Please Stop Making These Six Types of Street Photographs

I have long been a staunch critic of the street photography genre. One of the biggest problems I've seen over the years, most notably as a judge in dozens of major contests, is derivative work. In this article, I will discuss six types of street photographs that we simply don't need any more of. 

My criticism of street photography is well-established. In 2017, I published an article questioning the ultimate purpose of generating billions and billions of street photographs. The article, which initially went viral, was later updated and republished here. I was criticized for being too harsh in the article, and yet, I still hold to my opinion. At the same time, I have come to appreciate the historical value that some street photography can provide. With this idea in mind, I think street photographers should focus more on depicting their contemporary times in a unique way and less on producing derivative work. 

Making photographs similar to those that we have seen receive great praise in the past is an attractive idea. But, just like the writers who ran out to write an "Oprah" book to reap the rewards of her attention, photographers who merely copy the work of others will never achieve any lasting notability of their own. Good photography must disrupt and enrapture, it must expose us to new ways of seeing. Yet, what I see in contests and on social platforms like Instagram most often is just more of the same old, same old. I see people copying each other over and over and over. Here are the six types of photographs I see copied most often. 

  1. The Umbrella Photo. Please, photographers, stop making street photographs of people holding umbrellas. I understand that there is something visually appealing about photographing a person with an umbrella, but does the world really need any more of these images? This kind of photo has been made in every way possible. I guarantee you that you cannot show me an umbrella photo that I will think is unique in any way. 
  2. The Gas Station Photo. The gas station remains a favorite among rural American street photographers. It is, apparently, especially appealing to photograph the gas station at night. Or, perhaps, during the day if it is a vintage-looking station or one with a big rotating sign etc. Stephen Shore is likely to blame here. His work is nice, although largely attractive because of its vintage. At any rate, Stephen has the gas station covered. You can take your own foot off the gas when it comes to making this type of photograph!
  3. The Billboard/Person Photo. You know the one I mean, a person walking by a billboard or advertisement and somehow their hair lines up with a line on the ad or their head with the head on the billboard. This has been a huge trend in street photography over the past few years, and the look is now overdone. Jonathan Higbee has done quite a lot of this kind of work, for example, and his work is excellent. The point is, however, we don't need any more of it. Copying Higbee won't make you a superstar. Move on. 
  4. Person in the Subway Car Photo. Bruce Davidson and Richard Sandler have it covered. We really don't need any more street photographs from the New York City subway system. Let me tell you a true story. A young photographer recently got himself in front of one of the most famous photography dealers alive. This young photographer proceeded to show a portfolio of subway photos — people looking through the windows, stuck between doors, as well as train cars passing with motion blur, etc. Good photographs in some way, however, the dealer looked at the guy and asked him one question: "Have you ever heard of Bruce Davidson?" Consider the subway done.
  5. The Light/Shadow Photo. Think Alex Webb for this one. You know, those images where a person is in the shadows and there are a few rays of light beaming across the frame. Maybe the fedora is illuminated, but the rest of the man is in the shadows. There is a red ball nearby (precisely lit up), and a child swings on a bar over on the edge of the frame. We have all seen a gazillion of these images. Look up the word hackneyed in the dictionary, and you will find one of these photographs. Alex Webb owns this type of photograph. He is king, you are not. 
  6. The Random Looking Startled Stranger Photo. This one belongs to Bruce Gilden. Bruce has given birth to a whole generation of dudes with cameras running after old ladies on the sidewalk. You know, the woman with the cane and the Goliath sunglasses photographed from 4.5 inches away with a handheld flash on the side. Not only is this the most aggressive and intrusive kind of street photography, but it is surely overdone. Even Gilden himself has given up on making this kind of image. You should too!

