How to Take Your Street Photographs from Good to Exceptional


There is something that a photograph of a person needs to become a marvelous shot–the story. Not all the ingredients listed below will be present in every shot, but it's important that a photography strives towards including one or more of them. To explain my theories, I will reference three greats in social documentary photography:

  • Josef Koudelka
  • Vivian Maier
  • Harold Feinstein

The Ingredients to Exceptional Street Photographs

Stare into eternity - Explore

Street Photographs Should Strive to Tell a Story

A photo with a great story can be a masterpiece whether it is technically perfect or not. The ultimate goal of any street photo is to tell a story. The presence of the story will make the difference between a great moment captured on film and random shots you could get by diving into a huge crowd. If you are able to stare at the image and encounter mixed emotions and possible theories about how the moment in the photograph occurred (the story), then it is a success.

The story should ideally appear immediately. You have to feel it, and there is no step-by-step guide to achieve this. You either achieve it, or you don’t. This is why perseverance and attention is always so important in street photography. It’s hard to predict when your eyes will encounter a story. This is why it is always so important to have a camera with you.

Koudelka's wrist watch photo tells us a GREAT story. It was 1968 in Prague, and the photo shows the emptiness of the city just at the moment in which the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and put a stop to The Prague Spring.

let them get wet. They are just kids!?

Discretion is the Better Part of Street Photography

Sometimes you can really taste discretion in a photograph, and you wonder, “How on earth could this shot look so natural, and close?” Some photos seem to be the subject of a ghostly photographer. This is what I call “discretion.”

This is also not in any book; there is no step-by-step manual for achieving a discreet photo. You might use inconspicuous gear, or shoot from the hip, but these are just techniques for achieving the discretion that makes the difference between a regular shot and a great shot.

In my experience, you can achieve discrete photos when the people being photographed become comfortable with your presence. People get back to their normal behaviour, after you have earned their trust. In social documentary, it’s wise to build up your subject’s comfort level before shooting photos.

Strive for Intimacy

Intimacy takes your photos to the next level. For me, there are two types of intimacy: one in which people trust you to be in touch with them as subjects, and another that includes familiar moments of your own life.

At a certain moment of my life, I asked myself these questions: “Why am I doing this?” and “Why am I capturing other people’s lives?” My conclusion drove me back to my own personal intimate moments, or at least the ones that I share with my partner and my parents. I've been working on a side project that is just for me, in which I capture intimate moments of my own life.

Intimacy is the most valuable ingredient when doing social documentary or street photography. Remember to approach this with respect and with true meaning. This is the perfect example of what intimacy means for me. Another great example is Michael Heneke's film “Amour.”

What is the Context?

Context gives the photograph's story its meaning. You may infer the story of a photograph, but if you include a tangible element that speaks about the context, you'll have a better message in the delivery.

Let's talk about Harold Feinstein, the great photographer of Coney Island. Much of his work portrayed Coney Island. We can taste the context, and later we can even identify which images correspond to the Coney Island series, and which do not. I leave you with one of his iconic shots, demonstrates passion in a photo.

Humor is the Holy Grail

If intimacy is hard to achieve, humor can be even harder. Humor in street photography must be subtle and natural, and should avoid portraying the subject in a derogatory light. Humor in photography is more than just an ingredient; is a lovely event that blooms in front of your eyes. Capturing it is the ultimate goal.

I leave you two examples, one from the controversial Vivian Maier.

Another from the master, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

As you can see, there are certain ingredients that photography of people–either in candid, photojournalism, or social documentary–must have to enhance their messages. For me, technical perfection comes second. It is most important to achieve at least one of these ingredients, especially that of the story. Think of it as the salt of the meal; it’s a must. The ingredients are so rich and powerful, that it is not necessary to have all of them. Also, some—like intimacy and humor–are almost antonyms.

Look for inspiration. You’ll taste the ingredients and will be able to appreciate them. If things go right, you will be able to include these flavors in your photography.

About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

Really like this article. The points it makes definitely are at the “heart” of Street Photography. Also, as a born Salvadorean, I am proud this article is being presented by a fellow country man. I rarely see Central America represented in any genre of photography.

Hi! What you call discretion, I’d call candid and that term is in most photojournalism books. It’s the idea of capturing the subject without them knowing it. Remember the show candid camera?

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