Creative Composition In Street Photography – Part Three

“The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.”

-Robert Doisneau

In part two of this series we spoke about my favourite approach to street photography, which is to build a photograph in layers.  Usually this involves finding a compelling background or beautiful light first, then working the scene until I have a composition that I like, and finally adding the right subject to complete the photo.  This is a slower, more methodical approach, but it often yields strong images where all of the visual elements work well together.

There are many times on the street, however, where it is not possible to use this more deliberate approach.  Perhaps an excellent subject is approaching and you only have seconds to take the photo.  Maybe there is a moment happening, a real human moment, and you need to click the shutter before it is gone.  

…sometimes you just have to react.

These spontaneous photographs often lack the cohesion that our carefully crafted images have: the background may be cluttered, the composition may not be as strong, the light might not be ideal… but few things are greater than a real moment or real human emotion.  A deliberately constructed image may be technically perfect, but also sterile and cold.  A photograph that captures real emotion, on the other hand, often has a way of drawing us in despite its imperfections.  I think that it is important to be able to make both types of images when I am working on the street.

When I am out shooting, I’m always looking for a “stage” to build a photograph on (as we discussed in part two of this series), but I am also mindful of everything else that is happening around me in case a photograph quickly presents itself.  To be ready to react quickly I tend to leave my camera in Aperture Priority Mode and Auto-ISO.  I try to maintain a fairly deep depth of field (perhaps f/5.6 to f/11, depending on how much light is in the scene) and my Auto-ISO is set to maintain a minimum shutter speed of about 1/320th (which will freeze most moving people).  These settings allow me to react quickly if I see a photograph, but can also be adjusted easily as needed.

So, with all of that said, let’s talk about a few photographs where I simply reacted to something that was happening around me, starting with this one:

I was walking along the street with a friend when we passed this gentleman with a cat on his shoulder.  The cat was just staring at me, with the same, “I’m going to kill you” look that you see in the photo above.  Then I noticed the spiked collar, the leash and the claws that were visible.  So awesome!  I immediately dropped my aperture to f/2 to place the focus on the cat, composed my frame and took the shot.  I rarely use shallow depth of field on the street, because I believe the background is an important part of most stories, but here it was all about the cat.  That evil… scary looking… cat.

Can you tell I’m a dog person?  🙂 

Key takeaway:  Be observant as you walk, because you never know what you will find.  If a shot suddenly appears it is important to still be considerate of  your composition and camera skills if there is time.  I was only near this gentleman and his cat for 10 or 20 seconds, but I still took the time to consider my framing and depth of field as I made the photo.  Good street photography, like most good photography in general, rarely involves just snapping an image.

 When I was last in San Francisco, I saw this gentleman walking toward the street and thought that it might make for an interesting composition, especially if I could frame him in the doorway and balance him in the frame with the light post.  I grabbed a photo or two as he waited to cross the street, but then he turned his head to his right and the photo became much more interesting.  Now there was a story, created by the subject looking in the opposite direction of the “One Way” sign.  When you are out on the streets, and see a photo coming together, always remember that there will probably be a decisive moment… that sliver in time where the best photograph presents itself. 

Here is another example of this kind of thing:

When I first walked past this scene it just looked like two strangers sitting on a park bench.  A few seconds later I looked back, however, and saw the photo above.  Their posture, facial expressions, body language… everything now tells a story.  Click. 

Key takeaway:  When you see a scene that will only be in front of you for a few seconds, don’t just fire off one shot and be done.  Work it as much as you can, making slight adjustments to your composition as needed, remaining ready to grab a moment if it presents itself, etc.  Rarely is the first photograph from a scene the best one.

Human behaviour is a funny thing to observe.  Someone said to me once that, “if you see somebody doing something interesting just watch, because odds are they will do it again”.  I have seen this happen time and time again and it has become a big part of my observations when I am out shooting on the street.  

