Which of These Two Methods of Street Photography Is Best?

Depending on your perspective, street photography is either one of the easiest or most difficult types of photography one might pursue. The barrier to entry is low, with a small camera and fixed lens being all you need to get started shooting. Just step outside your door and capture what is happening on the street in your town ,and you are a street photographer. The problem is, although it is simple to get started in street photography, it is not easy to create compelling imagery.

Many street photographers operate in stealth mode and seek to capture candids without asking for permission. The goal of the candid shooter is to capture scenes exactly as they occur naturally. Any interference by the photographer ruins the possibility of creating an image that is 100% authentic.

Street photography by John Ricard. Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux.

Many street shooters feel their images are best when captured using a 35mm or wider focal length. This requires the photographer to be physically close to the subject. If the subject notices the photographer standing close by, the subject may alter their behavior making it difficult to capture what would have taken place had the photographer not been present.

Street photography by John Ricard. Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux.

Another approach is to be more direct and simply ask for permission before taking someone’s photograph. This may appear to be easier since the photographer does not have to develop the skill of being discreet while making photographs. In practice, however, the direct approach is difficult for many photographers since it demands the shooter deal with rejection if the subject does not grant permission. Many photographers label themselves as introverts and are most comfortable hiding behind their cameras in social situations. Walking up to strangers and asking for permission to create a portrait is not their idea of fun.

Street photogrpahy by John Ricard. Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux.

I recently filmed a video with The Raw Society Co-founder Jorge Delgado-UreñaI, in which we showcase both of these approaches to street photography. Although Jorge demonstrates a candid approach in the video, he has a special affinity for street portrait photography. “Portraits humanize a story and put a face directly in contact with your viewers. The story starts being something very personal because there is someone directly looking at you through the lens or the lens of the frame. The important part here is to understand that doing portraits is a beautiful thing and people will usually tell you that being photographed by you was a great experience they are going to share with you things that you wouldn’t imagine, without your even asking,” said Jorge.

Check the video for insight into both approaches as you watch Jorge and me make photographs on the streets and subway tunnels of New York City’s Times Square.

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11 Comments
David Pavlich's picture

Depends on where you're shooting. I lived in New Orleans and did a lot of street photography. But, in New Orleans, I used to walk the Quarter with 5DIII w/grip and a 70-200 f2.8 and nobody would notice because every third person is taking pictures. Now, in Winnipeg, I do almost no street photography. It is the polar (see what I did there? :-) ) opposite. I've done some architectural photography downtown and would walk the streets for a couple of hours and not see another soul taking a picture. I looked out of place.

Most of my shooting in New Orleans was with either a 35mm or 24-70. I used the 70-200 at the riverfront for people and river traffic. Do you ask permission? I rarely did in New Orleans, but I did if there was an interesting subject sitting isolated and I was right there facing the person. Funny....the one time I was asked not to take a picture was in Washington, DC. :-)

John Ricard's picture

Yeah, I'm one of those photo snobs who believes street photography can't be done with any focal length longer than 35mm. Maybe 50mm is ok for a few shots. Might be an interesting article to look at the other side though. Something along the lines of, "Yes, you can do street photography with a 70-200mm lens".

David Pavlich's picture

I wouldn't say snobish, it's what you like to shoot with. It was my go to lens back in the New Orleans days. I now have a 35-150 Tamron lens that's become my defacto walk around lens. It's the older f4 model, but most of what I shoot with it, it works just fine. I'd like to get the f2/2.8 version, but it's too spendy.

John Ricard's picture

Thanks for the kind words -although there is a video accompanying the article, haha. I think the topic could certainly be covered in more depth than I did here. I may do a follow up at some point. I agree we lose some authenticity when we ask for permission, but what we don't talk about enough is the fact that some photographers don't ask for permission only because they are too afraid to talk to strangers. If you're shooting buildings and funny signs on the street simply because you lack the courage to approach the interesting people in front of you, I don't think you will create compelling imagery.

John Ricard's picture

I understand the reluctance to watch videos. I'm the same way. For me it's all the wasted time involved with video. Unnecessary intros, music, ads... I don't do those things in my videos so I'd like to think my videos show respect to the viewer by not wasting his/her time.

And the reason I say I think a lot of photographers are just scared to approach people is twofold. First, many photographers are introverts by nature and that is why they picked up a camera in the first place. It is their way of being part of social events...without actually being a part of that event. Second, I find it hard to believe that so many photographers are really interested in buildings, shadows, reflections and funny signs. So it's my belief that many of them would rather approach a group or pair of people who are doing something interesting and take a photo of that. But they are too afraid to approach those people. This is just my belief. It isn't based on any actual research or facts.

r1ch m's picture

I don't like street photography that much. I don't think it should be done candid. YOU should go out there and just shoot and not try and hide it. That would be YOU, not me. I have forced myself to go out and do it and I have done it with groups but I don't like it. I like the results sometimes but I don't like taking pictures of strangers. It is easier to take pictures of street people but then do I feel good about taking pictures of someone else's misery? Street photography. I want to do it, but I don't like it. There are just so many other things to shoot that it is difficult to be motivated by street photography, at least for me.

John Ricard's picture

I don't think I said it in this video, but I've often said that street photography is one of the most difficult types of photography to do well. And, oddly, it is the a genre that has no real income earning potential. So you're working really hard to take great street photos but no one is going to buy your images. No one is going to hire you to shoot an ad campaign because they like your street photography. And when you post the image of some random guy on the subway, no one really cares about the shot -even though you used a lot of people and photography skills to capture the image. So it's a pretty thankless field to pursue. You really have to love it to engage in it.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Which method is the best? Why, the one you feel is the best for you. Thanks for asking.

David Blacker's picture

I use both methods. But I don’t really go out of my way to hide what I’m doing, because that just looks and feels creepy. I prefer to keep it candid, but this isn’t always possible. I do often ask permission, but this is again because it’s inevitable. You can’t really stand in front of someone and take their portrait like they’re zoo animals. You’ve got to have some interaction.

Where one is shooting also dictates what people’s reactions are like. In my home city, Colombo, if I’m in a mostly residential neighborhood, reception can be a toss up, because there are then often a lot of women around and there are cultural norms against snapping women and girls without permission. People are also less receptive to someone shooting their homes. It can seem intrusive. But if I’m in a more commercial area, the reception’s noticeably different. Here I’m often met with curiosity, amusement, and even welcome. People are more often than not pleased to share how they earn a living.

Using a telephoto helps to catch candid moments before you’re close enough to disturb the scene. It’s a bit like shooting wildlife. But aside from the bulk one is carrying about, the shots can sometimes lack the immersive intimacy that a wider 35mm or 24mm gives. But I’ve recently bought a new 24-70mm and I want to see how that works.

Of the these four shots, the three colour pix are with a 35mm, while the black and white was with a 24-105mm.