Creative Composition in Street Photography – Part Two

When I work with people new to street photography, I find that some are surprised by how slow and deliberate many photographers are when they shoot.  It is a romantic notion to think of the street photographer as someone who is constantly on the move in their environment, like a shark swimming, picking off one great image after another as moments present themselves.  While it is true that many amazing photographs have been made this way over the years, I personally find that my keeper rate goes up dramatically when I focus on one main thing:

Slowing down.

I have long subscribed to the approach of constructing an image, rather than simply snapping one.  This isn’t always possible of course due to the unpredictable nature of the street, but it is usually my goal.  Even when I see an amazing subject walking toward me, and I only have a few seconds to plan my image, I am scanning the scene to find the right background, good light, and ultimately to decide if the photo is worth taking or not.  This isn’t the only approach to shooting on the street of course, as we discussed in part one of this series, but it has proven to be the most successful one for me.

Slowing down gives us more time to explore the world with our eyes.  It offers the opportunity to experiment, to play, and to decide if the elements of a photograph work well together.  Maybe you found perfect light to shoot a silhouette in, but the right person hasn’t passed through your scene yet.  Just be patient.  Wait.  Great light deserves the right subject (especially when we are talking about silhouettes).  This might mean waiting 20 or 30 minutes.  It might even mean that you invest time in a spot and don’t leave with a keeper that you are happy with.  That’s ok though, such is life on the street.  You still had an opportunity to explore your vision.  You still had an opportunity to experiment.  And, you now have a perfect place to return to on another day to try again!  You have lost nothing, but gained so much.

This post is part two in a five part series on composing street images (to view part one click here), where we will talk about this approach in depth.  Remember though, there is no right or wrong when it comes to creating art… don’t ever let anyone box you in with that belief.  These concepts are simply tools to add to your toolbox. 

Setting the stage, timing the steps

When you are on the streets, and you find a scene that catches your eye, stop and work it for a bit.  Move your feet, work the angles, change your perspective, adjust your exposure.  You may find that the scene doesn’t quite work, or you may discover the foundation for an interesting image.

Once you have a frame that you like, start thinking about your subject.  Don’t just settle, the right subject is crucial to the image.  Who is most appropriate for the story you are trying to tell?  If you have found an elegant background, a college student with a backpack and ball cap on, who has his nose stuck to his iPhone, may not be the right person for your story.  This is where patience comes into play.  Setting the stage is easy, but finding the right subject can be a longer process.  

The key concept for this approach is to establish the static elements in your frame first (i.e. background and light), then patiently work to add interesting dynamic elements (i.e. the right subject).

Let’s discuss the photograph above…

When I noticed the background in this photo there were a couple of things I liked about it right away; there was a frame (the doorway) and the background had interesting elements on it (all of the notices and flyers).  Once I had it framed up, I then waited for the right subject to walk through the light and across my background.  You can see in this final selection (I shot 10 or 12 different people while I was at this location) that the subject is a good visual match for the background.  

This is also a good time to talk about timing your shot when your subject is walking.  Ideally it is usually best to capture your subject mid stride, with their front foot about to step down.  When you look at this photo, notice the triangle between the legs and the way the front foot is just stepping down, but the front leg is not quite weighted yet:

Timing your photograph to catch people at this point in their stride tends to look much more natural and dynamic than if you had caught your subject with one leg up in the air, looking like a flamingo.

Now that we have this basic approach down, let’s look at a few other examples of things you can look for on the streets to help you “set the stage”:

Frame within a frame

This is a classic compositional strategy, wherein you use existing objects within the scene to frame your subject.  This may include buildings, doorways, windows, window displays, trees, or any other object that creates a natural frame around your subject.

When working with this concept it is important to give thought to the placement of your subject in the frame.  As with all other aspects of setting the stage it is important to be purposeful as you craft your image.  Having the subject centred in your frame may create a balanced look for one image, but off centre positioning may work better for others.  Having their head in a clean space in the frame, not intersecting with other objects, is also important to me.

