“Snapshots” In Street Photography

*Michael’s note: This is a topic that I feel I need to get off my chest. The things I talk about in this article are not meant to insult any photographers or readers out there who have a “style” of photography that I mention below. I hope this article speaks to you in some way whether you agree with my thoughts or not, and I would be more than willing to discuss more about this topic with any of you if you wish to. I am not claiming to be the “master of photography” I’m just a young man with a camera, who has a passion for street photography.

I was walking down the streets of Downtown L.A. last Tuesday trying to take some street photographs. I was there from around 9am and didn’t leave till 7pm, and in all that time, I didn’t find a single shot to take home!

What went wrong?

Nothing…nothing was wrong…it’s just that I didn’t see anything or felt emotionally compelled to photograph something that day.

I did run across a few situations where I could have tried to make an image, but I didn’t find any other interesting “elements” that would have made up the image as a whole.

I’m a firm believer of the phrase “It’s just as important to NOT take the shot, as it is to take the shot” and that’s something that I feel is a big problem with many street photographers out there today.

An example of “plain street photography” that I personally want to avoid in my photography

Whenever I go online and look on sites like: Facebook, Google+, Flickr, 500px, and even Instagram, I see a lot of photos of things that have a lot of “nothing” to them. And by “nothing” I mean there is simply nothing interesting or emotionally gripping in the image, or in much plainer terms, is a “snapshot“. I don’t want to see people just walking on a sidewalk, there needs to be something more.

Copyright: Michael Ares

Copyright: Michael Ares

Just like in my sample photo above, I don’t want to promote pictures like this of people with their heads down and texting. While the girl is wearing a hood over her head, and wearing sunglasses holding a drink, the image still falls a little bit flat. I want something more to my photographs that will make people think to themselves, “Wow!” Yet I see more and more photographs like this being displayed and praised online by multiple comments, favorites, and likes on the image. I don’t want my fellow street photographers to be deceived into thinking they are such great street photographers just because a friend of theirs said “nice photo” on their ordinary image that they posted on Facebook or Flickr. There needs to be a reality check in the world of street photography.

Photographer John Free said it beautifully, “You have to make it difficult! Anything easily made is not worth anything!”

Look deep inside yourself. Do you honestly believe that photos like these, that could be captured by anybody no matter what the skill level, are deserving of any comments like “nice” or “brilliant photo” or “you captured the moment so beautifully”?

Am I trying to offend anyone out there who takes photos like these? Absolutely not! 

Am I trying to make haters or enemies because of this post? That is not my intention at all! 

I’m merely trying to express my view that street photos should be more than “nothing” and have some things in the photograph that make it “worth something”. They should be a challenge getting, and undeniably well-deserved. There must be evidence of thought being put into the image, and more importantly, an image must not be “misunderstood“. And by misunderstood I mean what exactly are you trying to portray in your image to the viewer? When people see your photograph what are they gonna see? But more importantly what are they going to feel? Will people see and understand the message that you are trying to send as a photographer? Or will they just wonder “Oh, it’s just a man sitting down on a bench.” or “Oh, it’s just a lady holding a shopping bag as she’s walking.” when you as a photographer think that it’s quite possibly the best photo you have ever taken in your life.

Strive to make the viewer NOT say “Oh, it’s just a…..(insert ordinary thing here)…..”

A girl texting, nothing else is happening here.

In the sample photo above, what do you think the photographer is trying to convey to you? Is there something deeper to find in the photograph or is it just something ordinary? Does it personally hit you emotionally in some way? Do you feel this photo is a “great shot” or a “snapshot”?

I believe that people who post photos like these are more than capable of bringing out that creative side that they didn’t know they had in themselves to take their street photography further then what they are doing now.

Copyright: Larry Hallegua

Copyright: Larry Hallegua

Above is a sample photo of people texting that I believe actually works. You can tell that Larry Hallegua put “thought” into this image, resulting in a clever photograph that stands out as not an average photo.

Study photographers like: Henri Cartier-BressonElliot Erwitt, Alex Webb, Constantine Manos, Trent Parke, as well as non-Magnum photographers like: Garry Winogrand, Vivian MaierJoel Meyerowitz and many others. There are a lot of great photographers out there that bring their own unique style to the genre.

Stare at their work. What makes their photos good? Then what makes it great? Then what makes it beautiful? Then what makes it a classic?

Look deep inside yourself, are you wanting to take your photography a lot deeper? Do you want your photos to have more meaning and depth to them? Is your weakness “getting close”? Then practice getting close, but if you like stepping back, then study the surrounding areas of the subject to add strength to your photo. Whatever way you like to photograph just challenge yourself to look for things that are not your everyday “Instagram” looking shots. Put the thought, the heart, and more importantly the technique to your images and I am so positive that your images will begin to start looking a lot better, and you just might stand out from the others on those photo sharing sites online.

