The Street Method... a personal analysis of 25 inspiring street photography techniques
With street photography, we have at our disposal, an endless array of stylistic methods – or techniques – beyond the all too common B&W and color debate. Of course, some of these will carry more foundational acceptance than others, but that’s what makes “street” such a wonderful subculture of artistic expression. When you put on your walking shoes and open your eyes, you’ll find the urban environment outside your door supplies you with an ever-present, ever-changing stage of characters, storylines and intrigue. The question is, how will you capture it?
When you walk the streets long enough and educate yourself on the history of the genre, you’ll find that street photography has evolved a hell of a lot over the years. Due to this exponential growth and change, it can be a pain in the ass for newcomers to see the many options available, while subconsciously developing a personal style.
With that little seed in my head, I decided to quilt together this painful rambling stream of consciousness, listing 25 worthwhile methods that I have discovered while looking at my own work. Trust me, this is by NO means a full compilation of the foundational methods out there, nor is this a well versed one. Both of which are highly improbably here on my blog… Mainly because of my own bizarre brain, but also the fact that street photography is an endless menagerie of creative trial and error, with each of us doing our damnedest to sample from the old, establish the new and push the limits of what it means to make something from nothing.
This relatively vague premise, lends itself well to the litany of methods a new street photographer may want to pursue and the list below is an attempt to briefly discuss these methods.
Now before you move on, I want you to keep something in mind while reading through the following list… or better yet, when your in the street, trying to remember all this mess…. Street is about creating a story. This is true… but here is something that some may argue, but I firmly believe. To me the photographer is more of an enabler of a contrived narrative, rather than the true writer of the story.
Give your viewer some credit. It’s in their heads, where the story is being told. Create a scene that allows this to happen and you’ll be better for it.
Anyway, I hope this inspires you on your next outing. Now, I know you’re going to have a blitz of suggestions ready to throw at me by the end. That’s awesome, feel free to share them in the comments below.
The city is always in a buzz, with people zooming back and forth, carrying with them, a personal story of work, needs, desires, each affecting their outward emotion and demeanor… Anyway, the point is, with all that action, why not try and capture a photo that emphasizes and portrays that action.
This can overlap with “Fluid Motion”, described further below. But with Action, you are capturing a developing chaotic motion in the surrounding scene, rather than a singular flowing element on or near the subject.
Air of Mystery
By removing or omitting elements of a scene, you add an air of mystery to your subject, especially when exposing out faces (such as the example here). The result helps a viewer apply their own narrative and background to the photo.
Similar to the Dexter Method, but far less extreme in element/appendage removal. Expose heavily for the highlights to black out the shadows and you’ll be on your way.
Always a crowd pleaser… Great examples of this are similar looking pets and owners, the motivated walk of the bird matched to the background man or dogs juxtaposed with the shadow of an out of frame human (as seen in this photo).
Be aware of where you are… Some cities have culture that creates more opportunity in this regard, such as San Francisco, where humans pretty much treat dogs like children (myself included).
This category is for you architecture hounds out there. This method relies heavily on the interesting qualities of the surrounding urban environment… requiring the photographer to look up, just as much as forward and back. This can be used to demonstrate the grandeur of human capability and even the insignificance of a single lowly subject.
Here we find the territory of the “patient photographer”. One willing to wait out the perfect subject, after a new found concrete, iron or wooden discovery.
This is a very enjoyable approach, but please be cautious, as it can quickly become a “crutch” due to the ease and lower stress levels of avoiding close proximity to your subject. Use sparingly.
This one can come off as a cop-out sometimes. Put simply, you are using another’s artwork, as the base element to create your own scene. The reason it can be seen as a cop-out, is because the resultant scene usually leans so heavily on the backdrop, that anything you try to add gets lost, leaving the image a mere representation of someone else’s work.
But when done right, you can develop a visually striking moment, establishing a balance between subject and scene interaction to form a brand new story. The goal is to make the viewer forget that it is simply a background graphic and instead develop an entirely new and contrary under/overtone.
The Dexter Method
Cut off those heads, hands, legs, et all… Let em float about the scene… But do so with a purpose. This can lead to a great bit of curiosity and even discomfort for the viewer, both of which are great elements to make an otherwise “meh” image, look very interesting.
Often, these are not going to be your “best of the best” shots on their own, but when combined with other methods described here, you can create a scene that forces the viewer’s imagination to take over, leading them along a path to what lies beyond the visual.
The Double Take / Juxtaposition
This is a fun experiment and tends to be a direct hit or a complete miss. If done well, this method will force your viewer to reflexively spend more time on the image, seeking out other oddities. Unlike this example photo, which gives a singular WTF element, you can stack other absurdities using the Layer method. Depending on the approach, this could yield spectacular, exhibit quality results.