In this photograph you can see that I used the doorway of this laundry mat as the “frame within a frame”, catching my subject at work in his business.  This photograph also makes use of leading lines to guide the viewers eye to the main subject (more on this below).

When you are out walking, always be observant.  Look into doors and windows, look around corners  and down alleyways.  You never know when the next photograph will present itself.

Leading Lines

Drawing the viewer’s eye to the subject is an important compositional strategy in any style of photography.  Composing your images so that lines in the frame act as a guide to follow straight to the subject is a timeless technique which often yields excellent results.  

In this photograph,  you can see how the lines along the walls, floor, ceiling and handrails frame the lone subject in the hallway.  The perspective of the photograph also causes things to diminish as they get further away from the camera, causing the lines to converge towards each other and draw the eye straight to the subject.

Juxtaposition

I love to create photographs that tell a story.  Juxtaposition, where two adjacent objects appear to contrast with each other, is one of my favourite ways of doing this on the street. 

Consider this photograph, where the gentleman in the foreground is contrasted against the beautiful woman in the background.  Sometimes you walk right up on an image like this, as I did on this day.  Other times, however, you may find your background first (in this case the bus shelter and the window with the Chanel poster) and then wait for the right contrasting subject to enter your frame.  When that happens though, wait for the right moment.  This picture is made that much better because of the fact that the gentleman on the bench and the model in the poster have their heads turned towards each other.

Remember, don’t settle.  Work a scene, shooting more than one image, until you nail the photograph that tells your story.

Perspective

We become accustomed to seeing the world a certain way.  I am pretty short, maybe 5’ 8” or so, and I have a friend who is 6’ 6” (almost a foot taller than me).  I once jokingly stood on a log to achieve height parity with him, and was stunned by how different the world looked with that simple change!

When we photograph on the street, we often swivel our heads side to side as we explore our environment, looking left and right for interesting subjects, light or backgrounds.  Don’t forget to look up and down too though.  Find an elevation to shoot down on your subjects, perhaps an elevated platform, staircase, walkway, or hillside.  Conversely, like in the photograph above, finding places where you can look up at your subject, even if it is simply holding your camera close to the ground and shooting up, can yield wonderful results.  Here is another example, shooting upward while crouched down low on the ground:

As you can see, photographs taken from differing perspectives offer something different to the viewer, something not usually seen during our day to day travels.  When it comes to using perspective in your photographs a small change can go a long way.

Scale

Creative use of scale is another way to craft an impactful photograph, in much the same way that changing perspective can.  I know that I find photographs where the subject completely fills the frame, or ones where the subject is dwarfed by the environment, to be the most impactful.  I think the key here, much like with changing perspective, is to get away from what we see in our day to day life and offer a different way of looking at the world.

Let’s consider the photograph above, as well as this one:

Both of these photographs feel lonely to me, perhaps also contemplative, which is a result of the composition and of their placement in the frame.  They are photographs that make me stop and think about the subject, and about what they were thinking at the time the photograph was taken.

Colour

When I am out and about, scanning the environment, my eyes are often drawn to bold colours that become the background for an image.  Case in point:  I was with my family at our local fair, inside one of the darker pavilions, when we came across this huge “piano” that kids were playing on.  The keys would light up in different colours as the kids ran over them, creating the various colours you see here.  By exposing for the bright keys (spot metering) everything else fell to shadow and silhouette, creating an interesting image for me to capture.  The rest was just timing and a healthy dose of luck to get the silhouettes of the kids in the right place.

Reflections 

Shooting through glass can be a random and wonderful thing.  Layers are often created, showing  both your subject through the glass and the reflection of whatever is behind you.  Entire stories can be told in one image as unrelated elements come together in your photograph. 

The key, as with most photographs, is knowing when to click the shutter.  If you see an interesting scene through a window grab that shot for sure, but then wait for a bit and see what else enters the frame.  I once was photographing a beautifully elegant lady through a window, who was wearing the craziest hat that I have ever seen, when a gentleman walked behind me and his reflection became visible in the window.  Suddenly the two people made eye contact with each other and the story of the photograph changed entirely.  That image came together for two reasons. First, I found a frame and was willing to work the scene for a bit.  Secondly, the amazing randomness of the street!  If I had left immediately after taking the first photograph I never would have had the second one, which is far better in my opinion.

