The Art of Street Photography


By Dave Hood

“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” ― Ansel Adams

During the summer of 2011, after being downsized without warning, I decided to embrace a dream, one of the items on my bucket list, so I enrolled in a digital photography program at Ryerson university in Toronto, with the intention of become a good photographer. The decision has changed my life for the better. Over the course of three years, I learned how to use a digital camera, how to see creatively, how to edit and enhance digital images, how to make a good photograph, as well as learning about history of photography and the fascinating artists and their photographs. This learning experience also stoked my artistic passion, and so I began learning all I could on my own about taking pictures as well as the history of photography.

During my self-study, I became fascinated with the genre of street photography, which involves taking candid, unposed photographs of people in the street, performing various banal or ordinary activities, such as walking the dog or talking to a friend. After seeing the images of Paul Strand, Robert Frank, and Henri Cartier Bresson, I decided to go out on my own and take images of street life in Toronto. Once I started taking pictures of street life, I gained confidence, learned a few techniques, and began to see the art in everyday life— flowers, trees, shapes, colors, signage, people, architecture. I also discovered that the camera helped me to become mindful—embracing the present moment with my senses, especially the sense of sight. Instead of taking snapshots, and before pressing the shutter, I learned to stand and take notice of what I was photographing, whether a still life image of park bench or woman wearing a burka. What follows are several suggestions on how you can become a good digital photographer—- either as a serious enthusiast or professional, as well as embrace the art of street photography. This information will also be useful for anyone who is searching for a new creative/artistic leisure pursuit.

What is Street Photography?
It involves taking candid, unposed, often impromptu or reactive photographs of people in the street. The street refers to any public space, such as a mall, beach, park, swimming pool, or street corner. Subjects include people—the homeless, joggers, dog walkers, women dressed in fashion, men dressed in fashionable clothing, someone reading a newspaper on a bench, a person riding a bike, and much more. You can also take photographs of street objects or symbols, such as a stop sign, park bench, graffiti, store signage, an overflowing garbage can. The best images capture a candid shot of a person within the context of interesting architecture, especially the lines, shapes, colors, patterns, textures. The best street photography is captured when the sun is low in the sky and shadows are long.

Some people will tell you that an impromptu portrait of a person on the street is not street photography—because it is posed, even for a moment. For instance, a person turns around, notices you, and then you ask: Can I take your photograph, without much planning? However, I would disagree, unless you spend several minutes posing a shot, which then makes the photograph an environmental portrait. Furthermore, some of the masters of street photography from the past would have people posing in various places on the street, and then take photograph. Despite what some people believe, you can take photograph of anyone in a public place without their permission here in Toronto. (However, some countries like Paris, which have banned street photography, unless the photographer obtains permission from the subject.)

My Experience with Street Photography
In the spring of 2012, I began the adventure of street photography, trekking through The Beaches and Boardwalk with a Nikon 7000 camera and wide angle lens. I took photographs of people riding bikes, mothers pushing strollers, people walking their dogs or sunbathing on the beach, someone para-sailing in the Lake, athletic types jogging on the boardwalk, the hungry purchasing hot dogs from a street vendor, and much more. I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to make street photography a regular activity, something I could enjoy on my own, much like writing or painting. Not only was it awesome taking photographs while strolling and people watching, I also enjoyed the long, meditative walks by myself.

I have done street photography for the past three years, during the spring, summer, autumn, and on many mild days during the snowy winter months. On a typical trip, I will stroll through some part of the city of Toronto with my Nikon digital camera and bag that includes lens cleaner, and a telephoto and wide-angle lens. I also find out when the street festivals are or public events, such as the Canadian National Exhibition, Buskerfest, Gay Pride, Jazz Festival, and then visit the location with camera in hand. I strive to capture the unusual, novel, and delightful, such as a homeless man begging for spare change or a pretty woman walking her dog. I also focus on telling a story with an image. (During the editing process, and before I post to my blog, I ask the question: What is this photograph about? If there is no clear answer, I don’t post the photograph. I have taken more than 40,000 images and created two websites, which display some of my best work. You can visit or .

From the my photography courses, study of art, and personal experience, I have come to believe that taking photographs is all about the “art of seeing” and becoming ” mindful ” of the visual elements of line, shape, form, texture, space, pattern, and contrast. Combined with a point of interest, you can learn to take amazing photographs with all types of cameras. Many years ago, photographer Dorothea Lange said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” In other words, the viewfinder of the camera forces you to look at your surroundings with more than a passing glance.

Before going out to shoot street photos, you should make a plan. First, decide on the types of street scenes you are interested in taking, such as a pretty woman passing, a man walking his dog, an elderly man walking with a cane. Do you want to record reality or express creativity? Most street photographers use the approach of a documentary photographer, capturing reality as it unfolds with candid shots. The photographer has only a moment to capture the “decisive moment.” Secondly, decide on a route and possible locations to stop and take photographs. Lastly, fill your camera bag with lens cleaner, a wide-angle, normal, and telephoto lens. A useful aid is “Toronto Urban Strolls,” a book that details various themed walks you can take in the city. When you go out to shoot, act as if you are a tourist who is discovering the sites and sounds of the city.

Once you are on the street, take out your camera and turn it on. Start walking down the street with your camera around your neck. Notice people and what they are doing. Ideally you will want to use a wide-angle lens, because it is inconspicuous and gives you a wide angle of view. I suggest you shoot in aperture priority with the setting at f/8, which will provide you with clear, sharp exposures. When you see something interesting unfolding,l move in close, perhaps 8 feet, then focus the lens and press the shutter. Many people find street photography intimidating because it is in a public place, where others might say, “why are you taking my photograph?” or “don’t take my #%&* photograph.”

