“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough – there has to be vision, and the two together can make a good photograph.” – Robert Frank
Street photography, which is generally defined as photography that features subjects in candid situations in unmanipulated public places, is an art like no other. Robert Frank, quoted above, is considered a master of this art.
In the 1950s, the Swiss-born Frank embarked on a yearlong road trip, meandering from state to state and capturing images along the way. Frank’s photos would later become the photo book The Americans, which an art critic at The New Yorker hailed as an American masterpiece.
Frank had several reasons for setting out on such a huge undertaking. Says the 2015 New York Times article, “The Man Who Saw America”:
[He] hoped to express the emotional rhythms of the United States, to portray underlying realities and misgivings — how it felt to be wealthy, to be poor, to be in love, to be alone, to be young or old, to be black or white, to live along a country road or to walk a crowded sidewalk, to be overworked or sleeping in parks, to be a swaggering Southern couple or to be young and gay in New York, to be politicking or at prayer.”
Though a travel photographer who mostly specializes in wildlife images and landscapes, I am still quite fascinated by street photography. From Robert Frank, a patriarch of the craft, to the every-growing cohort of street photographers whose Instagram feeds have changed the way we talk about picture-taking in the 21st century–I believe there is much to learn from street photography that can be applied to other aspects of the genre. In fact, there are three key lessons that, in my opinion, directly translate from street photography to all photography.
First, to state the obvious, always have your camera with you. Street photography depends on having your camera at the ready so that the moment a shot presents you’re on top of it. Leaving your kit in the trunk of your car, or the hotel room, or your studio guarantees exactly one thing: you’ll miss the shot. The best camera? Always the one that you have with you!
Another tidbit that I’ve gleaned from studying street photographers and their process: You tell the camera what to do, not the other way around. This is especially true when it comes to focusing your camera. Relying on autofocus is not the typical approach of street photographers; they prefer zone focusing to maintain more control and so they don’t miss that split-second magic of “the decisive moment.” If you’re using autofocus when that fleeting moment occurs, your camera may very well work against you by choosing to focus on something else entirely, making you miss the shot you wanted. So, all photographers should take a page from the street-images playbook: Learn how to change your focus zones quickly.
Lastly, street photographers are experts when it comes to getting the right exposure. Going from the sunny sidewalk to a dim alley to a shady park bench can all happen within minutes. And that’s when it’s important to make sure you know your camera inside and out. Tell me: Do you know your camera well enough to consistently keep the exposure where it needs to be? All photographers, no matter their particular concentration within the genre, needs to be more than cursorily familiar with the ins and outs of their camera. No, you should know your camera intimately, like the back of your hand. Your camera should be an extension of you.
One of my favorite examples of the quintessential camera-as-extension-of-photographer experience: That moment when you master how to seamlessly change your ISO settings without taking your eye off the viewfinder.
Contrary to popular opinion, street photography isn’t just made up of “outfit of the day” images. There is a craft to documenting eloquent, affecting in-the-moment snapshots of daily life as it’s happening. At one instant, the shot is there, and then…it’s not. But there’s an upside that every shutterbug knows: If for some reason,you miss the intended shot (due to, say, an equipment mishap or some other setback), there’s always another one. Never stop eyeing the literal or metaphorical street ahead. There’s plenty more road in front of you.