I write this article partly tongue in cheek. Yet, I am also serious in a way also. I've been judging contests, reviewing street photography books, and writing features on street photographers in major magazines for more than a decade. I've seen a lot of street photography. I can really assure you, in very real terms, that making these kinds of images may get you lots of likes on Instagram, but they will never get you properly noticed as an artist. The work is derivative and visually tiring. We've simply seen too much of it. So, if your goal is to chase Instagram and Facebook likes from the masses, then by all means, carry on. If, however, you seek to make your mark in photography, you will have to work harder to enrapture and disrupt our way of seeing. 

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143 Comments

El Dooderino's picture

This is like saying "stop taking sunset photos"

Probably not gonna happen

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

I agree! But seriously, enough already. Let's see something new from the street!

Captain Jack R's picture

There can be nothing new from the street as it's been over photographed for years. It's all man-made things anyways. The only way to get something NEW is to go where no one has been before with a camera. We might be looking for places like the Moon or Mars. NASA already has a good start on Mars with all their cameras and even a Drone doing photography.
I think the best street photographs are the ones of places that no longer exist. Photos no one can make anymore. Anytime I find a building that is going to get demolished, I quickly go and photograph it. I've photographed a famous Seattle bridge that no longer exists. These are the kind of photos that will hold some value over time.

Hunter Chan's picture

Sunset photos is a range far too wide to be compared with this...

jim hughes's picture

I'm with you in the billboard thing. But I do like a good retro gas station photo.

Ironically I just recently wrote a blog post about why I do street photography. Yes I promise to steer clear of these 6 cliches, as well as others I'm too kind-hearted to call out. I do try to create my own spin. No, really. But in a world of 7 billion people - half of whom are taking street photos right now - it's a challenge.

https://jimhphoto.com/index.php/2021/04/14/just-the-street/

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Thanks for chiming in, Jim. Indeed it is a challenge to make work that disrupts our normal way of seeing -- making art was not meant to be easy.

David Pavlich's picture

We all have our opinions. We should stop taking photos of the ubiquitous jumping spider. Once that mission is accomplished, we need to stop taking pictures of cats. Then, we need to stop taking pictures of chicadees. Next on the list is photos of waterfalls. Another one that's getting old is the Grand Canyon. There's been a lot of shots of the Milky Way lately....enough, already! There's that way overdone thing with the long haired model in a lake throwing her head back making water fly through the air...boring! Is that enough sarcasm?

Take the shots that you like. If you don't care for that photographers work, don't look at it. That way, you don't have to write articles about what you don't want other photographers to shoot. Frankly, I wonder why anyone even cares what OTHER photographers shoot.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Yes, as you say (and I said, too) many things are over-photographed. I guess we might care as it seems assumed that if you are making photographs you want someone to look at them?

David Pavlich's picture

Yes. I sell prints. My two best selling prints are of deer. How many deer pictures do you think are out there? Millions? Billions? Yet they continue to sell.

My point is photographers don't need to tell other photographers what's good to shoot and what isn't unless a photographers asks another photographer that question. How do you know that the next shooter to take an umbrella shot isn't going to be the very best umbrella shot ever taken?

This is a solution looking for a problem.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

It's just an opinion article. Nothing more.

O S's picture

My lenghty comment just got pulled down. True it was not nice, but I will continue to express here.

You're actually a selfish arrogant urban prank looking for self publicity and public. You have forgotten about art, creation and what photography is about. Tell me you didn't create your Wikipedia profile yourself!

Ridiculous!

Go through the comments here and read between the lines; they're actually not nice at all!

Dan Ostergren's picture

Perfectly said David.

Adam Palmer's picture

Every genre has it's cliches. And they all started out great. That's why they got copied to death.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Agreed.

Pete Needs's picture

Whilst I appreciate what you are getting at from a competition level of photography, from a hobbyist level imitation is a great way to learn your way around a camera. I personally probably post the same style of images as many others on Instagram but I'm pleased with them.

Of course it all depends on the end market too. I've seen overblown HDR photos which look absolutely terrible but Joe Public love them.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

True. But learning to SEE on your OWN is also a great way to learn your way around a camera!

Michael White's picture

Well said. Find me: @michael_gordon_white Thanks

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Thanks, Michael!

