I know that the title of this article might sound a bit surprising. Specially because nowadays, film photography is experiencing an unprecedented resurgence and also because the number of people practicing street photography has increased significantly in the past 3-4 years. However, in my humble opinion, I do not see much film street photography out there, at least not much as I would like to.
The meaning of Street Photography to me.
I should start by sharing with you what is the meaning of street photography to me. Since street photography is a genre of photography, and photography is an artistic expression of the human mind, it is very difficult, and sometimes even controversial, to define it. But I’m pretty sure what it means to me. In my opinion, Street Photography is the art of capturing a candid/unstaged instant in time of real people, in the real world in a real situation. But this is not enough, it also has to tell a story or trigger some sort of emotion in the viewer. Only if these elements are there, then is a street photograph to me.
According to this “very personal” definition of Street Photography, things like staged street portraits, architectural photography, and urban landscapes, are very close cousins of street photography but not quite the same thing. And here is where I feel that the art of documenting emotion-triggering candid photos of people’s daily lives on film is a lost art.
What I can see out there.
Most of the work by analogue photographers that I see out there does not include this type of real candid images. Most of them are photos of empty roads, buildings, nature, cars, the sea, and so on. And this is completely fine, at the end of the day, people should photograph whatever makes them happy. But still, this leaves me wanting to see more film street photographs.
Why this is the case?
I would like to know why this is the case. Why do not too many photographers practice Street Photography using film? My number one guess is that analogue photography can be an expensive and slow process. And since capturing a good fleeting moment on the streets can be very challenging, maybe most analogue photographers feel like using digital for this type of shots is better, and they save the analogue photos only for situations where they can control the subject and composition a bit better. Going through entire photo walks without getting a single “keeper” has always been part of street photography and maybe most photographers feel that is not worth “wasting” the film in this way.
I’m not saying that there are no film street photographs out there, I’m just saying that I would like to see more. I’m pretty confident when I say that if more digital street photographers would try to capture the same type and quality of images using an analogue camera, every now and then, instead of a digital one, they would improve significantly their art. If you are reading this and you are a street photographer, I would really encourage you to do so. You will learn and improve a lot. Do not get me wrong though, I use my digital camera for my street photography too, but I try to use my analogue one as much as I can.
What do you think, do you agree with me, or do you think that actually, Street Photography in its candid, purest form is well represented in the amateur/hobbyist film photography community? I would love to hear your opinion in the comments section below.
All of the photos in this article were taken by me using my Pentax MX and Ilford HP5 Plus or Kodak Tri-X.
Till next time, yours sincerely
Armando Caballero – Street Photographer
Visit Armando’s website here
You can also check his Instagram account here
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27 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Film Street Photography – By Armando Cabellero”
I agree with your analysis Armando. I do both digital and analogue for Street. I think also it’s case of with analogue you have to be able to decide before you go what scenes and locations you are going to visit and whether you want to take colour or monochrome. Some digital photographers struggle with this as they are so used to changing the settings to capture the image of the moment. I also agree that true Street Photography is about capturing people at unusual moment or capturing their gestures during a split second moment of time. You will always get the argument that you can just take an image of the street but for me that is ‘Photography of the street’ rather than the true definition of ‘Street Photography’. A prime example of that type of photography is Eugene Atget who photographed disappearing Paris in the late 19th century . Bruce Gilden is a prime example of the true definition but I don’t think many of us would stretch to putting our cameras in people’s faces and use a flash to capture the image.
Hello Nick…thank you for reading my article and for sharing your thoughts. I like your point of view on “photography on the street” rather than actual “street photography”. I will definitely check Eugene Atget out. I’m not familiar with his work. Bruce Gilden himself said that he is happy that most street photographers are not like him, otherwise, it would have been made an illegal activity by now hahaha.
Although many photographers are doing SP, it’s still an Art. And in my opinion, that’s where film comes in. A true SP stands out among the crowd: whether he/she is shooting film or digital. He/she knows how to capture that emotion/spirituality of the streets, man’s placement in the streets, and this is what separates those photographers in the streets shooting urban sprawl and calling it SP. Urban sprawl is acceptable as SP only, in my opinion, if it includes the heart and soul of humans engaging within it. Shooting film makes the SP slow down to seek the Street, ask permission from the Streets, and then “make” a photograph rather than “taking” one.
Hello Safiyyah. Thanks for taking the time to read my article and sharing your opinion with all of us. I think we pretty much agree on what SP means to us 😉
Your point is well reasoned and fully grounded, yet I wonder that many might have the skill set of what once was an art in its own right. The Golden Age of Cinema had some very seasoned men and women who utilized ever resource then available, to the Apex of why we still treasure many of these films. Certain the cost for development of film may still be the reason that much is seen, though I would applaud any and all who made the effort.
