Creative Composition in Street Photography – Part One

There is no genre of photography that brings me joy like street photography does.  When I explore the streets of a city I see photos everywhere, the world a stage filled with wonderful people and interesting moments.  It has been said before that a street photographer only needs a decent camera, a comfortable pair of shoes and the ability to see images on the streets.  I love that.

Vision can be a tricky thing though, can’t it?  Two photographers can walk down the same street, side by side, and see completely different images.  I see this often during my workshops and I think it happens for a variety of reasons: artistic choice, differing skill levels, past experiences, etc.

As visual artists, we should always strive to see in more effective and creative ways.  We can improve our vision.  Gaining clarity on what you like as an artist is important; you shouldn’t create blindly, without purpose, but instead should understand what you value in a photograph.  Once you know this your photography will become more focused.   Another way to improve your vision is to have a solid understanding of composition as it relates to street photography.  In this five part series we will take a look at both of these things, always with the underlying goal of learning to see more creatively when we are out shooting.

I think we can all get behind the idea of understanding who we are as artists, but I have occasionally found the topic of composition to be a four letter word for some people.  When we discuss this, I find that they often think of compositional theory as a set of rules that must be followed, which of course is untrue.  This is art after all, there are very few absolutes.

Having a strong understanding of composition simply allows you to see things more clearly and more efficiently.  It is like expanding your vocabulary;  just because you know all of the words doesn’t mean you have to use them all the time, but they are there when you need them.  I am a guitar player, so let’s use a musical analogy:  I practice scales with a metronome, I study chord construction, I practice arpeggios, etc.  I think of these activities as building blocks in my development as a musician, in much the same way that a boxer hits the bag, skips rope and shadow boxes.  When I play music I am not consciously thinking of these things, but I know that little snippets of them will find their way into my playing at the right time.

Compositional theory is the same idea.  It is just a tool.  Use it when you feel it will serve the photograph well, but don’t be afraid to break “the rules” when it is better for your image.

So, with that said, let’s get started by discussing the most important thing of all:

What really matters in a photograph?

I think it is important to have a clear understanding of our goals when we are making images.  I am going to borrow from my fellow Official Fuji X Photographer, Kevin Mullins, because I think he did a brilliant job of summing up what really matters in a photograph:

  • Subject 
  • Moment
  • Light
  • Background

Kevin once said (paraphrasing) that a “perfect” photograph would have a compelling subject, who was experiencing a genuine moment, in beautiful light and in front of an appropriate background.  

These “perfect” photographs are exceedingly rare of course, especially on the street, but I think that they are a good goal to have.  I’m sure that we have all made photos that are “just okay”, or ones that are “almost there”.  Maybe there is great light or a nice background, but the subject doesn’t fit the background.  Maybe the subject is amazing, but the background is cluttered, the light is poor, etc.  When a photograph only has one or two of these elements that Kevin describes it usually doesn’t make my final cut.  I don’t want to present images that are “just okay”… I want to present images that capture what I was trying to achieve when I clicked the shutter.

How does composition fit into this?  Well, when we learn “the rules” of composition, what we are really doing is training our eyes to see these elements on the street.  We are expanding our vocabulary, if you will.  This allows us to both identify a picture when out on the streets and to bring the important elements of the photograph together more effectively and efficiently.  

Breaking it down

There are few things more nebulous than trying to define street photography, but over the years that I have been studying, shooting and teaching in this genre I have come to realize the following:

  • I tend to use two different approaches for my candid street photography:
      • I set the stage first, then bring different elements together to form a final image.  Or,
      • I react quickly and spontaneously to a moment that is happening in front of me
  • I tend to use two different approaches for my street photography that is more interactive:
      • Street Portraiture
      • Detail Shots

We are going to dive deeply into these different approaches throughout this series, but let’s start with a quick overview:

Setting the stage

I consider myself to be more of a deliberate photographer than a reactionary one, so this is definitely the approach I use most often when I am shooting on the street.   I will see something in a scene that attracts me at first, perhaps amazing light or a beautiful background, and then I build an image from there.  This is analogous to setting the stage first and then bringing out the cast of actors.

