December 14, 2017

Vivian Maier The Greatest Unknown Street Photographer

vivian maier undiscovered street photographer

Vivian Maier © Maloof Collection LTD

Why do we love great street photography, and why is it so hard to do well?

Recently I became aware of the great street photographer Vivian Maier, who passed away leaving behind a legacy of over five decades worth of work as as an amateur photographer. I do not think anyone would disagree that she might be one the greatest street photographers we have seen, or might ever see, her work is stunning.

Were it not John Maloof who bought the contents of her storage locker at an auction the world may never have seen the vast body of  fine art photography produced by Vivian Maier. The storage locker contained over 100,000 film negatives, thousands of photography prints, cameras and even tape recordings of people she photographed. Unfortunately Ms. Maier passed away in 2009 just days before Mr Maloof was able to track her down to try and find out more about her, and the amazing body of street photography she had been making for over five decades.

While I could try and talk more about Vivian, and the discovery of her work here I think that can be better done by Mr. Maloof who has set up a website/blog about her photography, and what little is known about her personal life. Thankfully he is on a mission to see that her work finally gets the recognition it so greatly deserves. If you like her work make sure you check out the Vivian Maier website where you can see more samples of Vivian Maier's photography on line and where to view it in person. ( There are several major museums and galleries that are scheduled to show the work)

Rather than talk more about Vivian here I thought what I might do is talk a bit about what you need to know in order to take great street photography pictures of your own. You may not ever be as gifted a photographer as Vivian Maier was, but you might just surprise yourself as to how good a street photographer you can become and how good a photograph you can make.

In order to produce great street photography you need to know how to read or see a scene either as it already exists or as it unfolds before you, compose the image, and shoot it in a manner or seconds or minutes or it is gone. Strong composition skills, an understanding of lighting, and color ( when it is color) are all required, as is knowing how to use your camera effortlessly.
It is important to note that you do not need to have the best or most expensive camera in the world to take great photographs, it is your unique vision as a photographer and how you see that is more important.

Although you may think it is impossible for you to know about all of the technical things and to act instantly in order to produce great photographs on the street, its not. Do not get bogged down in the technical aspects of taking and making your photographs, the technical things can always be improved on with time and the more you practice the more invisible they will become to your actions, leaving you to concentrate on the most important task of looking and seeing.

Practice Makes Perfect, The Secret You Need To Be A Great Street Photographer

Although I am a professional photographer I do not get paid by clients to photograph everyday. That's not how the industry works. Even though I have been making photographs for more than half my life I always am giving myself photo assignments and projects to do, so that I continue to grow and produce work that I want to do, not just work that a client wants me to do. The goal of course being that the type of work I show a potential client will be work that they cannot get from someone else, it is unique to me and my way of seeing and making photographs.

One of the beauties of the digital age of photography we are in is that you can see the results of your work instantly. It is not like the not so long ago days where you had to wait to get your film back and try and figure out what worked and what didn't. It was much harder. Now you can snap the shutter, and in moments know whether your image is too dark, or too light, if that telephone pole in the background is coming out of the side of the persons head, adjust and reshoot.

It is true that not every shot you take is going to a winner, they never are. Not all scenes will allow you that much time to fiddle with things before the opportunity to make the photograph vanishes, especially if they contain people. Like most things, practice is the key to success. The better you know your camera the less time you have to think about what to do. The more frequent you shoot a topic, or type of subject matter the better you are going to get. The amount of time you spend practicing and learning your craft are directly proportional to the level of success you will find with your work. There are few exceptions to that rule including those that want to learn how to make better street photography pictures, or fine art photography in general.

Photography tips to help you to start learning how to produce better street photographs.

Treat yourself like a professional photographer. Give yourself an assignment to do as if it came to you from a client or commercial account, and go do it. It does not matter if you are a professional or an amateur but if you treat this task like it is an assignment given to you from another source other than yourself then you often find that your results are much better.

Start simple - It takes time to perfect your skills, be realistic as to what you want to try and accomplish with a particular self- assignment and build upon it as you get more comfortable working on the street, or location. Do not think that you have to live in a major city like New York, Chicago, Paris, or Rome in order to find an interesting location to shoot. Many small cities and towns have great places to shoot. Main street, anywhere is always a great place to start. Start by concentrating on small things. Below are some things I have done in the past myself and continue to do with photo workshops I teach.

I will go to an outside public area where there is foot traffic, and retail stores of some kind. *Note if you live in a one horse town, go to the country store, gas station or  town center, someplace where this is bound to be something of interest going on.

Work with what you have.

Bring one camera, one lens, and as many digital cards as you have or can.

Learn To See

Concentrate on learning to see how the camera lens you have sees compared to how you see, its going to be different. You need to learn to train yourself to be able to see the same way the lens you have on the camera sees.The better you can do this, the more fluid you can be and the more success you will have in achieving your long term goals of creating great street photography.

Pick a color, and watch for it to appear. Whenever you see that color make a photograph of where you are. See a yellow sign, shoot it. Move along on your walk down "main street". See a yellow car- shoot it. See that skateboarder with the yellow t-shirt and sneakers-Do I have to say it? Go take a photo of him.

Sit And Observe

Find a place you like and  just watch and observe it for a bit. Blend in to the setting. If you place yourself in the right spot, often times the shot will come to you. If the setting is right sometimes all you need to do is sit, wait, and blend into the background until someone or something comes into the scene to push it over the top and make your photograph the one that everyone remembers and wished that they had taken. While street photography is often a very mobile type of photography work, do not let that make you feel you should always be on the move or rushed. If you are out photographing something and you come across an interesting setting, or scene, it is in your best interest if you control it, rather than the other way around. Slow down and take your time, your not in a race.

Raise The Bar

In time you will see that while there might be a certain amount of luck involved in making great street photography,  but you can improve your chances for success greatly with a bit of practice and persistence on your end. As you start to see some success, keep pushing forward. Give yourself new and more challenging assignments to do. Mix the degree of difficulty in your self- assignment photography tasks up, so that you stay motivated and keep moving forward. If you follow these simple photography tips you will see that you too can make street photography that others wish that they had done.


  1. Ma. Vinness says:

    The kids in this photo look amazing!


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