A few years ago I was walking down a street in Paris when I saw this gentleman leaning against a building, turning his head every time somebody interesting walked by him.  Looking past him, I saw this lady walking toward us and knew that there was a photo to be made.  His reaction was exactly what I anticipated, but her smile was an added bonus!

Key Takeaway:  Observe more, and be ready to click the shutter if you think you see the elements of a photograph coming together!

I was walking in Hollywood when I saw this lady flash by out of the corner of my eye, leaving me with just enough time to raise my camera and blindly snap off a frame or two before she was gone.  Now, this is far from a perfect photograph:  the composition is poor, the subject is close to the edges of the frame, I cut the heads off of the two gentleman, the subject’s face is in shadow, etc.  But, how often do you see a lady, on a skateboard, in a hat, and a dress, and boots, who is chewing gum, and who just went shopping?  I mean… come on!

Here is another photo I snapped quickly when something interesting was happening around me on the streets of Seattle.  The composition is ok, but I missed the focus a little bit (the camera locked on the dog).  

I’ve actually had people tell me to delete this photograph because the subject is soft…. which is insane to me.  I think this is probably a product of working in the digital age, where we are used to being able to zoom in and pixel peep images, but it is totally the wrong way to think about our images most of the time.  Sure, if I am shooting portraits for a client something like that matters.  On the street though?  Not so much.

Key takeaway:  When a moment is happening quickly your image will probably not be perfect… and that’s ok.  Remember, we aren’t always going to get a perfect subject, a real moment, a clean background and beautiful light in every photograph.  We rarely get all four of those things in any photograph for that matter.  Quick photographs like these are all about the subject and the moment… regardless of the technical deficiencies the photograph may have.  Don’t ever throw away a good story because you aren’t happy with the pixels.

Finally, here is one of my favourite street photographs, which I actually made while kneeling on the sidewalk in San Francisco tying my shoelace.  I saw this gentleman walking past me out of the corner of my eye and loved the way he looked.  There was just enough time as he passed to bring the camera up one handed and fire off 3 frames.  I love the experience in his face, his posture, his expression and the overall colour palette of the photograph. 

Key takeaway:  Always keep your camera set the same way when you are between shooting locations or between “stages”.  Have a home base.  There was no time to tweak my settings when I took this shot, but because I always set my camera up the same way when I am walking around I knew that I could grab the image without worry.


The street is unpredictable, but there are wonderful photographs all around us if we are observant and practiced.  Sometimes we craft these images, while other times we simply react to the moment.  Each of the photographs in this post took no more than 15 or 30 seconds to make, but I was able to capture them because I read the scene and composed quickly.  They may not be perfect, but they are all about the subject and the moment.  I think the important thing is that we always remain flexible in our approach to making photographs, be it deliberately crafting images, spontaneously taking images, making impromptu portraits, etc.  

I hope you have enjoyed part three of this series.  In part four we will review best practices for making street portraits, which is something that I have written about in the past and get asked about often.

Until then!


Click here to view part FOUR of this series

8 thoughts on “Creative Composition In Street Photography – Part Three

  1. Socrates Gliarmis says:

    Ian I am loving your site so much. Ive received only one email since subscribing and wondering if I’m getting them all.

    I am learning photography on a Fujifilm XT10 and you and your email…which has led me to your website is teaching me sooo much. I love taking pictures and actually love the learning process. If you ever hold a workshop in southeast US I’m in!

    Thank you so very much for sharing your incredible I sights and art so freely!


    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Khürt Williams says:

    …how often do you see a lady, on a skateboard, in a hat, and a dress, and boots, who is chewing gum, and who just went shopping? I mean… come on!

    The two men walking out of the frame must see that regularly. They appear to not have noticed her.

    I don’t do any street photography in Princeton. It’s the sort of town where this kind of activity would be frowned on and I’m likely to have someone call the authorities on me. But on the rare occasions when I’m in Manhattan with my camera I try it.

    I appreciate the work you have put into writing this series.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.