This approach is exciting to me as a photographer because there are so many classic compositional techniques that can be used when doing this, such as using the direction and quality of light in a creative fashion, using the juxtaposition between a subject and background to tell a story, using leading lines to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject, etc.

The possibilities really are endless once you know what you are looking for.  In part two of this series, coming next week, we are going to explore this approach in depth.

Reacting to the moment

This is the opposite approach to setting the stage.  There are times on the street when a moment is happening right in front of you and it is magical.  Or, maybe a subject is approaching that looks amazing and you just need to react.  There is no time to set the stage, so you do your best to quickly compose something in a split second and then boom… the moment is gone.

In part three of this series we will look at several images captured this way and discuss what happened when they were captured, what my thought process was, why I made the compositional choices that I did, and perhaps what I wished I could have done better.

Street portraits

I have been drawn to people most of my life and have always worked in professions where I had the opportunity to interact with strangers (photography, music, paramedicine, teaching).  It isn’t just how people look that draws me in, though that is often the first thing I notice about somebody as a photographer of course.  It is their story and their life experiences that really intrigue me.  People are amazing and street photography presents us with unlimited opportunities to meet new friends and make portraits of them.

I know how nerve wracking this can be for some photographers though, so part four of this series will be dedicated to learning how to approach a stranger and make a portrait of them.

Detail Shots

A compelling street photograph doesn’t always have to include a person, their face, etc.  Indeed, sometimes what you don’t include in a photograph tells as much of the story as what you do include.   Purposely cutting off part of a building, or part of a person for that matter, may create tension or mystery in the photograph.  Creative use of light and shadow to hide certain elements of a photograph may also have the same effect.  

In part five of this series we will talk more about this aspect of street photography.


I was originally inspired to write this series after a conversation I had with a new street photographer, in which they expressed how hard street photography was.  We talked  about the fact that it isn’t necessarily hard, they just don’t know the language yet.  Once they understand what they value in a photograph, and once they have a strong foundation to work from (an understanding of basic things like camera operations and compositional principles), they too will realize that the street is a wonderful blank canvas with which we can create art.  That is where the fun really begins and I hope this series will help them.  I hope it will help you too!



How Do You Eat an Elephant?

I was speaking with a photographer friend recently, somebody with whom I have a mentorship relationship, when they said:

“Sometimes I think photography is too hard”

How often do you see or hear this sentiment in our industry, or any industry, for that matter?  I come across it frequently, often said by photographers when they are frustrated with their work.  The concerning thing to me is that this can become a barrier, something that negatively impacts their growth as artists.  To these people I would like to say this:

Photography is not hard, as long as your expectations are realistic

Thinking of something as “hard” is often just a matter of perspective.  Grade 7 math may seem impossible to a young child, but simple to a college graduate.  Early in our lives we couldn’t walk; but 16 years later, we are competing as athletes, getting our first jobs and driving cars.  When we think of something as being “too hard”, what is often happening is a simple mismatch between our current capabilities and our desired outcomes.  There is a gap.  We know what we can do now, we know what we want to be capable of doing in the future (perhaps because we see others doing it), but we don’t necessarily know how to get from point A to point B.  This lack of clarity on how to reach our destination is where the frustration tends to kicks in.  I’ve seen this perception destroy someone’s love of photography completely, which pains me to no end, because I think a simple shift in mindset is all that is needed to change these feelings.  

We grow faster when our goals are more easily achievable 

Do you remember when you first found photography?  If you are reading this I’m going to guess that you fell in love with the process of making images and telling visual stories.  You probably shot a million photos, in auto mode, of anything that caught your eye.  As you progressed further, you became more curious about how to do certain things.  Maybe you wanted to know how to blur the background in a photo, which led to new equipment and a new understanding of depth of field.  Do you remember how exciting it was when you started taking creative control of your photography, making conscious decisions about things like depth of field and shutter speed?  Maybe, at some point, you started becoming interested in portraiture which led you into the world of lighting.  All of a sudden you could meter lights to achieve a correct exposure on your subject.  Success!

