The Art of Observation: What You Can Learn from Street Photographers

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black and white image of a camera lens and hands holding it.

Pioneering neurosurgeon Wilfred Trotter once exclaimed, “Knowledge comes from noticing resemblances and recurrences in the events that happen around us.” For creatives, his words still ring true. It’s important for artists to build a range of skills—both technical and otherwise—to grow and improve. Street photography is one such area in which success comes from mastering both the technical skill required to operate a camera, as well as soft skills; personal attributes like observation, compassion, and spontaneity.

Learning to observe people, places, and activities in the world can make us better storytellers, communicators, writers, and photographers. It is those traits that allow photographers to capture an emotive image that resonates deeply with audiences. Below, we explore some of the most critical traits of the world’s most successful street photographers, and how these non-technical skills can foster personal and professional growth.

Characteristics of Street Photographers

Photographers often seek to capture an image that resonates with an audience enough to evoke an emotion. According to landscape photographer Ansel Adams, “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” Below, explore six critical characteristics.

Mastering Observation

black and white image of man kissing a woman.
Robert Doisneau, “Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville,” 1950. Sold for $10,000 via Swann Auction Galleries(February 2019).

Observation involves immersing ourselves in listening and looking, taking in sounds, sights, and smells in a careful, unbiased manner. It is a key attribute of any seasoned photographer; the difference between an average photo and one that speaks to an audience in a meaningful way. From nature to urban spaces to people and objects, there are many key takeaways that artists can find by observing surroundings. Taking note of direction of light, softness of shadows, and featured colors can lead to a successful finished product.

One way to practice the art of observation is to imagine your desired composition before you encounter it in real life. Take note of the details around you and develop an awareness of visual elements. The ability to visualize what your finished product—or goal—looks like can help guide you towards success in any endeavor.

Relying on Intuition

black and white photo of man standing in front of a newsstand full of newspapers.
Berenice Abbott, “Newsstand, 32nd Street and Third Avenue,” 1935. Sold for $2,812 via Doyle New York (November 2018).

The more you experience and find yourself in new situations, the better a street photographer you become. Unlike other artforms that require measured, choreographed techniques, street photography boils down to following your gut and just taking the picture. Whenever you see something that inspires you, whether it be a window, store sign, street corner, or alleyway, capture it without hesitation.

Relying on this intuition and shooting with your heart is often what results in a brilliantly captured image. Hungarian photographer André Kertész once summarized this thought beautifully, saying, “Seeing is not enough; you have to feel what you photograph.”

Letting Go of Perfection

Saul Levine, New York street and subway scenes, 1940s. Sold for $1,187 via Doyle New York(December 2018).

It’s easy for artists to overthink their work; often obsessing over the framing of a photograph’s composition and how the lighting looks. Putting all your energy into these technical elements can often limit your ability to spontaneously capture a quick, exciting moment.

American street photographer Garry Winogrand was known for capturing raw emotions without overthinking composition. Winogrand didn’t take time tweaking the camera’s settings, nor did he compose his images in advance. Instead, he shot instantaneously and impulsively, capturing subjects before they were ready for the camera. His body of work changed the world’s perception of street photography, and showcased the power of turning off the analytical side of your brain to capture something improvisational in nature—and demonstrating its ability to resonate as deeply as images captured with a carefully constructed composition.

Connecting With Others

black and white photograph of six men sitting on a bench in the park.
Saul Levine, New York street and subway scenes, 1940s. Sold for $1,500 via Doyle New York(December 2018).

One of the most interesting things about street photography is that there is no written rule about what constitutes a compelling street photograph; some may be dark, others blurry, soft, light, energetic. However, the most important aspect is that whatever the composition and focus may be, it taps into the emotions of the viewer, projecting what lies beneath the surface of the photograph.

One way to do so is to focus on the eyes of the subject, as direct eye contact can create a powerful connection. Another way is to capture the expressions, gestures, and feelings of the subject by shooting them in their natural habitats without predetermined staging. American photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt believed in this principle, stating, “It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”

Fueling a Passion

black and white photograph of woman standing in front of 42nd street sign.
Arnold Eagle, “New York, 42nd Street, Third Avenue El,” 1936. Sold for $437 via Doyle New York(November 2018).

Ultimately, you have to have a passion for your craft. Passion is the fuel that ultimately ignites success, giving you the motivation you need to reach personal and professional goals. Human nature often causes us to quickly lose interest, so it’s important for creatives to continue to feed their passions by engaging in tangential activities. For a street photographer, this may mean sketching, reading poetry, watching a documentary, or looking for inspiration in books.

Focusing on Detail

Berenice, Abbot. Selected images from the Retrospective Portfolio. Sold for $11,000 via Sotheby’s(October 2018).

Many associate street photography solely with portraiture, but there are many ways to capture an emotive scene beyond a sitter’s expression. Often, the best street photographers are those who eliminate all distractions and focus on the small details: a person’s hand, an expression, a piece of clothing, or a street sign. One image can hint at a latent narrative that could easily be overlooked.