Street Photography – What Is It?

The new direction for my photography website focuses on my primary photography passion – Street Photography. I begin by reposting this edited commentary from earlier in the year, explaining the concept of Street Photography.

 

Street Photography

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 and its history.

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, I may have a general idea of things I’m trying to capture when I set out on a photo shoot. But 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 is 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 is 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 might be a favorite restaurant where people are enjoying a meal. Maybe it’s 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 we 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.

History of Street Photography

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. Now, capturing and sharing images of ‘people being themselves’ has proliferated with the advent of social media and the development of the digital camera. 

Confrontation

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. I have only had one instance in nearly two years 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. She was not ‘violent’ or aggressive in any way. She merely said, “Please don’t take my picture.” So I didn’t.

Could I have taken it anyway? After all, she was in a public place. Certainly I could have and been well within my ‘rights.’ However, I saw no reason to upset her. The beauty of street photography is that there is almost always another picture right around the corner. It’s not necessary to get into a confrontational situation. While street photography can yield some amazing shots, I find it rare that any given photo is a ‘must have.’

Whatever the situation in the past has been, the cell phone and it’s built in camera has become ubiquitous. As a result, 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. One of the men then demanded 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. Rather, it is 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. See the ‘Restrictions’ heading, below.)

What the Law is in the U.S. Regarding Street Photography

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.”

My Take

One of the questions fellow photographers, unaccustomed to street photography, most often ask is, ‘Do you get permission from people before you photograph them?” The short answer is, “No.”

As noted by Ms Carter, in general 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 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. Noted photographer and trainer Scott Kelby suggests smiling at the person and making a short wave with the camera. Then you raise the camera to your eye to take the shot. Whether you choose this or a similar approach is really a matter of your goals.

Restrictions on Street Photography

As noted in the previous section, that does not mean that you can use photos, even those taken in a public place, 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. This is because the stock photo sites have no control on how an image is used after it is purchased from them. By requiring a model release for every person who can be identified in a stock photo, the stock company is protecting themselves in case a purchaser does make a commercial use of a photo.

Model Releases

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. It also 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.

Conclusion

Street photography is only 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.


Footnotes

[1]http://carterlawaz.com/2012/05/when-can-someone-post-photos-of-you-online/ by Ruth Carter. Accessed by the author on 12/30/2017.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stock_photography

[3] http://www.applicationgap.com

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