10 Rules for a Good Street Photograph

Carefully checking how much money is left in her purse, this old woman leans on her shopping trolley, either from tiredness or to relieve pain. Note how the darker background draws the eye to her.

10 Rules for a Good Street Photograph

Kit Sadgrove

There are countless examples of street photographs - on websites, on Flickr, and in books and magazines.

But how do you know whether they’re good or bad? And how do you assess your own pictures?

Critics applaud some photos, and dismiss others. But are they right?  And on what grounds do they judge them?  All too often opinions seem to be subjective.

Here then are the ten criteria for a good street photograph.

Whne you've read the article, see how well your pictures conform to the ten rules.


1. There are people in the picture

Look at a book on street photography, and you’ll find images that feature pigeons or buildings, but not people.

These photos are sometimes labelled 'still life street photography'. Others say that's a contradiction.

Those photos may be excellent in their own right. But they aren’t 'street photography'.

2. You can see the person's face

You’ll also find street photos that show the backs of people, or only their legs.

It takes less courage to take such photos. And so they lack the hallmark of the true street photographer’s work: a close-up of someone's face.

Taking these photos hasn't required the photographer to stand in front of the subject.

3. You can see their eyes

People's eyes are revealing. They tell us a lot about the individual. And if we can't see someone's eyes, it feels unsatisfactory. We feel cheated.

So any shot in which the subject is looking down, looking away, or wearing sun glasses, so you can't see their eyes - that's an imperfect picture.

4. The subjects are normal people, not performers

Wherever you see street performers, such as jugglers, street musicians, or even soldiers on ceremonial guard duty, you will see people taking photos of them.

There are reasons for this. The performers are tied to their spot, and have to entertain the crowd. And the photographer is just one face in the crowd. So it takes little effort to take such photos.

5. The picture is interesting

The ideal photo captures a facet of someone's personality. It isn't enough to get a sharp and well exposed photo. It has to be interesting, too.

A good street photographer has a sense of humour, and captures the whimsical life of the street.

It could be the juxtaposition of contrasting people, or an emotional scene. There may be a visual pun, relating maybe to a notice in a shop window or the patterns in someone's clothing. Or perhaps it’s a surreal combination of things that aren't supposed to go together.

6. The photo tells a story

The image should convey a message or make us wonder what was going on. If the photo contains a narrative, it becomes more interesting.

That’s why your photos should show action taking place. It gives us a slice of life. It makes us contemplate what happened next.

It could be two people having an argument. It could be a homeless person seeking alms. Whatever the subject, it should tell a story.

7. It focuses the viewer's attention

When you look at a street photo, you should know instinctively what you’re supposed to look at. If there are many people in the image, it will probably lack clarity.

As we’ve seen, a picture should tell a story. And that means it needs a hero. Someone needs to stand out in the photo.

8. The image is sharp and in focus

Sharpness isn't so critical for street photography as it is for wildlife, nature or portrait photographs. By the nature of the event, you're capturing a fleeting moment.

And many street pictures these days are shot on an iPhone or smart phone. So they don't enlarge very well.

Nevertheless, to pass muster, your pictures should be reasonably sharp. Anything less is amateurish. A photo that has camera shake or is out of focus is unacceptable.

9. The photo is well composed

A well composed photo has a central theme, and no unnecessary clutter. Any people in the image should contribute towards the photo: they should have a role to play.

The centre of attention should lie on one of the thirds.

There may also be an element of framing, such as a tree that leads the eye towards the protagonist. This is no mean feat for snatched photographs that aren’t posed. Yet street photographers regularly manage to achieve this. It's partly due to having a 'seeing eye', partly a question of taking enough pictures, and partly the result of judicious cropping.

10. It doesn't have an intrusive or distracting background

Professional photographers pay as much attention to the background as to the subject, and amateurs don't.

That's why amateurs have telegraph poles sticking out of people's heads.

In summary, good shots require bravery and skill

A good street photographer has an eye for a photograph, a steady hand, and a willingness to put themselves at risk. They face people and take their picture, whether surreptitiously or not.

How well do your shots match up to the 10 rules?


Taken from ‘Street Photography: The Complete Guide’, by Kit Sadgrove. Available from bookshops and Amazon. http://streetphotographyguide.com/

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 3
By Maui123 (2 months ago)

When doing street photography do you try and hide your camera or use a long lens or are you just out there shooting away?

By Arkcure (11 months ago)

#2 & #3 & #8

I'd buy Vivian Maier's book if I wanted to learn about street photography

By delastro (Sep 11, 2012)

make 2 and 3 in germany and you will get a lot problems because people have personal rights in this country.

1 upvote
Total comments: 3