The Different Types of Photography (and Their Difficulty) And Why Street Photography Needs Serious Curation

Making portraits in the studio is difficult. You need a studio. Some lights. Knowledge on how to use them. And a subject sitting for you. A bit of human psychology to draw out the expression you want from them. All those things take experience and skill. Plus access to a studio and subject.

Documenting news and getting strong storytelling images is difficult. You need to be where the action is, you have to be facing the right way when the dramatic action takes place, with the right lens on, with focus and exposure set. All those things take experience and skill. Access, too.

I was able to make flood photos because I lived in the town where it happened which gave me access to making photographs that no one else could make (all the roads in and out of town were destroyed), and the ability to sell them to AP (Associated Press) to distribute in publications around the world.
Access makes this photo possible, plus the right camera and the right moment. You get a sense of how that water is affecting that house and neighborhood.

Making sports photographs is a bit less difficult. You have to anticipate where the action will be, but you have an idea where things might happen, unlike news photos. You are set up with an unobstructed view from the sideline (access), and you only need to make the right lens choice and get the moment. Shooting at 12 or 15 frames per second helps. Certainly, some knowledge (especially about the sport) and skill are important. The right lens, accurate auto-focus, and a high shooting rate make it less difficult than some other forms of photography.

NY Jets quarterback going up and over in a game against the NY Giants. It happened right in front of me. Easy, even with film, because of the motor drive.

Theater photography is not terribly difficult. Perhaps the easiest. A set designer and director set up actors in the light the lighting designer created, mostly posed in good compositions for the audience. You just have to be in the theater at dress rehearsal so you can move around without interfering with the audience. It’s quite simple. Access is again important. But the photograph–light and composition–is set up for the photographer by the theater creatives.

Celebrity photography, when you know where they’re going to be, is easy. Show up, be there. Make photos. They are usually lit. It’s a controlled situation. Access is key.

Photographing the actor Peter Fonda, I just needed to get access. Which was easy as it was an assignment, and I was told where to be.
It’s difficult to get access to Presidential events. Easier with an assignment and being properly credentialed. Once in place, it’s about waiting for the storytelling moment.

Wedding photography is quite difficult to make good photos of the fleeting moments, the emotional photographs. That takes experience and quick reflexes and skill, like a news photographer. Making pictures of wedding flowers, dresses and place settings, again like theater photography, it’s all been set up by an art director and already looks good. Just be there and you’ll get the photos. So it’s easy and hard, depending on how you approach the wedding assignment–whether you only get pretty still life photos or one-of-a-kind emotional moments.

This was a quick moment to photograph as the flower girls were checking out the petals. It didn’t last long. Making it required working as a photojournalist and is much more difficult than the celebrity’s or President’s photo ops.

Landscape photography is both difficult and easy. Easy when the light is doing its magic. The most difficult thing is getting there to photograph it, being ready for it. Besides the photographer, it’s mainly the art director–this time nature herself–doing the heavy lifting. The more difficult thing is getting in place early, hiking to the remote locations. Making landscape photographs is one of the more challenging types of photography physically. Not to say it doesn’t take skill and compositional techniques and vision, it certainly does, especially with all the landscape photographs being made today and published online, to create an image that stands out, that rises above the tide of images, yes, that’s extremely difficult. But it’s made easier by the fact you’re working with a strong subject to start with. Nature is amazing and doing her magic. Especially on days when the light is right–that certainly helps.

Maroon Bells, one of the most-photographed mountains in Colorado. The sun is doing its magic. I’m just applying a less-seen composition to the “bells” and working to keep all the other photographers out of my photograph. Getting there was the most difficult thing, to be set up before sunrise. There was a black bear sleeping on the road on my way there, in fact.

Street photography is the one type that inspired this article. Street documentary is so difficult to do well, yet there are more street photos than any other type shared online. At least what I see posted in forums, it’s all just pointing a camera outside and getting a focused photograph and calling it street. Street is the most difficult because there’s total unpredictability. It’s not news where something is happening. It’s not portraits where we have control. It’s not pretty and set up by art directors or nature. Most of what street photographers find is not worthy of being shared. The majority is boring. Banal. Uninpired. Outs.

But it’s the most ubiquitous type of photography seen today.

Street photographs seem to be the easiest to make. “Just go out and shoot what you see.”

But who cares?

A guy walking in NYC, with a camera (maybe a Leica) wearing a Mets shirt past a coffee cart. Who cares?

The landscape photographer doesn’t shoot, even after trekking far into the wilderness, if the light isn’t right, and the subject doesn’t inspire them. They know it takes that little bit of something extra.

The sports photographer doesn’t photograph the football plays where nothing happens. And if they do, they certainly edit those out. They know it takes that little bit of something extra.

The news photographer moves to a better position if what they’re getting doesn’t tell the story. If there are no strong story photos, they don’t put that work out there (or their editor publishes photos from a better story). Then they move to a new position to find stronger photos. They know it takes that little bit of something extra.

The portraitist knows that just because they have a photograph of the subject with their eyes open, that doesn’t mean that’s the right expression, the one that reveals the sitter’s personality. It takes more than having an in-focus photograph. They know it takes that little bit of something extra.

But street photographers publish everything. Just stop. It’s making a type of photography that has been celebrated for decades seem tiresome. Boring.

People are getting turned off and considering street photography a waste of their time. It has a reputation for being redundant and without a fresh point of view. All just copies of pictures we’ve all seen a million times. (No exaggeration there!)

I don’t need to see another person walking in a shaft of light.

Or down a staircase in shadow.

Or walking next to a billboard.

Or a mural. Even if the pedestrian’s being watched by giant eyes. Been there, seen it. It’s overdone.

Another subject doing nothing interesting. The mural doesn’t save it, sorry.

Or a clever juxtaposition between the foreground and background. As Billy Joel sang, “I don’t need clever conversation.” Give me some truth.

Winogrand told truthful stories. So did Walker Evans. And Helen Levitt. And Vivian Maier. They documented humans being humans in the world. They found the moments to document.

Not a boring silhouette.

Or how you crushed the shadow blacks to unrealistically dark and there’s still nothing to look at.

Boring and just shows the photographer knows how to use the LR shadow slider. Just no!

Photoshop (and all post-processing) tricks bore me.

Banal bores me. As it should. It’s the very definition of banal.

Give me a strong story, something worth my time. I’ve written about how street photography is a tap on the shoulder. “Hey take a look at this over here.” (See that post to see what boring looks like.)

This is a worthwhile street photo. It’s well-composed, and shows what it’s like to be a kid in summertime. It’s certainly not something we see everyday. If we were walking along, I’d tap you on the shoulder to tell you to look over and see this.
Or this one. This is a tender moment. If there was no connection between them, no expression, it would be an out. Only because it shows emotion between a dad and his son is it being shown. Composition is simple, too, which helps.

But whenever I see street photographs online they bore me, with nothing to see. I want to say, “Why are you bothering me?”

Never a good question to get from your viewer.

Remember, street photography is the easiest to attempt, but the most difficult to do well. There’s no event to arrive at. There’s no art director. There’s no news editor giving you directions of where to be. There’s no one setting up the shot for you.

It’s all you. Shoot with intention. Resist the moments that aren’t anything.

Edit tightly. Show few.

Only your best.

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