The photograph at the top of this section is my favourite window / reflection photo.  There are multiple layers in the image, including my reflection, all showing unrelated people going about their day.  I love that.

Light and Shadows

We’ll end this part of the series by talking about my all time favourite thing as a photographer:  amazing light.  Well, “things” really, because I love shadows as much as I love light.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, will stop me in my tracks faster than finding a beautiful patch of light when I am out on the street.

I was walking along Hollywood Boulevard last year, when I found an amazing puddle of light on the sidewalk that was coming from the sun reflecting off of a window across the street.  Years ago, when I didn’t see light the way I do now, I am quite certain that I would have walked right past it.  Now, however, I see a world of possibilities in these little patches of light.  Use your exposure compensation to drop the exposure on the frame, which protects the highlights and creates wonderful, deep shadows (spot metering will accomplish this too).  Now, let your subjects come between the light and your camera and a world of shadows and silhouettes opens up!

Here is an article I wrote last year on photographing silhouettes that is also related to creative use of light and shadows:

How to photograph silhouettes on the street

Summary

We’ve talked a lot about the concept of “setting the stage” in this article, as well as the benefits of slowing down and crafting an image rather than leaving every variable to chance.  Some key points include:

  1. Walk around on the streets with your eyes open, always scanning, looking for what might make an interesting “stage”.  You might be drawn to a location that has interesting framing, leading lines, the potential for juxtaposition, interesting use of scale and/or perspective, strong colours, interesting light, or a thousand other things we didn’t have space to discuss in this article.  The key is to learn to see the potential in a scene.
  2. “Set the stage”.  Find your composition and establish your static elements.
  3. Be patient!  Wait for the right subject to come to you.  When they do, remember to time their steps and capture them in a natural position.

No single article can cover the vast array of possibilities that exist when shooting on the streets, but hopefully this planted some seeds for you.  In part three of this series we will discuss approaching our photographs from the exact opposite approach to setting the stage, which is simply when we react to a spontaneous moment that is happening right in front of us.  Both approaches have their place on the street of course, and it is important to always be versatile as a street photographer.

Until next time!

Cheers,

Ian

To view part THREE of this series, click HERE.

7 thoughts on “Creative Composition in Street Photography – Part Two

  1. mikevincent64 says:

    Excellent piece Ian. I thought if you this last weekend as U was in Amsterdam – 4 hours on the train from London, how cool is that?

    I love this city.

    Feature rich.

    I have enjoyed your images from this place.

    Here is one from Sunday afternoon.

    Cheers Mike

    Michael Vincent Magic http://www.michaelvincentmagic.com

    The Vincent Academy http://www.vincentacademy.co.uk Twitter Mikecards6

    Facebook https://m.facebook.com/mike.vincent.7106

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    >

    • Ian says:

      Hey Mike!

      Amsterdam is amazing, and I will be back there soon!

      Thank you for the kind words as always my friend.

      Cheers,

      Ian

  2. Dan James says:

    Another collection of useful tips, thanks Ian. I especially like that you said this too – “Remember though, there is no right or wrong when it comes to creating art… don’t ever let anyone box you in with that belief. These concepts are simply tools to add to your toolbox.” People can get so hung up on rules and doing what think “should” be done in order to make their work qualify as street photography. Rather than just shooting what interests and inspires them.

    • Ian says:

      Thanks Dan. I think it is important for a photographer to have a good understanding of things like camera operation, exposure and composition, in much the same way I think a musician should understand musical theory, but at the end of the day the photographer’s vision is what really matters.

      In other words, learn the vocabulary and then decide what you want to say. 🙂

      Cheers,

      Ian

      • Dan James says:

        I used to dance (and teach dance) and it’s exactly the same. Before you can start to improvise you need to know the basic steps inside out and back to front. Then you can go off in your own direction, whilst remaining within the overall framework of the discipline.

        Beginners (in photography and dance) though usually want to be masters within a couple of hours!

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