There are a few notable takeaways from this trip down memory lane:

  1. It is important, so very important, to be mindful and find joy in the present.  Photography is an amazing thing and we shouldn’t take any of it for granted.  On the contrary, we should love every step of the journey.  Photography is a gift.
  2. We progress, perhaps unknowingly so, by setting small, obtainable goals.  Very few people close “the gap” in one huge leap, they usually do it step by step.  The benefit to these smaller goals is that they are easier to achieve and the rewards add up quickly.

Never forget this:

Learning to do anything well is a marathon, not a sprint

Maybe you are interested in street photography, but are frustrated that you aren’t the next Henri Cartier-Bresson yet.  Rather then compare yourself to a legend, just focus on the little things that can bring you more immediate results:

“Today I am going to learn how to zone focus.”

“Today I am going to learn how to make silhouettes in high contrast light.”

“Today I am going to be patient and only make images with layers in them.”

“Today I am going to be brave enough to interact with a stranger and make a street portrait.  Just one street portrait.”

“Today I am going to work on using framing in my compositions.”

Do you see how each of those goals is small, focused, and achievable?  That is the key!  To use an analogy:  the thought of going to medical school is overwhelming, but focusing on one course at a time isn’t so bad.

I used to train in the martial arts and I distinctly recall a conversation I had with my Sensei once, during a time when I was getting frustrated with what I perceived to be a lack of progress and also a bit overwhelmed with the amount of knowledge I needed to know for an upcoming test.  During the conversation she said something that surprised me:  she said that the only difference between a white belt and a black belt was that the black belt kept showing up for class.  Now, obviously, a black belt has put in countless hours on to the dojo floor, but what she really meant was that we just need to keep going… just keeping moving forward, step by step, and all of those little accomplishments will add up to a much greater thing.   

That’s it… that’s the secret to success.

I started this post by asking the question: “how do you eat an elephant?”  You can probably guess the answer by now, but of course it is simply this:

“One bite at a time”

If you ever find yourself getting frustrated, or having the feeling that photography is “too hard”, just slow down.  Pick one thing, just one, and work on it for a while.  Enjoy the process, have fun experimenting, learn from your mistakes and be damn sure to celebrate your successes too.  Before you know it you’ll be able to look back and see just how far you have come.

Until next time!


The Interview Series: Ten Questions With Official Fujifilm X Photographer Spencer Wynn

It is safe to say that photography changed my life.  It gives me purpose, it feeds my family, it brings me joy.  I have been lucky to meet many wonderful people through this journey that I wouldn’t otherwise know:  new friends, new students, new peers… I am truly blessed to be surrounded by so many talented people.

Spencer Wynn and I met through our shared role as Official Fuji X Photographers for Fujifilm Canada.  We initially spent a few hours together on a photo walk here in Vancouver, where he was creating images for his Canada 150 project.   It is easy to like Spencer:  he is talented but modest, confident but gentle.  Spencer spent decades working as a visual journalist and this is reflected in his work, which is diverse and beautiful.  Plus, he cooks an amazing steak.  Seriously.

As Spencer and I spent more time together we realized that we both share a love for education.  This lead to the recent creation of a travel photography workshop series we are calling “The Story of a City”, which is launching this summer in Toronto.  I am excited to be teaching with Spencer and I know I will learn a few new things from him too.

So, settle in and learn more about my friend Spencer Wynn.  Be sure to follow the links to his portfolio once you are done… you won’t be disappointed.

Thank you for being a part of this interview series.  Could you start by telling readers a little bit about yourself and your photography?

I attended the Ontario College of Art – before it was known as OCAD!  There, I specialized in editorial design and documentary photography.  Both those disciplines come together in my love of visual storytelling.  My career since then has been with Toronto Life magazine, various studios and the Toronto Star working with other visual journalists.

