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Street Photography and the Story

Updated on August 13, 2015
LuisEGonzalez profile image

I enjoy photography and have been doing so professionally and independently for over 30 years.

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Street photography is photography that features the human condition within public places. Street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. Though people usually feature directly, street photography might be absent of people and can be an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic value. Wikipedia

Street photography is alive and well with many professionals dedicating their talents to capturing telling images of what their city life is, what it is not and everything in between.

However the best street photos are usually the ones that feature subjects that when a viewer sees the image feel like there is a story behind them.

This is what causes viewers to pay attention to the image and stay long enough looking at them that it creates a feeling which in turn makes your name as a photographer stand out.

You need to stand out for your work because if you don't you are just simply one more photographer among the crowd.

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As a well known street photographer puts it "In particular, the way in which the observer can create (or be led to create) a narrative around an image, even when one may not exist. Or as Jack puts it, "I'm attracted to moments that are humorous and strange or surreal. And ideally I like to find scenes that capture the essence of an imagined story".​ Jack Simon

I enjoy the hunt for that moment of mystery, surprise, and humor in my everyday life. I seek unplanned and unposed images that hint to a larger story, like a publicity still from some forgotten movie. These fragments of fictional stories are drawn from the real world in an odd coupling of my unconscious, my intentions, and chance. -Jack Simon

You are probably thinking that almost any images taken that shows people has a story behind it.

This is probably true but to make your images that much more powerful in retaining a viewer's gaze, they need to feature something that can be considered a storyline. Look at the previous images and the one following this capsule.

What is the lady thinking about while sitting alone with her coffee cup? Is she waiting for someone? Is she happy or sad, is she married,single and so on.

Did you notice that there are two coffee cups and that you can almost see the photographer's reflection on the window. Is she amused by his taking her image?

The lady with the child carriage, is she thinking that the dresses are nice or is she not convinced they fit her style, or maybe she thinks that they are too expensive, where is this place?

The photo of the balloon street performer or vendor as she attentively listens to the man . What is he saying, is he scolding her or complaining about her being there?

The fourth image of the gentleman about to eat what looks to be a sandwich. Is he on his lunch break, does he like his lunch or maybe is he homeless? What kind of work does he do. Look at what he is wearing.

All these elements in every picture can tell a lot about a subject and it is this fact that makes these photos interesting to begin with.

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Like this particular approach to street photography?

See results

One of the most important aspects of storytelling with your images is that you need to pay attention to your composition.

You need to isolate (up to a point) your subject or subjects.

If you do not and include too many elements then the intention of creating an avenue for the mind to fill in the blanks with all sorts of questions about what the subject is doing becomes lost and the viewer won't be able to easily figure out what the subject is doing and why.

The mind gets confused by all of the visuals and will probably wander of and instead of retaining the image it will discard it.

I mentioned in the parenthesis up to a point because if you get too close to the subject whether physically or by a zoom lens then you have isolated it to the point that there is no story to tell because the viewer has no base of reference.

You need to include other elements to at least let it be known (or assumed) where the subject is and more or less what the subject is doing.

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Use Your creativity when composing your images and if need be look at the works of some of the best street photographers. You can get plenty of ideas in how to compose and what to look for.

The key is to look at a scene, think about what a viewer would think and compose the shoot around that. In other words put yourself in the place of a viewer of the image keeping in mind that the person looking at it was not there.

Your image needs to tell a story by itself without the live action benefit that you had when you took it.

Do not copy their work but try to emulate their style. As you grow in your technique and as your experience develops you can start to formulate your own way of doing things and slowly start to build your portfolio.

Keep in mind that these types of images are very useful in creating eBooks or print ones and many photo related publications can use them as well.

If you can try to get at least one well known book about street photography techniques and study how the images are composed but most importantly , how the images were used.

One such work and one of my favorites is "Humans of New York" by Brandon Stanton and currently a number one seller.

On October 15, 2013, the Humans of New York book, which is based on the eponymous photography blog, was released. Published by St. Martin's Press, the book sold 30,000 copies as pre-orders. Ahead of the release he was also interviewed by with Bill Weir, for ABC News's Nightline news story titled, "'Humans of New York': Photog Gone Viral".

As of January 20, 2015, the book had been on the New York Times Bestseller list for 28 weeks; it reached the number 1 position on The New York Times Non-Fiction Best Sellers of 2013 on the week of November 3, 2013, and again on the week of December 21, 2014. Wikipedia

It took Stanton a while to complete (it features over 6,000 images) but it is full of interesting images, mostly of people, thus "Humans" in the title and each image tells a story.

Worthwhile to have in your collection if you are able. Study it and learn from it as well as other works from other talented pros.

