lesser extent.

Many classic works of street photography were created in the period between roughly 1890 and 1975 and coincided with the introduction of portable cameras, especially small 35mm, rangefinder cameras. Classic practitioners of street photography include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Alfred Eisenstaedt, W. Eugene Smith, William Eggleston, Brassaї, Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau and Garry Winogrand.


Overcoming shyness

Shyness and street photography seem to be mutually exclusive. However, most successful street photographers have started as shy photographers.

Some photography instructors have recommended starting out by trying to be stealthy and using long lenses. Others suggest bypassing such crutches, instead leaping into the "deep end of the pool" and heading into the street with a normal or wide-angle lens. Sometimes using an extreme wide angle lens and appearing to be pointing the camera somewhere other than at the subject can help, but at the expense of direct involvement with the action. Other photographers stand at one spot on the street and wait for the proper subject to appear. This was done most notably by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, who actually has set up elaborate strobe rigs on street corners in advance of unknown action. Magnum Photos photographer Bruce Gilden's famously direct method of just suddenly walking up to people in New York at close range with a powerful strobe shows that the demeanor of the photographer before and after the moment of exposure is a key element to interaction on the street, with the latter more important. Gilden has claimed to have never suffered an aggressive response.


It is said that Henri Cartier-Bresson would wrap a large handkerchief around his camera and pretend to be blowing his nose while he took the picture, or would wrap the camera's body in black tape. There are many variations to the stealthiness theme, some involving the use of waist-level finders in cameras, but the general idea is to keep the subject(s) from being aware that he or she is being photographed. Another aspect of invisibility involves "blending in" with the crowd. Dressing like an archetypal foreign correspondent, wearing a Trilby hat, photographer's vest and over-the-shoulder camera bag generally will guarantee that everyone is aware of you. Observe the ways of the crowd and try to dress and behave in an inconspicuous manner, according to the circumstances.

Some photographers, however, thrive on directness. Martin Parr, for example, is typically quite open and direct about his business, and photographs using a hard-to-hide ring flash unit on a large camera. Street photographers who are fond of wide-angle lenses will often work so close to their subjects that they will almost certainly be seen. Each practitioner must find his own balance.

While exceptions such as Beat Streuli do exist, in general, street photographs made from a distance, with a long lens, are considered flat and uninteresting — the dominant aesthetic has stressed the photographer's presence "in" the scene, potentially interacting (subtly or otherwise) with the subject(s) but nearly always from a nearby, almost tactile, distance.

Since the days of Paul Strand, some photographers, such as Helen Levitt, have also used trick lenses which shoot to the side, rather than directly in front of the camera. Leica and other manufacturers have long made such mirror attachments.

Technical issues

Film speed / ISO sensitivity

Outside, in daylight, any ISO will do, although lower ISO's are recommended for a finer grain. At dusk and in the evening, a street photographer will probably experience failure with anything slower than 400, unless using a tripod.It's generally accepted that high ISO during daylight and evening will provide a greater depth of field via apertures of f5.6 and upwards. As street photography is generally an "on the fly" affair this helps accommodate focusing errors. It is quite common to see street photographers picking a set focal distance (scale focusing), high ISO and small aperture to capture subjects within a set distance from the camera. This method provides an almost instantaneous shutter capturing all those decisive moments à la Cartier-Bresson.

Shutter speed

Some images can be enhanced by good use of slow shutter speeds to show motion.

However, it is advisable to use a minimum shutter speed of at least 1/125th to freeze the action of the subject and negate any movement of the camera by the photographer. Obviously, this is a very approximate suggestion and will vary dramatically depending on the focal length of the lens and available light.

Aperture and depth of field

A medium aperture, in the range of f/4 to f/8, will generally be preferred for fast shooting in daylight (this will vary according to the format used: 35 mm, digital, 6x6, etc). The extended depth of field will render the subjects in focus even if he's moving or the photographer cannot exercise careful focusing. For static subjects, the use of large apertures, f/2.8 or wider, can help separate the subject from the background through shallow depth of field.


