Like any art form, photography consists of many genres, streams, and disciplines.
Many budding photographers choose to concentrate on a certain niche. This can be to temporarily give themselves insight into an otherwise foreign working style or to enrich their portfolio in the long term with useful skills and experience.
The street photography style is an increasingly widespread choice. It’s also one that I frequently make use of myself.
But what are the different types of street photography? How can the style of street photos evoke entirely different emotions and reactions, even when shot in the same scenery?
All these important questions are going to be the subject of today’s guide.
Let’s take a dive into the varied world of street photography to find out which type is the right fit for you!
What is Street Photography, Anyway?
Before we begin dissecting it in detail, it’s probably a good idea to define what a street photographer does in simple terms.
Some might say it’s as straightforward as working in urban locations, or “in the street”.
Sure, that’s not entirely off the mark. After all, it does describe the working hours of plenty of street photographers. But does it really get to the heart of what makes their images stand out?
Let’s take a closer look at the defining line that separates street photography from other movements and expressions.
A Technical Intro to Street Photography
There are many types of lenses used by street photographers, but most prefer wide-angle prime lenses for their ability to cover a broad field of view at any distance. Digital cameras are the norm almost everywhere else these days.
Still, much more people shoot street photographs toting a film camera than you might expect.
The simple reason is that 35mm cameras, especially rangefinders and scale focus types, are extremely lightweight, pocketable, and near-silent. This makes them much easier to use in an unintrusive manner compared to DSLRs and most mirrorless cameras.
There are many more details on technique worth mentioning, but as this guide is mainly concerned with the differences between individual streams of street photography, I couldn’t cover everything.
I highly recommend you check out our step-by-step guide on the basic camera settings for street photography before continuing if you’re interested in learning more!
The Variety of Street Photography
Street photography sets itself apart from studio photography, landscape photography, and others by examining life as it occurs in day-to-day settings.
This doesn’t mean that every single street photograph has to be a candid, decisive moment from the life of a stranger caught unawares. Nor does it have to be a literal street scene (i.e. shot on a busy intersection or the like).
Hence, street photography can span a wide gamut. From squeaky-clean, finely curated portraiture all the way up to sub-genres of documentary photography, it’s a very broad spectrum to explore.
There is some wild abstract street photography out there, too. Plenty of great photographers shoot photos that straddle or blur the division between candid shots and studio footage.
The Philosophy Behind Street Photography in a Nutshell
So, where is the line that ties all those wildly different ideas together?
In one word, character.
You can find plenty of street photography that deals with themes far removed from the big cities and their busy streets.
However, you will be hard-pressed to find any that doesn’t feature any human subjects. It is the expression of something essential about the human experience that really makes street photography what it is.
After all, that’s the broadest definition of “street” you can get: a public path where people go about their daily lives.
The Many Faces of Street Photography Today
Now, let’s take a look at the heart of the matter and analyze a broad selection of street photography sub-genres.
Remember that it’s always beneficial to try out more rather than less, so note down anything that strikes you as interesting.
Black and White Street Photography
This style is where it all began. Until people like William Eggleston arrived on the scene in the 70s, color street photography was hardly even taken seriously as an art form!
The old masters like Robert Doisneau, Diane Arbus, and Henri Cartier Bresson all worked pretty much entirely in black and white. You might assume that this was mostly for lack of any alternatives at the time, but that’s only half the truth.
Many photographers find that black-and-white street photography brings out certain elements that improve the look of street photos. These can include the contrast between light and shadow, the fine textures of people’s skin tones and clothing, and more.
To this day, thousands of great street photographers choose to restrict part or all of their working portfolios to black and white street photography. Maybe you want to give it a try as well?
The portrait is one of the most ancient themes in the visual arts, going all the way back to the dawn of civilization. In that sense, it’s no wonder that street portrait photography continues to be wildly popular today.
Portraits taken on street can take countless forms in its own right, as varied as the individual style of each photographer who works in them.
However, what unites all street portraiture is the element of human, one-on-one connection. Most street portraits feature a single subject, visually or thematically centered within the frame (or both, of course).
In that sense, the photographer is engaging with their subject in a sort of direct exchange, which results in the final image. This can happen where the subject is directly informed they’re being photographed, but also when they’re caught by surprise or even unaware entirely.
Candid Street Photography
Immortalized by the work of people like Henri Cartier Bresson, candid street photography sees the photographer as a silent, impartial, and passive observer.
The goal in this discipline is to interact as little as possible with your subjects in an effort to present them in a pure, natural state. Spontaneous moments and genuine emotion are the main focus.
In other words, candid photography seeks inspiration from the natural, the unexpected, and especially the unedited and the truthful.
