The point of street photography is lost among many people, even by photographers who shoot other genres.
Street photography is one of my great passions in life. But why?
That’s what I’ll be talking about in this piece. These are the reasons why I love street photography.
1) It’s an Artistic Outlet
Street photography is a very artistic endeavor. It’s not like painting or drawing where you’re creating something out of nothing, but composing street photography images is definitely visually artistic.
Street photography isn’t simply about pointing the camera and clicking the shutter button. A lot of thought needs to be put into what to include or not in a street photography photo in a split second (whether that’s the thought put into it in the moment or the thought put into street photography before actually going out and doing it).
There’s a big difference between random snapshots shot haphazardly with no thought put into them and well-composed street photography photos. Deciding what to share and what to scrap is also a big part of street photography being an artistic process.
Every street photographer, even the best street photographers, take terrible photos that don’t see the light of day as far as presenting them. The photographers who are true artists don’t publish their bad photos—they only publish the ones worth publishing.
I wish I had discovered street photography sooner. For me, my artistic/creative outlet was music (I played the drumset) for many years. I even planned on pursuing the drums as a career by any means necessary for a while.
In my mind, I was going to be a professional musician, and that was that. But even after going to a music college for a degree in music performance, I realized I was never going to get over my lack of natural talent and anxieties over performing in public.
I’ve realized now that I appreciate music as an art form, but visual art is something that I’m much more competent in creating. Street photography is that visual creative outlet for me.
2) Street Photography is Documenting The Era You Live In
I think people at any point in history have probably taken for granted the point in time in which they live. Many of us look back at decades prior and think that we missed out by not living in that era.
I’ve fallen into this trap myself, but I think that doing street photography promotes living in the moment and experiencing the moment in time that you live in. By doing so, you’re giving insight into the moment in time in which you lived to future generations.
When you look at street photography photos from decades prior like from Henri Cartier-Bresson and other street photographers who photographed other eras, it’s easy to think that they had it easy because things looked so novel. But they probably had the same thoughts about the time that they lived in: that nothing was new under the sun and that people all had the same boring fashion.
Street photographers actually play an important function in society in my opinion. We’re documenting the human condition during a certain time period. Hopefully, people in future generations can appreciate and learn from what we do.
3) Street Photography Images are Visually Compelling
I could look at street photographs all day long. They’re just very interesting to look at.
They draw you in, tell a story, evoke emotion, make you feel like you’re part of the scene photographed, and more.
A good street photograph makes you look at the subjects and may make you put yourself in their shoes and wonder what that person’s life is like or even just how their day was going on the day it was shot. Sometimes the background and architecture included are just as compelling as the subjects and your eyes wander the frame studying every tiny little detail.
You wonder why the photographer chose to include certain elements in the frame. When you look at the work of history’s greatest street photographers, sometimes you wonder how they could have gotten every little aspect of the frame so perfect in real time.
I take in street photographs much like paintings or drawings by great artists.
By doing street photography, you get to create photos that you and many people might find visually pleasing. You just might end up creating some images that add value to other people’s lives.
4) Street Photography Photos Are Totally Unique
In street photography, you’re capturing fleeting moments that will never occur the same way again.
You have at your fingertips the technology to preserve a moment of history. That’s pretty impressive when you stop and think about it.
But what comes to mind for me when I think about how unique street photography is, it’s comparing it to other forms of photography. Take landscape photography, for example. I’m not knocking on landscape photography, but technically it’s possible for two different photographers to produce almost exactly the same images of landscape scenes.
The same could be said of some other types of photography as well.
But with street photography, this is basically impossible and I’d even argue that it’s basically impossible to copy another street photographer’s style (which I see as a good thing).
You’re just not going to get the same people, wearing the same clothes, making the same gestures, in front of a certain background ever again. All these elements and moments in time at certain places mean that essentially every street photo is going to be unique.
5) Street Photography Gives You Something to Strive For
Having the goal of making a body of street photography work is motivating.
I think your day-to-day life suffers if you don’t have something to work towards. If you don’t have something like this to shoot for, I think that causes complacency in a lot of people and can lead to stagnation in life.
Not having a purpose in life can cause depression and anxiety.
The constant desire to get the next shot and at it to your body of work gives you purpose and meaning. You’re also documenting daily street life for future generations, which is important and makes you feel accordingly. You’re putting your time to good use by doing street photography.
6) It’s a Challenge
Everybody likes a challenge. That’s partly why video games are so popular. They wouldn’t be fun if they weren’t a challenge.