Copyright: Elliot Erwitt

Copyright: Elliot Erwitt

Also learn how to edit your photos. I’m not talking about “post-processing” I’m talking about knowing deep in your heart and in your gut, what is a good photo, what’s a great photo, and what photo is utter crap! Train your eye to pick out the details of your photo. Is there only one element that makes your photo? Would it have worked better if there were 2 or 3 more elements to make your photo stronger? Don’t be satisfied with “nice photo” or “great shot” comments you receive from your friends and family or those on Flickr. Sit down with photographers that you respect and look up to and get those really raw critiques on how you can better your photos in the future. You need to sit down with people who will tell you like it is with no holding back and not get offended (which is the most challenging part when hearing critiques).

If you challenge and train yourself to get “more” in your photography,  you will definitely succeed in getting it.

What are your thoughts on this topic? I’d like to hear what you have to say below.

Thanks for reading,

– Michael Ares.

29 responses to ““Snapshots” In Street Photography

  1. Great article Michael and thanks for putting your head above the parapet and speaking out! I couldn’t agree more. Everyone seems to think if they take a photograph in the street then they’re a street photographer, but in reality as you say most are nothing more than snapshots that don’t say anything or communicate any message. Their only defence I suppose is that in a 100 years time they will provide a visual documentary of life on the streets today, maybe. To my mind even worse is the ‘Bruce Gilden’ style of street photography just catching close up ‘portraits’ of startled people when a photographer jumps out at them and sets off a flash in their face!

  2. I agree that you see a lot of not interesting photos of the streets. You see it in every kind of photography, also landscape, macro, architecture, you name it. It’s part of life. Lot’s of people doing their best and wanting to show their results.
    Everybody should be free to post their photos, why not? I can see that you do your best to post interesting shots. I myself do the same. But let others do their own thing and ignore the shots you don’t like.Other people like them probably or like the effort they did.
    There are a lot of people out there trying to define what good street photography is. It is very subjective, don’t you think? What you find “nothing” means “something” for the photographer and his friends. I think it is better that everyone defines it for themselves. Find your own style and have fun on the streets.
    I like your style of photography by the way, but it feels a bit arrogant that you think there needs to be a reality check in the world of street photography. I think there is a lot of interesting stuff to be seen.

    Kind regards,

    • Thanks Fokko for your thoughts! Yes “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. I think we all hold our own standards as to what’s a good photo or not. This is just my thought, I want a “higher standard” for myself, as I have said in my previous articles, “there is no such thing as the perfect photo” so I’m always out on the streets looking for it (even though I know I’ll never find it) And of course anyone can shoot the way they want to.

      Thanks again Fokko and keep shooting! I enjoy your work too!

  3. Fantastic article, and I couldn’t agree more. Its like you wrote what i have been thinking for some time. I still consider myself and amateur but often get frustrated at the volume of snap shots that seem to get so much exposure and kudos on the interwebs. I still have much to learn but I do try and only capture something of interest for the viewer, something that either tells a story or has an emotional attachment of some kind. One method I find helps is captioning or titling your image – if you can’t summarize what the story is, chances are there is one there to be seen/told. Feel free to check out my (quite broad ranging as i try and find ‘my’ style) flickr: http://flic.kr/ps/qqFPN It would be interesting to here your thoughts…

  4. I very much appreciate your article…I appreciate that it was not intended to be a rant about something that drives you crazy and I appreciate that it was not simply a chance for you to vent. I am not offended by it, I completely take it as something for me to think about in my effort to become a better photographer.
    After reading what you had to say, I think I fall into that category. I do not claim to be a professional “street photographer” or even a talented or skilled street photographer…I’m just a girl with a camera and a passion for photography who would rather do that than anything else. Clearly, I am a beginner. It took me a while to even feel comfortable enough to move from always shooting in automatic to manual. Yay me, right…
    After thinking of what you had to say and thinking about my photos… I think I have not been trying to capture the totality in one shot. I am challenged to try to do that more though. I think what I have been trying to do is put together many photos that give more of a feeling of being there, The result is many albums with many photos…but maybe not a “brilliant” photo. My understanding of Google+ is that it is a place where I can post a photo, even if it isn’t brilliant or professional. And I feel that there is something to be said about being able to post a photo at whatever skill level I am at and read an encouraging comment like “nice photo” etc. I already know that I am not at the skill level of where I want to be…but it is a process to get there and I think encouragement is valuable and even necessary. With that said…I want to tell you that I appreciate the direction you gave in your article and I will study the masters of photography (thank you for listing some, by the way :) ). I would like you to explain this statement you made…I am unclear on it. “I did run across a few situations where I could have tried to make an image, but I didn’t find any other interesting “elements” that would have made up the image as a whole.” Please help me to understand what you mean… Thank you for your article and for pushing me forward in my morphing into a photographer. If you would care to find my photos in Google+, I welcome your feedback. https://plus.google.com/u/0/114908960978394831843/posts