This is a love it or hate it kind of thing, so if you dig this style, don’t get jaded by the staunch anti-absurdity critics.
Seek and you shall find… but usually miss. Don’t worry that much when you miss though… Just keep trying. Full disclosure, this is a lucky gift from the photo gods. These are the types of photographs that can result in a subtle little “well, look at that”, or blatant “holy shit”. Its amazing what the mathematics of life can offer you. Such as the repeating stride on the bird and man here, even the mans folded wing like wrist. The goal here is to create a repeating subject pattern.
Either way, its a fun tool, reserved for those of your who eat your Lucky Charms in bulk, or have the reflexes of Peter Parker.
These are images that may or may not be compositionally sound, may or may not even show a persons face… but the action being frozen is visually stimulating enough to allow the image to stand on it’s own. Often this is done with items on a person, including hair, scarves, flowing dress, etc…
The primary goal is to catch a fluid movement at the ideal peak of motion. Windy days are your friend here.
One of my favorite categories, the forced perspective allows the artist to create a non-existent scene or story, from the limited elements available. Using deep backgrounds, a long throw aperture and a keen eye, you can create some very engaging and thought provoking images.
These can be some the most difficult to capture, as the photographer must pay heavy attention to foreground and background, as well as the limitations of the gear in hand. Mind you, accidents can be very fun, but your best images come with great patience and a very well developed anticipation factor.
Another exploration into the absurd, the glitch strategy is very straight forward. Find and capture scenes that look as though the laws of physics have broken down.
In the example here, I have frozen the child jumping from the rock in a scene comparable to a video game, when the character remains in a standing posture, but floats off screen… Yep, that’s a glitch.
Human Deficient / Artsy
This is a method of great contention… Can street be without humans and the elements be so artsy that it is still true to portraying the human condition or world?
This is a fair question and it does toe the line. For me, I’m not a big policing agent on the subject and as you can see, I do toe that line from time to time. Is it street? Maybe, some say it is… or maybe not and it’s more, “Urban Still Life” or “Urban Wildlife”…
Either way, the method, be it street or not, still results in beautiful, visually stimulating photography. Bonus: You have a far better chance of selling one of these prints… So, in the end, who is really having the last laugh in that debate? 😉
In Your Face
This is a favorite of the most courageous/brazen/unscrupulous shooters. Notice the varying positive and negative terms there. I emphasize this, because this is a category where a street photographer can easily tip toe public rights, but overstep ethical expectations.
Close is great, as long as you approach it respectfully. Many would argue what defines respect here, but I explain it thusly. You do not have to leap out from behind corners, pop a supernova flash 5 inches from a subjects face, or charge up to someone in the street to cause a reaction while being inside another’s elbow space.
Use timing, diversion, anticipation and subtlety here… Anyone can capture these types of shots and they can be great… But, its better to be a ninja, than it is to be a barbarian. Do not compromise your safety or the state of mind of another, just for a photo. It’s not worth it to get hurt or be a dick to someone dragging themselves to and from work.
Pure, honest emotion. This category cares less about composition, striking colors or surrounding scene, and focuses more on the intense situation of the subject or subjects. In this image, you can quickly glean the anger and the fear by the couple, due to the selected moment and proximity I chose at the time of capture.
This is a “go big or go home” sort of category. It comes on strong and disappears in a flash, so you must always be paying attention to the mannerisms of surrounding people. Look for couples, or groups… people who are interacting with one another. This helps better your chances, but do beware, these scenes do not tend to offer themselves to you often. The intensity is what makes the image, so leave the simple smiles, waves and frowns for other categories. You’ll find more physical contact here; bear hugs, punches, aggressive wrist holding, etc… Also, this can be one of the more intimidating and dangerous styles, as it can put you in a precarious position, with highly charged subjects.
I use this approach a lot. Which is why I love harsh light and extreme breaks of light and shadow. Overhangs from a building, beneficial angles of buildings, shafts of light… The goal here is to expose for the light, while shooting directly into the shadow.
By isolating your figures, you can completely strip a photo down to limited elements, forcing the viewers eye to only the one or two items you wish them to see.
Photographic stories are usually difficult to create with this style, but when done properly, the results can be disturbingly engaging.
(Tip: On a sunny day, try the following setting “ISO800, F/11 and 1/1000 Speed”)
This is one of the most important methods of street photography on this list.
