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Get Intentional with Street Photography

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There’s little doubt that street photography is more popular, at least among photographers, than it has ever been. It’s certainly one of today’s most popular photo genres. Do a Google search on the term “street photography” and you’ll come up with over 8.7 million hits. Landscape photography gets 7.38 million. Travel gets 6.77 million. The good news for street photographers is that there are more excellent and inspiring street photos being produced than ever before. The bad news is that there are also more dull, uninspiring street photos being produced.

Couple walking

Take the above photo for example. (I shot it myself, by the way.) There’s nothing technically wrong with it: It’s properly exposed and focused. The problem is, it’s basically just a photo of a few random persons walking on a random street. There’s nothing particularly interesting about them, their clothing, the location, the lighting, or what they’re doing. In short, there’s little reason for even someone who’s really into street photography to give this photo a second look.

Gordon Lewis Dog

Contrast that photo with this one, which won first prize in Popular Photography magazine’s 9th annual international picture contest. There’s obvious humor in seeing an English terrier seated in the back seat of a 1957 Dual-Ghia convertible that has zebra-skin upholstery while the driver fills the tank with gas. Granted, there was an element of luck in my being in the right place at the right time, but I improved my odds of success by intentionally shooting in a neighborhood of Los Angeles (the Melrose District) where counter-culture scenes like this are frequent. I also intentionally framed it in a way that, if I may say so myself, cropped out extraneous details and focused the viewer’s eye on the key elements.

If an uncomfortable number of your street photos fall into the aforementioned “dull and random” category, then it may be time for you to be more intentional in your approach.

Start with what most interests you. I’m currently into compositions that feature strong graphic and geometric elements, combined with a tightly controlled color palette. You might be into high-contrast B&W; or people making enigmatic gestures or expressions; or photos that illustrate street life in economically depressed neighborhoods. If it’s something you care passionately about, you’re more likely to look beyond the surface of things and reveal the mysteries and miracles you discover.

Not yet sure what you’re passionate about? A great way to add intent to your images is to assign yourself a “theme-for-the-day.” Here are just a few examples off the top of my head:

  • Compositions that feature one dominant color (red, orange, blue, whatever)
  • Backlit silhouettes
  • Hand gestures
  • Cigarette smokers
  • Rainy day
  • People entering or leaving

You have a head too, so I’m sure you can think of more. The most important requirements are focus and intention. When you set your mind to both, you may be surprised at how much and how quickly your “luck” will change and your images will improve.

by Gordon Lewis, author of Street Photography 

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