Timothy Linn's picture

I can understand, from the perspective of a judge, why you would be looking for something that struck you as new and fresh. That said, this same logic would argue for leaving your camera home when traveling to Yosemite or Yellowstone or Paris or Italy. There is nothing that is truly new. Everything is derivative in some way. If someone wants to try their hand at any one of the six items on your list, they should. Maybe they get a unique variation. Maybe they don't...until they do. It feels arrogant to dictate dos and do nots without qualification.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

I would leave my camera home when going to those places and experience them with my eyes and not through my lens. Unless making photos as a souvenir (as in the French meaning). As for dictating, I don't mean to dictate any more or less than any other "Do's and Don'ts" articles.

David Pavlich's picture

I mentioned before that I've judged a few competitions, so I'm not a seasoned judge. However, what I do know is to judge an image on its merits, not the number of times it's been photographed.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

I don't entirely agree, respectfully. Part of the merit of an image is its degree of originality and creativity.

David Pavlich's picture

And I agree to a point. A lady walking in the rain with an umbrella can be a bland shot, or it can be an amazing shot. The lady and the umbrella are coincidental if the shot is done well regardless of how many times it's been shot.

David Pavlich's picture

Funny thing; I was just looking at images on View Bug and saw a terrific shot of a lady walking down a street with an umbrella. I know this stuff is subjective, but this particular shot is a wall hanger if ever there was one.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

No doubt. The point in the article was not to suggest that no good umbrella photos have ever been taken, it was to suggest that one might look harder for more novel subject matter. Anyway, you make fair points, David. All the best!

Aleenia N's picture

I get it that you as a judge are bored by the subjects you named and the comments to this article reveal your list of „cliches“ is far from complete. However, your well-meaning advice comes across as arrogance.

Looking at your „Prohibition“ from a different angle

Why not look at who had the best execution and artistic interpretation of umbrella, subway, etc?
You would really miss out on the very cool setting of the subway stations in Prague or Shanghai, for example, by prohibiting the subject „subways“ .

Would you advise aspiring chefs not to offer filet mignon because there‘s one 5-star chef in NYC who is the best?

I‘m an aspiring amateur who never intends to compete at „Olympic“ level so why shouldn‘t I offer the standards, the well-known favorites? If the photos are not mainstream, that is, if they appeal only to the well-trained and often bored eye of Michael Earnest Sweet, they will be too exotic/artistic for my local audience and I can‘t make a living.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Good points, Aleenia. Thank you for commenting.

David Wotherspoon's picture

I hear you. I've said the same kind of stuff (but in the ad world). Then one day I realized a generation had passed an everything old was new again. Nobody had heard of anything I loved. Then Greta Von Fleek (or whatever it's called) happened, and Led Zeppelin had new life. Let people explore, let it get old, let it become new again. It's okay.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

As you wish, David. People will do as they please anyhow, right?

Metin Yirtici's picture

Never stop learning and growing with your skills. You can do that by doing the things with patience, passion and love. Even if you love taking this kind of photos. So please take al of this photos and learn every day.

Lee Christiansen's picture

You were almost forgiven, until you said you were still partly serious.

The people you say we should not "copy" are not the instigators of these type of shots. The fact that they've covered the genres so much suggests they didn't have any new ideas either?

I think the take-away from all this is "don't take pictures of anything because everything has been photographed".

My art tutor wisely told us that nothing is new. Everything is derivative. And if one of us truly does come up with something completely new, then we're buying our own island.

As for judgements in photography competitions... I fear that element of life leaves us with the mystery of how much junk can win awards with "artists" trying to be so different that they fall over their pretentious selves.

If someone is walking with an umbrella through a shaft of light next to an empty billboard whilst surprising a stranger passing in their car, and it looks good - then I'm taking it.

And I'm going to process it in black and white, and add a ton of grain - just to upset you. :)

(Remember - it's not true art if it is still in perfect focus.)

