[Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2006. It was updated on January 4, 2012 to reflect recent changes in technology and newly-available cameras for street photographers.]
All photos in this article © Mason Resnick
I've been a street photographer since 1976, when I had the good fortune of attending a workshop with the legendary Garry Winogrand. While my career has gone more towards writing about photography and editing photo magazines and contributing to photography-related web sites (like I said, street photography won't make you rich), the streets always call me back.
There are a growing number of digital cameras that can quickly catch the fast-changing action on the street, from the full-featured Leica M, the relatively low-priced Leica M-E, or the black-and-white only Leica M Monochtrom (read my exclusive Adorama review here) to new mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras such as the Olympus OM-D, Fujifilm X-Pro 1, and Sony NEX-7, with big sensors that can match or substantially exceed film quality. A small number of compact self-contained compact cameras, such as the Canon G15 and Panasonic Lumix LX-7, are great tools for street shooters who are just starting out and don't want to commit over a grand. All of these cameras are available at Adorama.
Street shooters need to take a lot of pictures and that used to be an expensive proposition, but now with digital, the ongoing expense of processing, printing and buying film (usually in bulk) is much less. The big cost up front (in addition to the camera) is ample memory cards and extra batteries. If you end up shooting 500 or more pictures a day (not unreasonable for a street shooter) you will need to replace both memory and battery at least once.
What is street photography, and why are so many photographers enthralled by it?
First, let's define street photography. The quick definition is that it's taking candid photos of strangers in public places. Most street photos are taken on city sidewalks, but they've also been taken in zoos, amusement parks, airports (before camera use was banned), rodeos, and parks. In fact, anyplace where people might be is fair game.
Traditional composition rules (such as keeping horizons straight, placing subjects in the center or along the intersection of invisible lines that divide an image in thirds) are less important than capturing the moment when interactions between people and their surroundings peak.
For example, horizons may not be perfectly horizontal; however, one well-known street shooter would always look for a vertical line near the edge of the frame, and used that as a rule for including photos when editing his work.
Street photographers tend to take a lot of pictures, and have a low "success" rate. That's because they are photographing the most challenging of subjects, the rapidly changing real world, full of unpredictable moments and infinite variations. The ratio of images where everything comes together compared to those that miss is quite low. And so, careful image editing is an important aspect of street photography.
When all the elements--action, composition and exposure--come together, it's sweet. And addicting. Ask any street photographer.
And that's the first reason why street photographers keep doing what they do. Here are some more reasons:
Street Photography hones your photographic vision
Sports photographers, photojournalists and even fashion shooters can benefit from doing street photography.
If you are shooting on a bustling city street and can manage to find order in all of that chaos (a skill that doesn't come overnight) then catching a basketaball player making net will come more easily because shooting a lot of street photos will quicken your reflexes and ability to anticipate key moments.
Street photos often have several things going on at once--sometimes creating a humorous or ironic effect. So, many street photos deliberately choose to shoot in places where a lot is happening. This is similar to the photojournalist's technique of "stacking the composition" with multiple subjects that somehow interact, enhancing the photo. Look at the work of photographers like James Natchway and you'll see the influence of street photography. Or, simply flip through any issue of Time or Newsweek.
Street Photography improves your technical skills
Automatic cameras may have difficulty keeping up with rapidly-changing lighting situations that are common on the street. Many street shooters instead rely on their ability to manually set their cameras based on their experience. I know, for example, that if I'm walking down the street on a hazy/overcast day in New York and am shooting ISO 800 film, the exposure will be 1/500 at f/8. With experience, you learn the nuances of exposure without having to consult a light meter.
Street Photography improves your reflexes
Leica users love The Tab. This is a protrusion found on many older (and some newer) Leica lenses that you use to focus the lens. Using a Kobolux 28mm f/3.5 lens (a fantastic lens which Adorama used to sell), I know that when The Tab is at 6:00, my lens is focused at 7 feet. At 4:00, it's 5 feet, and at 7:00 it's focused at 15 feet away. By the time I've raised the camera to my eye (and I NEVER shoot from the hip!) I've already focused.