As frustrating as street photography can be, it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable if it weren’t a challenge. If it were easy, then everyone who picks up a camera would be successful at it and it would be difficult to set yourself apart. The best street photographers take on the challenge and keep at it.
It’s really easy to get down in the dumps about not producing the results you want. You may go days, weeks, months, and thousands of shots before you get one image that you’d be proud to showcase.
But when you stay persistent and focused even after you feel like giving up for lack of results, you do get that one great image. Those great images are what keep you going until your next one. It takes a lot of patience but they do come if you put in the work and honestly evaluate your previous work.
7) You Don’t Get to Control Everything
I like the unpredictability of street photography. It’s what makes street photography a challenge, as I talked about in the previous section.
Letting go and being present in the streets is a liberating feeling.
You don’t have to stress about how to pose models or work your photography into a stressful wedding day. You don’t have to bring a ton of lighting equipment to get the light just right.
You can position yourself in ways and particular places on the street in order to get the light close to what you want, but in many cases, you have to deal with the cards you’re dealt.
Sometimes you only have the option of shooting in “suboptimal” lighting conditions (I put that in quotes because I don’t really believe in bad light, as it shows real life). In these cases that just means you have to get your composition that much better to make up for it.
Sometimes the lighting is bright and good, which may give you a little leeway in how good your composition is because the light makes everything look nice.
Likewise, you don’t get to control who or what comes into your frame. You don’t control who’s walking down the street on a given day. You also don’t get to control how someone reacts if they don’t like the fact that you took their photo.
You don’t get to control a lot of things in street photography, but you can do things like go out with the light is good, do the best you can with framing what’s in front of you, and how you react if confronted.
But considering how many uncontrollable variables there are in street photography, it’s extremely impressive when the combination of external circumstances and the photographer’s skill converge and make a great image.
8) Street Photography Makes you Think
Whether you’re appreciating another photographer’s work, critiquing/editing your own, or you’re out in the field, a lot of thought goes into this art form.
If you want to create a respectable body of work in your lifetime, it takes a lot of mental work. Sometimes you get out on the street and you just get in the zone and don’t have to think at all and everything just clicks, but just as often you’ll have to consciously think about what to include in your images, what to exclude, which direction to stand in for the best light, etc.
Doing street photography is a lot like other hobbies that make you think, such as puzzles, crossword puzzles, chess, etc. You’re trying to gather enough information to make decisions in a limited time frame.
This type of mental activity is good for you. It keeps you psychologically sharp.
9) Street Photography Encourages you to Explore
Street photography gives you a good reason to get to know places, whether that be your own hometown or traveling to places completely new to you.
I think a lot of us get tired of or jaded with our hometowns. And while there does come a time to move on from living in a certain place if it’s what’s best for you, every place has its own unique and interesting qualities. When you start consciously thinking and looking at where you live more photographically, you may realize that you were missing a lot of things before.
The architecture. How people dress.
I thought I knew my hometown like the back of my hand, but once I started photographing it extensively, I realized how much more there was to it. There are still areas of my city that I need to explore.
I think a lot of street photographers (myself included) take where they live for granted in some ways. It can be used as a coping mechanism even. “My photos would be so much better if I lived in a big city where there are more people to photograph”. “My city is so boring”. “This place is a ghost town!”
However, if you’re unsatisfied with your photos, I don’t think the answer is to hop on a plane and go to the biggest, most exotic city you can think of. You should be able to competently photograph your own city before moving on to somewhere else (I know firsthand because I moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with the intention of making an amazing photo project and largely came back empty-handed, as I had to spend most of my time working as an English teacher to fund my travels).
Having said that, when you’re financially able and the time is right, street photography can take you to amazing places. Traveling with the intention of doing street photography is an entirely different experience than going as a tourist. There is some overlap between the two as far as what you’ll see, but having a camera and doing street photography in a new city or country is like a license to explore.
You see cities that are foreign to you with fresh eyes. It makes you want to wander and discover a place. You get off the beaten path and see real life and things you won’t see as a tourist.
I loved the idea of exploring and adventure long before I discovered street photography. Street photography only added to my desire to explore and is one of the big reasons why I love street photography so much.
10) You Meet New People
There are several ways that you can end up meeting people through street photography.
The most obvious is meeting people on the street, sometimes people who you’ve photographed. On multiple occasions, I’ve had great conversations with people I’ve met on the street. If you’re just getting into street photography, you may be surprised just how friendly people are when you take their photo. It can turn out to be a good conversation starter.
