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Review: Understanding Street Photography By Bryan Peterson

Understanding Street Photography An Introduction to Shooting Compelling Images on the Street

Street photography can be a little difficult to pin down with a definition. Although you can top line the genre by saying it is anything shot in a street environment, this definition immediately becomes a bit fuzzy if models (ie humans) are involved, especially if you have brought them with you! Peterson opens his book with his definition, as set out below, and it provides a good basis. The borderline between ‘street photography’ and ‘documentary photography in the street’ eliminates bringing in your own model, and then there is the dilemma of whether to engage with the subject or to retain the purity of the candid approach and sneak a picture without being spotted. The general topic is much discussed when viewing documentary wedding photography for many of the best shots you might subsequently find have been quite posed and/or set up in various ways – that is why a shot which is very obviously spontaneous, such as a pageboy or bridesmaid pulling a face, is so valued. For what it is worth my own view leans towards more candid street photography which outlaws posing, hired-in models, reflectors, continuous light sources, assistants, and repeat scene walkthroughs, but I recognise all other definitions and their results!

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“What is street photography? I define it as photography done in the streets, avenues, lanes, and urban environments of cities of all sizes and shapes. It is observations of life on the street: people, abstracts, still lifes, motion-filled subjects, colour. Most street photography compositions include people, whether posed or candid, someone the photographer met or saw passing by, or figures that appear small and distant in the overall composition. Architecture is another common thread in street photography, featuring lines, patterns, and the dramatic play of light and shadow. Street photography can also be abstract: a crushed bottle cap lying in a crosswalk, or the car scrapes left behind on the concrete walls that line the narrow entrances of public parking garages. While people are certainly not a requirement in street photography, most compositions do convey the evidence of human interaction, such as a half-eaten sandwich sitting on a restaurant counter in low-angled sidelight against a backdrop of blurred yellow cabs seen through the restaurant’s window.”
Opening Page

The book is divided into six chapters:
Light And Shadow
Composition
People
Motion
Seeking The Abstract
Using Flash

‘People’ have their own chapter because they are of such importance to the genre – indeed the first chapter (Highlight and Shadow) has people in 17 out of 18 example shots and even the ‘people free’ image is presented as an example of why a human is needed in the scene! Likewise the section on composition is illustrated with people (of various sizes in the frame) in most of the shots, apart from five substitutions of animals – one cow, three dogs and one cat.

When it comes to camera technique Peterson is a big fan of the Sunny 16 Rule, familiar to readers who were brought up on film (and in many cases pre in-camera exposure metering). In essence it says that the correct exposure level for a sunny scene is f16 at 1/ISO shutter speed (ie an ISO of 125 requires a shutter speed of 1/125s). Peterson also makes extensive use small apertures – the technical data with each shot is populated with more f16s, 22s and 32s than I would use in a few years of shooting (I have an OCD aversion to diffraction!!).

Of all the chapters, the one on using motion provides the beginner with the greatest food for thought and, as such, a novice would be well advised to commit some of the techniques to memory (or even a list) before they venture out on their early skirmishes into street photography.

Overall then this is a book for the novice photographer but provides a good resource of ideas for shooting in your local or faraway streets. One thing that does not receive a mention is the need to both respect your subjects and to take care for your personal safety. Some people do not welcome being photographed; others can object violently. Think before you shoot.

Understanding Street Photography by Bryan Peterson. Paperback, 192 pages.
To be published 07/08/22. ISBN: 9781984860583. Dimensions: 267 x 216 mm.
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale

BUY NOW Understanding Street Photography: An Introduction to Shooting Compelling Images on the Street Paperback

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