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.