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Great response, Lee, I love it!

keith goodman's picture

I believe that all art is derivative. No harm is done by honest emulation of earlier works. No need for experts to be so critical of fellow artists. The making of images is a learning process regardless and commendable.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Right, Keith, I agree. But in this visually-choked age, I really do wish people would push themselves a little and get past the umbrella!

Steve D's picture

I think you need to take a sabbatical from judging street contests. While I agree that you are probably tired of seeing some of these images, there is more than a little arrogance in suggesting other photographers need to be as enlightened as you seem to be.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Not enlightened, original. And, yes, I think you are right - I need to quit judging street photography (and perhaps making it too).

Jan Holler's picture

No, please don't. I could not find arrogance, on the contrary, I think you are right. Some people feel they have stepped on the foot. Have a look at: https://www.instagram.com/insta_repeat/?utm_source=ig_embed

Mike Chay's picture

Perhaps the premise needs a bit of rethinking. Rather than worry so much about whether an image represents something truly new--a difficult thing to define and subject to much arbitrariness--it might make more sense to ask if the image is strongly felt and well executed, and provokes a strong emotional response. It's not similarity of subject matter or treatment that makes a work hackneyed and tiresome, but rather the shallowness or insincerity of the artist, whose slavish imitation of style betrays a lack of purpose--emotional, aesthetic--in making the image. There is certainly plenty of this sort of work around to condemn. Visual arts might be compared with cooking: The meal is either satisfying or not; its novelty is not necessarily pertinent to its enjoyment.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Well said, Mike. Thanks for chiming in.

Richard Tavan's picture

Do you think buyers of photography care whether a photo resembles one previously made by a great in the field? Do you think all photographers pursue their art solely for commercial or competitive reasons? If your answer to both questions is Yes, go ahead and keep a list of this writer's despised categories and refer to it before each exposure made on or near a street. Better yet, memorize the list or write a computer app to cull such blasphemy from your Lightroom catalog. But if you make photographic images for any other reason, please ignore this article. If an image pleases you, who cares whether it has been done or done better, even thousands of times?

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Richard, I agree with you, I did not properly consider those who make photos simply for the fun of it. I indeed spend too much time looking at photos in the art/commercial world. Thanks for making this great point.

J.d. Davis's picture

Sounds as if you are burned out by judging too many contests, having to review scads of lackluster street photography books, and tortured, as most writers are, by writing endless features on street photographers in magazines!

We realize that people are different and learn their ability to 'see' diversity in everyday life at a pace not aligned with yours.

While you may not respond with favor to these images, you should respect more the choices other have made.

Remember this:

"Just because you do not understand the journey another takes, does not mean they are lost"

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Life is a kind of performance.

J.d. Davis's picture

And all the world a stage?

Scott McDonald's picture

Living in a world of FB and Insta where most people are chasing the "likes"...doing the same-old-same-old is always going to reign on those platforms because it is recognized by the masses who identify with what they already know. Anything new, bold, edgy, daring, etc. tends to be viewed as just weird (again by the masses). So, if you're interested in something artistic, disruptive, or seek your own unique path, then you might find yourself in a small group of admirers (where I wouldn't mind being anyway). But, if "likes" is what you thrive on, then carry on doing the same-old-same-old. Do what makes you happy, not what makes other people happy...unless they're paying customers of course!

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Superbly put, Scott. Thanks for this.

Budark Bavaria's picture

This article interesting for me since just involving in photography industry
Thanks and I will keep it as a guideline for me.

Eric Peterson's picture

Comment title - Please Stop telling people what to take photos of.
Signed everyone.
If you don't like like "cliche" photos don't look at them. I am sure all of your photos are masterpieces.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Thanks for supporting the article with comments, Eric. Although I may not agree, I appreciate all opinions.

Robert Ikenberry's picture

I suspect asking you to stop writing clickbait, banal, insipid articles like this is about as fruitful as you telling us what kind of photos not to take. Let’s call it a draw and move on.

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