Street Photography – What Is It?

The largest photo gallery on this website is dedicated to Street Photography. But what is street photography? What are the variations and are there issues or concerns with the practice of street photography?
This article addresses those questions. We will also explore the ‘standards’ of the genre, equipment, and the history of street photography.

Street Photography – What is it?

Street photography is sometimes called Candid Photography. Simply stated, street photography can be defined as ‘capturing unmediated chance and random encounters in public places.’ In other words, while I may have a general idea of things I’m trying to capture when I set out on a photo shoot, I really don’t know what I’m going to find until I see it before me.
street photography photo bomberstreet photography -- a book and a cigar
Sometimes, it’s as simple as a man sitting on a bench reading a book and smoking a cigar. Or it might be an artist making a chalk drawing on the sidewalk. Maybe it’s a young couple walking down the street hand-in-hand. Sometimes it’s humorous — a man driving by a golf cart who mugs for the camera, not realizing he’s the subject of the photo.

Whatever it is, it’s a moment in time that’s either captured or gone.

Despite the name, street photography is not confined to the ‘street.’ It is (usually) candid photography in a public place. Sometimes, that place has taken the form of people enjoying a meal in a favorite restaurant, visiting the zoo, or attending a free street performance.

What is the Draw?

What makes street photography an interesting genre? I think the largest draw is the infinite variation that one can see in public places on any given day. In any reasonably sized city, a street photographer can go out to the same general area a couple of times a week for an extended period of time and see something different on every trip.

Obviously, this is not the case in a small town. However, even a small town and its environs have people ‘being themselves’ in ways which can make interesting photographic captures.


Street photography was literally the first genre of photography practiced. The invention of photography in the mid-19th century coincided with increased urbanization of the world. Thus, many of the early photographs were taken in the streets.

Street photography as a unique genre was long the forte of a few photographers who met and shared their images. However, with the advent of social media and the development of the digital camera, capturing and sharing images of ‘people being themselves’ has proliferated.

How I Became Interested in Street Photography

I must confess that when I started on my photography quest, I had really never heard of street photography. Once I learned what it was, I was still filled with some trepidation. How would people react to having their photograph taken on the street? Would they objective, even violently?

I began by taking pictures of people at a distance, occasionally with a telephoto lens. However, I quickly learned that most people not object. Even when they become aware that they’re being photographed, they very often smile and sometimes even strike a pose. And smiling back at them helps ease any tension. Now, I rarely shoot with a long lens, and often am photographing from a distance of only six to ten feet. This is a reasonable distance. You should not intrude on a person’s personal space by ‘getting in their face. It’s not at all necessary for a good photo.

street photography contrasts - have and have not

Sometimes it’s poignant — a young woman listening to music on her phone while, almost beside her, a homeless man digs in the garbage for food.

Street photography quickly became my primary genre. My life has been filled with watching people. I couldn’t help but notice the interesting variety of people in everyday situations. So with street photography, I’m just taking the observation one step further — seeing it and photographing it.

It is also a factor that you can go back to exactly the same location a day later, or even an hour later, and find completely different reactions and situations.


There are some fears or concerns that people express about the concept of street photography. Chief among these is the fear of violent confrontation. People have a concern that, if they are taking photographs of people without their permission, those people may retaliate.

Conversely, it is been my experience — and the experience of most people I know who practice street photography — that this is an extremely rare reaction. In my personal experience, I have only had one instance in over a year of practicing street photography where someone asked me not to take their picture. In that particular case, it was a woman at a bus stop — a very public place by any definition. However, I agreed not to take her picture.

In street photography, there is almost always another picture right around the corner so it’s not necessary to get into a confrontational situation. And while street photography can yield some amazing shots, I’ve found it rare that any given photo is a ‘must have.’

My opinion is that, whatever the situation in the past has been, the cell phone and it’s built in camera has become so ubiquitous that people really don’t even think that much about someone taking pictures.

‘Pay Me’

What about paying people to take their photo on the street?

One of my fellow photographers told me a story about taking some shots of two apparently homeless men, and then having them demand money for having their picture taken. There is no requirement that you pay someone for taking their picture in a public place. However, with some individuals, you may want to assess the situation and determine whether or not the shot is worth parting with a couple of dollars.

In my own experience, I have paid three or four homeless people. However, I viewed it not as a ‘payment’ for their photo, but rather an acknowledgment of their circumstances and desire to help them a bit, whether I took their photo or not. (There are circumstances where ‘consideration’ or pay  to an individual may be required for taking their photograph, even in a public place. This is covered under the ‘Restrictions’ heading, below.)


What is the best camera for street photography? The quick answer is “whatever camera you have.” That said, here are some considerations.

Cell Phone

As noted above, the cell phone camera has become so ubiquitous that most people think nothing of someone taking photos with their phone. Indeed, there are some street photographers who use their phone exclusively. Obviously, the limitations as far as camera settings inherent with a cell phone camera limit the types of photographs and situations that can be captured. However, it is an option to consider even by those who usually use a larger camera. Personally, I have resorted to my cell phone in situations where I see a shot I want to capture but my main camera is not readily available.


There are a number of small and inexpensive cameras on the market which, under the right conditions, can yield good street photography results. As with a phone camera, these devices are limited in settings which allow more creativity in photos. However, some cameras in this group have an optical zoom feature for more close-up photos. I have an Olympus model FE-230 which I have used successfully in some environments.


Probably the most common camera used for street photography is a digital single lens reflex camera, or DSLR. This type of camera is available in models ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. The popularity of the DSLR, not only in street photography but photography in general, comes from the many adjustments that can be made which affect the look of a photograph. Additionally, DSLR cameras have the capability to accept multiple lenses, from macro lens is designed for very close up photography to large telephoto lenses enabling photography at great distance.

