Street Portraits vs Street Photography: What’s the Difference?

Beirut, Lebanon. Click to read more.

Recently my friend and fellow artist Jacob Patterson asked me on Twitter what I thought the difference was between street portraits and street photography. It was a fascinating question, as there are many debates and inconsistencies on the web about the differences between the two. In this article I will outline my thoughts on the differences between street portraits and street photography. Not only that, but I encourage you to read on and chime in this debate as well.

Beirut, Lebanon.

If I could define street photography, I would define it as the act of taking photos of people in public urban areas in a candid manner. This means that when it comes to street photography, you don’t ask your subjects to pose for you. Instead of asking people to take their photo, you simply go up to them and take their photo. In addition, street photography integrates the people and their environment. To use an analogy, I think of street photography as a play, with the actors interacting with their stage in an interesting way.

Street photography also relies heavily on capturing “the decisive moment“. This means that the timing of the images is what typically makes it special–whether you got catch a person having a certain expression on their face or having a person doing something uncanny at a certain moment.

I can't believe the news today...

"I can't believe the news today..." - Thomas Leuthard. Beirut, Lebanon.

When I think of street portraiture, I would say that it is included under the general category of street photography–but it is its own sub-sect. Therefore the two are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, I would further categorize street portraiture in two sections as well: posed vs candid. Although capturing posed street portraiture can capture strong images (think of The Satorialist), the truly exceptional images are those which are captured candidly (think Thomas Leuthard).

Now what makes capturing candid street portraits inherently better than capturing posed street portraits? Well to start off, it takes guts to take photos of people in public (without asking their permission). Frankly speaking, I think that street photography is 80% having the balls to go out in public and shoot strangers while only 20% is skill. There are many skilled photographers who can capture great posed images, but don’t have the stomach for going out and taking photos of strangers. It definitely isn’t for the faint of heart (which makes it so challenging and fun).

Smoking Suspicious

"Smoking Suspicious" - Thomas Leuthard

Not only that, but capturing candid street portraits gives you a true look into a person’s soul. There are many viral images out there which show certain people who do literally the same posed smile for each photograph. Over time, these posed portraits become second-nature to people–which prevents you from seeing who they truly are. When Thomas Leuthard takes candid street portraits of people in the streets, he described the process something like this (paraphrased from my memory):

When I am out shooting portraits of strangers and I point my camera at them, they typically look away. Then they get curious and wonder if I’m taking a photo of them–and therefore they turn around and look at me again. That is when I capture the image.

Therefore to sum up my thoughts, street portraiture is indeed street photography. However when it comes to candid vs posed street portraiture, I feel that candid street portaiture often makes more powerful images. However, this is only my opinion–so let’s hear yours!

Do you think that street portraiture is the same as street photography? If so, what is your take on candid vs posed street portraits? Leave a comment below and add to the discussion.

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  • Frank Chr

    I would have described it about the same way, I guess. So how does photo journalism play in there? Is that an over category (super set) of the two described above?

    • Andrei Weingold

      candid portrait is street. all fits like a glove int the street photography.
      people, emotion, moment, you, 35 mm lenses, balls, guts… a dream state after taking the photo.
      All is well

  • Richard Harrison

    Wonderful is the capture that happened in the twinkling of the eye and appears to have been posed in the studio. I agree that the most effective and impactful portraits taken in the street are the ones when as you so aptly said “I think that street photography is 80% having the balls to go out in public and shoot strangers while only 20% is skill.” I have found that people see “photographer” and instintively think “take a picture of me!” It is a suttle desire that the photographer learns to see in their subject. Keep up the good work and have a nice day to all!

    • Christakis Schinis

      Richard, was this right: “I have found that people see “photographer” and instintively think “take a picture of me!””?

      I generally find that they think “DON’T take a picture of me!” Which is what contributes to the high “balls-required” percentage. i.e. Getting over the disapproving mean looks you get.

      I prefer candid photography than street portraits because, in my mind, it’s easier.
      There’s too many variables to play with in street portraits. And I find too much choice complicated. Whereas with candids: See the moment, snap, big smile (if the subject spotted you), finished!

      Eric, nicely written topic bringing out many good points. Just got myself a twitter account so this is tweet number uno :-)

  • Nikhil Ramkarran

    I recognize the human need to categorize everything in order to figure out how to deal with it, but I think a distinction between street photography and street portraiture (candid, not posed) is an artificial one. I can understand singling out posed portraiture, because that is clearly different (and to my view falls under portrait photography anyway).

    In my view, the crux of the matter is whether the photo is candid or posed.

  • K. Praslowicz

    I plan to try my hand at street portraiture a bit this year with my 4×5 and.or 8×10 gear. Street Photography is easy as pie in a busy city/situation where I can easily disappear or use the chaos as a a cloak of invisibility. But once I start getting into rural areas and very small towns, that gets more & more difficult to pull off.

