Thanks to street photography’s growing popularity online, it has lead to a lot of people writing about it online (hi there). Many of these people repeat truisms and myths that they’ve heard and had passed down to them.
While they may be based on some good reasons, blind allegiance to them is wrong. As such, here are 12 street photography myths that may be holding you back.
1. You have to use this or that equipment
Origins: There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that the gear they recommend is the camera they use or the type of gear the writer finds useful. As such, of course, you too should use it and like it. This is magnified when the photographer has a deal with a camera manufacturer to promote their gear.
There are also some common trends that you can see in the gear that people use for street photography which are…
a. Wide angle lenses
Origin: This is so that you can have “context” in your photos rather than a single person with a bokehed out background that could be anywhere.
It also encourages a couple of positions and approaches that help to prevent overlapping objects and backgrounds and it usually “feels” more like you are there in person.
(Plus it’s really creepy to see a photographer standing at a distance and “snipping people”)
Truth: When you look at Saul Leiters work, or Nick Turpin’s “On the night bus” you can see that you don’t have to stick to wide angles and can use longer lenses for some interesting effects. Photos which have context but also focus on the individual.
b. You should always use the same focal length
Origin: This is another often repeated statement that has legitimate origins. When you stick to one focal length, you get used to it and know roughly what your image will look like when you shoot photos. This includes separation as well as frame lines.
The Truth: If you get used to one focal length, you may well find a different one provides you with a completely different perspective and outlook on the world.
When you shoot 35mm all the time, switching to 50mm suddenly brings everything closer, whereas switching to 28mm suddenly leads to you finding extra elements being included in your images.
c. You should only use small compact cameras
Origins: Compact cameras (like the Fujifilm x100t) are less noticeable and can help you zip around the streets. Lighter and pocketable are great features to help you shoot all day every day…but you don’t have to stick to a small compact camera. You could use a larger medium format film camera or a DSLR with a larger lens.
It may, in fact, lead to you taking a different style of photo where you slow down and focus on one or two areas rather than running around all over the place in pursuit of the next “moment”
The Truth: You can use whatever gear you want and it might be good to try something radically different. A larger camera may lead to you slowing down and noticing elements that you wouldn’t normally.
It may also mean that you take photos with a shallower depth of field (because of the larger sensor) which challenge you with the skill of focusing and creative vision. This is a great exercise even if you go back to your old gear.
2. You have to live in a big city (or travel)
Origin: This is partially due to paying tribute to the legendary street photographers of the past who traveled to different locations. It is also because big cities tend to attract more interesting people with unique hairstyles, clothes, and actions.
It is also because we notice things when we travel as we are seeing them for the first time.
Our mind doesn’t go into automatic mode where we know where to go and walk straight there.
This is, however, only part of the story.
The Truth: I’ve talked about this before when I mentioned the cult of travel in street photography. While I absolutely believe that travel is great fun and can help get you out of a creative rut, a lot of my favorite photos have been taken by people who live in the place they are shooting.
They tend to dig deeper and not shoot the same photos in the same locations. Instead, they have to look more into the soul of a place.
Plus, this really strikes me as an elitist attitude which can help promote those with the money and means to travel.
3. You have to shoot in black and white
Origin: When street photography started, the only film available was in black and white. This meant that the first street photos were black and white. As such, shooting black and white helps evoke those first photographers.
Furthermore, it can help make your photos look more out of time and timeless. Finally, black and white can help remove distracting bright colors and focuses more on composition and emotion rather than adding in color as well.
The Truth: Colour can add a great deal to a photo by evoking certain emotions depending on the color that is present in the image. For example, red light can evoke rage or a district of women of negotiable affection.
As such, by only shooting black and white, you may be ignoring a whole host of images that you could use. Instead, why not try color and black and white.
4. Film is better
Origin: Digital sensor and cameras have been a very recent invention. At first, there was no doubt that they were much worse, with lower dynamic range, less detail that could be grasped from the file with possibly the only benefit that they were quicker and cheaper to take photos with.
That quickly changed with sensors that could produce more detail, with greater dynamic range and higher ISO speeds. Yet, the images didn’t have the “character of film” lacking the natural grain produced by chemicals in the darkroom.
Finally, film forces you to shoot in a different way. You can’t instantly see your results so you have to take multiple photos to make sure you get that moment. This can’t be done by just holding the shutter button down but instead by shooting, re-composing your photo and shooting again.
