10 Principles of Good Street Photography

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© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Recently I’ve been getting really into Dieter Rams and his zen and minimalist philosophies when it comes to design. He has a famous list of “10 Principles of Good Design.” They are the following:

  1. Good design is innovative.
  2. Good design makes a product useful.
  3. Good design is aesthetic.
  4. Good design helps us to understand a product.
  5. Good design is unobtrusive.
  6. Good design is honest.
  7. Good design is durable.
  8. Good design is consequent to the last detail.
  9. Good design is concerned with the environment.
  10. Good design is as little design as possible.

I was inspired by his list, and thought I would do an homage to him by writing this list: “10 Principles of Good Street Photography” — read more to see how I applied Rams’ principles to street photography!

1. Good street photography is innovative

1x1.trans 7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography
© Saul Leiter

As a curator, I am always looking for new work to profile on the blog and on social media. What I love about street photography is the democratic nature of it, and how anyone can do it. Even if you only have an iPhone, you can make great images (check out the Tiny Collective for inspiration).

What always captures my eye is innovative work. Work that is unique, and isn’t simply a cliche photo of someone waking by a poster.

Now, it is true that “everything has been done before”. But I think innovation and creativity is taking what has already been done before, and remixing toy to your own style.

This is what hip hop musicians do. They sample old tracks from the past, and they add their own flavor and personality to the music– and bring it more to life.

I think the same is in street photography. Study the maters and greats in photography who came before us. Examine what makes their work so amazing, and start off by copying them. However over time, try to remix their work with your own style and viewpoint of the world.

Innovation doesn’t happen overnight. It happens with brick by brick.

So innovation in street photography won’t happen overnight either. Just keep shooting, photo by photo. Work on projects that speak to your soul and the way you see the world. Try to make a meaningful statement with your images and bring something new and helpful to the world.

2. Good street photography is useful to society

1x1.trans Robert Franks The Americans: Timeless Lessons Street Photographers Can Learn
© Robert Frank. Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955 from his book: “The Americans”

I think what makes good street photography is having a social purpose. Photos that make us challenge our own humanity. Photos that make us see the world in a unique way. Photos that inspire us creatively, emotionally, and perhaps to even help others.

However sometimes with visually beautiful and complex street photography images, I feel they are sometimes emotionally lacking. They can be more about lines, geometry, shadows, and light– rather than saying something about society or the human condition.

But even visually beautiful street photography (that doesn’t say much about the human condition) can be useful to society. There is a part of well constructed compositions that we find beautiful that touches us on an emotional level.

So at the end of the day when you are showing your street photography with the world, ask yourself the question: “How will this street photograph inspire, motivate, or help others in society?”

What I think makes a good photograph is a balance between content and form. Content being the emotion and purpose of the photograph. Form being the composition and aesthetic. Which brings us to the next principle:

3. Good street photography is aesthetic

Rene Burri / Magnum Photos. BRAZIL. Sao Paulo. 1960.
© Rene Burri / Magnum Photos. BRAZIL. Sao Paulo. 1960.

Going off the last point, a good street photograph needs to be framed and composed well. Sure it is true that if the content is strong enough, the form isn’t that important. For example one quote I heard from my friend and manager Neil Ta is: “You can’t take a bad photo of a burning monk.” However if the photograph is framed so poorly you can’t see the monk, the image is too dark, and there is too much clutter– yes, you can take a bad photo of a burning monk.

Therefore know that to make a good street photograph, you also need to compose and frame your images in an aesthetically pleasing way. A good starting point in learning composition is from Adam Marelli, or seeing the series on composition I have done on my blog (inspired by Adam):

You want your images to be aesthetically pleasing, or else people will quickly look past your images (without focusing on the content in the images).

Personally I feel at the end of the day, content is more important than form. But what makes a really good photograph is in which change content and form is in beautiful harmony.

4. Good street photography helps us understand the world

1x1.trans 10 Lessons Lee Friedlander Has Taught Me About Street Photography
© Lee Friedlander

I feel that the purpose of street photography is to help us better understand the world. The reason I take photographs is they help me interact with strangers, make sense of society, and communities.

Not only does being a street photographer make us more perceptive of society, it also help us to show our viewpoint to others. One of the nicest compliments I’ve received I about one of my street photographs was: “Oh, I walk by that building everyday, and never photographed it the way you saw it.”

Photography is all about seeing. Magnum photographer David Hurn famously says that photography only involves two things: 1) Where to stand and 2) When to click the shutter.

So know that the purpose of your street photography is both to help you understand the world around you, and help others make sense of it as well. Street photography is all about exploration– exploration of self and society.

5. Good street photography is simple

1x1.trans 15 Lessons Bruce Davidson Can Teach You About Street Photography
© Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

A good street photograph doesn’t need to be complicated. It can be simple. It can focus on a single subject, a single element, without distracting clutter in the background.

