The five U’s of street photography

There is  currently no association or academy overseeing the discipline of street photography. This obviously means that there is no clear and undisputable definition of what street photography is. As an attempt to regroup some of the recurrent themes found in definitions in current litterature, here are my “Five U’s of street photography”.

This column is willingly extremist and maybe even a little provocative. Do take it as food for thought only, and hopefully it might help you define better what your street photography is about or the rules you want to abide to (if any). And in the end, remember your definition of street photography will in any case be no better or worse than any other.

Unplanned

Street photography is a “grab your camera and walk randomly in the street” discipline. That means that you do not go to a specific event to shoot street photography. Shooting demonstrations, parades or sports events belongs to the realm of reportage.

Leica M9 with 35mm Lux Asph at F1.4, 1/3000, ISO160, ND 0.6 filter

Unstaged

A street photographer never alters the course of history by modifying the attitude or positioning of his subjects. If a scene unfolded in front of your eyes a second too early, it is gone for ever and so should it remain. Don’t try to recreate it by asking your subjects to replay it. Also, one should not manipulate subjects to behave in a given way to improve a scene. Your picture will no longer be a true description, but basically an alteration to fit your own perception of a scene.

Leica M9 with 35mm Lux Asph at F1.4, 1/2000, ISO160, ND 0.6 filter

Urban

There must be an element in the pictures that connect to the environment of your subjects. Street photography is about the documentation of the interaction of the human being with their environment, be it social or cultural. It does not have to be strictly said “urban”; the country side or the beach also belong to our everyday surroundings.  A shot that shows no connection between a subject and his surroundings is a portrait, not street photography. In a similar way, shots of man-built structures without any sense of human presence are architecture shots.

Leica M9 with 35mm Lux Asph at F1.4, 1/2000, ISO160, ND 0.6 filter

Unknowns

Girl (boy) -friends and family should always stay out of your street shots. Your presence will always impact their behavior and so will they alter your vision. Not that one cannot take amazing candid scenes with familiars, but the reality bias will impact the documentary worthiness of your shots. Street photography involving familiars belongs to the discipline of portrait.

Leica M9 with 35mm Lux Asph at F2.8, 1/1000, ISO160, ND 0.6 filter

Unseen

You do not want to alter a street scene by your presence, it therefore means that you must remain unseen. If eye contact does happen (it improves on a lot of shots), make sure you click before you alter the attitude of your subject. It evidently means that  you never ask for permission before taking a shot.

Leica M9 with 35mm Lux Asph at F2.8, 1/750, ISO160

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