What makes a “street photo.”

reflection street photo

Street photography is a popular photography niche at this moment. With current technology, everyone can take street photos anywhere. But what makes a good street photo?

Let’s start with the beginning.

What is street photography?

Let’s start with an important question. While researching this, I found that this seemingly straightforward question is much more complex. While the history of photography is very well documented, it is hard to discern when street photography erupted.

You might claim some of the first photographs are street photos. Though the streets and cities were topics, whether they’re street photos is open for discussion.

This blog post doesn’t aim to cover the whole history of (street) photography. It would go too far, in my opinion.

We can be sure that street photography is over a century old. But of course, just as technology did, the way we create, consume, and share street photos has been drastically changed.

Going from the heavy, bulky cameras with long exposure to smartphones. The new cameras allow for new types of photos—and the latest techniques.

But in essence:

Street photography is a genre of photography that focuses on everyday life in public spaces. Usually unposed and candid, street photos can focus on people or other elements in the streets of our cities.

So then

street photo on the Blaak in Rotterdam

What makes a street photo a street photo?

A street photo is, in essence, just a photo taken outside on the street. Well, yes, but it’s also more layered than that.

I don’t want to overcomplicate a simple genre we can all enjoy practicing and consuming. But a street photo is more than just made on the street. Different elements come together to create a street photograph.

Characteristics in Street Photography


One of the most essential elements in street photography. Usually, the lack of candidness is the start of controversy in the genre. Is it still allowed to be called a street photo if posed?

For that reason, I think it’s safe to say that capturing spontaneous moments is essential in street photography. The people being photographed are often unaware of it, but some photographers don’t mind the interaction with their subjects.

It’s also not always just about the person. It can be about everyday life in the street, people going about their business without them being the (sole) subject of the photo.

Though post-processing your photos is permitted, it’s often best to keep the editing to a minimum to keep the images as authentic as possible.

statue and ladies feet

Public Spaces

Next to the how and where you make the photos, it’s also important to focus on where. In general, street photography is done out on the streets. But don’t just jump into the middle of the street in oncoming traffic. 

The sidewalks, parks, alleys, shopping streets, and other public spaces are perfect for street photography.

There is a strong emphasis on big cities like NYC and London, but any urban environment works. You could also do street photography in the parking lot of your local small-town supermarket.


For many photographers, photography goes beyond the visual aspect. It also needs a narrative, showing their vision of the city and the community. They want to make you happy with funny scenes or make you aware of and perhaps even angry about less pretty things happening.

Though I think a good story enhances a photo, a street photo that’s just aesthetic has just as much value.

Subjects in Street Photography

Apart from the characteristics in your photos, there’s also the more tangible subject. The thing you focus your camera and composition on.


Most street photographers immediately gravitate toward photographing people. They’re one of the most common subjects in street photography, I believe. 

In street portraits, it could be just the people you focus on. For others, it might be more about people’s routines and street activities. Or maybe even the odd things that aren’t as daily at all.

It’s also about the interaction—people with each other and their environment. 


People can be subjects of themselves, but they can also be part of a scene—a big building with small people in front of it, for example.

Or a big crowd in the streets during an event. Where it’s not essential to focus on just one person.

Sometimes, a scene doesn’t even require a (recognizable) human in it. Shop windows, for example, are popular scenes to photograph.

Urban Landscapes

urban landscape in Brussels

Cities are more than just the humans in them.

Cities and streets are made of stones and buildings, too. We’ve created our own landscapes as humans, so it’s only normal to also photograph them.

Higher vantage points over the city, bridges, tunnels, literal streets, and monuments can all be topics in street photography. Even if no literal human is present in the shots, humanity is still visible in those photos.


A fun extra layer to use in your street photography is the contrasts. Like the small people in front of a big building, as I mentioned earlier.

There are these weird and exciting combinations all over the city. These contrasts enhance the photo visually and make people think about it for a second.

Techniques and Approaches

As with all genres of photography, it’s not just about the subject. Composition, how you use your camera, and even what lens you pick are also essential aspects.

Camera and Gear:

In street photography, what camera you use is almost unimportant. You can use your smartphone or a pricey Leica. The device you use is totally up to you. Usually, street photographers use a smaller and less noticeable setup.

The only essential thing about your camera is that you get used to it. You need to know the controls and how to manipulate them quickly.

street selfie of myself

Timing and Patience

You might have heard from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘The Decisive Moment,’ which emphasizes not just subject and composition but also timing—finding the exact right moment to photograph your subject to create the perfect photograph.

It’s probably one of the more intangible skills to have as a photographer. It’s hard to put that timing into rules or even a course. You can best learn it by going out and putting in the work. Watching other photographers online, on the streets, or during street photo workshops can be interesting.

Interaction with Subjects

You know what camera to use and when and where to go. But then there’s also the technique to approach your subject. This is a topic in and of itself—a topic I’m not an expert in at all. 

Luckily, the Decisive Shot made a great article about approaching people in street photography.

Since we’re talking about photographing people, there’s also a bit of a legal thing involved. I’m not a legal expert, and you should check the rules and laws in your area.

In Europe, it’s not allowed to photograph and publish photos of people in public. However, some caveats and nuances to those laws make it possible to still do street photography. Of course, no one has ever been arrested for making normal street photographs.

Apart from the laws, there are also ethical issues to be mindful of. 

A quick rule: never photograph others as you don’t want others to photograph you.

If you want to be more sure about using the photos, you can always approach your subject afterward, show them the picture, and ask for permission.

Getting Started with Street Photography

Enough talking; let’s get started making street photos.

The first step is to make sure you have a camera and lens ready, an empty memory card, and a full battery. The best option is to pick a camera you know well and are comfortable with carrying around on the streets.

Next, make the time to do street photography and decide on a location. This can be a location you document for the entire photo session or just the starting point of a walk around town.

Experiment with the composition and your perspective, and maybe even zoom in and out. These all affect the end photo, so experiment. I don’t think there’s a single photographer that is satisfied with every single photo they make.

And then keep practicing. Keep repeating these steps over and over. Occasionally, look back at your previous work to see how your style and technique are improving.

Subgenres of Street Photography:

Photography has more genres, subgenres, and niches than anyone can summarize. The same goes for street photography. There are plenty of types of subgenres in this popular niche.

Some of the most popular ones are

  • Street portraits
  • Street Fashion
  • Architectural details
  • Street documentary
  • Candid
  • Abstract

For more information, I wrote this article on the different types of street photography.

So, what makes a ‘street photo’?

Well, what makes a street photo is a photo made in a public space, showing humans, though not always literally, and showcasing your vision of the current community you are in or aiming your lens at.

Disclaimer: In this article are some affiliate links. This means that, if you buy or book something, I get a small percentage of the fee. This comes with no extra cost to you but helps me run this website.

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