The Problems with (Street) Photography

The Problems with (Street) Photography

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Problems with street photography cover


The following views do not necessarily represent the views of the whole StreetHunters team.

A Debate Between Street Photographers

I’ve been thinking for some time how best to discuss what I see as some of the problems that face photography and in particular street photography today. We’ve touched on this subject a little already in Alexander Merc’s guest blog post “The Battle of Street Photography”. For this post, I decided to try something different, by talking with another street photographer, and, rather than putting out a regular style long-form feature post, I’ve decided to transcribe the conversation we had to give you more of a feel for the debate. Photographer A is going to play the devil’s advocate, and Photographer B is going to argue against them. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…

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Is Photography Too Easy?

Photographer A: Photography is simply too easy. At the end of the day you’re just operating a machine and clicking a button. How can it stand up there with true art like painting? After all, it’s so easy to replicate!

Photographer B: Interesting point. Photography is easily art though. A good photographer can take stunning, spellbinding photos that are as meaningful and well composed as any painting. Look at the skill and talent required for beautiful composition. It’s not easy, and not everyone can do it.

Photographer A: Yes but that’s just my point, by the time you’re just clicking a shutter surely luck enters into it too? Photography is so accessible that anyone can catch a good photo if they’re in the right place at the right time. You can’t say the same for painting, or even music. They require a special kind of talent.

Photographer B: I’d argue that it requires as much talent to take a good photo. You need to have a good knowledge of your equipment, what settings to use, choose your focal length etc carefully, and be able to react to fast moving moments, as well as spotting them. This applies particularly to street photography!  Surely a painting is only as good as someone says it is anyway? There are some abstract, ‘simplistic’ works of modern art that some regard as genius and others say “well I could do THAT!”.

This leads on nicely to our next debate point:

Problems with street photography 1

Does the Gear do All the Work?

Photographer A: Ok, so with regards to your point about settings etc I will acknowledge that sometimes you do need to know your stuff. But equally now the technology is getting so good that this is becoming less and less important. Not only with increasing intelligent auto settings and focus, but also with camera technology itself. Smartphones are capable of delivering decent photos, especially when you start editing with apps and adding filters. So your camera enthusiast with their DSLR is bound to get some good shots now and then too! And sensor technology always improves too – it gets easier and easier to save a poorly exposed photo in Photoshop – doesn’t that denigrate the ‘craft’ further?

Photographer B: Send an experienced and skilled photographer and an inexperienced and unskilled photographer out together on the streets and see who makes the better photos… it will be the better photographer every time! Gear and equipment can’t save you every time, and in situations where you have to think and act fast that unskilled photographer isn’t going to come back with much. It takes real talent to spot a scene from a distance and compose. Not everyone can ‘see’ it.

Photographer A: Yes, maybe 20 of their photos are rubbish, but what if one turns out amazing through sheer blind luck? Doesn’t that terrify you? One moment of luck can trump years of craft. I can’t say the same for other art forms. What other pure art can be created from luck?

Photographer B: What about “one hit wonders” in music?. That’s surely an example of everything coming together just at the right time on one occasion to lead to a moment of success. Some might say the fact these acts can’t sustain their success is evidence that they too were “lucky” on that occasion?

That ‘moment’ of luck point leads us into another debate about the prevalence of images online now:

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Flood of Images – are we just oversaturated with street photographers?

Photographer A: I genuinely believe almost anyone can take a good photograph at least once – talented or not. So, with all those photographers and wannabe street photographers out there sharing their work isn’t there a risk we become oversaturated with street photography photos? How can a talented photographer stand out from the crowd? And surely the viral nature of the web means a mediocre photographer can get ‘famous’ or traction from one lucky shot?

Photographer B: Yeah sure, people can ‘get lucky’ but equally they can get found out as very average photographers quite quickly when looking through the rest of their work. And of course marketing and exposure can make some people more successful than others without merit, but that has always been the case in art. Explain someone like Justin Bieber! And as for being oversaturated with images, I agree with you to an extent, which is why we need curators sometimes. When you start editing submissions and only letting the very best images through, you end up with an extraordinary collection of work from all around the world – just look at the Flickr Group!

Photographer B: I’d also add that it takes guts to stick your head above the parapet and share your work. You open yourself up to criticism and trolling from armchair critics who like nothing more than to complain and find fault.

Related to our flood of images point – how does a street photo become important?

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What makes street photography important? Isn’t it just fleeting moments without significance? Snap! Snap! Snap!

Photographer A: Sometimes I feel like I’m just making photos for the sake of it. I’m snapping away aimlessly and without direction. So what makes street photography significant – isn’t it just snapshots of strangers most of the time? Do we ascribe too much importance to it and elevate it to levels above its station?

Photographer B: Average street photography can appear boring, but it’s still important for the photographer’s own personal development and from a social history perspective too – we’re documenting moments! Excellent street photography produces stunning works of art that speak to people, astound them, and leave them asking “how did the photographer do that?” or “that’s incredible!”. It’s reality, in all its rawness and truth. This is touching art that remains timeless and beautiful – surely that must warrant some importance?! Plus, what’s wrong with doing something creative just for the sake of it anyway? That creativity can bring joy to people and give your own life meaning.

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I hope you enjoyed the street photographer’s debate covered here. I’m going to leave the last word to Photographer B, who came up with this lovely succinct point:

“You have to be very charismatic and very patient to be a street photographer. You’re pursuing a worthy cause, capturing something that appears in front of you and turning it into something that gives you the chills, and makes you feel small in a complex, ever-changing world.”

Where do you stand in this great debate? Let us know in the comments below!


  1. Is it the gear that does the work? No. There is a creative element at work – the photographer. It is he/she who makes the creative decisions –
    Shutter speed to freeze movement; aperture to control depth of field; focus; composition; subject; relevance of forms and choice of format and lens. The rest, merely comprises a light tight box.

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