The Truth: There is nothing wrong with shooting film and it certainly will make you shoot photos in a different way to photos on your smartphone or through an electronic viewfinder. The process of mixing chemicals in a darkroom is an experience all unto itself as well.
However, there is nothing wrong with shooting digital and it has several advantages such as the long term cost, the speed of shooting, not needing to carry film with you and so on.
Really, you ought to shoot whatever you like, but it can be worth trying shooting film if you shoot digital, and digital if you shoot film.
5. You’ve got to be on Instagram
Origin: Instagram is one of the rising social networks and has been for years. It’s also very photography focused as every post needs to have an image with it. Sure, you can upload graphics from your phone and not just put photos online but there are more photos than a social network like Twitter.
This has lead to some street photographers gaining massive followings and eventually going full time via selling prints and books or getting deals with camera manufacturers to promote their products.
As such, if you want to get your photos noticed, you need to be on Instagram.
The Truth: I absolutely agree with that last part of the statement. Instagram is the place to get your photos noticed…but you don’t have to get your photos noticed. Instagram rewards cheap viewing experiences of scrolling from one image to the next not spending a long time digesting images.
If you want to get a book published, then you probably do need an Instagram account and a large following, but maybe printing a book shouldn’t be your end goal.
6. You’ve got to have a blog
Origin: Before social media, there were blogs. A community of chronologically updates sites with the latest post on top and the oldest last. There were places where people shared their experiences and could make money via adverts and products. You could even gain a large following simply by writing well.
The truth: As I wrote, before social media. Blogs have changed a lot in about four years since Facebook and Google have started promoting more content on their own platforms and from “big names”. It makes it harder to break into these areas. Plus, advertising revenue has dramatically decreased for blogs.
However, the most critical point here is that blogging, and writing, means you are not photographing. This is fine if that’s what you enjoy, but if you enjoy photography, you should…you know…shoot photographs not talk about it. You need to be careful of your motives.
For the record, I started writing this blog to help me reflect on my photography and as a reason to encourage myself to take photos when I did feel like doing it. It has worked well for that (and I hope these reflections have helped you as well), however, at times I’ve gone on hiatuses so that I’d take more photos.
So in summary, if you like writing. Cool, have a blog. But having a blog won’t necessarily make your photos better and there are better systems to display your photos that a blog.
7. Shooting from the waist is always wrong
Origin: I’m sure you’ve seen these pretty mediocre shots which are close to people but they don’t notice the camera. The strange thing is you seem to be straining up to see their face, and there are overlapping elements. Well, it’s probably because they shot from the waist.
This is a common technique for new photographers who are afraid of being spotted by the person they are shooting.
The Truth: The reason we say that shooting for the waist is bad, is because it is shooting “blind”. That is you don’t know what type of image you are going to get and so you are just “spraying and praying”.
You’ll get some good photos this way, but did you really take that photo or are you just editing it afterward?
It is possible to shoot from the waste and not shoot blind. If you have a waist level viewfinder or a tiltable LCD screen then you can frame your shot with that.
Alternatively, if you practice enough at framing your shots with the camera at your waist then you’ll be able to predict what the photo will look like before you shoot it.
It is perfectly possible to take good photos from your waist.
8. If you make good photos people will care
Origin: I’m sure you’ve seen some photos that made you stop for a really think. One of the most obvious for me was the photos of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy of Kurdish background who drowned trying to get to Europe.
Moments like that can really leave a deep impact on people and get them to consider what they think about an issue, inviting them to feel compassion.
The Truth: Let’s look at my example of Alan shall we. After it was taken, there was some furor in the press and then a week later, they were back to calling these refugees insects. Hardly a lasting change. The chances are, that in our new photo-rich world, your photos may well be forgotten within a week.
There is no guarantee that even a good photo will make someone care.
In addition, you may think that you are doing this for good reasons but are you really? Perhaps you are doing it for your own glory and gaining from someone else’s hardship and misery.
9. You should only shoot during the “golden hours”
Origin: The “golden hours” are the hour straight after sunrise and right before sunset. This is when the sun is lower in the sky and travels through more atmosphere. This leads to some interesting effects including warm light and less harsh light.
This is generally more pleasing than harsh direct sunlight coming from straight above which gives people “panda eyes”.
Alex Webb is famous for only shooting during the golden hours and scouting locations during the rest of the day.