After leaving the Star as Deputy Art Director in 2014, I have been free to explore photography even deeper on my own terms.  As a Fujifilm user and brand ambassador, I have taken my cameras into the First Nations community of Attawapiskat to document the housing crisis, into the high Arctic, on ice flows, in caves in China, into Inner Mongolia, Tibet, India, Greenland, Turkey, Czech Republic and other visually exciting locations.  Story telling and locations go well together and combine to create a picture of a place.

You have had a lengthy career as a photojournalist, working for various publications as well as being a freelancer.  What is it that drew you to photojournalism as one of the main genres that you work in?

I have always been interested in the lives of people and cultures.  We are all connected at some level – we can harmonize our lives by learning more about each other.  Combining compelling images, narratives and emotions visually is a powerful way to draw people together as a more local global community.  In these challenging days of division, it is more important than ever to see and read about others and how their lives are as meaningful as our own.

I think it is fair to say that many photographers work to create one single, compelling image at a time.  Photojournalism is often different though as you are required to tell the story of your subject through a series of images.  Can you talk a little bit about the storytelling aspect of making images?

I also teach photography at Humber College and one of the first assignments my students have is to write a story proposal and follow that with a five-image documentary.  A story of a place, an event or a person can be a challenge to photograph well.  It is even more challenging to do this in five images.  When I look at a story, I want to experience it – that may mean living in a slum in India or yurts in Inner Mongolia.  But regardless of where I am, all stories break down into five elements:

  1. An establishing wide shot;
  2. A medium shot;
  3. A portrait/close-up shot;
  4. An action shot;
  5. A detail shot.

If these images are photographed well and at appropriate times of the day and night, then the viewer will comprehend the essence of the narrative without requiring a written statement to get the concept across.

Telling stories can be incredibly rewarding.  Are there any specific projects that you are especially proud of working on?

Two stories come to mind :

  1. The housing crisis in the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario was one where I travelled to twice over a year to document and live in the community.  Establishing trust and a rapport with the residents was important to getting access and stories of the conditions in the troubled community.  One of the periods I was there went over Christmas which added another layer to the story.
  2. The other story was to cover the world’s worst industrial disaster that few remember.  It is the Bhopal Gas Disaster in Bhopal, India.  My writer and I spent two years working on this project – telling the story of trans-national corporate negligence and death.  We were in India where we lived with and experienced the horrors of the lives left behind after tens of thousands died.  “The dead are the lucky ones”, we were told.  Being able to tell their story visually and in virtual reality was both demanding and emotional.  This sort of story leaves a mark one one’s soul.  It is a story to be told forward to educate a new generation so this never happens again.

Of all the experiences I have had, those two embedded experiences are ones that were pure story telling, both written and visual.  They are also stories which I was proud to pitch and to see through to the end.

As a working visual journalist, especially when you were doing it full time, what gear did you use?  Is there certain gear that is a “must carry” for photojournalists?

Before making the huge shift from Canon DSLRs to the Fujufilm X-System, I had to contend with a lot of weight and volume.  Air travel is always a nuisance but with the smaller form factor of the mirrorless system, my gear shrank in size & weight by half!  With smaller cameras & lenses and less obvious gear, I can go about my shooting and look more like a tourist and be left alone – which is perfect, especially in a country where I am an obvious foreigner.  As for the gear I find essential:  A couple of camera bodies, a few lenses, a good audio recorder with external mic, a note book, lots of batteries and a computer.  All of this fits neatly into a small shoulder bag – one that can easily fit in an overhead compartment or under the seat in front of me in an airplane.

You shoot many other genres… I believe I have seen landscapes from you as well as cityscapes, wedding work, portraiture, astro photography, etc.  Is there a common thread to the way you approach these diverse genres, or do you approach each genre differently?

Haha, yes, I am cursed with a wide range of curiosities!  I do love wilderness and remote landscapes from the Arctic to deserts.  I am, as I mentioned interested in people, so portraiture is an art form I love as one can tell a story of someone by having all the right elements in the portrait.  As well, weddings – these I approach as a news feature, creating a visual narrative of a wedding day rather than the trends of Pinterest-like events that are so common these days.  All the genres of photography that I enjoy can also tell stories if approached thoughtfully and from a story telling point of view.

