Pershing Square, Los Angeles 2003

In the many years of teaching classes and workshops in street photography I have learned that most photographers face the same obstacles in their search for more effective photographs. Here are five rules, or tips, which I have discovered over the years that have helped my students become better street photographers.

1. No posing or anything contrived.

Follow the straight and narrow road of the great photographers. In my 43 years of study of “Street photography” I have learned that the most basic rule is that there should be no posing or anything artificially contrived. It is this main rule, which gives the genre its highly sophisticated reputation. Yes, it is very difficult to snatch something of value from the ever flowing and constantly changing flow of life, but with a determination to improve, and a lot of practice, you will be able to move about freely and unnoticed in the passing parade of life.

2. Prepare for the moment of truth

Practice operating quickly and effectively when a subject is presented to you. Most unprepared photographers seem to freeze up at the moment of truth because they are unable to follow a well practiced plan of what to look for and what to check when evaluating a possible subject. This must be a conditioned reflex action of great speed, if you to arrive at an accurate rendering of the magical moments that are found in everyday life situations.

3.  Rule of “3”

When evaluating the photographs of the greats becomes it is apparent that the best photographs contain many elements, factors and details that the photographer arranged only by careful evaluation and an awareness of how valuable these many details are when “framing” the subject and only including the details that give the center of interest added strength. I don’t look for one thing, but at least three things to combine so the photograph has the ability to “speak” for itself. Therefore, no caption and no explanation of why the photograph was made will be necessary. The only caption should be the place and date of the photograph. When showing photographs if you remain silent you will not dilute the viewers experience by talking about the photograph, so you will get a natural reaction.

 4.  No cropping.

Henri Cartier-Bresson used a black border to show that he did not need to crop his photos. The black lines are caused by enlarging the negative holder in the enlarger so that it includes the clear edge of the negative and makes it print black, thus proving that the photograph was not “cropped”. These black lines are etched into my mind, so that when photographing the lines are always there to remind me to be very attentive when framing the shot. No cropping.

 5.   Get in close

My favorite photographers, Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith and Henri Cartier-Bresson, where gentlemen photographers. They didn’t rush up to scare some old women to get a cheap shot of someone up close. They moved smoothly through life, mostly being invisible to those around them so they could get so close to their subjects. They worked with the greatest respect for the subject, for themselves and for photography itself. Be very strict with yourself and know that street photography is a very difficult and requires great speed from the photographer. You need to develop great speed in thought and great speed in the operation of your body and camera.

To be able to do this work is the gift of a lifetime that most people are unaware of until they see great photographs that have the ability to provide a more compassionate understanding of our brothers and sisters all over the world. Visual documents that give the viewer hope, joy and a better sense of self.

This entry was posted in Street Photography Tips and tagged , , .


  1. Merrilyn Romen March 28, 2013 at 11:45 pm #

    thanks, John! I appreciate it!

  2. Merrilyn Romen March 25, 2013 at 7:49 am #

    wow… these are really helpful and will certainly take a lifetime to achieve. Can’t wait to read and learn more about what you know. Thanks so much! (a little hungry is good… it keeps you healthy. 🙂

    • admin March 25, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

      The black lines that have been imbedded in your mind, will guide you to better framing instantly, not a lifetime. The big three photographers that I mentioned accomplished these ideas and it did not take a lifetime. Study their work and let them guide you to a better place. John

  3. Otto von Münchow March 24, 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    I think this is a very interesting post, and you have many good points, which of course isn’t necessarily absolute truths about how street photography should be carried out. But they are good recommendations for anyone to ponder about and adapt to his or her own way of shooting. I do a lot of street photography myself and have a few reflections.

    The first point about no posing or anything contrived needs to be expanded on a little I think. For me it comes down to what kind of street photography you do. You can either be the distant observer (not necessarily distant as in distance from the subject, but without interacting) or you can be the participating photographer where you go in really close and the photo shoot becomes an interaction between the photographer and the subject. Then it’s really impossible to talk about no posing or anything contriving, since the subject in one way or another will act upon the photographer’s presence.

    To the no cropping-point. I used to do exactly that, believe in the strength on the uncropped photo. I shot exclusively slides and was in many way forced to become good at framing in the moment. And, yes, a great master like Cartier-Bresson is an excellent example of how you can make all work together in that split second of decision-making. But with today’s digital workflow, where it’s so easy to crop, I don’t see any reason to hold back if it can improve a picture. Of course I still frame as if the original framing will be what stands in the end, but if I miss out I am not going to throw away an otherwise good photo. This is only my personal approach, though, and I think your’s is just as valid, but again not necessarily an absolute truths for all kinds of street photography.

    A great post with thought-provoking points.

  4. admin March 23, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

    WOW! My life is now much richer in knowing that maybe I have helped a fellow photographer. Thank you Gary for the kind words. Just a few well chosen words, can have a big affect on the hungry photographer. John Free

  5. Gary Thursby March 23, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    My name is Gary Thursby and I have taken three of John’s workshops in Los Angeles. They have changed my life photographically and helped me find myself as a photographer. Before I learned about John, I tried to learn photography on my own for 10 years. I approached photography the same way I approached all my other academic endeavors in college. Obsessive self studying through read book after book. I never really looked at the great photographs so much but instead learned about iso, f stops and shutter speeds. Learned about dynamic range and how many stops of light a piece of film, digital sensor and true photographic paper can hold. How to shoot your lens at its sharpest aperture and almost always use that aperture accepting the trade off with depth of field. Ah yes, learned about depth of field and how to figure the hyper focal distance on your lens but never really used it because I was worried about not shooting at the sharpest aperture. How to correctly develop your negative or digital raw file. Either traditionally with wet film process or through the use of Adobe Lightroom digitally. All of these technical aspects of photography that are important to know, but my pictures were always kind of bad. Sure I may have gotten lucky here and there but anyone could get lucky with out all that tedious study.

    When I finally found John and heard him talking about making visual poetry and effecting people on an emotional basis, it totally blew me away. That is what I always wanted to achieve in photography but I thought it was through some magical combination of f stops, shutter speeds and iso. The outline John has detailed above is how I should have been studying photography. Simply put it works and it works very very well. You truly become a visual poet and get to tell little stories about life that are real because you never pose anything. It also makes you look at society in a different way because you begin to notice how all these different people really are not all that different than you.

    Also studying the actual photographs from Robert Fank, Gene Smith, Cartier Bresson and yes from John Free is how you learn “composition.” That ever elusive concept in photography that always frustrated me and had a very hard time grasping. John advice on focusing on facts in everyday life and how they go with your main subject was a revelation. I never heard anyone talk about organizing a shot like that. Books or other photographers would always use very fancy words like juxtaposition to try and explain how to frame up a shot. I always would wonder if they even knew what they were talking about or did they just want to sound smart and sophisticated.

    John never used fancy terms like that and he reminds me of the the great baseball commentator Vin Scully. You do not have to know a single rule or concept about baseball to listen to Scully call a game. The way he explains and talks about baseball in a very easy, calm and relaxed way is how John talks about photography.

    Finally I just would like to say that the five rules John has written above has changed me as a photographer. It has changed my very outlook on photography and life in general. You become a visual poet to try and emotionally effect or move other people. You will always have something to think about, practice and do because you will fall in love with creating these wonderful images.

    I thank you John you have changed my life and I have found myself as a photographer.

One Trackback

  1. By corrinet | Pearltrees on June 24, 2013 at 9:42 pm