Here’s a Long List of candidates.
Drama, humour, colour, depth, eye-catching interest, facial expressions, sharp focus, balance, frame-filling content, texture, beauty (“Did someone say beauty? What do you think this is? Art? Get the hell outta here!”) clarity, mystery (“Can you have clarity and mystery in the same image?”) mean-streets grittiness, energy, decisive moments…
Oh, sure. Those are all very nice, but I’m afraid the three most important factors in street photography are a little bit…excuse the pun…a little bit more pedestrian.
Light. Background. Figures.
If you pay attention to those three factors (they’re not ranked in order of importance) a lot of the others will take care of themselves. At least, they’ll show up occasionally if you’re patient.
When photographers talk about “good light” and “bad light” they’re making a subjective judgement rather than indicating something that can be identified and measured. “Good light” means light which is best-suited to the style of the individual photographer; while “bad light” makes it more difficult to achieve images in the same or similar style.
For example, if you see the city as being a grim, prison-like environment, populated by inhabitants who are miserable and downtrodden, then you’re unlikely to get the best results by taking photos bathed in the gentle rays of the evening sun.
In street photography there is very little you can do about the light except take advantage of it or wait for it to change. I have friends who like to go out with off-camera flash, an accessory that suits their style of photography. Personally, I find it an encumbrance, so I use natural light most of the time, augmented by light from shop windows, neon signs, street lamps and car headlights.
If you want to put in a full day’s work on the street, your style needs to be sufficiently accommodating to include morning, noon and evening light. Intensely sunny days are the most challenging — as well as being the most frequent in some countries. For my own style I prefer bright days that are just slightly overcast (giving results like those in my featured image, above). Wouldn’t it be good if we could order these at breakfast? “Sunny side up? No, thanks, I’ll have mine with a thin covering of cloud.”
Photographs are often made or ruined by what’s in the background. Nowhere is this more true than in street photography. The background can be every bit as important to the picture as the foreground figures. Sometimes the background plays a greater role; sometimes it’s “just there,” minding its own business while the figures dominate the scene.
I often think of these two elements — background and figures — as working hand-in-glove with each other, or, to vary the metaphor, behaving like a singer’s voice and its musical accompaniment. In some works of music the accompaniment is mere strumming, while the voice soars above it. But sometimes there can be a dialogue between the two, yielding additional layers of meaning.
A street photograph can show men and women dominating or being dominated by their environment. Equally, it can show them moving within a space that supports and reinforces their presence. All of these three types of street photograph are valid and you may have a preference for one over the other.
For example, if your eye is caught by the abstract lines of buildings illuminated by shafts of light, you may like to have tiny figures in the middle distance and nothing more. Create a set of images like that and you’ll impress the jury. But eventually the dynamics of street photography will command you to move in closer: to focus on the figures whose activities and movements are the true subject of this rewarding but difficult art form.
Given that figures are so highly significant in street photography, shouldn’t we be identifying the most likely people to fill the frame and start chasing them down the street?
Well, no, that’s not the best tactic, although I admit I use it occasionally. A better tactic is to chose your background, then wait for the right figure to move in front of it (as below). This, I suppose, is the classic ploy known to all experienced street photographers. When you choose the background you can also, in a sense, choose the light — because light can hit the background in many ways: full-on or at an angle.
Facial expressions, from joy to misery, may become a key feature in your work, but unless you’ve allocated most of the frame to people’s heads then much of the image will still be torsos, arms, shoulders, maybe even legs as well. That’s why I refer to “figures” as one of the three most important elements. Your photo can have emotional content, expressed facially, but there’s no escaping the considerations of form. From a formal point of view every part of each figure’s body makes a contribution to the success or failure of the image.
Working with a wide angle lens, you’ll capture figures plus their immediate background in sharp focus. However, there’s usually very little depth-of-field between the point of focus and the camera — far less than between subject and background. It you include figures between the point of focus and the camera you’re likely to make them large and blurred: an effect that spoils many street photos, in my opinion.
There’s a good reason for why the “foreground bokeh” effect looks unsatisfactory. When a figure is shown large it’s more noticeable and deemed by the viewer to be more important, but if it’s blurred it’s clearly intended to be less important. This is a contradiction! It makes me uneasy. By all means use it if you want to instill a sense of unease in the viewer.
So there are the three main factors of street photography: light, background, figures. Think about all three of them at the same time and you’ll be on the right track to taking great photos.