Bruce Gilden Explains What Makes a Great Street Photograph

Screenshot taken from the video

Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden himself spent decades perfecting his signature style of filling the frame with candid close-up portraits, making him one of the revered – and often imitated – street photographers in that arena. With street photography being one of the most popular categories today, it’s one of those genres many photographers take a stab at, albeit mostly blindly. To make things extra challenging, there are really no hard and fast rules you can follow to guarantee a compelling street snap; all those guides and photo books can give you is something you can start with. What you can do, however, is diligently and persistently practice until you get your own style, voice, and storytelling technique.

In a collaboration with VICE for a photo-critique series called “Take It or Leave It with Bruce Gilden”, the Bruce Gilden gives his two cents on what makes street photographs great in the episode below.

Here are a few key takeaways:

Make more decisive photos and well-realized concepts

Using an out of focus photo as an example, Gilden points out the weakness of such shots. “…As a photograph it doesn’t have much credibility for me because it looks like an accident.” Now, while he has no beef with “accidents that go along with something that isn’t an accident,” what he dislikes are the ones that spoil the pictures. How can you remedy this? Make your shots more deliberate and your concepts well-thought out.

Know your photography history

Moving on to a shot akin to a William Klein photo, Gilden cautions aspiring street photographers to know their street photography history. One way to see this is being more aware of the style or work they’re trying to emulate, especially since “if you’re going to do something that’s evocative of a famous photograph in 20th century documentary photography, you’d have to do better.”

Make up stories with your photographs

“When you look at the image, the viewer wants to make up a story,” Gilden begins after picking up a black and white photo of a couple on the beach, with a sunbather in the background. He proceeds to make up a story as he goes, and it’s totally not what you’d expect. His take on this? Create or capture a scene that makes people want to make up their own stories by just looking at your photograph.

Create a flow that naturally leads your viewer’s eyes around your photo

When you have several subjects in your photo, the trick is to line them up in what he calls an “organic” way to lead the eyes. Now, this is not easy, admittedly even for Bruce Gilden. But, keep in mind that it should be a picture that would make your viewer want “to look at it intently and ask what’s going on.”

Gilden doesn’t pull any punches in his critique, but it’s not meant to discourage aspiring street photographers. Watch it a few more times, take what is useful to you, modify it to suit your vision, and hone it with practice.