Tristan Parker Photography


The Rules of Photography Applied to the Street


As street photographers I think we all like to think that we are working in a medium that many of us would consider art. It may be that some people are doing it for different reasons. They could be only interested in documenting the area that they live in. It could be a social thing that they do with a group. It could be that they are a hipster and just like the look of carrying an old camera with them, and they feel that every now and then they should use the bloody thing... Who knows....But by in large, I think that a majority of the people out there are driven to document their world around them from an artistic perspective. They reference the great Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand, Erwitt, and Maier. These greats of the genre would likely not have considered themselves artists at the time that they were working, but they have grown to become considered greats in the art of photography.

So what are these 'rules'I am going on about?

I will just run through a few of the areas they relate to:

  1. The rule of thirds
  2. Leading lines
  3. Symmetry and Pattern
  4. Depth
  5. Backgrounds
  6. Exposure
  7. Use of diagonals
  8. Focus

An example that takes in a few of the above rules. The subject is captured very close to the right third of the frame, and the diagonal line created by the wall meeting the ground creates a strong lead into the subject, and there is symmetry and pattern in the squares in the tiles.

I wont run through a detailed explanation in relation to these, thats not what this post is about, this post is about asking a simple question.

Are these long standing rules of photography there to be followed or broken by the ever expanding street photography community?

There was an interesting statistic mentioned by someone recently that I have mentioned in a previous post. I think that it went something along the lines of 90% of all the photographs taken ever, were taken last year. Given this fact, how do we make the genre of street photography stand out from the run of the mill Instagram photos that people are posting at the drop of a hat?

Do we break the rules?

Do we abide by them religiously?

Or is there a happy medium?

Have the rules changed in the digital age?

Or is it just that the rules are words written down in the history books of photography and the fact is quite simple, either you connect with an image or you dont... It couldnt be that simple, could it?

I come from a traditional background in photography. I started shooting with my Dad (there is a post coming on him very soon by the way) in the 90's and at that stage it was just for fun. Shits and giggles as we say in Australia. But its a past time that I fell for in High School.

I went to a Melbourne school where we were very lucky to have a fantastic photography department lead by Philip Cannizzo. Philip is a successful artist in his own right, but took time out as a teacher to pass on his vast knowledge of the arts to any of his students that were smart enough to take advantage of it.

I was one of these students. I spent 3 years of my teens spending every minute that I could in the darkroom of the studio. I shot everything from street work at the time, to fine art studio nudes for my final year project. I loved every minute of it.

What I took for granted at the time was the knowledge that I was soaking in when it comes to composition, light and shade, lighting techniques, film manipulation, and darkroom printing. I can honestly say that I would not have been able to pick up a camera again 6 months ago after not shooting seriously for close to 10 years, and go through a steep learning curve to get to where I am at the moment without this knowledge.

So, where am I am at the moment. Still learning... Still developing... I think that as a photographer you should have an expectation that this will always be the case. If it isnt then you will become stagnant and bored and lose interest very quickly.

It was the knowledge of the greats that I was drowned in through final year theory that gave me the understanding of the jigsaw puzzle pieces that come together to form a great photograph. I strongly believe that these rules, when used in your workflow will make your work better. Dont get me wrong. Bend them and manipulate them sometimes, but at the end of the day you will struggle to find a photograph that moves you in some way that doesnt abide to at least some of the rules.

Therefore, Street Photography needs to follow the same rules in the main. The same things goes for breaking some of them. There are instances where this works very well in order to help tell your story. But when you do start working outside the rules, you had better make sure that you are working with an exceptional photograph.

The other area of your workflow that will benefit in a massive way from developing an understanding of photography history and theory, is editing down your work. If you can apply your developed understanding of the puzzle that makes up a good image, then this will impact your ability to objectively edit your work. It will allow you a consistent eye with which to view your own work, as well as the work of others.

So study, learn, and develop in the art of photography. Buy photography books. Take in a lot of information. Decide what you like to look at in the work of others. Learn from the greats of the past, and even the greats of today. Steal everything that you learn and make it your own. Its not cheating. Its development.