Attempting to Define Street Photography

When it comes to street photography, what counts, how would you define it, and why? Here's a video that poses some potentially tough questions and attempts to define more abstract ideas that may have a fair amount of gray area regarding that very question.

The video comes from travel photographer Jim Nix and features an exploration of the concept of what street photography is. He asks some interesting questions as he explores the concepts of travel photography, street photography, and urban photography among other things. I found this to be a pretty interesting video and then found myself thinking about where a person might draw the line (if it even needs to be drawn at all), where there is potential overlap among various disciplines, and even if it matters at all as to how we would define the concept.

What's the very first thing that pops into your head when you hear the words street photography? Does it have to be in an urban setting? What about people? Do you think that it's important to have some element or connection to people in the imagery? What about cityscapes? How would you differentiate between street photography, cityscapes, and travel photography?

Personally, I think that if the lines exist at all, they are fluid or gray rather than black and white lines separating these ideas. I think that the content definitely plays a role, but I think it's more about what story the photographer wants to tell and in turn, how the viewer receives the image. For example, I don't necessarily always associate heavy urban settings with street photography, and I certainly don't feel like more rural settings must be excluded from the category. We all may have a different idea of a street photography in our heads and by our own right, we may all be correct. So, I ask again, what's the first image that pops into your head when you think street photography?

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In my opinion, street photography is photography without lights or reflectors, not in a studio setting, and not planned with models. It doesn’t need to be outside, it doesn’t need to show a street. It’s a kind of graduation from snap shot photography because you’re taking a “decisive moment” and manipulating it to your liking with your knowledge of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, framing and composition. Landscape and urban landscape, to me, are subsets to street photography. While most street photography is handheld, in low light the need for longer shutter speed required a tripod. But you’re not lighting the landscape or building, you’re using the existing light wether it’s sunlight or street light. Most street photography is spontaneous, not planned. Though at times walking to work I see an interesting frame of color or light or shape and shoot it with my phone as a “test” with the plan to come back another time with my good camera. I practice street photography when I’m walking in the woods or in a field. If there’s an interesting frame I take advantage of my good fortune and shoot it. Often many times to get the light or angle I like. No street in frame but I consider it street because in shooting what I’ve come across, trying to define the “decisive moment” with a mood. Or just a pretty picture.
Your shot of the Pet Cemetery kids is my favorite. Total street. Perhaps you could shoot them from the front because they were wearing masks.
I also love the sunset beech shot where the couple walked into your frame. Street, in my opinion. You didn’t light it. You may have planned it so far as having scouted a good position and taken a tripod but you didn’t place the couple.
The barber combing his hair; street. You didn’t plan it or light it. You saw it and asked him to do it again as you found the best angle and exposure.
In Monte Marte I shot a woman and her granddaughter riding the merry-go-round. But I found my spot and waited for the ride to come around for the “right” time and got a good shot that looks like an elderly woman is riding the merry-go-round by herself. Decisive moment.

Thanks James and I like your inclusion of the idea about not lighting it, makes perfect sense to me. It's hard to get an exact definition of street photography, as I think we all see it a little differently. That's why I made the video, to open up a conversation about it. Thanks for your comments!

Simon Patterson's picture

The first thing that pops into my head when I hear "street photography" mentioned is the vitriol that is often thrown around in photography website comments about the topic. I've never understood why the topic so often evokes such strong emotions - it's never been a topic that moved me much.

Rob Mitchell's picture

Why do things need to be put into boxes in the first place?

Evan Kane's picture

That's a very fair question and I think that having loose working definitions can be useful but I agree that the idea of rigid defining lines (like a box) aren't always necessary (or a good thing)

Hi Evan and thanks for sharing and linking to my video. I definitely intended it as a conversation, because I am grappling with how to define my own style, and while "street photographer" is not the whole picture of what I do/am, it seems to be playing some part in it. But we all seem to define it a bit differently, which is why I made the video - to get feedback, hear different opinions, and learn from others. I appreciate you opening this up to a broader audience and for including your own thoughts about it as well. Cheers! (and BTW, I checked out your portraits on your website and wow you really do some fabulous work!)

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks Jim, I'm glad! Your video really had me thinking about a variety of subjects and I completely agree with you that feedback and hearing different opinions is great. You did a really excellent job of posing questions that got me thinking in a more abstract way!

thanks much!