Lately, I’ve been inspired to take things “back to basics”. Often I take photography too seriously and forget the importance of always staying a beginner, and sticking to fundamentals. Consider this an opportunity for me to share some practical tips I’ve leaned over the last 10 years in terms of what I think makes a great street photograph (either watch the video above, or read more for the text).
Of course this is not an all-inclusive list; there’s lots of other things which make a great street photograph. But if you’re starting off in street photography, or want a quick refresher, I hope some of these ideas will spark some inspiration for you.
For me, I think the two great things which make a photograph include composition and emotion. Composition is the framing, the lines, shapes, forms, and geometric shapes in an image. Emotion is the feeling you get from an image.
We all know compositional tips and tricks. But we often forget the importance of capturing emotion in our photographs. To me, a photograph without emotion is dead.
But how do you capture emotions in photographs? An easy way to start off is by capturing hand gestures, body gestures, or body language.
A gesture can be something as simple as someone waving, someone covering their eyes from the sun, putting their hands on their hips, a facial expression, or the way people position their bodies.
Gestures is what turns a static and boring photograph into a photograph that is dynamic and with life.
How to capture gestures
To capture gestures, either walk the streets and wait until you see someone make an interesting hand gesture, or ask someone to make a hand gesture.
For example, try to avoid people just walking down the streets with their arms by their sides. Instead, wait until they put their hands up or do something animated.
Another tip: you can ask people to do interesting gestures without having it look posed by asking open ended questions. For example, “What is your life story?” A lot of people who go into “storytelling mode” will become animated and wave their hands. That is when you take a photograph.
Another common problem I see a lot of street photographers make is that they try to tell the whole story— rather than focusing on a certain detail which is interesting.
A photograph that shows everything isn’t interesting. A photograph that is specific is generally more interesting.
Why? It shows your personal perspective and what you find interesting about a scene.
As a photographer, you decide what to include in the frame and what not to include in the frame. By focusing on a certain detail, you’re telling your viewer: “This is what I find interesting— this is my unique perspective.”
How to capture details
To start off, try by getting closer. Shoot from at least an arms-length away (.7 meters or closer). If your camera has a macro mode, use it.
Focus on details like hands, feet, faces, or jewelry you see people in the streets.
Generally I find that most photographers shoot always at eye-level. The problem with this is that always seeing the world from eye-level is a bit boring.
How to embrace more unique perspectives
Try to mix it up by embracing a different perspective. Try to get up really high (go to the top floor of a building) and shoot looking down.
Conversely, embrace a very low perspective by crouching, lying on the ground, or even putting your camera on the ground.
A movie is only good when there is mystery to the viewer. Open-ended photographs are much more engaging and invite the viewer to make up his or her own story or version of the image. This is why whenever you add a cheesy title like: “Deep in thought” — you lose the interest of the viewer. Similarly, when you add a very long caption of what is happening in the photograph, or the backstory behind the photograph, it becomes boring for the viewer. The less mystery, the less suspense, and the less interest there is for the viewer.
How to create more mystery
Decide what to leave out of the frame. Subtract from the frame. Use a flash, add shadows, or embrace blur. In post-processing, try out high-contrast black and white, and post-process your photos in a gritty aesthetic and confuse your viewer. Disorient them.
If you also want to add more mystery to your street photos, watch a lot of film noir. See how they add mystery with smoke, mirrors, and shadows.
Some of the greatest street photographs have strong juxtapositions. Why? A juxtaposition adds a strong contrast between two different elements in an image, while also having some sort of similarity. It forces our brain to make sense of what is happening in the frame, and also shows our wit as photographers.
How to find juxtaposition
In the real world, look for juxtapositions such as tall versus short, fat versus skinny, dark against light, circles versus squares, or even warm colors versus cold colors.
There are many different ways you can incorporate juxtaposition in the frame. Always look for contrasting elements, and see how you can re-interpret a scene through your lens.
6. “Eyes are the windows to the soul”
Some of the strongest portraits in history (painting, drawing, and photography) include strong eye-contact. That isn’t always true, but I do feel that whenever I see an image where the subject is looking straight into the soul of the viewer, the photograph is more engaging and intriguing.
I think this is because as humans, we are afraid of eye-contact. Eye-contact can be an aggressive gesture, and can make us feel afraid or awkward (just imagine when you are sitting in a bus or a train, and someone randomly stares at you).
The reason why I like getting eye-contact in my photographs is because it helps me feel more emotionally connected to the subject in the frame. “Eyes are the windows to the soul” couldn’t be more true.
How to get eye contact
Trust me, getting eye contact in street photography is really scary. It took me nearly a decade before I’ve been comfortable making eye-contact with strangers.
First of all, just realize that it will take time. I was a lot more shy 10 years ago, but everyday I try to make a little more eye contact with people I meet. I start off with making eye contact with my friends, family, and loved ones. Then I try to make more eye contact with baristas, waiters, and any other people in the service industry (while giving them a big smile).
Then try to start making eye contact with strangers on the bus or public places. Once you make eye contact, don’t awkwardly look away, but stare back (gently) and smile and perhaps wave. Some people will think you’re crazy, but remember— this is a good way to build your confidence and good will to others.
When it comes to shooting street photography, get close to your subject, and keep clicking until they look at you and make eye contact. That is when you make a connection (and perhaps a strong street photograph).
7. “The cherry on top”
The last thing which I think makes a great street photograph is having a “cherry on top” — a small detail which makes a good photograph a great photograph.
A cherry on top can be a small little detail in the background of the frame that most people don’t notice— but is interesting. It can be a kid in the background doing a back-flip, a particular color of someone’s fingernails, what someone is eating, or some other detail.
The tricky thing is that we don’t always know what we are looking for when we’re shooting on the streets. For myself personally, I don’t find the “cherry on top” in my photographs untilafter I’ve shot them, and go home and look at my photos on the computer.
How to find the cherry on top
I’m sorry guys— but there is no easy way to find a “cherry on top” when you’re shooting on the streets. My suggestion is to just shoot a lot, and become better editors of your work (knowing which one of your photos are the best).
To learn how to better judge your own photos (and the work of others) to find the “cherry on top” — look at a lot of great photographs. Study the work of the Magnum Photographers or any other photographers you admire. I also recommend reading my “Learn from the masters” series to get you some ideas, inspiration, and to learn what makes a great image.
Once again, this isn’t a comprehensive list of what makes a great street photograph. Ultimately, whatever makes a “great” street photograph is subjective. Whatever emotion you feel when you are making images isn’t necessarily going to translate to your viewer.
At the end of the day, make photographs that are personally great and meaningful to you. You might make a photograph that nobody else likes— but as long as you like it— why do you care what others think?
But still, if you are sharing photos to the public, it is always good to get honest feedback, critique, and judgement from peers you trust and admire. Seek always to become the best photographer you can, and never give up my friend.
About the Author
Eric Kim is a street photographer and photography teacher currently based in Berkeley, California. His life’s mission is to produce as much “Open Source Photography” to make photography education accessible to all. You can see more of his work on his website, and find him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This article was also published here and shared with permission.