Another way you may meet people through street photography is through online photography communities or local photography groups. I haven’t ever joined or organized a street photography group, but I would like to at some point.
A similar thing can be said about street photography workshops. One of my street photography dreams is to be a student at a David Alan Harvey workshop and Alex Webb workshop. Mostly to learn from the masters, but you would be surrounded by like-minded students as well. When you spend an entire week with a group of people, that’s a bonding experience and you grow close to those people.
One more way that you may meet people through street photography is by showcasing your work. You’ll likely meet a lot of interesting art and photography-oriented people by doing an exhibition or a book (something I haven’t personally done yet as of this writing).
11) You Get Exercise from Doing It
When you’re serious about street photography, you really pound the pavement. I’ve never tracked how much I walk when I go out to do street photography, but you’re walking multiple miles in a day—probably five or more.
It’s not an intense cardio workout but those miles do add up and help keep you in shape and healthy. For people who work a day job that forces you to be sedentary like many of us have to, street photography is a positive influence on health.
Sometimes it’s hard to force yourself off the couch when you feel like you have no energy, but being active is a natural remedy for anxiety and depression and makes you happier. I don’t know about you, but doing street photography is a whole lot more enjoyable physical activity than counting down the minutes as you run on a treadmill.
12) Street Photography Makes You a Better All-Around Photographer
Back when I was doing a lot of wedding photography, I noticed that doing street photography helped a lot for weddings. Specifically, it helped with the candid shots throughout the day (which was the focus of how I shot weddings). When you’re trying to frame multiple subjects interacting with each other in a pleasing composition, it turns out to be a very similar approach, whether it’s street photography, weddings, photojournalism and more; the concepts overlap a lot.
I noticed that the opposite was true as well—doing wedding photography helped my street photography immensely.
One great thing about wedding photography was that there was no fear of approaching wedding guests to photograph them. The majority of the time I was trying to photograph subjects candidly. Sometimes they wouldn’t notice; other times they would group together and pose and smile.
It was in the context of a wedding day and I would be dressed like an official wedding photographer for the weddings, of course, so the vast majority of the time people were expecting it and acted accordingly. Rarely if ever did anyone act uncomfortable having their photo taken, which I think was a positive influence in training my brain not to have any fear of approaching people to photograph them.
This has helped me put aside what other people think of me while out on the street and focus solely on framing, composition, and light.
Ultimately I think if you specialize in a certain genre of photography, you’re going to be better off. That’s how you really hone your skills and learn the nuances of a certain type of photography. But there’s a lot to be said for dabbling in other types of photography, as it makes you a better photographer in general and gives you an alternate perspective on things.
13) Street Photography Makes You Appreciate the World Around You
I’ve always been a visual person, but before I got into the mindset of street photography, the world around me was blander than it is now. I would gloss over things that were visually stimulating or interesting.
Now that I think more photographically, I notice little details. I notice what direction the light from the sun is coming from. I notice how it hits buildings, architecture, people’s faces, or even how it interacts with nature and landscapes. Even when I’m not photographing.
I’m often thinking about how I would frame the scene in front of me in my mind’s eye when I’m not photographing.
With street photography, you get to be outside appreciating these amazing stimulating visual things that are always around us that so many take for granted.
14) It Gets You Out of Your Own Head
We have record numbers of mental illness in today’s society. For Americans, I believe the problem is exacerbated by our cities being so spread apart and not having well-funded public transportation, an atomized society in which we keep to ourselves rather than socializing with others, extreme wealth inequality, and a deteriorating political situation.
The causes of this situation are well beyond the scope of this article, so I won’t expand on them further. But I do think that street photography has the potential to be beneficial for many people in that it lifts your spirits. Or at least it helps you forget the trivial struggles we all face in day-to-day life.
But who knows, everyone is different and maybe street photography will just make you a miserable schmuck because of how hard it is.
15) Few Things are More Interesting Than Reality
While I love movies and appreciate fiction books, I tend to watch more documentaries and read political and history books. I think the reason being is I realize that there have been so many fascinating things that have happened in history and in current events that fiction is just less interesting to me.
With street photography, you’re never showing the full picture of the reality of the scene because you’re choosing to exclude and include certain things, but there is a lot of reality there in any street photography image obviously.
Street photography is a pretty accurate documentation of a slice of life at a certain time in history (although seen through the photographer’s interpretation, of course). This is why it’s infinitely more interesting to me than other types of photography, especially photography that’s heavily processed (although I think there’s a place for that type of photography, it’s just not my preference).
What’s the expression? Truth is stranger than fiction?
