Street Photography

Street photography generally refers to photographs made in public places — not only streets, but parks, beaches, malls, political conventions and myriad other settings — often but not always featuring people, usually in un-posed or candid situations, going about their everyday lives. In one sense it can be thought of as a branch of documentary photography, but unlike traditional documentary its chief aim — or at least its chief effect — is seldom to document a particular subject, but rather to create photographs which strongly demonstrate the photographer's vision of the world. Good street photography often ends up being good documentary photography without really trying, especially after the passage of a few years, but unlike documentary it seldom has an explicit social agenda or rhetorical intent. It tends to be more ironic and distanced from its subject matter.

Markus Hartel

What is street photography? A reflection of every day life – real, unaltered impressions of
public places, places that everybody visits every day, the street where you live, the parking
lot of your favorite grocery store, the subway. Street photographers document the truth –
take candid pictures of things that you don't notice in your daily grind.

Street photography involves attention to detail. The photographer pays attention to scenes,
moments that you only recognize subconsciously. The camera is an unobtrusive extension of
the eye in any given situation. Oftentimes, street photographers take pictures they feel; the
photographer happens to be there and captures the mood in a fraction of a second. He freezes
a moment that you will forget in the same amount of time...


Street photography is also known as "Straight Photography," implying it is the pure vision of something that was, like holding up a mirror to society. It is a genre that was exceptionally present in the modern era and almost exclusively done in black and white photography. Street photography often concentrates on a single human moment, caught at a "decisive moment" or poignant moment. A stolen kiss on a street corner; a man jumping a puddle; a woman lost in her thoughts in a diner; a shopping trolley glowing in the last rays of sun: these are the bread and butter subjects of street photography.

Street photography is often thought of as having reached a zenith between roughly 1890 and 1975, when many of the seminal works were created, coinciding (although it was hardly a coincidence) with the introduction of the lightweight, high-quality, miniature 35mm rangefinder camera, and exemplified in particular by the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Alfred Eisenstaedt, W. Eugene Smith, William Eggleston, and Garry Winogrand.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Robert Frank

Alfred Eisenstaedt

W. Eugene Smith

William Eggleston

Garry Winogrand

In the 20th century, street photographers have provided an exemplary and detailed record of children's street culture in Europe and North America.


Overcoming shyness

Shyness and street photography seem to be mutually exclusive. However, most successful street photographers have started as shy photographers. Shyness is a reluctance to take the photograph — it can paralyze before the moment of exposure.

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.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia


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.

Bruce Gilden

Bruce Gilden

Bruce Gilden


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 stealth 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 is being photographed. Another aspect of invisibility involves "blending in" with the crowd. Dressing like a tourist will guarantee that everyone is aware of you.

Duane Hanson


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.

Martin Parr

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.


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.

Paul Strand

Helen Levitt

Dealing with confrontation

How one deals with a confrontation depends on a photographer's quick assessment of the situation. Almost always, a photographer can smile and give one of three excuses: (1) "Oh, hi, I'm a photography student working on a project;" (2) "Don't worry, sir, I was taking a shot of ________; you weren't in the photo;" or, for the most daring, (3) "I'm a photographer with The New York Times doing a story on [insert quickly-generated idea here]." Alternatively, in most cases if the photographer apologizes and retreats, or even just continues walking while acting like he's taken no notice, the angry subject will continue on with his own business. In very rare cases, it may be necessary to hand over the film to someone who is truly intent on physically harming the photographer — though in the U.S. there is no legal ground to force you to, even in the face of police demands to do so.

Asking permission

While asking permission is a good way to avoid uncomfortable confrontations with subjects, it is seen as cheating by many photographers, because it betrays the sense of truth and objectivity with that street photography is often thought to have. It creates the potential for the subject to act, pose or appear differently than he would have done naturally because he is now aware that he is the subject of a photograph.