  5. I find that almost anyone with a cell phone these days thinks they are a photographer. There are people out there making money that know no more than to push a button with the camera set to auto and have no concept of what composition, light, aperture, or shutter speed is, yet they are told how great they are on any social media they post on. I agree that art is subjective, but come on, the majority of this stuff is crap. The photography pool is getting so polluted that it is hard sometimes to tell what is real and what is just more of the same ole crap. I am not a hater and I am all for people learning but the fact that you are only allowed to tell people that their stuff great and if you say it needs improvement 40 people will jump on you and tell you to shut up and mind your own business. How can a person grow in their art if they don’t know when they are creating bad art. You can not improve on something if you don’t know it needs improvement.

  6. I agree with you that the image needs to convey some emotion or I tend to scroll right past it. An awesome street photographer I have been following is J.J. Bentley on Google+. You should look at his work. It really gets me each time I see his images.

  7. All any photograph is is a snapshot…

    In 150 years people might look at these photos of people texting in wonder at this old technology that we used back then, and going by the amount of photo’s of it then this texting thing must have been very popular. Also in that same 150 years time some of these photographers MIGHT be compared to the greats you mentioned. You never know. And the same will be said about some of the instagram photographers, I mean it’s being said about them, about all kinds of mobile photography now.
    Quite frankly I see some really nice street type work with these mobile devices now so it will be interesting to see what they do in another two to three years with it when the tech really gets going.

  8. Excellent post that puts greatly in words a lot of my thoughts. I understand the point of who says that photography is free expression, that is nice so many people are getting closer to the genre, etc. However. it is true that everyone should get out of the medium what they want. I personally see photography as an artistic form of expression and as such I find myself having to filter through a sea of ‘snapshot of walking people’ before I find a photograph that hits my eyes (and talks to my heart). So, and again, this is my opinion, who takes snapshots for documenting her/his personal life though snapshots and uploads them to Flickr/Facebook is absolutely free to do so – there are so many approaches to the genre and they are all right. But the issue comes out when these photographs are labelled as “art” while arguably this is not the case.

  9. Approaches may be really different: search/found/shot/edit/create/portfolio/project or project/iterate(search/shot/edit/found/miniprotfolio). From concept to street for found images that are previous in our mind or from the ground to drink reality and eat dust and growing our perception, with some moments for shot? Both approaches may be valid. But avoid cliches, found your own way to street photography. Sometime it\’s like bee bob, like jazz, sometime is like a blues, where you are looking for a riff, for the good timing, following the beat (pulse of reality is our beat). Maybe that a wonderful day I\’ll be ready to shot good street photography, may be…

  10. It’s such a changing time in photography, especially street photography. I often wonder what would be like if Vivian Maier were alive to have an Instagram account. Would we be as excited by the volume and quality of her work? Personally, I don’t put much stake in how much validation one gets on social media. It’s changing how we communicate but your work has to compete with teenage girls posing in the mirror, and close-ups of dessert. I agree, you have to keep pushing yourself as an artist and follow the critiques of your peers/mentors. Combine that with a certain level of irreverence. Perhaps a series of prints of people texting while crossing the street could be a compelling show.

  11. For the record in response to Michael’s invitation for feedback, I wrote a very strongly worded response in disaggreement directly to him, for which I never heard back. There is an enormous irony in Michael’s expression of virtue for *not* making photos and his reference to Meier and Winograd as great masters. Winograd especially. So while I value Michael’s effort for the exercise and practice it was for him, as a critique, I see it as a good literary equivalent to those “snapshots” he describes as having “nothing” to them. Still, I’m not as offended by people who practice and desire to learn, so I would say to Michael just as I would say to every other person engaged in the process of discovery (whether with camera or words): Keep practicing and do your best to learn as much as you can at every opportunity.

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  14. Completely agree. Street photography for me is a form of training myself to take good photos in an environment over which I have no control. I have a long way to go, unfortunately, however I also try to avoid snapshots. Having said that, I quite like the picture of the texting girl, I think it’s well composed and the lines on her clothes create a compelling contrast against her surroundings. You could call it “effective chat up lines”?

