What is Street Photography?

Sometime in the 1970s, my parents took my brothers and me to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. It was my first and only trip there. Even though I was a very self-conscious teenager and terrified of being seen in public with my parents, I was enamoured and mesmerized by the strange, utopian setting that Disney World is famous for.

Jump to TL:DNR

My father was a keen photographer. So he always supplied us some kind of point-and-shoot film camera to play with on our family vacations. One of the first things I remember seeing at the ‘happiest place on earth’ (after the long queue to get into) was a sign similar to this.

Following these instructions would NOT be considered street photography. Although, this photograph of the sign in the foreground and the tourist taking a photo in the middle-ground follows the spirit of street photography. Image courtesy of flickr.

Following the instructions on this sign is a good example of what is not street photography. And, this is an auspicious segue to describe street photography in terms of what it isn’t.

What else is not street photography?

  1. Studio portraits.
  2. Nature landscapes and macro.
  3. Photos of your pet dog and cat.
  4. Fashion photography.
  5. Abstract & fine art photography.
  6. Still life.
  7. Wedding photography.
  8. Sports.
  9. Food.
  10. Urban exploration, cityscapes, & architecture.
What is Street Photography? Bali Street Photographer
Not street photography. A building in Bangkok’s China Town District taken on 35mm film. Better classified as a cityscape, architecture, urban exploration, or new topographics photography.
What is Street Photography? Bali Street Photographer
An example of street photography. A man walking by (strideby) a building in Bangkok’s China Town District in the background.

“Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”

~Henri Cartier-Bresson (father of modern photojournalism)

The Philosophy of Street Photography

For me, street photography resembles more of a philosophy than a technique. I’ve tried to express the philosophy in the mission statement for Bali Street Photographer.

“To see rather than look. To create rather than take. To explore rather than visit. To connect rather than separate.”

~Bali Street Photographer

The only thing missing is to practice the above with a camera in hand. Sure, we can go at length talking abut technique: taking stridebys, layering compositions, being candid, approaching strangers, and random street portraits. I feel that these concepts fall into place more naturally when capturing HCB‘s (Henri Cartier-Bresson) decisive moment is cultivated intrinsically. I.e., intuitively feeling when to click–which is the opposite of following a sign that says, “Take your photograph here.”

The “Rules” of Street Photography

Pop-quiz! According to my philosophy, does a candid photo of someone at the beach with no street in sight count as street photography? Yes! Ironically it does. Clear as mud?

Okay, if you need some (shall we say) structure, Lomography’s 10 Golden Rules is the best collection of street photography guidelines I’ve seen compiled in one place. Pay extra careful attention to rule #10.

What is Street Photography? Bali Street Photographer
What one sees at a Balinese wedding. Candid street portrait of a Balinese bride with a chicken sitting above her head. Taken on 35mm film with an unexpected surprise of double exposure going on in the bottom part of the frame.

Head over to the Jalan Jalan photo gallery for more street photography examples and inspiration.

TL:DNR (too long: did not read)

For me street photography is an attempt to capture random acts of candidness. It’s a human condition style of photography that tries to portray people in everyday life situations where everyone might be looking but not really seeing.


  1. All photos courtesy of mark l chaves unless otherwise stated.
  2. HCB quotes courtesy of Magnum Photos.
  3. Feature photo by mark l chaves on 35mm film taken in Kampong Glam, Singapore.

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