What is Street Photography? Making Fine Art in Public Spaces

Street photography captures everyday life

Luxurious, expensive photo spreads of the prettiest people on the planet do well on social media, but what if you prefer something grittier, less processed and, dare I say, more real? If you’re more interested in natural beauty than Photoshopped beauties, street photography may be just your thing.

What is street photography and why is it different?

Simply put, street photography aims to capture everyday life in public places, particularly in urban landscapes. Usually it’s a form of candid photography, when the person isn’t aware they’re being photographed, which creates more realistic and powerful images. Its subject matter tends to be human and relatable, focusing on unique facial expressions of “ordinary” people. There’s also the element of surprise when the camera captures a decisive moment, common in historic photos and photojournalism.

Learn the fundamentals and art of street photography from street photographer Steve Sweatpants. Learn more.

Street photography with Steve Sweatpants

Street photography is frequently confused with documentary photography, another form of candid photography, that often takes place in public space. Although there’s a lot of overlap, documentary photography typically involves more planning and structure, while street photography benefits from spontaneity and inspiration in the moment.

Who are the Best Street Photographers?

The easiest way to understand street photography is to look at those whose works defined the genre. Here are some of the best street photographers to explore:

  • Brassai — A multi-talented Hungarian artist most known for his photographs of early 1900s Paris.
  • Robert Doisneau — Taking pictures of everyday life in 1930s Paris, Robert Doisneau is considered one of the founders of photojournalism with Henri Cartier-Bresson.
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson — An early proponent of candid photography, he coined the photographic term “the decisive moment.”
  • Lee Friedlander — A photographer from the United States, famous for capturing the “social landscape” of 1960s and 70s New York City.
  • Garry Winogrand — A contemporary of Friedlander, Garry Winogrand is considered one of the most influential street photographers of the 1960s in the USA.
  • Joel Meyerowitz — Also a landscape photographer, Joel Meyerowitz helped popularize color photographs in 1960s New York City.
  • Helen Levitt — Once called “the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time,” Helen Levitt captured emotional and poignant images in Depression-era New York.
  • Martin Parr — A favorite of London museums, the still-active British street photographer brings a close-up lens to modern society, figuratively and literally.
  • Walker Evans — A celebrated street photographer known for taking some of the most iconic pictures of the USA during the Depression.
  • Bruce Gilden — Another of 70s New York photographers, Bruce Gilden is remembered for his trademark use of flash.
  • Robert Frank — A Swiss-American photographer of the latter half of the twentieth century, known for his outsider perspective of United States culture.

candid photography

How do you get started in street photography now?

First things first, to be any photographer, even just as a hobby, you need to learn the fundamentals of photography. If concepts like long exposures, focal length or shutter speed aren’t your strong uit, you can take a crash course in a matter of minutes to get to you up to speed.

But street photography requires some extra skills since you’re shooting in public places. Photographing outside in the street involves a lot of logistical issues like lighting, so you may need more advanced classes like Darkness in an Urban Environment: Managing Light on the Street.

You also have to consider how you talk to the people you take pictures of. You need to get their legal rights if you want to make money off your photographs, so candid photography relies more heavily on people skills than other disciplines.

When it comes to tools, you also want to make sure you have the best lens for street photography. It depends on your style; do you want to take close-up portraits or wide-angle urban landscapes? Maybe a camera that does both?

Lightweight and simple mirrorless cameras like Leica tend to work better for the spontaneity and quick-thinking of street photography. In fact, Leica is the brand most associated with the art form, used by the best street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Gilden, Robert Frank, Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand.

Unless you’re a purist, digital cameras work fine. You can even use Adobe Lightroom Classic to add vintage elements to your photographs too.

If this all seems overwhelming, take our Camera Buyer’s Guide class to make sure you don’t spend all that money on a camera that doesn’t suit your style.

When done well, street photography can encapsulate those gut-wrenching, sentimental moments that attract many people to photography in the first place. However, because it occurs in public places with people you don’t know, you may need to leave your comfort zone behind the lens and have actual conversations with real people. But no matter what route you take, make it your own!

Learn the fundamentals and art of street photography from street photographer Steve Sweatpants. Learn more.

Street photography with Steve Sweatpants

Matt Ellis