Building Personal Style and Perspective Within Your Street Photography

There are two major steps in the growth of a street photographer.

The first thing that a street photographer should be learning is the technical side to the craft, which can initially feel like a daunting task when you consider both the fast-moving, spontaneous aspect of the genre and the fear that doing it may cause. Once that hurdle has been cleared, next comes the most interesting aspect of the growth and learning. This is where a photographer begins to hone their ideas into a personal style and perspective. It’s a gradual process that takes time, a lot of photographing, and some good old-fashioned research and self-reflection. Here are some of the most important steps to help you grow into your personal style and hone your perspective in your work.

Becoming Familiar with a Place or Idea and Revisiting It Constantly

We will talk about consistency a few times here, but one of the most important tips is to consistently photograph the same area or the same idea/topic. Style isn’t necessarily about how a photographer’s work looks (although that is a factor). Instead, it’s much more about what a photographer shoots. The more you understand your subject or place and the more you photograph it, the more nuanced your photographs will become. You will give yourself a lot of time to come across the right photographs for your project, and that time will allow you to further develop your ideas. I suggest choosing the area where you live or somewhere close and turning it into a project. Go for daily or weekly short walks and try to capture the idea of what the area feels like. And keep in mind that some of the quietest and most ‘boring’ areas can give you the most interesting photographs – it can just take a little time to figure out.

What makes the area interesting or unique, what makes it boring or quiet, what is weird about it? There are many ways you can focus on capturing your area, but try to diagnose the place as you photograph it. The more and more you go back, the more you will start to notice scenes and photographs that you may have completely missed previous times around. 

Researching the Work of Other Photographers

One of the most important steps to building your style is to look at the styles and content of all types of street photographers, both contemporary and more famous. This step is vital because it will allow you to learn more about what you like and what you don’t like, and it will open your eyes to ways of shooting and ideas you might not have thought of. This is where you start to daydream about new projects you can do or new shots to add to your work. You can pick and choose the best aspects of your favorite photographers and meld them together into your style and perspective.

And don’t just explore the works of photographers who capture the same content and shoot in the same type of areas as you. Seek out the photographers who are completely different. It will help to open your eyes to new things, even if you don’t quite ‘get it’.

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For city photography, I recommend Garry Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, Helen Levitt, Lee Friedlander, Saul Leiter, William Klein, and Daido Moriyama.

For non-city photography, I recommend Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Alec Soth, Martin Parr, Josef Koudelka, Trent Parke, and also Lee Friedlander.

Go further than internet research and explore the rich world of street photography books. Street photography is made to be shown in book form, and this is where you can get a full understanding of what a photographer is trying to show. It’s one thing to see all the top hits of a famous photographer over a 40-year career, but it’s another thing entirely to see how a story can come together in book form with sequencing, pace, and the standout and knock-you-down photographs mixed with the subtler moments that you might never see on the internet, but that is the glue that holds together a good photo book.

Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone With What You Shoot

It’s important to be focused and consistent in your photography, but you can be too consistent. Part of the point of researching other photographers is to figure out what you are missing in your work that you would like to shoot.

You can always go back to the way that you initially preferred to shoot, but I think part of the process of building a style is to break out of your original tendencies to explore different ways of shooting. Over time, you will bring everything that you’ve learned back together in some way.

If you love black and white, experiment in color. If you like shooting in busy areas, go somewhere quiet. If you strictly shoot candid moments, try to meet some people and add in a few portraits. You don’t have to continue with any of these alternative methods, but give them a good chance to see how they influence your work.

Finding Your Voice and Expressing Inner Ideas and Feelings Through the Outside World

Part of the process of finding your voice is understanding who you are, and then aiming to add that into your work in some way. While there are strong crossovers, street photography is different from pure journalism in that we’re not trying to be impartial observers. The genre is a way of filtering the world into moments that relate to who we are and sharing those moments with others.

When you look at the work of other experienced street photographers, you can usually get a sense of who they are through their work: the boundless energy and anxiety of Garry Winogrand, the love of Helen Levitt, the cerebral qualities and weirdness of Lee Friedlander, the rootlessness of Josef Koudelka, or the quirkiness of Martin Parr. You feel like you know these photographers intimately, just by looking at their work.

Think about the subjects that you prefer to photograph – why do you focus on those people or places? Think about yourself and your viewpoints. Are you happy, sad, lonely, or anxiety-ridden? What defines you? Then look for moments in the world and in others that help to show that. Since you are feeling the same thing, you will be adept at noticing these moments.

Craft/Focus Your Vision While Editing

While I believe the amount of time you spend photographing is the ultimate factor in building a style and vision over time, I think editing plays just as important a role. Editing is where we begin to shape our ideas. It’s where we take these disparate photographs and piece them together into different ideas. Editing is an art form on its own.

Look through your portfolio and begin to group similar photographs. Sometimes ideas are thought up before you even begin to photograph, but often ideas grow organically by evaluating what you are shooting and finding hints and pieces of ideas.

Over time, you will begin to grow these themes. The overall feeling and idea of the project may shift dramatically over time from the early days as well. Some of your favorite photographs from early on may be relegated to the B pile later on. It’s a fascinating process that takes time to develop.

But the more time you spend doing this, the more it will educate your photography when you are out in the world. You will start to become more focused and more aware of what you are shooting, and this focus will get stronger as you get deeper and gain experience in the project.

Projects and Consistency

All of your projects do not have to look the same for you to have a consistent personal style and vision. The personal style is you. The vision is you. If you work on it, that will shine through no matter what it is that you aim to photograph.

Projects themselves should be consistent in some way. That consistency will provide focus to the viewer and allow them to dive into your world. But just because you quickly and spontaneously photographed one project in black and white, in a busy place, doesn’t mean that you can’t do another project in color, in a more methodical way, in a quiet area.

The consistent vision will shine through in the ideas that you portray, and don’t be afraid to experiment and change up the technical style to find a way that will best show that vision.

James Maher is a New York based photographer who focuses on street photography. He runs NYC photography workshops and tours. You can view more of his work on his website.