The aperture a street photographer chooses to use has some impact on a pre-focus setting, but if a photographer can determine that he will be approximately 10 feet away from most of his subjects, he may wish to pre-focus at that distance, thus avoiding the manipulation of focus at the decisive moment.


Street photography has been made with equipment as varied as cellphone digicams to large 4x5 film press cameras. Even the Diana and Holga 'toy' film cameras have been employed, sometimes with prize-winning results. The "classic" street photo camera has been the 35 mm Leica rangefinder. The attributes praised by Leica users define a canonical set of features desired in street photography equipment.

A good street camera should be light, quick to operate, reliable, quiet and of good quality. 35 mm cameras dominated this ideal until digital cameras appeared. Currently, there is something of a gap — compact digitals are inconspicuous, quiet and light, but slow in both image capture and lens speed, making no-flash photography difficult or impossible at low light levels. Digital SLRs are quick to operate, but are generally large, heavy and relatively loud. Some attempts have been made at producing a digital 'rangefinder' style camera with quiet operation, such as the Epson R-D1 and Leica M8, but high cost and other disadvantages have stymied any significant use of such cameras.

The number one criterion in choosing a camera for street photography, unless some external consideration (such as large negative or stealth) is of interest, is that the camera be comfortable to operate in the hand of the specific photographer.

Legal considerations

Photographing without permission

In the United States, anything visible ("in plain view") from a public area can be legally photographed. This includes buildings and facilities, people, signage, notices and images. It is not uncommon for security personnel to use intimidation or other tactics to attempt to stop the photographer from photographing their facilities (trying to prevent, e.g., industrial espionage); however, there is no legal precedent to prevent the photographer so long as the image being photographed is in plain view from a public area. [] The case is basically the same in the UK, however the Home Secretary has stated that the police can "restrict or monitor photography in certain circumstances". [ [ British Journal of Photography - Home Secretary green lights restrictions on photography ] ]

In recent years, some building owners have claimed a copyright on the appearance of their building; such landmarks as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Pittsburgh's PPG Place, etc. United States copyright law, however, explicitly exempts the appearance of standing buildings from copyright protection. See United States Code, [ [ Title 17, Chapter 1, § 120(a)] ] .


In general, one cannot publish someone's image to endorse a product or service without first acquiring a "model release," which is usually a contract between the publisher or photographer and the subject.Fact|date=February 2007

Invasion of privacy in the United States

In 1890, Samuel Warren and future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis published "The Right to Privacy", which made their case for recognition of invasion of privacy as a legal tort.Fact|date=February 2007

Fifteen years later, in the case "Pavesich v. New England Life Insurance Company," a Georgia court was the first to rule on the balance between the right to privacy over freedom of the press, when it found that Mr. Pavesich had been wronged by the appearance of an unauthorized advertisement in which his photograph appeared. The court at that time ruled that commercial usage did not have the same press protections as other forms of use.Fact|date=February 2007

Earlier, in 1893, the case "Corliss v. Walker" had set the related precedent that non-commercial use, in this case an unauthorized biography, was indeed an example where press freedom's inherent public interest could not be overruled by the right to privacy. These two cases along with the aforementioned "The Right to Privacy" have become the basis for almost all US law with respect to the balance between freedom of expression and individual privacy.Fact|date=February 2007

In 2006, a New York trial court issued a ruling in a case involving Philip-Lorca diCorcia, who had set up elaborate strobe rigs on a New York City street corner and had photographed people walking down the street, including Emo Nussenzweig, an Orthodox Jew who objected on religious grounds to deCorcia's publishing in an artistic exhibition a photograph taken of him without his permission. The photo's subject argued that his privacy and religious rights had been violated by both the taking and publishing of the photograph of him. The judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the photograph taken of Nussenzweig on a street is art - not commerce - and therefore is protected by the First Amendment.

Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Judith J. Gische ruled that the photo of Nussenzweig--a head shot showing him sporting a scraggly white beard, a black hat and a black coat--was art, even though the photographer sold 10 prints of it at $20,000 to $30,000 each. The judge ruled that New York courts have "recognized that art can be sold, at least in limited editions, and still retain its artistic character. . . . First Amendment protection of art is not limited to only starving artists. A profit motive in itself does not necessarily compel a conclusion that art has been used for trade purposes." See Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia. Judge Gische's ruling was appealed by Mr. Nussenzweig.

On March 20, 2007, an appellate panel of five judges unanimously agreed with the trial court judge that the lawsuit against diCorcia should be dismissed but not because the photograph was protected by the First Amendment. See [ Nussenzweig v. diCorcia] The judges as a group were able only to agree that the case wasn’t filed quickly enough by Mr. Nussenweig -- that the statute of limitations for filing a privacy lawsuit had run prior to the time Nussenweig filed his lawsuit. The judges could not agree on whether the court had to decide Mr. Nussenweig’s privacy and First Amendment claims. One of the five judges, Judge Tom, however, wrote a concurring opinion for himself and Judge Malone to express views (but not the court’s view) on the privacy and First Amendment issues.

In Judge Tom’s and Malone’s view “The sale of an individual's image in a limited edition of 10 photographic prints for an aggregate of some $240,000 is a far cry from the use of a person's likeness . . . . that Civil Rights Law §§ 50 and 51 were enacted to redress. . . . The publication of [Mr. Nussenweig’s] portrait in both the popular press and art media confirms that the image is "a matter of legitimate public interest to readers" so as to bring its use within the newsworthiness exception to the privacy statute. . . . Thus, the inclusion of the photograph in a catalog sold in connection with an exhibition of the artist's work does not render its use commercial, as [Mr. Nussenweig] suggests . . . . If the image is a matter of public interest, it is immaterial whether that interest is satisfied by viewing the original in a museum, art gallery or private dwelling or by perusing a reproduction in an art magazine or other publication.”

Judge Tom also wrote “That profit may be derived from the sale of art does not diminish the constitutional protection afforded. As noted in Bery v City of New York (97 F 3d 689, 696 [2d Cir 1996] , cert denied 520 US 1251 [1997] ), "paintings, photographs, prints and sculptures . . . always communicate some idea or concept to those who view it, and as such are entitled to full First Amendment protection." The public expression of those ideas and concepts is fully protected by the First Amendment, irrespective of whether an artist or speaker derives income from such expression (see e.g. Riley v National Fedn. of the Blind of N. Carolina, 487 US 781, 801 [1988] ; Time, Inc. v Hill, 385 US 374, 397 [1967] ; Hoepker 200 F Supp 2d at 350).

Judge Tom’s opinion also disagreed with Mr. Nussenweig’s argument “the courts must strike a balance between [one person’s] right to freedom of expression and [another’s] right to freedom of religion. . . . [and that the trial] Court's decision to withhold the protection afforded by the privacy statute amounts to state action infringing on his right to practice his religion.”

Some other restrictions on photography exist in the US, but most have to do with either commercial use of a space, such as forbidding photography inside a private building, or national security, such as restrictions on airport security areas or military installations.Fact|date=February 2007

See also

* Bruce Gilden
* Henri Cartier-Bresson
* Joel Meyerowitz
* Lee Friedlander
* Andrew Stark
* Weegee


Further reading

* "The Sidewalk Never Ends: Street Photography Since the 1970s" (2001).

External links

* [ Why We Shoot And How] : Street Photography For The Purist - various authors mainly from [ Deviantart]
* [ Street Photography Information] : A tutorial from []
* [ PhotoPermit.ORG] covers news relating to photographers rights and maintains an ongoing discussion forum
* Kantor, Andrew: " [ Legal Rights of Photographers] " (in the U.S.).
* Macpherson, Linda: " [ Photographer's Rights in the UK] ".
* Thind, Rajesh: " [ Issues in the UK regarding photography from a public place] ".

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