Street photography now tends to be seen as a discreet, candid type of image making which records the complexities and quirks of our modern very urbanised often using visual puns and wry juxtapositions in creative new ways. Or it can go down a more documentary road, with the emphasis on recording the decisive moments of modern life as it unfolds, or just interesting characters you see on the pavement. Smartphones have revolutionized the genre too and to an extent everyone is now a street photographer. This is not to say that the craft of street photography is easy to acquire however and there is a big demand for tuition from experts.
You don’t need to sign up to a workshop to enjoy street photography, however, and there are some great books on the subject, including a new one from Ammonite Press. Masters of Street Photography does a great job of exploring how 16 leading lights of the genre go about their craft and while it can never be the last word on this very diverse subject it gives a great overview of current trends and best practice. As editor Rob Yarham explains ‘Be it a decisive moment or not street photographs work best when they capture the emotional and context of their subject matter.’
This said there is an incredibly diverse range of street photographers included in the book who are shooting in very different locations all over the world. This international scope is only fitting as street photography is very much a vibrant and evolving art form. Their images not only record modern society but ask questions about it arguably making street work more relevant and poignant than many other forms of contemporary photography. Also the ‘street’ itself will often be different every time you visit it even more so in very fast-developing parts of the world such as China Southeast. What approach you follow is very much a matter of personal choice, and Masters of Street Photography reveals a lot of very diverse ways of working. Some leading exponents such as Jesse Marlow, are drawn to the use of abstract shapes and strong colours, following a very ‘graphic’ route; others such as Rui Palha, are more about capturing atmosphere and emotion with a lot of powerful portraiture. As this fascinating book reveals it’s really about capturing what you find interesting and compelling about your subject matter, be it in Birmingham or Beijing.
Spoiled for choice
In terms of equipment street photographers are spoiled for choice which is great if this book inspires you to give this genre a go or take it more seriously. At the entry level most modern smartphones are more than capable of taking great street shots particularly as the best ones now similar levels of control to a standalone camera. Meanwhile, innovative features such as Night Sight on the Pixel phones, for example enable you to get great results when the sun goes down. The other advantage of using a phone is that it’s nearly always with you.
Moving up a level, there is now a huge range of light and portable mirror less cameras which deliver great results without weighing you down or instantly marking you out as a photographer; one immediately thinks of Fujifilm’s nifty and pocketable X series of APS-C mirrorless models or the classically designed and wonderfully compact Olympus OM-D line-up complete with sharp lenses you can fit in your hand. While a lot of full-frame mirror less cameras are getting as bulky as good options for high-resolution images include the A7 III with a smallish prime such as the Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 or 55mm f/1.8. Your choice of lens is obviously very important and while the great street photographers of the past such as Cartier-Bresson favoured classic 35mm and 50mm primes a reasonably discreet zoom lens obviously gives you more flexibility. There are now many more mirror less and compact cameras with silent shutters too which makes the candid street photographer’s job much easier. In many ways, gear is the easy part.
Understand the legalities
Before getting some practical tips from some of the photographers in the book it’s important to deal briefly with the elephant in the room (or on the street) namely the legal aspects. A lot of potential street photographers are put off by worries about attracting the kind of attention, be it from aggrieved subjects who don’t want to be photographed, Others are just shy. Every country is different, but in the UK at least, you have more rights than you probably realise. If you are in any doubt or any problems while shooting, always seek professional legal advice.Finally get some business cards made. If one of your subjects does take offence they often calm down when you freely identify yourself as a serious photographer or offer to share your pictures with them Never feel you need to be shifty or somehow feel guilty about following the endlessly rewarding pursuit of street photography. The photographers in this book certainly don’t.