After my break from taking street photos recently I’ve been a bit hesitant to get back into the action. Partially this was due to the end of term and an increase in work (as well as doing some WordPress development on the side too), but also because I found myself wondering what the point was anyway.
I had noticed a lot more “street” photographers around Krakow recently (maybe Krakow is getting a reputation?) and in some cases I noticed they were in some locations I went to a fair bit. Of course I tried to picture their images and work out if they’d be good or not. While you can never fully tell unless you look down someone’s lens, I think I had a fair feeling of what they were taking pictures of and so I (of course) passed judgment and suspected they weren’t that great.
The trouble was, when I started to think about why they probably weren’t great, I realised these are factors that are usually present in my own images. That started to make me think about what makes a photo “bad” and why I don’t think the majority of my images are good (and in contrast what I think makes for a good street photography image).
What makes a Bad street photo?
Just another person walking
I heard someone mention this on a podcast (on taking pictures?) recently and it really struck me. How many street photos are “just a person walking along”. Sure, maybe they have an interesting hat, or maybe they are in a nice geometric shape within the frame…but that’s it.
While there is nothing wrong with pictures of people walking along and some great images have been taking of “just another person walking”, but usually there is something more.
Someone on their phone
Oh dear…just no. There is nothing interesting about someone on their phone. Especially as they are probably standing still next to a wall. There are a few good pictures of people on their phones but almost always its when they are with someone else and the other person isn’t on their phone OR because there phone is distracting them from something else important in frame. These are really rare though.
People on benches or at a cafe table
Again a dime a dozen and usually just someone trying to eat or about to eat. They often aren’t doing anything and aren’t that great. Again, there are exceptions but this is a good rule of thumb.
Why are they bad?
These bad images all share a few commonalities and they often hold the key to what makes for a bad image. I believe that can be summed up in the statement
They are too ordinary and lack emotion.
Another person walking is just that, another person. A bit of interesting light or a colourful character (with an outfit to match) can liven things up a bit, but only a bit. Likewise being on a phone lends itself to looking pretty blank and gormless. Their limbs are tucked in as well which prevents any interesting action or sign of emotion. I think there can be a beauty in using ordinary things and “boring” things to reveal a hidden story, but these rely on several images in a series (usually) and so a single image fails.
What makes a great street photo?
If I’m right about the lack of emotion and plainness in bad photos, good street photos require something special and some emotion. So how can we get those in our images? Well…here are some ideas
A classic element in street photography are strange visual effects, where a line from a road meets a bow in someone’s clothes, or someone stands behind a manikin without a head and so it looks like the mankin has their head.
Sometimes these visual effects can be overdone, and they can be a bit like “one liner jokes” (as in, you’ve heard this one before) but a clever visual effect can help.
By using a strange perspective, one that we would not naturally go to (for example for down low, above, at a strange angle or simple from a place you wouldn’t normally be) can help create amazing images. These aren’t things that we’d see everyday and so stand out more.
Out of place items
Sometimes we can find unexpected items. Things which “don’t belong” or look out of place. These can turn an ordinary location into something very interesting.
A good hand action can add a lot to a photo. Hands static by your side are usually boring, but hands touching some part of your clothes or gesturing to someone help improve an image a lot.
“The eyes are the window to the soul”
So they say, and for good reason. Eyes (and the eye lids around them) carry a lot of character. Even having your eyes closed can help elicit emotion. Noticing and focusing on someone’s eyes can really add emotion. It’s also one of the reasons that (in general) backs are boring.
Like the eyes, lips and the mouth add a lot of emotion too. A smile or grimace conveys a lot of feeling and emotion. Looking for interesting mouth shapes in people.
Go to emotional locations
Obviously, if you want emotions, then you should go to an “emotional” location. Some places are more likely to have emotional moments, for example, places where you travel where people might experience
And more. Likewise, other locations tend towards being more dull and plain. For example where you update your car licence. Now you might want a photo featuring boring items…but if you want emotion, it’s better to go where emotions will be high.
What do you think makes a good street photo
Of course, there are other elements that can make for a good photo and these are, well, like just my opinion man and it isn’t a complete list of elements that make a good street photo. I’d love to know what you think makes a good street photo.
[bonus note, I’m not saying these photos are good, but they contain elements that can help make a good photo and they are generally better than “just walking” photos in my opinion.]
Also published on Medium.