While the DSLR camera is the most popular for street photography use, there are some considerations. When using a larger camera, it helps to look less like a ‘professional’ photographer. This means not equipping your camera with a huge telephoto lens. It’s also a good idea not to use a lens hood, since this is perceived by many people to be an indication of a professional photographer.

My personal choice for street photography is a Nikon DSLR with a Tamron 18–200mm lens. The Tamron 18–200 is a relatively short lens despite its mid range telephoto ability. Also, I do not carry a camera bag or such photographic tools as a tripod or monopod. Finally, I find that it helps to dress like a ‘tourist.’ In other words, I usually wear a souvenir baseball cap from the city or area where I’m shooting, as well as casual clothing that someone visiting the area as a tourist might wear.

Mirrorless Cameras

Some street photographers prefer the mirrorless camera. These cameras are generally more expensive than a comparable DSLR. However, they combine the lens interchangeability of the DSLR with smaller size of a point-and-shoot camera.

What the Law is in the U.S.

I will preface this section by stating that I am not a lawyer. The information I provide here is in no way intended to constitute legal advice. It is rather the result of my research and personal approach to the issues. I advise my readers to do their own research and to seek professional legal advice as necessary.

Ruth Carter, an attorney in Phoenix, Arizona, published an article[1] in 2012 which addresses the basic issue of photographing someone in a public place. She states, “You have no expectation of privacy in anything you do in public. This includes where you go and what you do while you’re there. For example, I just got an adorable basset hound named Rosie. We take walks every day. I have no expectation of privacy regarding where we walk, what I’m wearing when I walk her, or how I react when she pulls on the leash. That’s all in plain view for everyone to see. Anyone can take a picture of us and post it online, preferably with a caption that says, “Sassy lady and her awesome dog,” and there’s nothing I can do about it (as long as they’re not misrepresenting me or commercializing my image without my consent).

“The exception to this rule is you have an expectation of privacy in places like public bathroom stalls, changing rooms, tanning salons, and doctor’s offices that may require you to be partially or completely undressed.”

One of the questions I am most often asked by fellow photographers who are unaccustomed to street photography is, ‘Do you get permission from people before you photograph them?” In the short answer is, “No.”

As a general rule, you do not need permission to take photographs of anyone and anything that is visible from a public place. From a practical standpoint, stopping and asking permission would pretty much negate the whole idea of capturing people just being themselves. As a street photographer, I usually don’t want people to pose. In most cases, the subjects are unaware they’re being photographed.

That doesn’t mean that I will never talk to people. In some instances, I may take a candid photograph of a person and then decide that I would also like something slightly more posed. In those cases, I will take the initial shot and then contact the person and ask them for something less candid.

I should also note that there are well known street photographers who do get at least tacit permission from most of their subjects. It’s really a matter the photographer’s goals.


As noted in the previous section, that does not mean that photos, even those taken in a public place, can be used for any purpose without restriction. A photographer may use the candid photo for display and even for sale as ‘art’ without the subject’s permission. However, if you wish to use the photo for any type of commercial purpose, you must obtain permission. This permission is called a ‘model release.’

Commercial use most often relates to use of the photograph in advertising. For example, you want to sell your photograph of a person to your neighbor for use in her campaign to sell the purses she makes. You would need a model release from the person photographed for that use.

Additionally, if you wish to sell your photos on a stock site[2] such as Adobe Stock, Getty Images, or Shutterstock, you will need to obtain a model release.

There are many samples of model releases available on the internet. Some of the stock services require specific wording. Therefore, it pays to review the requirements of the service before you take photos you plan to sell there.

I use an app called ‘Easy Release’ from Applicationgap[3]. It allows you to store a variety of model releases on your phone or tablet, and expedites the process of completing the release and getting the proper signatures. You can store the completed releases for as long as you desire.

There is also a form for release of photos of certain types of property. Not surprisingly, this is called a ‘property release’ and is similar to the ‘model release.’ Photographers can find the requirements for obtaining a property release on many internet sites.

Learning from the Masters

Street photography, as with any art, is a product of the individual style of the artist. While you should always work to develop your own unique style and view, it is helpful to review the work of those successful street photographers. By studying the work of the ‘masters’, you can learn to develop an eye for capturing what’s before you in your own way.

There are numerous books available featuring the work of a wide variety of street photography styles. Two that I have found helpful are:

“Vivian Maier – Street Photographer”[4] and “Jay Maisel’s New York”[5]

Vivian Maier worked as a nanny on Chicago’s North Shore. In her spare time, she took photographs, mostly of people on the street and architecture. In a photography career spanning 40 years, she took more than 150,000 photos. However, these were largely unknown and unpublished during her lifetime. In 2009, a Chicago collector named Jerry Maloof, who had discovered some of her negatives two years earlier, began posting her photos on the internet. She is now considered one of the iconic street photographers of modern times.

Jay Maisel is a well-known street photographer living in the historic district of Brooklyn, NY. He has published a number of books on photography and teaches street photography for KelbyOne training.

Somewhat of a text book that I also recommend is “Mastering Street Photography”[6] by Brian Lloyd Duckett. This 2017 book is full of ideas and commentary on all aspects of street photography.


Street photography is but one of numerous genres available to the budding or experienced photographer. But unlike the static atmosphere of landscape or architectural photography or the controlled environment of the studio, the street offers photographic opportunities that change from second to second. As ever-changing as the sunrise, street photography captures the infinite nuances of the human condition — people being themselves.


[1] by Ruth Carter. Accessed by the author on 12/30/2017.






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One Comment

  1. ROGER CANTLON February 6, 2018 at 1:54 pm #



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