Truth: The golden hours do lead to nice photos but it’s a fun and exciting challenge to make great photos during other times of the day. This could be by going indoors, using a flash, or other artificial light.
Or it could be by using the contrast between shadows and harsh light. If you limit yourself to the golden hours, you’ll miss certain photos which don’t happen at other moments.
10. It’s better to use burst mode to capture the exact moment I want
Origin: Even the most simple digital cameras can now shoot crazily fast high-speed modes including multiple frames a second. This means you can see a “decisive moment” coming and hold down the shutter button, guaranteeing you’ll get the shot.
It’s much safer than having to press the button, release, press again etc.
Truth: Again, there’s some truth here but my experience has been less successful. When I shoot in burst mode two things tend to happen.
- I fill my SD card quickly, meaning I waste time removing photos and spend less time out shooting.
- I capture the moment either side of the “decisive moment”.
I’ll admit that I tend to shoot the slower continuous burst mode on my Fujifilm x100t, which is only five frames a second. What tends to happen is I capture the moment before their foot hits the ground…and the one straight after it is lifted!
When I actually count their steps, I can press the shutter when their foot hits the ground (I learned this from Valerie Jardin).
However, this isn’t true for everyone, and some people manage to capture the moment so, do whatever you like. I’d still recommend trying this technique.
11. Good street photographers are lucky
Origin: I’m sure you’ve also seen those highly praised street photographers who share some amazing street photos…but also share a tone of truly terrible photos too!
They were so lucky to be at that location in that city with that person walking by at that time. If only you had been there. You could have caught that moment too.
Truth: Let’s first be honest and admit that this reaction usually comes out of jealousy. If you are critical of another street photographer, it’s probably some element of jealousy.
The truth of this is that we make our own luck in street photography and other areas of life too.
Let’s look at some simple statistics. If you live in a big city and go shooting for an hour, let’s say you pass 1000 people. If you spend two hours out shooting, you are going to have more people pass you, it might be double or a bit more or less depending if it’s busier or quieter. Let’s call it double just to be simple.
If you have double the number of people pass you, you’ve double the chance of someone interesting passing you.
Those wonderful moments where images suddenly come together require skill to frame the shot right, foresight to envision what position will help find one of these moments and time to allow them to come to fruition.
There is a spot in Krakow I go to when I don’t feel inspired. There are several geographical shapes that line up there and I know there is a great shot in there where a person is in each location.
I must have shot 2000 photos there and some are okay. But I’ve never shared any because they are not the shot I know is there.
When I get that shot, it won’t be luck, it will have been patience.
By the way, if another photographer tells you they turned up at a location and it just so happened that all these elements lined up (multiple times in multiple photos) it’s worth being skeptical as to if the photos have been staged or not.
12. Street photography can be whatever you want it to be
Origin: Street Photography has evolved over time and there are very different styles between different “masters of the craft”. Even Winogrand said he wasn’t a street photographer and maybe should be called “zoo photographer”. So Street Photography can be whatever you like it to be.
Truth: urgh. This is probably one of the most controversial aspects of street photography with people arguing forcefully for each side. So, here is my personal belief and application.
1. Shoot whatever you like
You don’t have to be a street photographer, If you like portraits take portraits, if you like landscapes, shoot landscapes. If you like abstract art, do that! In fact, experiment, enjoy it! If you are an amateur (like me) then the process is the reward not getting paid and so you be you.
2. Some things are obviously not street photography
It feels dumb to say this, but my classic example is when people take photos of models on the street with strobes, softboxes, posing and so on, it’s not street. I hope we can all agree on that. (This is a trend in fashion photography at the moment as people want “authentic” photos so…yeah).
Another example would be a photo of a plant in someone’s house, not street. Or of a mountain in Yellowstone Park, not street. It’s easy, right?
The problem comes with all these cross over points like street portraits, urban landscape and so on.
Personally, I’d argue that they are related but separate genres, like Jazz and blues. Rather than a sub-genre like punk and pop-punk.
That would mean that, in my opinion, you shouldn’t enter a posed street portrait to a street photography competition as it was posed.
3. It’s fun to push boundaries
Despite that last statement, I think it’s great to push boundaries and creative constraints. As such, why not try and push the “Candid Public Photography” definition that I feel works well for street photography to the extreme.
What Street photography myths can you think of?
Have I missed any street photography myths from my list? Do you disagree with any of my points? Leave a comment below.
Also published on Medium.