Raw Street Photography
Stemming from their pursuit of the “raw”, unadulterated image, a certain group of street photographers has become known under the moniker of raw street photography. Whether or how much this genre overlaps with candid street photography above is debatable.
Some treat “rawness” and “candidness” as synonyms, whereas others try to delineate some clear differences between the two.
It’s a complicated and probably endless disagreement, so what I would recommend you to do is to browse some portfolios by raw street photographers you enjoy and draw whatever inspiration you can from them!
Street Documentary Photography
Documentary photography comes in all sorts of forms, so it’s logical that it finds an application in street photography as well.
Street documentary photographers aim to use the intimate nature of the medium to bring the viewer closer to the subject(s) they’re documenting.
Artists working in this genre may be referred to as street photographers or as photojournalists, depending on the context.
For an iconic example of the form, take a look at Robert Frank and his famous series, “The Americans“. Composed over the course of a huge, year-long road trip, the series examines Frank’s view of American postwar society as a Swiss-Jewish man in the 1950s.
He uses documentary, street-style footage not just to bring attention to the living conditions and moods of the time, but also to connect both the viewer and his own subjects with his personal experience of the United States as a society.
Night Street Photography
Shooting street photos at night is a fun challenge that I recommend every photographer try out sometime. On the street, you will find that the usual masses of people walking and the general hubbub of urban environments will be greatly reduced. This makes for a totally unique, quieter atmosphere.
The sparse sources of artificial light available during these hours – street lamps, signs, vehicle headlamps, and so on – can provide a unique backdrop for moody street scenes.
Abstract Street Photography
While it is hard to define street photography in this niche, you could say that any street photo like the one below tries to obscure or otherwise play with the main subject in an unconventional way can be called abstract.
In practice, this makes abstract street photography one of the most experimental disciplines of them all, and one where you can really let your inner auteur all out and try some daring moves with your camera.
Fine Art Street Photography
Where galleries loom large and the scrutinizing eyes of the critics even larger, there lies the realm of fine art street photography.
Of course, what really constitutes fine art remains impossible to define. But the thought behind street art photography, in a nutshell, is to use street photography’s stylistic conventions and the technical abilities of your camera to capture an idea that is very unconventional, impractical, or particularly extravagant.
Urban Street Photography
Speaking of urban environments, plenty of photographers choose to make the city their main subject.
Sometimes, such as in the work of Joel Meyerowitz, single cities or even individual landmarks within cities (in his case, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis being the most famous example) can become the theme of entire photo series.
It is not uncommon for this kind of street photograph to have a narrative bend to them. The aforementioned geometric shapes and constant activity of the urban scene in a big city lend themselves to visual storytelling, after all.
Geometric Street Photography
Speaking of the geometric nature of urban scenes, a whole sub-genre of urban and architectural street photography has emerged that fixates itself on just that concept.
If the straight lines and harsh angles of contemporary architecture fascinate you, I would highly suggest taking a look at the work of people like Lee Friedlander or Fan Ho, who famously drew huge inspiration from these kinds of stylistic elements.
Fashion Street Photography
I mentioned how people, or human characters, in any case, are the thing that sets street photography apart the most from any other discipline.
In the case of fashion street photography, that is taken further. Street scenes are employed to showcase not just everyday life, but specifically the way normal, regular people express themselves, their social role, their emotions, and more through dress and fashion.
In other words, street fashion photography keeps the aesthetic focus of its studio counterpart. However, it throws out the A-list models and tailor-made dresses and suits for more genuine, heartfelt depictions of fashion that hit closer to the heart of the viewer.
Intrusive Street Photography
Directly opposed to the school of candid street photography, intrusive street photographers are as controversial as they are daring and innovative.
Instead of attempting to capture everyday street life, these provocateurs will explicitly interact with their subjects before they take their photographs.
They might use artificial light, for instance. They will approach their subjects and make an effort to disrupt their daily routine before taking the shot. Some, like Bruce Gilden, will intentionally show up with an intimidating, hefty camera and large flashgun to cause a strong reaction.
Needless to say, the degree to which intrusive street photography can be, well, intrusive has caused its fair share of arguments.
All that aside, unique images can result from this type of photography. If you’re daring enough and have made up your mind about the ethical implications, why not take the plunge?
Types of Street Photography Summarized
As you can see, a street photographer can wear many hats. So many, in fact, that definitions can get confusing. They often overlap and leave large room for interpretation, as we’ve seen today.
To circle back to one of the first points from this article, the goal is not to force yourself to conform to the definition of any single sub-genre.
Rather, you should strive to freely explore as much as you can. Read up on the many types of street photography and take from them whatever inspires you most.
To learn more tips and techniques, watch our exclusive video below before hitting the streets!