Layers help develop a deeper interest in your image. By giving the viewer a sense of elemental depth, you help establish various points of interest to draw the viewer in to the story. This is also a widely varied method, with countless applications. In the example here, I have used a passing taxicab to establish a scene of multiple layers… The reflected signage in the foreground, the sorrowful backseat passenger in the mid-ground and a framed background scene with interaction and reaction… each completely usable on their own, but best when combined into a singular frame.
Always keep this method in mind when on the street, because it will be the key factor in taking your work to the next level.
Ah, minimalism… often attempted, more often misunderstood. The goal here is not simply to isolate a singular subject or element surrounded by a bunch of nothingness. Its close, but more akin to my “Isolation” category above.
A Minimal photo attempts to retain the human element, by creating a narrative by way of simple figures, geometry, lines, etc… Its a subjective category, like many of those here, but you’ll know it when you see it.
With a skittles like assault on the visual senses, the Pantone Punch method can look as though a Rainbow Bright monster puked all over your frame.
Commonly used with alleyway murals or exaggerated graffiti tags as backgrounds, this can be an interesting approach, but please use sparingly. Your viewers eyes will thank you.
Sidenote: As for Selective Color (where-by one element in the image is isolated in color, with the rest in B&W)…. Just don’t do it! Seriously, please avoid this at all costs.
Not always easy to find, but if you live or visit areas with theaters, conventions and movie sets nearby… you may stumble upon some period piece gold. Creating scenes that are otherwise impossible to recreate without a time machine. Harken back to the days of old, with a pretty girl sporting a 20s bob-cut, or a damper cat, donning a Capone inspired pinstripe suit, top hat and cane… You get the point.
Pay close mind to your backgrounds though. A streetlight, caution cone, Prius or pesky cell phone can kill the atmosphere of the photo very quickly.
Scene Within a Scene
A tricky and time consuming method. If you make it your primary focus, you’ll tire quickly seeking out a usable scene… and then sitting in wait for the right foreground combination of subject, action and/or gesture.
I’d recommend keeping these shots in front of your mind, but not your main directive. Let this scene come to you.
This can also be deemed a subcategory, overlapping with “Backdrop Fun”… The main goal is to create a form of interaction between one world and that of another.
The goal of this form of street imagery, is to focus heavily on singular elements that provide highly complex, interesting textures that will draw your eye into the scene. These images capture little nods of humanity… be it a gnarled hand, blemished faces, heavy textured clothing, hats, etc…
There might not be a groundbreaking narrative in this imagery, but the photos themselves are visually interesting.
Through the Glass
This is a fun one and a great introductory method for photographers new to the street. Its relatively low stress, due to the middle ground barrier between you and your subject and it offers a very unique recipe for artistically derived street imagery.
Of course, obvious examples of this are store front windows, but do not ignore transit enclosures, bus stops, passing cars, stopped buses, active restaurant/coffee shop windows… hell, even 2nd or 3rd story buildings may give you wonderful results.
Just keep your head on a swivel and pick the right time of day. You never know what you may find, be it geometrically interesting silhouettes (such as the example here)…. or even something as simple as perfectly defused light from an adjacent building, reflecting down and across a row of lunch goers, focused on sandwiches… and not you.
Whats The Punch-Line?
If humor is your thing, thing look no further than the Punch-Line method. Look for goofy characters, odd combinations, weird backdrops, vandalism (such as this example) or any situation that makes you laugh. A scene that gives you a chuckle obviously connected with you in some emotion level… Don’t ignore it… Capture it!
Be careful with the punch-lines. Particularly with signage. Language can be a barrier for some viewers, leaving your image flopping in the wind… now keep in mind, it can be equally detrimental if you possess a bad sense in humor. If so, so what, you should still take the shot. It made you laugh right? Just don’t lie to yourself.
Personally I am not a fan of the chat-first, ask-first, shoot-after kind of street photo, but there are folks that do this well. Photographers that build a wonderful and immediate repore with their subject, are able to remove that “say cheese” look. A quick tip for those that like to talk, go do it… take some shots, then after saying farewell, take one or two more. Those last two will get you back to a more candid feel.
There are those very rare times when a scene comes at you and you simply work it to get the best result available (this example).
… and then, there are others, who take the more direct approach of antagonizing their subject (not recommended or condoned).
A key factor to a great Street Portrait, is engaging eye contact or forward focus. Contrary to the Fully Engaged Street Portrait, the In-Betweener captures that sliver of time before they “notice” you, but after they have “looked” at you. It’s kind of hard to explain, but the vulnerability these photos portray in the subject, immediately define the method visually.
Like many in this list, there is a lot of debate about eye contact in street photography. Personally, I love this technique, when done well… However, if that “in-between” moment has passed, then the image begins to fall flat for me… unless the subject is incredibly engaging and unique.