The ability to see multiple subjects, anticipate the peak of the action, and calculate distance and focus your camera while raising your camera to your eye to catch the Decisive Moment takes years of practice. But this brain-eye-hand coordination can be done and will help you in other aspects of life.
Street Photography helps you overcome shyness
It's surprising how few people notice you're taking their picture (or care) once you've learned how to relax and be casual about it. But initially, it is an act of bravery to step into a crowd and take pictures of total strangers. Keep smiling, don't be afraid to make eye contact. Eventually you will be at ease, and you may be surprised at how little people notice your activity right in front of them!
Street photography is historic
Look at the above photo: It was shot in late July, 2001, in the plaza at the base of the World Trade Center in New York, just weeks before the attack on the Twin Towers. (You can see the base of one of the towers reflected in the windows in the background.) It's not one of my better shots, but this photo is one of several I made that day that I treasure due to their historical and emotional value.
Street photos show what we looked like during a specific time, how we dressed, and sometimes, show what life was like in what might later be considered part of an historic record. Just look at the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, for example, and you'll see history unfold!
Is Street Photography legal?
If someone objects to your taking their picture, it's best to be polite and explain that you're working on a personal photography project. They may no longer object at that point but if they are still upset, simply explain that you won't use their photo. Remember: As long as you are in a public place, you are legally permitted to take their picture! (If you stand in a public place and shoot into someone's private home and catch someone in a private moment, that's another story.) And you are allowed to make prints, exhibit the photos or even publish them as long as they are not used to promote a company or product.
Still uncertain about the legality of street photography? Ask a lawyer for advice based on legal precedent.
A few words about gear
Keep it simple. Use cameras with no lag time. While some street shooters use SLRs, a rangefinder is better so you can see what's going on the split second when you take the picture. An SLR's mirror slap blocks your view at the all-important moment of exposure. And while there are some film rangefinders out there like the Voigtlander Bessa R2A or Zeiss Ikon M, nothing beats a Leica M-series rangefinder. I've had my Leica M3 for over 25 years, and it is a smooth, reliable camera that is is quick and responsive. I've used later M cameras and love them as well, and all of them as well as many other classic rangefinders are available from the Adorama Used department. However, recent advances in sensor technology and new options have had me shooting digital more, and film a lot less.
The best of the breed is still Leica, which has made the transition to digital and is now in its third generation of digital rangefinder cameras, mentioned above. If the digital Leica M series is too rich for your taste, there is a growing number of less expensive cameras that are well-suited for street photography, which I've written about for the Adorama Learning Center in "Digital Cameras for Street Photography: An Opinionated Buying Guide. Follow our Street Photography Stress Test, an Adorama exclusive, to see which digital cameras are responsive enough to survive on the streets.
Street photographers tend to use either normal or wide-angle lenses; most are prime lenses in the 28-50mm range. A telephoto lens places the photographer too far away from the subject and the intimacy of the image is lost. Besides, odd as it may sound, the closer you are when you're taking someone's picture the less likely they are to notice (or believer) you are photographing them. However, a too-wide-angle lens (24mm and shorter) distorts the scene.
Many street shooters still use film, and tend to prefer the fast stuff. Fujicolor 800 Press film and Kodak Portra 800 are popular for their wide latitude and low grain (unless it's out of date) if you prefer shooting color. Black and white photographers still love Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP-5 Plus, both ISO 400 films that can be pushed 1-2 stops.
If you're just getting started, don't buy anything yet. Just go out and shoot with whatever you've got.
Remember: relax, walk slowly (walk too fast and you might miss something; besides, you are more likely to jostle the camera), and take lots of pictures. The more you shoot, the faster you'll learn. Study your results. Look at other street photography, like the images found at in-public.com. Put yourself and your subjects at ease: act like you belong there and that you should be taking pictures. Don't worry if you get funny looks. If people see you're nervous, they'll think you're doing something wrong. But if you're having a great time, others will pick up on that and relax, too.
Mason Resnick is the Editor-in-Chief of the Adorama Learning Center. You can view more of his street photography at Mason Resnick's Street Photography Journal. His offer of a free print to anyone who recognizes themselves in any of his street photos, and can prove it, still stands. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.