16) You Don’t Need Fancy Gear for Street Photography
For some types of photography, you need multiple thousands of dollars of equipment to do it at a high level.
For portraits, you may need a studio, cameras, and quite a bit of lighting equipment. Wedding photographers typically carry two camera bodies, have multiple lenses, a backup camera body, and lighting gear/light modifiers. High-level sports photographers often use flagship camera bodies and need to own or rent very expensive long lenses for the reach. And so on.
With street photography, you don’t have to break the bank to do it at a high level. You could literally spend your entire career shooting with just one camera and one lens.
For a lot of people, myself included, I think it’s actually in your best interest to simplify your gear as much as possible for street photography. For the past several years, all I’ve shot with are compact cameras with fixed lenses.
I don’t carry a bag around with me; just my camera on a strap. I feel weighed down and less mobile carrying a bag or any extra gear other than batteries.
17) You Can Do it in Your Own Backyard
I don’t mean literally in your own backyard because doing street photography is harder to consistently do when you live in the suburbs or a rural area. But most of us do live somewhat near a metropolitan area.
It can be difficult to do street photography in smaller cities where there isn’t non-stop hustle and bustle like in the bigger cities. Especially if you prefer to include people as subjects rather than doing things like urban landscapes.
You may have less opportunity to photograph people in cities like this, but it does give you an opportunity to produce work that’s unique because fewer street photographers photograph smaller cities. Cities like New York City are obviously amazing places to shoot street photography, but as a result, there are tons of street photographers there and other big cities like it.
One day I’d like to live there, but I’m fully aware that cities like New York City are overrepresented in street photography. If anything, photographing smaller towns and cities brings something new to the table.
18) Street Photography Can Take You to Places All Around the World
I can’t think of a better excuse to travel than street photography. When you travel with the intention of doing street photography, I think it just opens up this whole new way of thinking.
It kind of forces you to stop being so concerned with seeing the next tourist spot so you can just stop, take things in, and appreciate the world around you. And take photos of it when appropriate.
I know I mentioned it in a previous section, but I really do think street photography can bring value to your life by encouraging you to explore.
Also, if you’re lucky and put in the hard work, street photography may reward you in the way of things like getting assignments to photograph for publications, having your street photography displayed in a show or gallery in some place other than where you live, speaking at presentations, teaching workshops, and more.
19) Cities Are Fascinating
Another reason why I love street photography so much is that you do it in cities, and I find cities fascinating.
The streets that we walk are in cities that were may have been planned or sprang up organically hundreds of years ago. We’re surrounded by history that we sometimes don’t think about.
In any given historical building in old cities, it could have been used in multiple ways. At one point a building could have been a warehouse; now or at some point in time it could have been an apartment building. People worked their jobs and lived in the buildings seen in street photography photos.
Even when buildings and architecture are just a backdrop to the subjects in your photos, I do think it’s special how both old and new structures provide character and context to our images.
20) Street Photography Evokes Emotion
Street photography can evoke the gamut of human emotions. For my own street photography, I focus less on purposely trying to capture emotions and focus more on making pleasing compositions, good lighting, and an ambient feel.
I personally think that a good composition in and good light can make up for a street image lacking a particular emotion. Often times, though, a picture evokes emotion even when you as the photographer weren’t consciously going for it. People have their own individual reactions and feelings towards different images, and I think that’s good that street photography is open to interpretation in that way.
21) Street Photography is Enjoyable
It’s fine to shoot street photography with the intention of sharing it with the world, but I believe you should do it largely for yourself.
I mean, if you don’t enjoy it, what’s the point?
Luckily, I do find it very enjoyable. You get to be outside in the sunshine and explore.
Getting good shots is obviously nice, but I don’t feel pressure to come back with keepers every time I go out to shoot street. I’m perfectly aware that the vast majority of my photos aren’t going to be useable. Part of what makes that easier to deal with is that fact that street photography is fun, enjoyable, and encourages you to live in the moment.
22) Street Photography is a Way of Life
I appreciate street photography both as a photographer and as a fan of other street photographers and I find it very fulfilling. It’s a hobby and passion that you can invest a lot of yourself into and get so much in return.
To be honest, street photography is extremely enjoyable for me but I almost have no other choice but to do it whenever possible. It’s almost like it’s not a choice—I’m just compelled to do it. Luckily I love the whole process of doing it.
So there you have it—those are the reasons why I love street photography so much. I hope you were able to get something out of this, even if just inspiration to get out there and do some street photography.
Brandon Ballweg is a photographer from the Kansas City area. He is the founder of ComposeClick.