    Boring street portraiture runs almost as rampant as boring street photography. The goal is try to get get past the unexciting “Stop for a moment and smile” pose that I see a lot of people do, and try to get them to behave more naturally so that it can be almost tough to tell if it is posed or not. Greg Miller is one photographer working this way who I can think of that blurs that line between the two very well.

  • fomu

    For me street portraits are a part of street photography, candid or posed.
    Whatever you do on the street, in my opinion there is, on forehand, no better or stronger image just because it is candid or posed.
    I have seen (and made) terrible street portraits and terrible candid street photos. And, guess what, I have seen brilliant street portraits, posed or candid. Who cares? The result counts for me.

    I think you also have to have guts to ask a stranger if you can make his posed street portrait. I’ve tried it and it made me very nervous in the beginning.

    I prefer to shoot candid on the street myself. Just because for me that’s the most fun to do and gives the best picture of what is happening spontaneously on the streets. But it is not a guarantee for the best photos.

    • K. Praslowicz

      Totally agree. Approaching a stranger and asking to take some of there time to do a shoot is a far more difficult thing to do than just getting in there, snapping and leaving.

  • Will

    I don’t agree with 80% balls 20% skill, 90% of street photography I see isn’t good, with that stat it should be way higher than that, you’re basically saying if you can take photo’s in public there’s a high chance they will be great photo’s???

    It’s taken me quite some time and effort to get to the stage where I can not only shoot people in the street but compose properly. Once you’re past the nervousness of shooting in the street it’s not that hard either, I think it’s more to do with knowing when you can take a picture and when you can’t, at the start you think you can’t anywhere but slowly you work out the scenes that will allow it. Also over time you work out your own style and what were once keepers are now discarded.

    Apart from that there is the post processing side which takes time to develop also… I just really disagree with 80% balls, 20% skill… that devalues the really great photo’s you see once in a blue moon.

  • Travis

    Unless your shooting candids with the camera at your eye and at point blank range, then no doubt approaching a stranger on the street for a photo takes way more balls, in my opinion. Firing from the hip and/or shooting w/ a telephoto lens from down the block takes zero cajones, me thinks…though I know folks that do it well. Different strokes for different folks.

  • Thomas Leuthard (85mm)

    This is a question I ask myself very often. I would say, it’s a different way of photography and has nothing to do with Street Photography as people now it. But a lot of photos which are posted under the category of SP are not really that. They just show something happening on the streets.

    For me this is a hard question and I stopped thinking about it. It is the thing I do and that’s it. If there is a name for it, fine. If not, I don’t care. When I see an interesting character on the streets I have to get close and take a shot. That’s all about it. I know that you have to have some balls to do that. Maybe that’s the only advantage I have. :-)

    I have seen a lot of faces during the last two years and sometimes get fed up. Then I try other things until my hunger to shoot people candidly comes back. It’s a thing I cannot really explain. I just like to look at people who have an interesting look and then I have to use my camera.

    Sure there are two things “to ask or not to ask”. There will be two different looks in the photos. I would not say one is better than the other. I think it’s more difficult and time consuming to ask. But sometimes it is worth it. Sometimes you don’t even see a big difference on the photo.

    In the end you have to do the thing you like and feel comfortable with. How it is called and under which category it goes doesn’t really matter. The only thing which matters is that you go out and do it…

    “Life is not posing, it’s happening…” – 85mm

    Thanks for the discussion…

    Thomas Leuthard

    P.S. I will be in New York City for some Street Photography from June 2 to June 10 if someone is interested to meet me there.

  • Joe

    Will – I think 80:20 is an exaggeration but Eric makes a good point, having the guts to lift the camera to your eye and take a shot when in an unfamiliar/uncomfortable situation or setting is a vital part of good street photography.

    I would say that street portraiture and candid street photography are definitely two distinct categories. Give 100 photographers each 100 images made up of the two different types and ask them to sort them into two groups, I don’t expect you’d get very varied results. If something can be classified, it’s a classification.

  • Farouq Taj

    I agree with much of what you’ve written, however it is unfortunate that you’ve chosen a phrase that effectively places street photography above street portraiture.

    For me it is not a matter of placing one above the other. Taking photos surreptitiously captures the person in their natural environment. That said I also like photos where the person has been approached and we get eye contact with the stranger. They provide different perspectives and one is not better than the other.

  • gerryruiz

    I like candid photographs of people out in public, in the streets, as well. But it seems we have forgotten something: what if your subject is the STREET as a whole, not particularly the people? The buildings, cars, general activities, etc. which form part of the street scene? ;)

  • Loryne

    Another great post, as usual :-)

  • Kit Taylor


    A thought-provoking essay. I’ve been using the term “spontaneous portraiture” — which I also think of as a narrower subset of street photography. One quibble I would have with your definition of street photography is the “urban” part. That pushes a lot of the work of Lange and Salgado out of the genre. An Amazon riverboat is as interesting a stage for life’s little dramas as a New York City subway.