While there is clearly a real problem with the cost of materials, especially film, for many people (certainly for me), I think each image you make costing actual money can improve your work. Because there is a significant cost per frame you think harder and look more, as opposed to just sitting there with your finger on the shutter letting the camera capture 8 frames a second or whatever.
(On the other hand, Tri-X, at over £11 a roll and allowing £2 for processing, is now approaching 40p a frame), which is just stupid.)
Hello Tim. I completely agree with you and that was one of the main points I wanted to make in my article. I’m convinced that practicing film street photography as often as possible will improve the skills of anyone out there looking to improve their street photography skills, especially if they have only tried digital before.
In your opinion, who are the photographers that best illustrate your point of view?
My photography journey was influenced by the work of Kertesz, Erwitt and Capa. They each represented a view of mankind that always showed respect for both the subject and the viewer. I never liked the work of Cartier-Bresson, IMHO he really didn’t people as humans, but just as subjects (I can hear the Leica police coming after me to take away my M2!)
Perhaps in today’s hyper-fast pace society, the work of Kertesz and others of his generation are hopelessly outdated .
A lot of work I see by younger, contemporary photographers seem to lack a cohesive theme. Maybe this is because of the pace of our society, and they are showing us what it’s like to be a part of it.
From the viewpoint of digital, it’s almost SOP to shoot dozens of images and work the final image in Photoshop. With film, you need to get it correct on the street, with digital, you’ve moved the ‘moment’ to your home studio.
I respect my subjects. I’m trying to show people are people. As an American, I try to make connections when I travel that we share. I want to peel away the habits & mannerisms that define me as a liberal American, and I want to do the same with people I meet when I travel. A child enjoying a scoop of ice cream on a hot summer day in my hometown is the same as a child enjoying ice cream on a hot summer day in Florence.
As you mentioned, film is slow. This gives us time to look & see, to evaluate light and shadow, to really think. We have 36 pics, we need to use them wisely.
Now, I’d like to ask you a ‘photo nerd’ question. What lens do you mostly use for your shots (I use a 40mm lens on my Leica M2.). I like your style, your camera is a great size for discreet photography without appearing sneaky.
Hello Daniel. Thank you for taking the time to read my article and sharing your views. I really admire the work of Alex Webb and Joel Meyerowitz. They both know how to organize beautifully the chaos of the streets in a frame, producing fantastic photographs. Also, their photos create more questions than answers, and to me, that is always a good sign for a great street photo.
You make a good point about the hyper-fast pace society and this is where I think people can take the advantage of grabbing an anologue camera and slow things down. As you said, having 36 pictures and having to pay for each of them can only improve one photographic skills.
I use a 50mm prime lens for my Pentax MX. When I do digital, I use 35mm which is equivalent to 50mm for a cropped sensor. That means that all my street photography work is done with 50mm. Thank you for you compliment on my style, I really appreciate that 😉
Nice article. Going to make me think out my street photography
Hello Fred, that is awesome. I’m happy that my article inspired you to do that.
For me it depends. Im in my 60’s now so film is not a resurgence, it was always part of my workflow and digital gave me other options. One is not superior over the other. If immediacy is needed go digital, if you want to immerse yourself in the moment and accept your results at a later stage then film works better for me. When I lived in Toronto film was the only option, I was a Kodak TMax 400 and TMax 3200 guy with Tri X as my favourite stock. Often I would process the film that night, hang it to dry and print the next day, so its a ritual of sorts with cassette tapes or radio on in th e background. When I return to Toronto now with my small digital Fugi’s in tow, I almost always put them down and pick up the Nikon F3. Its a personal preference sort of thing, other photogs think its nuts to shoot old school in the dynamic fast moving genre, but I like having limitations and working within those limitations, running out of film and having to rewind and reload on a streetcar or street corner is not an inconvienance its just part of the game. The history of photography is predominately film and the language of photography is Black and White. It is for me, what it is for you may be an iphone, the point is regardless of what you use, presence of mind, getting into a rhythm on the street and being respectful to others (no cheap shots) and simply making a record of your time and place will pay dividends down the road, Phaidon put out a monster of book some years back. Century. Pick it up (if you can) and go through 100 years of images. So no matter what you shoot with, be there and be aware, the rest is just window dressing and marketing.
Hello Ted, thanks for sharing your views. You are absolutely right, people should use whatever works for them and inspires them and I do not think that any medium is better than the other one. I’m just recommending trying out film street photography as a good practice to improve street photography skills. I like your rituals when developing film.
I absolutely agree. I also use a Pentax MX with Ilforrd HP5+. 28 and 50mm lenses. I have two digital Fuji models, but I always look forward to streetphoto with analog.
