The term street photography is often thought to mean photographs of people, and usually in big and busy cities, usually walking along the sidewalks. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a big part of it yes, but it’s only a part.
Street (or social) photography is a sensibility, one that can and should be done anywhere and everywhere. It’s a way of observing our surroundings, sharing our surroundings, and often sharing our feelings and interpretations of these surroundings. Environmental photographs, shots of buildings, structures, nature, landscapes, details, and abstracts can and should all be included, in addition to portraits and candid photographs.
Yes, many of these types of photographs on their own certainly won’t hit the technical definition of ‘street photography,’ but when weaved together to share the story of a place, or an internal story, the sky is the limit with what you can do creatively. There’s just no need to box yourself in with a strict definition.
But the reality is that it can feel a lot tougher to do this type of work in quieter areas. It IS a lot tougher, at first, and especially for introverts. However, I know that with practice and learning to carry yourself in the right way, it can actually become just as easy as photographing in much busier places.
And the advantage is that you’re most likely the only one shooting this type of work in the area. The place is all yours to take in any direction you want.
The transition can be difficult at first
Being out there mostly by yourself in a quiet area, coming across the odd person here or there, and just standing out as a crazy person with a camera is a really tough feeling. But at the same time, that feeling is still just in your head. Photographers shoot in these environments every day, meet people, take nuanced and intimate photos, and have a blast doing it. It just takes time to figure out the right formula for you to pull this off.
How you learn and adapt to handle yourself is the key. I think it makes sense in these environments to often be obvious about what you’re doing. Have a smile on your face, be friendly and introduce yourself to interesting people, and most importantly, explain what you’re doing.
You can say you’re a photographer, you can say you’re taking a photography class. Tell people you’re trying to capture the spirit of the area and people there. Flatter people. Tell them you’d love a portrait of them for your project and you’d love to send it to them.
Candid shots are always important, but in quieter areas, I think the portrait takes on even more importance. And you can take portraits that feel real, that don’t feel forced, that show a glimpse of who the person is and allow us to ponder them.
Not always, but the best photographers in these environments are often the best talkers. And many of them have said how hard it was an how nervous they were at first – not many started off feeling comfortable with this right away.
But all it takes is a couple interactions, a couple good experiences, to turn your feelings around. And I know we’re going into winter for most of you so it’s a tough time to get started shooting this way, but I want to get this all into the back of your heads for when the warm weather starts coming and for when the pandemic starts to wain.
Sometimes I just give a simple nod, like can I take this photo – that often works well, while other times I’ll stop and talk to people. It really depends on the situation. Ask people about themselves. Get them talking and they’ll open up to you and give you a great portrait. Alec Soth often asks his subjects, ‘What’s your dream?’ That such a fun and surprising thing to ask a stranger when you’re photographing them. It’s such a great and surprising question to suddenly ponder. It’ll open a lot of people up to you.
Think about what you might want to ask someone while photographing them.
Revisit the same areas at different times in different lighting
A big part of doing good work in these areas is both giving yourself time to get lucky and time to get comfortable with the areas themselves.
It’s easy to walk somewhere, see nothing, and then disregard it and not want to revisit. But the more you go back to a place, the more you’ll see. And the more you’ll get comfortable shooting there. New moments and special things will pop out at you that you completely missed at other times.
And lighting is just so important. I’m a huge proponent that you can get great photos at any time of day and in any lighting, but in quieter areas with more details and environmental shots, getting fantastic lighting is a huge key. This often means timing with pre-sunset, sunset, sunrise, early evening, dusk, and days with moody weather. Light rain is an amazing time to shoot. Multiple people have commented about going out on bleak days, and those can create the most spectacular environments.
Get used to checking the weather and sunset forecasts.
Look intimately at your surroundings
Particularly at first, I think it’s easy to do a lot of disregarding in quieter areas. You walk through and see nothing out of the ordinary and keep going and going. But it’s important to stop yourself and think about why you’re feeling this way. Often of course there will be nothing there, but just as often you will be missing something completely.
Sometimes the boring and ordinary, the thing that you want to disregard, can actually make the most spectacular photograph. And I think looking at a wide variety of work from other photographers and projects can help us all open our eyes to what these things might be.
What do you think about the area? Connect yourself with the place
This is really important. You’re trying to tell a story here of both a place and yourself within the place. Try to understand the area and its quirks and try to figure out how to explain that to us in your photographs. Not every photograph has to be obvious. Some can be strictly about interpretation and feeling.
And thinking about yourself and how you relate to the area is just as important. With a cohesive body of work, you’re going to shine through in some way, and this is an important idea to keep in the back of your head.
Winter is a great time for this!
Looking at photographs is just as important as time out shooting, especially taking the time to look through projects and to get a few photobooks on subjects that are similar to what you want to shoot and where you’re shooting.
Looking at projects with environmental shots, grand shots, weird details, and portraits of all types will not only give you so many prompts when out shooting, but it also will help you learn what’s possible to do.
I know sometimes it may seem like it, but none of this stuff is out of reach. The key is giving yourself time to get lucky, educating your eye enough to notice those great moments, and just going for it. The moments will come, but you’ve gotta go out for them and you’ve gotta make a move when they happen.
Now for links to some of my favorite photographers / photography projects in (mostly) these areas!
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects
Alec Soth – Sleeping by the Mississippi
Stephen Shore – Uncommon Places
Trent Parke – Minutes to Midnight
Charalampos Kydonakis – Back to Nowhere – More Photos
6 thoughts on “Street Photography in Quiet Places and Small Towns”
Thank you for this article and the pictures
It’s a nice tour by great photographies and appreciate your tips. They are always valuable as feedback for me as compulsive photographer (because I’m more than a street photographer but compulsive one)
I do this type of “social” photography all the time especially during this pandemic. It really is fun and challenging.
It is a lot of fun Gene!
If you are not familiar, you should check it the work of Marc Cohen, from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. His work is a bit on the darker side if this sub-genre, but it is quite compelling!
Thanks Michael – will looks through his work!