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© 2015 Luis E Gonzalez

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    • LuisEGonzalez profile imageAUTHOR

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      2 years ago from Miami, Florida

      You're welcome.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      2 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Wow--thank you very much, Luis, for such a comprehensive explanation. That helps a lot, and now I can spend less time worrying about people being in my shots. Thanks for the references, as well. Much appreciated.

    • LuisEGonzalez profile imageAUTHOR

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      2 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Here is more on the subject:

      "1. Model releases are generally not required…

      This is one of the biggest misconceptions about what is required when photographing people. Granted, it never hurts to obtain a release, and if you intend to use or license your image commercially, then it’s much easier to get a model release immediately before or after photographing a subject than it is to try to track down a stranger for a waiver after the fact. However, simply photographing a person in public view — including children and law enforcement officials — does not require either a model release or expressed consent.

      2. … but use common sense.

      There are certain exceptions to the above generalization, most of them related to a person’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.” For example, if you’re shooting from a public street into someone’s bedroom or bathroom window, you may be crossing an ethical and even legal line. Shooting under public bathroom stalls or up the skirts of passersby is also likely to get you into trouble. Texas even has an “Improper Photography” statute that makes it a felony to photograph a subject “without the other person’s consent … and with intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.”

      If someone waves you off when you try to photograph him or her, you may be well within your legal rights to take the shot, but ask yourself if it’s worth the verbal or even physical altercation that it may yield. Confrontation aside, I’d always advise being respectful and considerate towards your subjects, and if they express that they’d rather not be photographed, I’d suggest simply moving on.

      3. Your rights as a photographer are broadest in public places.

      For the most part, that means that as long as your shooting position is on public ground, you can photograph whatever you wish; this includes subjects situated on private property but within public view, such as a couple sitting on a restaurant patio that you can view from the street or the man in the image below, who is taking a smoke break on his employer’s back step. Similarly, contrary to popular belief, you do not need to obtain parental or guardian consent to photograph children on or visible from public property." http://www.clickinmoms.com/blog/street-photography...

    • LuisEGonzalez profile imageAUTHOR

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      2 years ago from Miami, Florida

      DzyMsLizzy: If the faces can be recognized you should request a model's release. Explaining what you are doing usually does the trick. However in many cases a model's release for street photography is not required but always advisable.

      Perhaps this would help you decide: "PDN: What advice do you have in regards to model releases for people shooting street photography?

      Wolff: It isn’t illegal to take a photograph of a person in most situations unless you’re violating some other law. If a person’s in a public place or a place where you can see them, like through a window, you can take their picture. Because we have a very strong First Amendment in the United States, you’re allowed to take a picture of anyone you see on the street. That’s the whole basis of licensing images of news events and reportage, i.e. street photography, in which there are no releases. If someone’s doing something everyone can see, even if they’re sitting in a window of a restaurant, you can take a photograph of them and you’re not going to violate any law. Some states have laws, such as California, regarding long-range lenses to view someone’s private house – primarily to protect celebrities from paparazzi.

      Then if you want to sell your photos, can you sell them without a release? The act of selling something by itself is not – and most people get very confused with this – a commercial act that requires a release. The fact you make money from something doesn’t necessarily mean the ultimate use is a commercial use. Otherwise you could never license any news photographs. The New York Times would have no pictures in it other than those taken by staff. The fact that you make a sale is not what triggers whether you need a release or not; it’s the context in how that photograph is used. If you were going to make a sale of a photo of, for example, someone on the street attending a St. Patrick’s Day parade, you could sell that to magazines, newspapers, online blogs, anything as long as there’s a relationship between the photograph and a truthful news or public interest story. - See more at: http://www.pdnonline.com/features/What-Photographe...

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      2 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Very interesting and well-written. You have great examples.

      I have to wonder about using such photos for sale, either in a book or to a stock photo site. What about model releases?

      Usually, I've been about scenic and architectural photos, and have missed a lot of shots waiting for people to get out of the way, and they never did. Such is the nature of an urban environment. Trees and buildings stand still for you--though the people can get in the way of building shots if you're not a 'crack-of-dawn' person, which I certainly am not.

      But, I have tended to shy away from photographing people simply because of the concern about model releases.

    • LuisEGonzalez profile imageAUTHOR

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      2 years ago from Miami, Florida

      teaches12345: Thank you

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      2 years ago

      Great tips and so very interesting to read.

    • LuisEGonzalez profile imageAUTHOR

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      3 years ago from Miami, Florida

      MarleneB: Thank you

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 

      3 years ago from USA

      One of my favorite things to do is go to the park or the lake and just watch people interact with each other. I take a mental snapshot of what I see and try to imagine what they might be saying or doing. Being a street photographer must be a joyful profession. The photos you included with this hub did an excellent job in complimenting your commentary.

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