Hello Vitek. That’s a great combination, the MX is a really compact SLR perfect for street photography. Oh, that’s cool, my digital camera is also a Fuji, they are fantastic and very enjoyable cameras 😉
Reads a bit like the unabomber manifesto. Just do whatever makes you happyY?
Hello Ted, I’m not familiar with the “unabomber manifesto” but I do believe in doing whatever makes you happy. That’s my life philosophy (as long as you don’t intentionally hurt anybody). I just wanted to inspire people to try analog street photography as a way to improve their photography 😉
For SP with the emotions of real life, have a look at the work ( especially the film B&W, on Rolleiflex) of an American woman, unknown in her lifetime, who made her livelihood as a nanny, but shot Chicago and New York in her time off. Twenty thousand images, stashed in a commercial storage box, auctioned off for fees not paid, but rescued. Books of her work now readily available: Vivian Maier, Street Photographer; Vivian Maier, Out of the Shadows; Vivian Maier, The Colour Work.
I can’t understand why you have to label yourself as any particular type of photographer. I’ve been making film images for over 50 years, and never needed more than “a photographer”.
I use an iPhone, 35mm, and digital cameras to make my photographs. I do what works for me. I avoid falling into the trap of other people’s definitions and expectations of photography.
Good articles, and I enjoyed the photos. I would not have enjoyed these photos any less had they been taken with a digital camera, though. I still do shoot film occasionally, but let’s be honest: it’s just tremendously inconvenient compared to digital! You ask, “Why do not too many photographers practice Street Photography using film?” That’s easy: for the same reason the percentage of photographers using film practicing any other type of photography is plummeting, and that is, film is a huge pain compared to digital! Cost is not the main reason, but it does play a role. There is a certain level of snobbism attached to shooting film (like listening to vinyl records) but in the end, what matters most is neither the camera brand nor the medium (film or sensor) used to capture the image: it’s how well the photographer can convey his vision to the viewer. Perhaps I can see how a hobbyist might enjoy taking landscapes with an 8×10 view camera, but in my opinion (careful, provocative statement ahead), nothing that can be shot with a 35mm film-based camera cannot be taken better with a digital equivalent.
Street photography can be very dangerous. Some people are aggressive when photographed.
These are good photos! They make me excited to develop the 4 rolls I shot over the weekend with my MX and 1.7/50.
Hello Andrew, thank you. I’m happy you liked them. Would love to see some of your photos shared on this blog 🙂
There’s no shortage of analog street photography on YouTube. Obviously, some channels are better than others, but one of my favs lately is Paulie B’s channel. He does great NYC photo walks with an M6/28mm Summicron/Portra 800 combo, and he gets some wonderful shots. On his channel, he also has a series called “Walkie Talkie” (I know, great title) in which he follows another NYC street photographer around and lets them explain why they do the work while they’re snapping pics. It’s really cool to see them work and think out loud.
Here’s an example of a recent photo-walk vid: https://youtu.be/Hl1w5NZLbdw
Nah, man. This ain’t it. Just because it isn’t on Instagram or even the internet doesn’t mean it ain’t happening. I can say afa Philly and NYC, folks stay shooting.
I take to the streets, at times, and attempt to photograph moments of “here and now”, as you well put it. Of course the eye is drawn to subject that can be easy understood, with good light, nice lines, perhaps with a bit of historical past (if you are living in such a city), interesting scenes in an empty cathedral, things like that, you know. Many photographs taken in the street look like there is a certain script on which they are sought and snapped. Many more are instant choices, made on the spot, to shoot this image or that. Both situations are all right, and I always enjoy roaming a neighbourhood in my city (or other, if I am traveling) and put my film and camera to the use of both situations, and then some.
However, what I do not enjoy so much is street photography devoid of humans. I have seen a lot of architecture and landscapes (ok, perhaps these are not exactly street photography, but you get my meaning) streets and buses, parks and trees and lamp posts and railway stations, derelict places and planes taking off, but it seems to me that there are plenty of places and things with no humans to be seen. Or too few.
In my amateur opinion, the humans are part of the street. They are the reason on why the street exists, in the first place. We built those buildings, that park, those derelict stuff of long ago, and we built them for us and for those to come after us. Street photography is also some sort of a frozen in time moment which should tell things to those who will replace us on this Earth. Of course we enjoy these moments ourselves, by displaying them publicly on our websites and forums, but these images are actually a repository of the days we live in. We may well not be aware of this purpose while we’re happy-snappy on the street, but they are nonetheless pages in that chronicle and we are but some “chroniclers” writing with film and light those pages.
I do hope my ranting is not out of order here. I did enjoyed your photographs, Armando, thank you so much for sharing !