Yet, the best images require the photographer to move in close, and so another way to take street photographs is to stand inconspicuously at an interesting place, where there are people passing in front of some architecture or various street symbols, such as a bus stop or bench. The key is to stand and watch. When you seem something unusal, novel, interesting, focus your camera and press the shutter. Also remember that it is legal to take pictures of people in public places. To avoid a confrontation, take candid photographs of people, when they don’t see you. You might consider shooting from the hip, which requires you to place the camera at your waste and aim the lens, hoping to get a good photograph. Vivian Maier, a well known street photographer used this approach because she had a Rolliflex camera, which allowed her to look down to the camera, which she held unnoticed at waste level, frame the image, press the shutter. With the modern design of digital cameras, I have learned that this approach is hit and miss. More often than not, the picture will be out of focus or tilted. It’s best to focus the camera.

Street photography is about creating order from chaos. To do this, you must decide what to include or leave out. Ideally, you will decide before you take the photograph or when you are editing your images in the digital darkroom. The decision is subjective. Ideally, you’ll want to quickly Look through the viewfinder and organize the visual elements of the street scene. You should also include a point of interest, which indicates what the photograph is about. One of the popular guidelines is to use the “rule of thirds.” Another easy way to create a unique photograph is to change your viewpoint. Stead of shooting at eye level, try lying on the ground or shooting from an an aerial viewpoint. For instance, Henri-Cartier Bresson took many images of street scenes from above. Before pressing the shutter, answer the following question: What do I wish to say with this image? What commentary do I want to make?

If you are good, you can develop a body of work in a single summer. Once you feel that you have 10 or 20 good street images, you’ll want to post them on social media. Most people are your Facebook page will likely not pay much attention or understand what you are doing, so consider signing up to one of the street photography groups on Facebook. Secondly, create your own “page” on Facebook, and post your images there. Thirdly, and most importantly, create your own free blog with WordPress, and then post all your best images to it. Finally, create a Flickr account and post images to it.

Improving Your Photography Skills
Serious enthusiasts, aspiring photographers, and established professionals know how to use their camera and some type of software to edit and enhance their digital images. I would bet that most of the memorable images you see in photography books, on the Web, or in Art galleries have been edited or enhanced, either in the film darkroom or digital darkroom. Knowledge is power, especially with subject of digital photography. If you desire to become a good or great photographer, separate yourself from the throngs of ordinary photographers, you must learn to see and learn how to use your digital camera. You must also learn to shoot in RAW and edit your digital images. A RAW image is like the film negative before the invention of the digital camera. This RAW images must be edited and then converted into a JPEG file. Technical knowledge will enable you to make the extraordinary from the ordinary, to capture memorable photographs, to create art with your camera.

If you are interested in learning more about the art of seeing and what sorts of images to capture, read the following:
* Understanding Composition: How to See and Photograph Images with Impact by Bryan Peterson
*The Photograph: Composition and Colour Design (Second Edition) by Harald Mante
* The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum

Secondly, purchase yourself a copy of Lightroom, the digital darkroom of choice, and learn how to use it. Or, enroll a few courses at community college or university, especially a course or two that teaches you how to use the technical features of the camera, as well as the digital darkroom.

Finally, study the masters of documentary photography, such as Alex Webb, Martin Parr, and Rui Palha. You can start by visiting Magnum Photos at , where you’ll find a long list of documentary and street photographers as well as photographers of some of their best work. Next, visit View the street photography, sometimes known as “snapshot asethetics” of Brassai, Andreas Kertesz, Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, Eugene Atget, Lee Freidlander, Steven Shore, Gary Winogrand, Joel, Meyerowitz, Elliot Erwitt.

You can develop into a good or great photographer without having to become a professional. Look at the work of Vivian Maier who was discovered after her death, like so many great artists. She was a nanny who took black and white images with a film-based camera during the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and early 70s. Maier learned and practiced the art of seeing and capturing an interesting moment. Her photographs make a commentary on the human condition, both the poignant and beautiful. Her work is now displayed in art galleries and museums around the world. Last year, the documentary called “Finding Vivian Maier,” a movie about her life and work was released to the public. ( If you are interested in photography, see this film. It will inspire you.)

Similarly, Fred Herzog, an enthusiastic Canadian photographer took photographs with a digital camera for 40 years. Like Maier, Herzog captures images on the street–cars, signage, billboards, store fronts, buses, people engaged in banal or ordinary activities on the street, such as a man wearing a bandage smoking a cigarette. Herzog has learned the art of seeing. His photographs are also appealing because they reveal the interesting, the unusual, the novel. The passage of time has also transformed Herzog’s images into iconography of the street in Canada during the 50’s and early 60’s, which is fascinating to look at. Thankfully, Herzog’s work has been discovered while he is still alive.

Since the dawn of the digital revolution with the birth of the Internet, which resulted in the invention of the digital camera and increased popularity of digital photography, more and more people are doing street photography. I like street photography because it doesn’t require a studio or a sitter. Nor does it require artificial lighting, such as off camera flash or soft box. There are also countless subjects to photograph, from still life to people. Street photography is an easy way of creating unique photographs with an artistic flare, unlike the cliched photographs of other genre, such as architecture photography. And so, for me, street photography has become an essential and enjoyable leisure pursuit, something I do on a weekly basis. If you are looking for some new to do in your leisure time, why not consider taking up street photography? At the very least, you will be able to express your creative spirit.

About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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