On the surface, street photography may seem like a genre of disparate and random images based completely on chance. In reality, when done well, street photography can be turned into a cohesive art form that allows a photographer to show off a strong vision.
But how is this done? The process to get there takes a lot of time and dedication – it’s a gradual process and there is a lot to think about. Here are some tips to help you bring this vision and these ideas out of you and into your work.
Tell a Story About Yourself
To start, when I use the term ‘story’ I mean this loosely. A story in this context can be a literal story or it can be a general feeling or idea that you want to share and bring out in your readers. Often it’s the latter.
Some of the best street photographers use their photography as a way to share their thoughts and ideas and the first step in this process is thinking about what it is you want to share. Do you long for something, are you sad or anxious, are you excited and hopeful, are you bored? What are you about?
As you photograph more and more, you will begin to become better at noticing specific moments that relate to who you are. This spirals, and as you start to notice photographs that you relate to, you will begin to look out for more of these moments and your work will start to become more cohesive.
Find Yourself in Others
To continue from the previous topic, search for aspects of yourself in others. One of the best ways to portrait these feelings is by locating others who seem to be feeling similar things.
Capturing emotions, expressions, and gestures in people is one of the most effective ways to portray emotion in your photography, so search for people who wear their emotions. Look at their eyes for glimpses into what they’re thinking. These moments are often brief, so if you see it, react quickly to capture it.
Over time you will build a portfolio of people and moments that you strongly relate to, and these photographs will relate to each other. This will make your work feel much more consistent and more like who you are.
Tell a Story About Your Area
You can also take your photography in a completely different direction and focus on the personality of an area instead of yourself (or you can combine the two of course). Look at the work of William Eggleston or Alec Soth for instance.
What makes the area unique? What makes it interesting? You can capture the people, the street scenes, events taking place, or little quirky moments and hidden things. The area does not have to be busy. Quiet and ‘boring’ areas can be just as interesting, if not more so, than busier areas. It all depends. In these quieter areas, you might need to introduce yourself to people and add in some portraits as well.
But the end result is the same. You will have a cohesive body of work that will not only show how a place looks but more importantly how it feels — how it feels to be there. You can certainly do this type of work anywhere, but I suggest starting somewhere that you are familiar with. The more you know a place (or the more you get to know it) the more nuanced and informative your photographs will be.
Educate Yourself on the Works of Others
When building your own style and vision, there are few things more important than educating yourself on other photographers. It is incredible how different the end results are when you look at the bodies of work of a variety of street photographers.
Over time, you will begin to figure out what you like and don’t like, and you will start to bring aspects of your favorite photographers and photographs into your own work. You will build a mental deck of these moments when out shooting and it will help you notice things that you never would have otherwise.
Go beyond just looking at famous photographers’ works online. While this is still a fantastic education, seeing a top-hits view of decades of a photographer’s work will not always do them justice. I would go further than this and start exploring through street photography books.
Books are the art form within the art form of street photography. This is where a photographer can sequence their work, play photographs off of each other, mix obvious fantastic and stunning photos with subtle and understated moments, and overall, pace us through an experience. It gives them our undivided attention and the time to show off all aspects of their work and vision.
Build Your Vision Through Editing and Sequencing
Editing is where a lot of the hard work and deliberation is done when building your idea. You want to group this work together and build on it, and you may find that the longer you do this for, the more your vision will alter and change. It may look completely different five years later. Some of your favorite photographs early on may be relegated to the reject pile. It’s a fascinating process to go through this.
Similarly, sequencing your work is both incredibly fun and difficult. It’s difficult to figure out which photographs will play off each other well, which are too obvious together and which are too subtle. How do you successfully lead and pace your viewer through your project?
The more time you spend with your editing and thinking about your work, the more in-tune you will be to your idea when you are out shooting. Editing informs your photographing.
Time and Dedication
And lastly, there is no substitution to time and dedication. To be able to build anything of substance in street photography, you need to be out there photographing consistently. Time and focus will develop your idea and will allow you to sift through enough moments to locate what you need to share that idea. Those incredible moments just don’t come that often — dedication and time to the craft is what brings them out.
About the author: James Maher is a freelance photographer who focuses on street photography and NYC event photography. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Maher also runs New York City photo tours and workshops. You can find more of his work on his website.