One of my favorite photographers is Richard Avedon, who made his most famous images simply shooting them against a white backdrop. He said this helped him eliminate clutter in the background, to create focus on what he thought was the most important– his subjects.

So to make a good street photograph, you don’t need any fancy compositional or technical tricks. Focus on the emotion in your images, and don’t forget to K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, stupid).

6. Good street photography is honest

1x1.trans 10 Things Anders Petersen Can Teach You About Street Photography
© Anders Petersen

I see honesty as related to two things in street photography: 1) How you approach people and 2) How you present them to the rest of the world.

Honesty is really intertwined with ethics. Everyone has a different definition of “honesty”. Some people don’t believe there can be true “honesty”– because reality is all subjective.

Personally I think it is important to “honestly” photograph your subjects. Meaning, do it in a way which is personally authentic to you. I get a lot of criticism for the way I photograph, which is really close and often with a flash. However personally I am a very upfront and social person, and I generally like to talk to my subjects after taking their photograph. Other cases when I feel it is more appropriate to ask someone to take their photograph, I ask for permission. If they say no, I simply thank them and move on.

Of course the way I photograph is simply authentic to myself– and won’t necessarily apply the same to you. So if shooting from a really far distance is more authentic to you– shoot that way. If shooting from a really close distance is more authentic to yourself– shoot that way.

I think it is also important to honestly portray your photos to the public. Meaning, I don’t think you should show your subjects in a manner which you personally don’t feel comfortable with. And also, if people ask you about your work– being clear with your intentions and the purpose of your work.

So when in doubt, use honesty and your own system of ethics to guide you.

7. Good street photography will last a long time

1x1.trans 10 Lessons Josef Koudelka Has Taught Me About Street Photography
© Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos. CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. 1968.

I also feel that good street photography isn’t trendy. A good street photograph will last decades and centuries.

Try to make photographs that are meaningful, emotional, and possibly historic. These types of images generally stand the test of time.

So when you’re working on a project or certain images, think to yourself during the editing phase: “Will this photograph be relevant, interesting, or meaningful in 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years or even longer?”

8. Good street photography is focused on the details

1x1.trans 11 Lessons Diane Arbus Can Teach You About Street Photography
© Diane Arbus
© Lee Friedlander. 1970s

What I think makes a good street photograph is having a “cherry on top”. What is a “cherry on top” you ask? Well, I see it as the “finishing touch” on an image–a small detail which makes it from a so-so photograph to a good photograph.

For example, what I think makes Henri Cartier-Bressons famous puddle photograph so good is that he captured a ballerina in a poster behind the jumping man, also mimicking his jump. The ballerina is the “cherry on top”.

In Diane Arbus’ famous portrait of a boy in a park, he has a quizzical expression in his face and is clutching a grenade in his hand. The grenade is the “cherry on top”. It is the great detail which makes it a good photograph.

In a photograph I took of a man in London for my “Suits” project, he looks deep in though while holding a French fry. To me the French fry is the “cherry on top”.

So when it comes to your images, consider what is the small details in your photograph which make it good? Where is your “cherry on top?

9. Good street photography is personal

1x1.trans 5 Lessons Daido Moriyama Has Taught Me About Street Photography
© Daido Moriyama

Many of us aimlessly wander the streets and take photographs without really know why we’re doing it. This is how I felt for a very long time, until I started to question myself: “Why do I photograph in the streets, and what makes my street photography personal to me?”

I studied sociology in school, and have always been interested in how individuals interact in society and see the world. I started shooting photography the same time I started my freshman year studying sociology –and combining the both disciplines, I discovered street photography.

So for me, what makes street photography personal to me is that I see myself as a sociologist with a camera. I want to make images that make statements about society through social commentary.

The reason why all of us shoot street photography is different. Some of us may do it to release the stress from work and everyday life. Some of us shoot street photography to get out of the house. Some of shoot street photography to make a difference in society. Some of us shoot street photography to keep us mentally sane.

So dig deep and ask yourself: “Why do I shoot street photography and why is it important, personal, and meaningful to me?” The more clarity you have about your purpose, the more passion, energy, and fervor you will put into your work.

10. Good street photography is from the heart

1x1.trans 10 Things Garry Winogrand Can Teach You About Street Photography
© Garry Winogrand

At the end of the day, I think the the most important trait of a street photographer is to have a big heart. To be loving and caring to our subjects, our viewers, and to the rest of society.

By being a passionate and loving photographer, we can channel our emotions to make images that touch our viewer. Using our hearts to guide us also give us meaning in our work– and the motivation to continue.

If you can’t remember all these 10 principles, no worries. This last principle I feel is the most important.

Whenever in doubt, remember to always shoot from the heart. Everything comes second.

Learn from the masters

If you want to learn to become a great street photographer, read these lessons I’ve learned from the master street photographers:

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