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An Inside Look at the Unwritten Laws of Street Style Photography

These are the rules that those on the other side of the lens live by.
Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Once upon a time, street style photography was a charming but unique phenomenon propagated almost entirely by one bike-riding dude in a blue coat. In the years since our dearly beloved and lately departed Bill Cunningham first declared that "the news is not in the showrooms… it's on the streets," street style has evolved into one of the most important (and profitable) segments of fashion imagery, especially during fashion month.

Along the way, the number of street style photographers has exploded, too — and with their growing numbers comes a growing subculture, complete with its own unwritten rules and hierarchies. This sense that there's a "wrong" and "right" way to do things was highlighted this past fashion month, when Tommy Ton took to Instagram to express his frustration with inconsiderate photographers, saying they need to "show some respect [and] learn some manners."

So what are the basic guidelines that all street style photographers should understand? Read on to learn about the norms that dictate how things run for everyone in the swarm — from the seasoned veterans to the newbies on the block.

Being respectful of other photographers is the cardinal virtue.

As the number of people with cameras loitering outside the shows has grown, the need for basic etiquette has increased.

"It's an unsaid rule that you should always be aware of your fellow photographers," says New York-based Hannan Saleh, who has been shooting street style since 2009 for clients like Essence and will soon publish her first book of images. "If someone's trying to get a shot, we'll scoot over or bend down."

Most photographers agree that these things come naturally if you've been in the game long enough.

"Usually you can tell who's been doing it for awhile and who just started," says Eva Al Desnudo, a London-based photographer who spends six months a year traveling and shooting street style for clients like Highsnobiety. "We all have big lenses, so we need a huge space between the subject and us to get the full body shot. You'll see when someone is new because they'll run into that space and just stay there."

Michael Ip, a Barcelona-based freelance street style photographer who was formerly a photo editor at Newsweek, agrees. "Whether the amateur photographers don't care or they just don't know, they get in the way sometimes," he says.

The best time for networking is while attendees are inside the shows.

Street style shooters have to be on their toes while showgoers are entering and exiting a venue to make sure they don't miss an important shot. But while editors, influencers, buyers and stylists are inside the shows, photographers who aren't shooting runway or backstage get a few minutes of respite to recuperate — and to get to know each other.

"Other photographers may have information about show locations or a name for someone I didn't recognize, so I always try to just talk with the others on the street," says Zach Chase, a new photographer with Runway Manhattan who shot fashion week street style for the first time in February. "I shared cabs and meals with people I met in that environment and made new friends and contacts that way."

Ip says he often grabs coffee or a bite to eat with fellow photogs during that time, adding that "the social aspect of street style makes it somewhat more fun than just shooting runway."

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Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

The pecking order is dictated by who has the best clients.

If the amateurs who get in everyone's way are the bottom of the food chain, the select few photographers shooting for major publications are the top — and they don't generally have to worry about people blocking their shots.

Chase notes that these top dogs tend to receive instant respect on the street. "For my first fashion week, I was there with another photographer who had much more experience. He was explaining to me that there were photographers who were well-known, and you don't want to get in their way."

Saleh, herself a seven-year street style veteran, agrees. "People kinda get out of the way when someone like Tommy Ton or Scott Schuman shows up."

One photographer, who wishes to remain anonymous, goes so far as to claim that the "the six or seven guys shooting these kind of exclusive, big-name clients can get a little clique-y. Some of those guys walk around like they're gods — but they do make great work." The same photographer is quick to assert that, regardless of reputation or clients, most of their encounters with fellow street style shooters have been cordial if not downright friendly.

But being well-known isn't necessary to get good shots.

Most of the photographers interviewed for this piece agreed that style stars pose longer for shooters they recognize, and occasionally brands will make a special provision for the Phil Ohs or Adam Katz Sindings of the world. Dior has done this in the past, letting only select photographers into a courtyard for uninterrupted shooting — which some would argue is no longer "street style," anyway. But for the most part, established shooters and those fresh to the game are dealing with a relatively level playing field.

"The key to great shots is to be able to adapt to lighting quickly to make sure your settings are correct," asserts Avery D'Alessandro, a San Francisco-based photographer who shoots for clients like Lucky Brand in addition to covering street style outside shows. "To get a solid photo that aligns with your work's identity just takes a bit of luck paired with determination."

Chase adds that, for newbies, it never hurts to just ask for a photo — even though it's easy to be intimidated by the pace and well-known faces. "The majority of the street style stars are more than happy to pose or walk a couple laps to have their photo taken," he says. "They are trying to make a living, just like the photographer."

In general, everyone tends to get along.

Which leads to the next point: that despite all the media personalities calling street style photography "the trenches" or "a circus," the experience of those actually shooting tends to be pretty positive, hierarchy or no.

"Some of the more established guys will politely tell the newer photographers the unwritten rules if they see them breaking them, and if disrespecting those becomes a habit, said photographer can expect to hear an earful," says Ip. "But at the end of the day everyone needs their shots. On the street, you're all equal."

In Saleh's experience, shooting street style alongside other photographers — sometimes for eight hours at a time — is a great way to build relationships. "I told people in September, 'We need to do a family picture before this fashion week,'"she says. "We have real camaraderie. We're all here, we're all working for clients, so in the end it doesn't really matter who you are — the respect should go all the way around.”

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