    Candid or not? It seems a wide spectrum to me. There are the completely candid shots — from the back or side, shooting from the hip, shooting from a distance. There are shots of people who see the camera but do not notice it. We can sometimes create that ambiance by just hanging around, camera in hand, until the subject begins to see us as just part of the background. There are folks who see the camera and pose/gesture/smile — we smile also of course — might be some good shots on occasion. And there are folks who see us with a camera and ask us to take their photo. I’ve found it a pretty common experience with kids, drunks, and when wandering around Latin America. Most of these get deleted, but there is a really good one now and then.

    Thank you for posting these essays. Glad I ran across your site.

    Kit Taylor

  • Clarkey736
  • Gaston Trussi

    Excellent view… I was looking for an answer as I’m in the middle of a 365 Project of People. Most of my photos are taken in the streets of Sydney AUS, and I always wondered in which category they fit in. Street or People? After reading this post I got a better understanding, and I can definitely categorize them as “Posed Street Portraits”. I’m trying to overcome the fear of approaching people and find out the best way to interact with them in a 1 minute frame…
    Thanks so much Kim for sharing
    Looking forward to participate in the workshop here in Sydney in April…
    Take care

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  • Hwan

    Finally I got my answer, I’m doing “candid” street portraits, and I was misunderstood that street and street portraits actually is the same

  • Juliette

    I think it makes sense to include street portraiture as a sub-category of street photography, but to me candid shots are what makes street photography the compelling art that it is.

  • Nautilus

    Well-written article, but the talk about getting a “true look” into a person’s “soul” is so obsolete, romantic and illogical. Are you really seeing my “soul” just because I’m looking curiously or annoyed into your camera?

    A posed photography on the street does NOT have to be inferior just because it’s posed, something Chris Arnade very much proves in his Flickr-stream, especially his Faces of Addiction-series:

    The definition of street photography would be a challenge for a good philosopher. My personal opinion is that to get the photos you want, shoot without thought about what genre you’re doing. Don’t be afraid to get up close to a stranger if you see a great photo coming up, but also don’t hesitate to ask for permission before or afterwards. To ask permission is not to give up your artistical integrity to your subject, but to be respectful of him/her.

  • Suddhasatwa

    Hello Eric. Thanks for the article.
    I believe, there cannot be uch an artificial bifurcation between street and candid photography. Many of the masters have taken both, so it clearly depends on your style of documenting life.

    I hope to meet you sometime when you are available in India.
    Until then, take care, and keep shooting.


  • Alex Coghe

    When you lose the shyness or the fear of approaching people street portraits, eye contact and “strobist street photography” is easier. I am not very interested in differentiating the genres…it is only Photography to the end.
    But perhaps a reflection should be made: many times candid portrait is only a search for the character. The photographer creates the photograph and also the moment, although there is no a real moment.

    More difficult to achieve a complex composition, finding a real moment that is happening without us we are causing.

  • Bruno Lenze

    Having carried a camera for over 45 years. Which I use for My Design Studio,( Interior wide angle architectural shots) I started taking some portraits of my clients and the people that work for them.
    My profession gives me access into a different world of working people.
    These are real people who work in construction and food prepartion. Fantastic faces and settings.( Old underground urban archeology in Brooklyn and the boroughs).
    Last year I became more enamored of the portrait photos and ( since life is short) sprung for the Leica X1 and then the M9, why not.
    In the year and half since , I have really enjoyed a dialog with the most varied and incredibly interesting looking people I have come across.
    My work has taken me to The Caribbean, Canada, New Orleans, Miami,  Turkey, Germany , and to many industry trade shows in Las Vegas , Dallas,
    to name a few. This summer to Japan.
    I do not show my photos on-line or print them. ( maybe when I’m 80)
    I am too slow to have someone get angry and chase me, so I always ask permission. 95% of the time, even the toughest and most scary looking people will say OK. in whatever language. It also takes a bit time to focus. I approach the composition with a shallow depth of field. ( 50mm summicron)
    At the end of the 60 second shoot , most ask to see their image and some ask to have it emailed to them.
    I find that talking to strange people is a fantastic way of life. My favorites are people who have many tattoos. There is always an interesting story behind them. I like to call this genre ” Public Portrait Photography”

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  • latesh lilwa

    I have recently started experimenting and below are my observations
    1) If I find subject attractive I ask them to pose as per my is 100% directed and there is no way you can think it is posed image after it is shot..if you fail to get candid moments just approach the subject and ask for a pose.. trust me you need balls to approach an unknown random person for a shot..

    2) use a zoom lens to take portraits of people.. no need to go close and you are sure to get one candid portrait with emotions..
    3) my observation is when you shoot candid you get lot of un-expected and surprising stuff.. in many cases the subject looks shocked..
    For me street photograph is more to do with multiple human elements telling a story and a street portrait is more to do one single human element expressing human emotions

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