The 5 Things I Avoid In Street Photography

Candid street photography of a woman pushing a boy up onto a lion at Trafalgar Square, London. Taken by London street photographer Darren Lehane.

There’s a lot of talk about rules in street photography. As the “genre” becomes ever more popular the more diluted it becomes with clichéd and poor photographs by photographers who don’t really understand the genre and just shoot anything they think is street photography.

As a result the hardcore street purists get evermore partisan and dismiss everything that doesn’t fit within a certain strict interpretation of street photography. This ends up with street photography’s core becoming ever elitist and shut off. That’s a great shame because, in essence, street photography should be the most accessible and democratic of all photography genres.

So rather than rules I prefer to think of guiding principles to personally follow, rather than judge others by. Just because I choose a certain approach to street photography doesn’t make it right (or wrong.) It’s just how I choose to do it.

Therefore, I thought it might be interesting to list the 5 things I avoid when undertaking candid street photography.

#1 Black and White

Street photography of half naked girl in Benidorm, Spain
I have in the past shot black and white street photography, as here of this girl on the beach in Benidorm, Spain.

I have nothing against black and white photography. Some of my favourite master street photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, shot almost exclusively in black and white.

But back then that’s all they had available to shoot fast moving street subjects.

These days black and white street photography feels a tad clichéd to me. I see too much ordinary work converted to black and white as if this somehow makes it more gritty and hard hitting.

Colour is more demanding and less forgiving. And I want to be challenged when pursuing street work. It reflects the world I live in. It’s more real and less abstract.

Yes, I’ve taken black and white in the past (as above) but I choose not to show it now. My portfolio is exclusively colour. Mixed portfolios of colour and black and white are a real pet hate of mine. It looks so inconsistent. If you need to mix, at least have stand alone portfolios of colour and black and white.

So my street work is 100% colour these days.

#2 50mm Lens or over

London street photography on a train
Shooting with a 28mm lens means you have to get in closer but can also work more discreetly

I now tend to shoot street photography on a 28mm (equivalent) lens. I may sometimes go up to a 35mm lens but that is as long as I ever go on the street. They’re small, light and very discreet – important when you are attempting to go unnoticed – which couples nicely with either my Olympus cameras, my go everywhere Ricoh GR II or even my old film cameras like an Olympus XA2.

I find a 50mm lens is starting to get a tad too long when working within narrow streets (I like a lot of context to my street work) although it’s said that Henri Cartier-Bresson did shoot most of his work on a 50mm lens.

Certainly beyond a 50mm lens is a definite no-no for me. I want my photos to look like they are there inside the scene. When you shoot longer lenses it’s just standing on the outside looking in. It’s voyeurism rather than street photography.

And lets be honest, it’s too easy and a cop out when you use a long lens to shoot street photography. Add to that, I personally think street photos shot on anything longer than 50mm look rubbish and scream nervous amateur.

As I’ve already said, I want to be continually challenged and work for my street photos. A 28mm lens forces me to get in close and hopefully that means the resulting street image is a real experience.

So I never go 50mm or more when shooting on the street.

#3 Random Expectations

Street photography of a pink giraffe balloon on Regent Street, London
Look for a moment that transcends the ordinary.

So what do I mean when I say I always avoid random expectations? As I said in my previous post about what street photography means to me, when I’m shooting street photos I’m looking for something that transcends the everyday for a moment. Something unexpected and unusual.

Random shots of people just walking on the street is exactly what you expect to see on the street. People doing what you expect in any given situation is what you see 99.9% of time in average and poor street photos. You could simply set a camera up on a tripod and randomly set it to trigger every few seconds and get lots of photos of people just passing by. I’ve seen some street photography portfolios that look exactly like that.

For me, the skill (dare I say challenge again) is getting something unusual. Something you don’t expect or different from the norm. Something you can’t double back a few seconds later and get again.

As a result I take a lot less photos these days when out on the street. The more experienced I get, the more fussy I get about what I shoot on the street. Randomly shooting was is expected just isn’t fun or interesting.

#4 Homeless/Street Entertainers

Street photography of a man dressed as a mum on the SOuth Bank, London
A street entertainer shot out of context is much more interesting and surreal

Most probably the number one bugbear for most purist street photographers is street photos of homeless people or street entertainers. Aside from the fact it is a street cliché, it goes back to point 3 about getting something you don’t expect, or seeing something that’s transcending the normal.

A rough sleeper sleeping rough, is exactly that. A street entertainer entertaining is again what you expect a street entertainer to be doing. They just don’t make for very interesting photos

So I always avoid both when shooting street photography. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get shots of either that may be a little different but it’d be rare – though on a moral basis I will always avoid a homeless person just because they are homeless.

#5 Asking Permission

Candid street photography of a workman and Charlie Chaplin statue in Chinatown, London. Taken by London street photographer Darren Lehane.
A candid moment where nothing is set up or permission is asked.

My street photography is 100% candid. I never ask permission or set anything up. The moment you do it’s not candid street photography.

The challenge for me is to get something unusual or interesting without impacting on something that was happening whether I was there or not.

Sometimes I may stalk out a scene where I think something interesting may happen, but it’s all about serendipity rather than staging

So, no, I never ask permission to take my street photographs. Yes, over the years people may have noticed and asked why I was taking the photo. On once occasion I was threatened with violence – but I had stupidly placed myself in that situation.

With time I’ve learnt to be more discreet, and that will be the subject of my next blog post.

If you enjoyed reading a little more about how I do and don’t approach street photography then you can see more of my work on my street photography portfolio site at http://www.dlehanestreet.co.uk

I you have any questions then please do leave a comment below and I’ll be delighted to get back to you.

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