What is Street Photography?

Black and white street photograph
If you do some research to try to find out exactly how “Street Photography” is defined, you’ll find no clear consensus, only plenty of debate and contention. Ultimately, we’ll all form our own opinions, and in the end, it’s just a label of little importance to the artist actually creating the work, I would think. But I’ll make a small attempt to try to give a general definition for what it is (and isn’t), in my view.

Street Photography is Unposed

Hearts and Other Clichés

The idea behind “street photography”, in my opinion, is about candidly and spontaneously capturing some aspect of the man-made world and culture, and the people operating within it, within public spaces. A street photograph is unposed. The primary energy behind street photography is one of spontaneity and raw reality; this is a scene that unfolded in front of the photographer’s lens, or that the photographer stumbled upon. This, of course, doesn’t mean that it is uncomposed by the photographer. While a photograph doesn’t have to be well-composed in order to qualify as a street photograph, I enjoy looking at work that is.

So, it’s not landscape photography, which is photography of the natural world (though some elements of the man-made world may be present just as elements of the natural world may be present in street photography). Nor is it a carefully staged still life, whether constructed in a studio or in the middle of a street. Being unposed is, I think, a key ingredient.

To me, a posed portrait of random strangers on the street doesn’t really fulfill a key attribute of street photography, that of being unstaged. You’ll find a lot of contention on this point, so you’ll just have to make your own decision in the end about whether this type of thing is or isn’t street photography. (I’ll suggest that it doesn’t much matter either way, what matters ultimately is the work which kind of negates this article, I’m aware. Whether a work is street photography or not street photography doesn’t matter if it speaks to you; unless, of course, your intention is to argue with other people on internet forums which, if it is, I recommend that you use your energy creating your own personal photography instead.)

Street Photography Depicts the Man-Made World and Culture

Invasion - Black and white photograph

The other key ingredient that I mentioned is the man-made world. So, to me, an interesting urban detail found and photographed candidly falls within my definition of street photography. Street photography doesn’t necessarily have to contain people, though unlike landscape photography, the very nature of man-made objects always alludes to the presence of human beings (or alien invaders!).

Smile - Black and white photography by Paul Politis

Street Photography and Documentary Photography

Street Photography and Documentary Photography are very similar genres of photography. There will be a lot of overlap between the two. The main difference, ultimately, is that documentary photography has the primary intention of recording history, and events of some type of newsworthiness or significance beyond the mundane. While street photography can certainly also be documentary, it is not confined to documenting events that are newsworthy. Street photography can be simply about documenting a human gesture, or an embrace. One way I look at it is: documentary photography is concerned about depicting a specific newsworthy event (while still, at it’s best, illuminating a larger concept), while the best street photography is concerned with larger concepts revealed through any event or gesture or action, however mundane.

(Cartier-Bresson, arguably the most famous of street photographers, is often also discussed as a Documentary photographer. But, in his own words, he had no interest in documentary or journalistic photography, it was a by-product. Learn more about Cartier-Bresson here, he has a lot of wisdom to impart).

Just Labels

No Shepherd and One Herd - Black and white street photograph
Personally, I don’t understand some people’s need to tell other people whether their photography is or is not street photography when it falls into a grey area. Ultimately, labels don’t matter much, and street photography is a wonderfully rich and diverse genre that accommodates a great variety of very different styles of work. The work is either appealing and interesting to you or not. If it’s not, move on and find work that is. Or go make your own.

Colour or Black and White?

As you can see, street photography comes in many flavours in terms of content and execution. It also can be in colour or black and white. Historically, it had been in black and white simply because of necessity — it’s what photographers had access to and could develop and process themselves. In more recent history a lot of photographers used colour film (Saul Leiter, Fred Herzog, Joel Meyerowitz to name a few). And, of course, with the advent of digital photography, basically all photographs are captured in colour and now those who enjoy working in black and white convert their images! Personally, I have always preferred black and white photography, it was my first love and what first initially got me interested in photography, and it still has the ability to excite me in ways that colour photography doesn’t.


What are the ethics of street photography? Is it ethical to photograph people in a public space without their consent? This is an interesting topic to me and one that I intend to write more about. I believe that anyone engaging in this type of photography should give serious thought to the ethics of the practice and of their technique, and decide for themselves where they stand.

A few of my recent black and white street photographs

Citizen Silhouette (black and white street photograph)

You Are Here - black and white street photograph

Out of the Game  - Black and white photograph

Miles to Go - black and white street photograph

Black and white street photography

Nowhere Man #3 - Black and white street photograph

Check out my photographs in the galleries.

More black and white street photography can be found in the photoblog and in the following galleries:

Abstract Streets
You Are Here
Nowhere Man
The Human Street

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