Let’s talk more about gear: I know you through our shared work as Official Fuji X Photographers for Fujifilm Canada.  When did you first discover mirrorless and what drew you to it?

My second trip to India, and the first of the trips to tell the Bhopal story was when it was 114 degrees fahrenheit.  I was wilting in the heat and at about the same time the DSLRs just stopped working as they too were over heated.  Before that trip, I had picked up my first Fujifilm camera, the X10.  I chucked it in my bag and sort of forgot about it – that was until the DSLRs stopped working.  I pulled out the X10 and continued to shoot raw images with it.  It was only at home that I discovered the beauty of those images.  I then purchased the X100S and fell in love!  That was the beginning of the end of my DSLR days and the exciting times ahead for the mirrorless system.  I can honestly say that I have never once looked back.  I am just glad I sold off all the DSLR gear before the market is flooded with the stuff!

What is it about the Fujifilm system specifically that you love?  I am asking in terms of usability, handling, image quality, etc but also in regard to specific pieces of gear.

For me, the Fujifilm system is elegant.  It is beautifully designed, fits my hands well and the ergonomics are perfect for me.  The Q menu is brilliant as I never have to go hunting in the deeper voluminous menu.  This means that I can alter settings on the fly without wasting time on a busy day such as a wedding.  A game-changer is the incredibly bright and accurate electronic view finder.  When you are shooting on the run, you do not have time to stop, look at the images and make adjustments, it is all in the eyepiece and ergonomically, you never have to take the camera away from your eye while your muscle memory makes fine adjustments.

Though I have two brilliant X-Pro2 cameras, I must say that the X100 series is and always has been a favourite.  I am well known to say that I would run into my burning condo just for that camera.  Sure it has no zoom, it has no interchangeable lenses – but for me, those limitations challenge me to be a better and more creative photographer.  It is THE storytelling camera.

Mirrorless technology has advanced rapidly in the last few years and sales figures show us that the growth of mirrorless has been huge compared to DSLR sales.  Is there a specific area that you think mirrorless still needs to mature in, or do you think it has “arrived”?

I am never satisfied with anything, I am always trying to push my skills.  I like knowing that Fujifilm is also doing this for me in terms of their hardware and firmware updates and upgrades.  I appreciate that they listen to end-users like me and are always improving with us.  I am less concerned with the whole full-frame craze – I once had a five-foot print made from my X-Pro2 and it was tack sharp.  I have used these cameras in the rain, in searing heat and in -43 degree weather with no issues.  The only area I would like to see improved is extreme low light focusing. I have workarounds for these rare situations, but would love to see an improvement in that area.  I am not a big video guy any longer, but see video as an important art of storytelling – so seeing that Fuji is improving that end of things is comforting to know.  Its not there yet, but its coming.

You and I are collaborating on a few different photography education projects and I know that you also teach photography in a variety of venues.  What is it about education and working with other photographers that you love so much?

I have been blessed with a thirsty curiosity and my teachers in school tapped into that by challenging me, never accepting anything but perfection.  My biggest influence was my teacher, Ken Bell, who among other things was a WWII war photographer who landed and survived the Normandy landings, documenting one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war before going into teaching at the Ontario College of Art.  Ken is never far from my mind when I teach my own students – trying to give back all the experiences, reveal all my mistakes and excite my students with the thrill of seeing an idea burst into reality though compelling and beautiful images.  I see the look of amazement on my students faces and smile, remembering the same feelings I had.  It is through sharing freely that we all become better.

Thank you so much for participating in this interview. Where can people find out more about you?

I have two websites: 

I am also on Twitter and Instagram as  @spencerwynn and on Facebook @aspencerwynn


If you would like to learn more about the travel photography workshop that Spencer and I are teaching in August, please click the following link:

The Story of a City – Toronto Edition

Until next time,