Technical issues

The classic technique for street photography consists of fitting a wide (20mm on a full-frame camera) or moderately wide-angle (35mm) lens to a camera, setting the ISO to a moderate high speed (400 or 800), and pre-focusing the lens.

Pre-focusing? How do you know how far away your subject will be. It turns out that it doesn't matter. Wide angle lenses have good depth of field. If your subject is 10 feet away and the lens is set for 12 feet, you'd probably need to enlarge to 16x20" before noticing the error, assuming a typical aperture. This is why the high ISO setting is important. Given a fixed shutter speed, the higher the ISO setting, the smaller the aperture. The smaller the aperture, the less critical it is to focus precisely.

Street photographers traditionally will set the lens at its hyperfocal distance. This distance depends on the lens focal length and the aperture but the basic idea is that it is the closest distance setting for which subjects at infinity are still acceptably sharp. With fast film and a sunny day, you will probably be able to expose at f/16. With a 35mm lens focused to, say, 9 feet, subjects between 4.5 feet and infinity will be acceptably sharp (where "acceptable" means "if the person viewing the final photograph doesn't stick his eyes right up against it").


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 800 or 1600, unless using a tripod.

Shutter speed

Some images can be enhanced by good use of slow shutter speeds to show motion. However, given the fact that most street photography is done with the camera being hand-held and with a 50mm lens, most photographers will insist on using a shutter speed of at least 1/60th of a second. Remember the rule: for handheld shots, the minimum shutter speed should be 1/xth, where x = the length of your lens.

1/xth is a good rule of thumb for single lens reflex cameras, but since rangefinder cameras and digital cameras operate much more smoothly, you can generally operate at 1/30 of a second easily, and at 1/15 if you brace yourself against a wall or some other fixed object.

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: 35mm, 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 cellphones to 4x5 view cameras. The "classic" street photo camera has been the 35mm 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.

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.

In recent years, some building owners have claimed a copyright on the appearance of their building — such landmarks as the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, Pittsburgh's PPG Plaza, 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.

§ 120. Scope of exclusive rights in architectural works
(a) Pictorial Representations Permitted. — The copyright in an architectural work that has been constructed does not include the right to prevent the making, distributing, or public display of pictures, paintings, photographs, or other pictorial representations of the work, if the building in which the work is embodied is located in or ordinarily visible from a public place.


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.


It is somewhat difficult to imagine a hypothetical scenario in which a photograph, by itself, would be defamatory, since the key element of defamation is falsity. Perhaps if a person was photographed in such a way that made them falsely appear to be engaging in some indecent activity, it could qualify as defamatory. Digital editing of photographs certainly opens the floodgates for defamation, because it is easy to turn a formerly "true" photograph into one that does not depict anything near the truth.

Photographing someone in front of an adult bookstore even though they were just walking by would be an example of possible defamation of character. It implicitly associates the person with the act of purchasing pornography when he was merely innocently walking by.

Invasion of privacy

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.

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.

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 abovementioned "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.

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 walkng 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 and sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars is art - not commerce - and therefore is protected by the First Amendment, even though his religion forbids it.

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 took it surreptitiously near New Yorks' Times Square and then 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."

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.

The law can essentially be summed up like this:

1. You can take a picture of anything you see - especially when you are in public.

2. You CANNOT take pictures where there is an expectation of privacy such as in a rest room or locker room.

3. You cannot legally trespass, but if you are on a side walk and you were so inclined you can photograph people in their back yards or on their porch. I think the back yard is over the line though.

4. You can take pictures of people or children in any public context. BUT DON’T FOLLOW LITTLE KIDS OR YOUNG WOMEN AROUND AND SCARE THEM. Legally though, you can follow people to get that shot - remember the Princess Diana chase. Perfectly legal.

5. You cannot profit from your work without signed releases. But to restate, feel free to snap away. It is only your commercial use that is limited.

6. You NEVER have to surrender your camera to or discuss the nature of your photography with anyone without a court order.


Weegee (Arthur Felig)



Walker Evans Signs