Nov 012012

I often get emails from readers who are new to street photography and ask for an opinion on their work. While the level might vary from one to the other, I have noticed certain trends in the mistakes most commonly found in their pictures. I thought I would list them to help beginners forge themselves a first opinion on their work. This being said, if you are a seasoned street photographer, a routine check up can never hurt.

Note : all the lousy pictures below were taken in my first 6 months shooting street photography.

I) You are not close enough

Taking pictures of strangers can be quite intimidating, especially during the first outings. Therefore beginners tend to always stand a bit too far from action, or alternatively, shoot people from the back. While it doesn't automatically mean that the resulting pictures will bad, getting close to the action is usually a sure recipe for better pictures.

This scene had a lot of potential for a good street photograph. Yet the distance makes it difficult to understand what is going on. A seasoned street photographer would have probably rushed down to water level and gotten within a few meters.

II) Excessive use of blur 

After inevitably upgrading to a more "serious" street photography camera, beginners soon discover their great capability to blur backgrounds. Of course blur is nice, and I do use it a lot, but it does not dispense you from composing adequately and creating meaningful scenes. While they will produce outbursts of wouaaahs! and beautiful! with your friends and family (who can't do the same with their Iphones), blur must not be used systematically as a mask to hide your compositional deficiencies.

Yes, bokeh is great. Yet a bit less blur would have made it a much more interesting picture, by allowing a clear read on the action going on in the background.

III) People … walking

While repeatedly taking pictures of random strangers is a great way to overcome your fear, a person simply walking or sitting does not make a good street photograph by itself. I understand the feeling of pride involved in mastering one's fear, yet it will still result in a picture of someone just …. walking.

For sure, the girl is cute yet she is just sitting in a park. Unless you consider her scratching her nose of great documentary interest.

IV) Street artists / vendors

Again, the fear of shooting strangers tend to lead beginners to pick subjects that will not object to being photographed. It is therefore not rare to see pictures of street artists (or vendors) make up a big part of a beginner's portfolio. In some ways, it is a great way to help you improve your framing and timing, yet don't expect to impress anyone with that type of pictures.

This is definitely an interesting expression but you'll probably find dozens of pictures of the same street artist on social networks. You owe more to your creative capability.

V) Bent horizon lines

Ok, Winogrand did it, but he had a whole approach built around it and was a precursor. Unluckily, most of the pictures that have a bent horizon line are failures. Composing well a frame is already very challenging, so keep your 45° inclinations for next time you go skiing in the Alps. Your audience won't appreciate to get a neck ache each time it views your portfolio.

Disclaimer : I never meant to have a bent horizon line on this one … the position of the bag probably influenced it (or was it what is written on it ?)

VI) Over-processing

Digital has opened the way to easily post process our pictures and bolster our creativity. It doesn't mean you should push it over the limits. Too much contrast, too much saturation, selective colours, HDR or even … too much grain! don't usually fare well in street photography. Remember that it is remains a documentary discipline. Don't be afraid to be artsy, but don't Warholize your pictures either.

My first presets were so heavily post processed (vignette, sepia) that it hurts my eyes to look at these pictures again.

VII) Inclusion of ads / street art

Always ask yourself the question : am I taking the picture of someone's else picture ? Juxtapositions can be fun, but usually you are just using someone's else creativity to make your own pictures look better.

Great model, great fashion photographer (and great Arch …) but what's my achievement here ?

So, found a lot of these mistakes in your pictures? Don't worry, it is normal. Like any discipline, there is a learning curve in street photography. And it is much steeper than just going out with a camera and shooting strangers. Be resilient, learn from these mistakes, look at other photographers' work and you'll soon start to improve.

  36 Responses to “7 common beginners mistakes in street photography”

  1. Thank you! This article is very helpful =)

  2. Nice help for beginners. I would add one more, tendency to convert every photograph into b&w since it is a street shoot.
    Cheers !

    • All my photos are currently Black and White not because I convert my pics but because I shoot on B&W film.

    • That is not really a mistake … its probably a myth that converting to B&W will make all crappy compositions look great. Not all can shoot in color on streets and not everyone has a sense of compositing B&W. Both are different ways of telling the same story in my view.

    • As often say, isn't B&W the ultimate stage of color desaturation ?

      Joke apart, the History of street photography does indeed probably influence a lot of photographers into B&W. But after a while, I think that ultimately it is just a preference. I love to look at B&W pictures though I almost exclusively in colors. Some pictures are way better in B&W, others in colors. And obvioulsy, different themes series can be treated with one way or the other. Over the long term, each finds what best suits its vision.

      • In my own work, i find b&w helps me give greater emphasis on the geometry and forms in the picture, abstracting the scene, thus creating something different, that goes further into interpretation – particularly in street shots i often find that there is just too much color information in the surroundings that detracts from the core of what i want to show. I’m not so much interested in documenting as i am in finding alternative ways of seeing the world around me. But i agree, to each his own, and just because someone converts an ordinary street picture into black and white, doesn’t convert it into “art” automatically.

  3. Great article.  I have much to improve my photography.

  4. Thanks for having the honesty to include such crappy photos! They look like…well, all my photos really :)

  5. I am pretty new to photography and one of my biggest fears as you stated is shooting stangers. (with a camera! ;-))  I have only been out a few times and it is intimidating to walk up to someone and just take there picture.  The second or third time some guy even yelled at me.  Even after explaining it was with in my rights to he was still pissed and threatened to break my camera!  I guess it just takes doing it enough time to get over the fear.  Great article, I myself am a known "over processor."  I am workign on it though.

