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.

Summary

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!

Cheers,

Ian 

Click here to view part two of this series

17 thoughts on “Creative Composition in Street Photography – Part One

  1. adambonn says:

    I really enjoyed that Ian, thanks very much for sharing such an informative piece of writing

    Completely agree about compositional rules, you need to know them to break them if you want, and I think a viewer can usually tell the difference between a deliberately broken rule and a picture taken with no rules in mind

    Looking forward to the next parts of the series

  2. Dan James says:

    Really useful article Ian, and something everyone can gain something from, whatever camera they use, or style of photography they prefer.

    I like the idea of building layers in a photograph. It makes street photography seem much more approachable than hoping that every last element will fall into place in one “decisive moment” without anything the photograph can do except be in the right place at the right time purely by chance.

    Thinking about how we want our own photographs to look is really important too. To beginners especially, the infinite range of possibilities (especially on, say, a busy and ever changing street) can be completely overwhelming.

    Look forward to the next instalment.

    • Ian says:

      Hey Dan!

      I agree that the the blank canvas can be an overwhelming thing. Clarity on what you want to achieve, plus having a few basic tools tucked in the toolbox, change that completely though. All of a sudden it goes from a blank canvas to a world of opportunity!

      Cheers,

      Ian

  3. далтонист says:

    Great idea and very usefull read, looking forward to the next posts of the series. Thanks a lot!

  4. Henry J Rota says:

    Hi Ian:

    Thank you for an informative and very practical post; accompanied by excellent images!

    A quick question: how many parts will this series have?

    All the Best,

    Hank

    • Ian says:

      Good morning Henry,

      How are you?

      Thank you for your kind words! It will probably be 5 parts by the time it is done, but I have been known to just keep talking so who knows. 🤔😊

      Cheers,

      Ian

      • Henry J Rota says:

        Thanks, Ian.

        I’m looking forward to reading the next installments in this series. It’s an excellent topic and thank for sharing your knowledge and insights with us.

        Best,

        Hank

  5. Helen C says:

    Hello, Ian. I’ve read all 5 parts and learned a lot. Thank you.
    I have a question: why “Detail Shots” is listed under two different approaches that is more “interactive”? I am a little confused with the “interactive” part. Thanks.

    • Ian says:

      Hello Helen!

      How are you? 🙂

      Many of the little detail shots that I like to make on the street (i.e. a close up of somebody’s hands, or their tattoos, or something that they are working on) involve direct interaction with the subject.

      Other times, however, detail shots can be captured candidly. It really is an area that spans different approaches to street photography, isn’t it?

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read this series!

      Best wishes,

      Ian

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