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By Jim Heid | Monday, October 31, 2011

Scene on the Street: Focus on street photography

Street photography captures people at their most unguarded. There’s no posing, no preparation, and no encouragement involving the word “cheese.” Just point and shoot—often without even breaking stride.

Street photography is an honorable photographic genre that counts among its practitioners such legends as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Pedro Meyer. It’s a genre I’ve experimented with when traveling precisely because of its candid quality: If part of what makes a place is its people, then capturing unposed photos of those people is a critical part of documenting the essence of a place.

In Le Marais, Paris. Photo: Jim Heid

But street photography is also potentially controversial, and we’ve noticed a lot of blog and Twitter chatter about it lately. Part of the controversy deals with privacy: does a photographer have a legal right to photograph someone without his or her permission? The general guideline, at least in the United States, is yes, provided that the subject is in a public place where there isn’t an expectation of privacy, such as a sidewalk, a park, or a street.

Another part of the controversy deals with what I’ll charitably call bad manners. Some street photographers employ a paparazzi shooting style that involves putting their cameras uncomfortably close to a stranger’s face—sometimes even hiding around corners or behind phone booths before doing so.

Besides being rude, this style of street photography destroys exactly what the genre does best: capturing people at a moment when being photographed is the last thing on their minds. Look at some paparazzi-style street shots, and you’ll see photos of people who are startled, annoyed, or hamming it up for the camera. In all three cases, the candid, unguarded moment is lost.

The blog SnapSort recently published a post showing examples of how and how not to do street shooting. The lynda.com Creative Inspirations documentary about Richard Koci Hernandez also discusses the subject. Here’s an excerpt.

Since we shot that documentary, Koci has embraced Apple’s iPhone as a tool for street photography. A couple of weeks ago, he led photo walks through San Francisco and discussed iPhone photography at the 1197 conference in San Francisco. As one of the sponsors of the event, lynda.com was there shooting video for an iPhone photography course.

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