    • I think it is in general best to simply walk away than getting into an argument about your rights to photograph. I have been involved in quite a few and honestly, it soon turns into "My Dad is stronger than your" types of discussion. Now whenever someone yells at me, I just smile and walk away. It is just a waste of time to try to convince someone that started the interaction by yelling at you.

      • I find a nice way to overcome the fear of shooting strangers is going to festivals or other public events, where everyone is more relaxed, and, more open to being photographed, of having someone break into their comfort zone.

  6. Absolutely love your pictures, one of most inspiring peoples of these days, I’m just beginner, really useful stuff for me big thanks to you man!

  7. Great advice. I think shooting street musicians is a great way to start to get comfortable but like you said, it really shows you as a beginner if that's all you shoot. You'll need to step it up from there.

  8. Great article! I found it extremely insightful! Please write some more soon! 

  9. Thanks for the list. I do make all those mistakes and probably more… My fear to shooting strangers is still too big.

  10. Mistake No 8

    Stick to any rules given to you by an expert.

    Be creative, experiment, find your own style … see what works for you, cause street photography isnt a strict definition of a genre anyway, so a pic might disqualify as a street phootgraphy but be great as an environmental portrait :-)

    • And you are absolutely right on this one.

      This being said, this article was aimed at beginners looking for insights by others on their early work. I was not trying to fix rules, but providing an idea of what is generally considered as weaknesses in street photographs. Now if you can use these to make great street photographs, great !

  11. I agree with all of these but I think what you need to point out is that learning the basics of composition is the best thing to do when you're first starting out. Creating images that have a clear story and no distracting elements. Once a photographer has gotten those things down they can then go and "break the rules."
    It's like with musicians or painters they learn from the greats and practice their stuff and then they break the rules and creat something entirely different.

    • Absolutely right. And this was what I hinted behind a lot of these points : take care of compositions first then try breaking the rules afterwards.

  12. I think the number three is the key point but I as you say every beginner has to go through this step. I think it is a great way to improve ones technique and the knowledge of his gear. I've done this at the beginning perfectly knowing that my pictures were quite bad. Now that I try to get good shot I'm glad I got rid of that step and I can focus on the subject only. 

  13. sometimes difficult to estimate range obyek with camera when photo street…

  14. Good piece! Mistake #2!

    F8 and be there eh? And i often can’t resist the wonderment of ‘bokehlicious’!
    And i love your shots in wide aperture :)


  15.  Great one, thanks Yanick.
     I'm afraid I'll be stuck with most of those mistakes for quite some time but keep on trying…

  16. Hi Yanick,
    I recently discovered your site. Really enjoy your photos and your blog, as well for inspiration as for tips. These 7 common mistakes were a good read for me as I'm beginning to 'discover' the genre of streetphotography.
    Keep up the good work, you're in my bookmarks now :)
    Regards, Rik

  17. It's just a great article Yanick. I've read it twice and checked some of my photos for that mistakes. Thank you for sharing that sort of informative articles with us. Learning much from you.


  18. what a great article! some how I may share my street here to. wish you leave some comments that I can learn more. Everybody is welcome 

  19. Awesome. Thank you. My questions is this – Do you get releases signed from everyone that you take pictures of or do you bypass this process? It is wonderful to see you so candid about your beginnings. I laughed several times while reading. Oh and by the way – the Paris shot with the girl on the scooter is a totally cool pic. LOVE LOVE LOVE that shot. I would hang it on MY wall.

    • oops – maybe it is a guy – I prefer to think it is a girl – if it was a guy then it would have been better if it was a girl/ :)

    • Thanks Mike. I never get releases, it would be a total flow killer and take so much time convincing people. Add to that the problem of language in some countries and that makes it mission impossible. The scooter shot is for sure one of my best seller ;)

    • Mike, you only need a model release for commercial / advertising purposes.

      If you made a picture of a person, you can sell the pictures as “art.” But you can’t let Sony use the image in a magazine ad unless you have a model release.

  20. I would add “make a connection” to number one, I get close, but when shooting with an 85mm I can’t be too close for a full body shot. The important thing is to make eye contact and talk with the person, tell them why you want to shoot them. Compliment them… Most people will lower their guard quickly, and if they say “No” give them you card and let them know it was nice to meet them, they will take you seriously the next time.

    *** I just want to add to what I mentioned above also, use a prime lens, learn it, embrace it’s characteristics, zoom with your feet. Most of the serious guys out here in NY use 85mm’s, some use 50mm, and some even go to 35mm when it get crazy during fashion week. (it gets hard to get a clean shot when you have to be far away) But I think the best images are taken with a longer lens like the 85mm.

    I prefer a low angle also, or ATLEAST be at your subjects eyeline. The Sartorialist trademarked this and it works so well for him, because he is not very tall, but, if you are like me 6’4″, bend down, make it happen.

    Check my tumblr for refs-

    Also, my friend Adam (who sells his images to W Magazine), loves that angle crop situation… He says it adds movement. His site is:

    Rules are made to be broken, so you just have to find what works best for you.


  21. Why users still use to read news papers when iin this technologicl world everything is presented oon net?

  22. If you have been arrested for driving inebriated or medicine,
    it is pure to have plenty of fear about what is going on to
    happen to you.

  23. You’re one of the few street photographers that use colors. I don’t usually shoot in color, but I respect who does it. Colors makes everything more difficult and you master them really well.
    Useless to say, I totally agree with you about these “7 errors”.

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