Street photographers are not known for their reserve. We are happy to give advice on gear, framing and technique. But I believe the best photographers are those who also seek advice and look to learn from others. That said, not all advice is equal, and some ideas are outdated, narrow minded, or just plan wrong.
In this article, I am going to go question some of the advice that has almost become folklore in street photography, and pose the question: is it time to move on?
Shoot Black and White
There are good reasons for shooting in black and white. Stripping an image of colour casts a greater focus on the form of an image, and can create a timeless feel. Many photographers choose black and white as it harkens back to the origins of street photography. However, I recently read a post in which a Street Photographer stated that she had started shooting in black and white, simply because it appeared to be the most popular style of street photography.
Is B&W really still the most popular choice? Just look at the photographs of Alex Webb, Martin Parr, or Rohit Vohra. By all means, choose to shoot B&W, but don’t do it because it appears to be a popular option. Choose black and white, or colour, for personal or aesthetic reasons.
There are many advocates in the “don’t crop” camp, Eric Kim being the first street photographer who comes to mind. But cropping is something I do to most of my images, even if just to straighten them out, or to align the image to a ratio I think will improve the photo.
Obviously, cropping is going to reduce the number of megapixels, but unless you really hack your image down in size the photo will be just fine, particularly for social media.
Almost all professional photographers use Photoshop, and few people would argue against minimal processing of a street image. When Photoshop is used to remove or add objects to the frame we get into a deeper debate.
My personal belief is that it is fine to remove some of the minimal distractions, particularly if it is a photo you like and want to hang on a wall. When larger objects are removed, I believe the purity of a Street Photo is altered. It just feels better to have captured the image as it stands. This doesn’t mean that you can’t play with your images—I’m a big fan of Steve McCurry, even though some of his images have been edited past what many people would accept in the street photography community.
Remember, it is your gear, your Photoshop subscription, and your photo. As long as you don’t pretend that the final image is something it is not, you should be fine.
Street Photography Must be Candid
Half the street photography community claim all imagery should be candid, while the other half are adamant that permission should be asked first. In addition, you may well hear arguments that a street photo cannot be set up, or that the photographer cannot impact and change the environment where he or she is working.
Firstly, you can do both, depending on the law of the country you are in. I will often ask permission if I see a striking character; equally, I will snap away happily when ignored. As for impacting the image, there are countless examples that have resulted from the photographer manipulating a situation. Bruce Gilden can be heard instructing his subjects to “not smile,” or to take off their glasses; Steve McCurry is known to have set up shots in many of his photos; even Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” was arguably staged.
Again, as long as you are not pretending your photograph is something it isn’t, then there is no harm in staging a photo or capturing something that isn’t strictly candid.
You Must Use a Fixed Lens
By far the most popular lenses for street photography are those with a fixed focal length (i.e. Primes), typically 35mm or 50mm. I love shooting with both of these lenses, and strongly recommend them to anyone starting with street photography, but they’re not a requirement by any means. Martin Parr is one prominent photographer who is currently bucking the trend and working with a 24-70mm zoom.
In reality, you can hit the streets with any lens you like. Remember that a fixed lens may be smaller and more discrete that a zoom, and may help you if you choose to use a candid approach. A zoom, meanwile, will allow you to capture both a close-up street portrait and a wide angle establishing shot without having to swap lenses.
Street photography is a genre with rich history, but everyone has their own take on it. Spend time building your own view of what it means to you. Listen to others, but don’t be restricted too much by what they say or think. My favourite definition of a street photograph was made by Bruce Gilden, he said, “I know it’s a Street Photograph if I can smell the street.”
Lastly, listen to the greats, and don’t be restricted by what trends may or may not be popular!
About the author: Chris Page specializes in street and travel photography, and is a Licentiate Photographer of the Royal Photography Society (RPS). The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here.