  15. I like your post. Well written, witty, and arguably demonstrated with cool examples :) I perfectly agree, I am not sure you’re going to get the controversy you;re looking for, and yet, I see those meaningless photos so often that I can only say: Yes!

  16. Great insightful thoughtful article. I think we need to bear in mind that “street photography” is a fad right now. I don’t mean SP is a fad really, just that so many people THINK they know what SP is and THINK they are “street togs” I think it will pass and only the “real” ones will be left, just as it has always been since cameras were invented.For me there has to be a kind of compassion with others and a care, engagement with the people being photographed (I don’t mean asking permission or speaking with them necessarily, I mean being fully present and acting with HEART if you know what I mean) It’s not about capturing or hunting or our own ego as the photographer. It’s about the genuine sharing with other human beings, and expressing something of what life is like now for the so-called “ordinary people” of our times. I think with this engagement and with a genuine desire to share and not “take” or “capture” (the language is tricky I know haha), then we will find at least sometimes photos that have emotion,depth, a humanity that is as you say Michael so missing from most that goes by the name of Street Photography. Thank you for this article.

  17. Yep, agree with all of this. There is a crisis in street photography that has arisen out of the cheap dslr/social media combo and that crisis is one of quality. Anyone can take anything and post anything and get plaudits from friends….and they do….a week later they’re offering a workshop.

    They’re are also some great amateur talents that have been given a window out of that combo over the last 5 years or so. It’s important to remember that also.

    Thanks Michael.

    • I agree. If you are good at social media and marketing SP an be a nice earner No need to be any good at making SP

  18. Photography is an art form and, as with any other art form, the moment you create it and it’s “out there” it is open for interpretations. You may not like it, you may like it just because you do and you may like and make something out of it completely different from its’ creator intentions.
    While I agree with some things John Free says, I disagree A LOT with a lot of other things! You don’t have to make it difficult nor you don’t have to make it easy – you just have to make it. What matters is the outcome, it doesn’t matter if you shot film or digital, if you thoroughly thought about the composition with the camera at eye-level or if you shot from the hip because, when the final work is presented, none of those considerations matter.
    Nowadays people tend to diss a lot the amount of shooting allowed by the digital cameras (this is not aimed at you Michael, ’cause I know you shoot digital, but in general) and they seem to forget that, for instance, Winogrand used to shoot around 100 photos a day (and none in his right mind will say all of them were good and well thought), that Daido Moryiama used to shoot an awful lot even when he was using film and that even someone like Robert Frank used for “The Americans” around 0,8% of the photos he took for that project (and, hey, some of them were even cropped!).
    As for social media, just forget it. It’s obviously great to receive a pat in the back and hear (or read) “well done!” but that just amounts to nothing, really. At the end of the day you don’t really know who’s on the other side and you are getting too stressed out about how you are seen or understood. There is way too much low quality work around, not just street-photography wise and not even just photography wise, but there really ain’t anything you can do about it. You just have to follow your way and find your vision – that matters more than anything else.

    • I agree with what you say about not having to make it hard. Or easy. It just is what it is really. I think sometimes there is too much focus on “it has to be hard”. Something to do with having to achieve or have a goal or whatever. Street photography doesn’t really respond to “goals”. It’s too unpredictable for that. Anyway, often goals can be like blinkers: they stop you seeing what else is there

  19. John Free, really? Some people seem to like dropping the names of HCB, Frank, Winogrand, Maier, etc. in order to put some weight into their work. For someone who preaches to study the masters must know a heck of a lot about the masters. But did you yourself studied them? I’m not really sure about that.

    If a photo doesn’t connect to anybody, instead of calling it a “snapshot”, why don’t you call them “failures”. Street photography is 99% failure isn’t it? If a photo works, how would you know if it’s a snapshot? What is your criteria for a snapshot? What works for me may not work for you. In the end, if a photo works then it works. So why make it difficult?

    And I agree with Nick and Steven.

  20. Hi Michael,

    To be honest, I’m an instagram slave and I post for “likes” rather than art. I have fallen into the misunderstanding that the number of “likes” I get or the number of mundane comments I read are accurate indicators that I captured an amazing shot. However, after reading this, boy was I wrong. I had to go through my gallery to see what you meant by flat, ordinary, uninteresting photos and so that there’s really a lot of “nothing” in my frames, which now beckons me to put up higher standards for myself when I take photograph. I found this article very helpful in my desire to learn more about the genre of Street Photography.

    Thank you for sharing. I would love to hear more of these in future. :)


    • I have a Flickr contact and within ten minutes of him posting a photo, he can have a hundred or more people click favourite. I don’t say his work is no good..some of it is brilliant but then I see many other people who have just as good or better images..but with no likes….it confuses me a lot. Some people must have a lot of friends!

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