Urban environments provide street photography many opportunities

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Urban environment and street photography.. Minneapolis skyline framed between two freeways to highlight a predominant feature of the urban environment.
Freeways are a predominant feature of the urban environment in major metropolitan cities. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Street photography breaks down the complex urban environment into easily digestible snapshots of information. Lack of confidence and complicated scenes intimidate some aspiring street photographers and produce boring images. Many prize finding compelling stories from people in public spaces but that overlooks the overall picture of the city. Exploring the urban environment and capturing compelling scenes also takes thoughtful practice and observation.

Individual styles and results differ but there are a few simple strategies to help newbies get started. Equipment choice, basic composition skills and location are a couple key strategic considerations.

Essential equipment and composition skills

Urban environment and street photography. Large empty parking look with one sole vehicle and building in the distance.
Bloomington, MN. The distant red car is highlighted by the frame created by the green trees. Parking space lines in the foreground lead the eye to the distant car. Negative space creates a frame and highlights the car’s isolation in an expansive lot. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

The type of lens used in street photography is a matter of personal style. According to William H. Whyte in City: Rediscovering the Center though, the best way to document the urban environment is to use a wide-angled lens and get as close as possible without interfering with subjects. Whyte studied pedestrian behavior and city dynamics in an influential work called the Street Life Project. He states in his methods that it is easy to go unnoticed with a telephoto lens but they “found that the perspective was unsatisfactory for most street interchanges.”

Using a wide-angled lens (up to 35mm) in a bustling environment adds challenge to street photography. It is more difficult to isolate subjects against busy backgrounds. Before hitting the shutter, think about how the background affects the primary subject. Sidewalks, buildings, benches and other objects can be used to create frames to highlight them. Thinking in frames improves the ability to leverage any muddled background into an advantage. In addition to frames, lines lead the viewer’s eye to where they should be looking and determine the mood of the image. Use these two techniques to create visual depth that enhances the composition.

These details provide viewers greater context that helps them to better understand the image’s message. However, the most important tool a photographer possesses is the power of personal observation. It takes more than compositional and technical know-how to create impactful street photography. It takes thoughtful exploration and study to find keen insights that lend to creating compelling scenes.

Use cliché tourist attractions to build confidence

Urban environment and street photography. Tourist poses for a forced perspective shot of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden's spoon and cherry.
Minneapolis, MN. The spoon and cherry statue at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is cliché but tourist attractions are areas new street photographers can use to build confidence. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Covering the urban environment differs from large events like protests and rallies held in public spaces. People who attend them expect many cameras and press around. Expectations shift when it comes to busy commercial districts and residential neighborhoods though. DSLR cameras naturally draws suspicion, especially while using longer lenses, and potentially could incite confrontation. Additionally, there are many cases of overzealous private security guards and paranoia around transportation infrastructure.

Everyone is within their rights to freely take pictures in public locations but the chance of being mistaken for a spy or creep is a deterrent. Before getting into the nitty gritty of the city, visit cliché tourist attractions to get in practice and build confidence. Aim to take all the shots of your city taken a million times over. Cameras are not out of place in these locations and it is easier to take shots freely.

Interesting street photography is not only about people

Urban environment and street photography. Accumulated over the winter, highway litter along a highway in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis, MN. Highway litter accumulated over the winter. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Popular focus of the urban landscape is on capturing interesting people but there are just as many stories in the urban environment itself. How well the city works for the people, who makes decisions and their values is reflected in its design and institutions. What works well and what does not is unique to individual cities because they are the sum of all of its residents. Keen photographers with good observation skills find compelling scenes that reveal the gritty inner-workings of the city. These skills are crucial to knowing what and how to document.

Urban exploration creates greater understanding of city

Urban environment and street photography. Mall of America north entrance on a cloudy day with a mostly empty parking lot in the foreground.
Bloomington, MN. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Interesting and cute stories are found in every neighborhood. In the suburbs, big box stores and shopping malls with expansive, under-used parking lots reflects the value placed on the automobile. However, these evolving cities no longer serve as bedroom communities for metropolitan cities and are changing as rapidly. Aim to research and explore new locations throughout the city to get a greater sense of how everything fits together. What are the themes of the overall changes?

Making good observations in unfamiliar places means traveling on foot and thoughtful purpose. Do not be afraid of a long walk, pay close attention to the environment and experiment with photographic process. Taking this time produces the most interesting results.

Conclusion

The urban environment provides aspiring street photography many opportunities to started. Shy beginners build confidence through practice in locations with plenty of cameras. Placement becomes more important as the landscape’s complexity increases, so remember to keep compositional “rules” in mind. Photographers who thoughtfully observe their surroundings and spend significant time in the field have an advantage over those will excellent technical skills though.

Documenting the urban environment presents many challenges. What are some of the ones that we missed? Share them in the comments below, or join the community to help us inspire everyone to engage in street photography!

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