Creative Composition in Street Photography – Part Five

“In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject.  The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv.”  

– Henri Cartier-Bresson

Details matter, it’s the little things that count…. how many times have you heard sentiments like this before?  In this series we have looked at a broad overview of how I present street photography when I teach, discussed best practices for both deliberately crafting and spontaneously capturing candid images, and have looked at different approaches for making street portraits.  In this, the fifth and final post in this composition series, I’d like to talk a bit about the little details that can make an okay photo good, and a good photo great.

I came to appreciate looking for the little things in photographs many years ago, when I was out shooting street photography in Paris.  I had been chatting with this lady for a few minutes and then asked if I could made a quick portrait of her.  I shot several photographs from different angles, never found a composition that I liked, and just chalked it up to experience.

When I was editing and processing the images from this trip I was about to delete the photograph when I noticed the woman’s hands.  A ridiculously tight crop made me realize that there was a photo there after all, if only I had been paying better attention to the details and not just trying to make a portrait.  This realization, which I’m sure everyone else already knew about (I’m usually a little slow), was a game changer for me.  It taught me to look for details, to pay more attention to shadows and reflections, to look up and down more often, to focus in on different elements in the frame and really just to view a scene in different ways.  It taught me to make photographs that are sometimes a little more abstract, perhaps a little less “street”, but ones that are often visually appealing to me such as:

Now, focusing on details doesn’t always mean that the detail has to dominate the entire frame.  Sometimes it is the little things that actually leap out at a viewer, like in this photo:

When viewing this photograph some people first see the lady who is walking across the frame.  For me, however, the interesting element is the employee pushing the cart out of the doorway.  Two things make this photo work for me:

  1. The timing of the photograph, capturing the employee where he is in the deep shadows of the doorway.  I love how his hands are in the sunlight, but you can’t see his upper torso or head at all.  This adds an element of mystery in the photo.
  2. The overhead lights are arranged in a way that creates leading lines, which frame the employee and draw the viewer’s eye to the area of darkness where his upper body should be.

If there was bright sunlight shining directly into the doorway, or if I had waited a split second longer to click the shutter, the employee would have been fully lit and most of the strong elements (the important little details) would have been lost.  Here is the same image, horribly overexposed and with the shadows lifted, just so you can see the difference:

See what I mean?  The little things really do matter.  When the subject is obscured by shadow it allows the little details like his hands to pop out, adding visual interest to the image.  When you can see everything in the photo it is far less interesting in my opinion.

Let’s look at another example:

Someone once told me:

“When you are photographing a parade don’t point your camera at the parade itself, because that’s not where the interesting photos are.”

What they were really saying is that there are photographic opportunities all around us when we don’t tunnel vision in on the obvious subject.  There are so many amazing photographs to be found when we point our cameras at the crowd watching a parade, for example, capturing the wonderful expressions on people’s faces as the parade goes by.  These photographs are an important part of the story, but ones that are often missed by many photographers.  This has always stuck with me and is something that I use in all aspects of my photography.  When I shoot weddings, for example, the best photographs are often when people react to a moment like the first kiss.  Learning to view everything around you, and to anticipate moments, is a skill that is worth developing because it will help with your visual storytelling.

Now, to tie this concept in to our discussion:  on the streets we should always look for details around the subject and not just focus on the subject alone.  In the photo above, for example, people were walking past this puddle which a friend and I had found during our travels in Paris.  The images of the actual people were… just…okay… but their reflections in the puddle made for an interesting image.

(Note:  I inverted this photograph when I processed it, just in case you were wondering what the hell was going on.)

Moral of the story:  Always look for the important details, both in the frame and around the subject.

Let’s look at a few more examples where I didn’t shoot the subject themselves, but instead chose to focus on another detail in the scene like their shadows:

Focusing on details can even give a sense of place to an image, without the need to show iconic landmarks or portraits of people.

Amsterdam, for example, is famous for its bike centric culture:

And, you don’t need to see anything else to recognize where this Hollywood photo was taken:

Honestly, great details are everywhere!

In Summary…

I think this final image really sums up how small little details can make a photograph.  There is no single subject in this photo, but the interplay of light and shadow combines to offer the viewer several small details that I love:  The brightly lit frog legs in the upper right corner, the hint of the employee behind the counter, the light falling sporadically on the balloons and prizes, and the partial shadows of people walking by.  

This photo is all about the details.

And, with that said, this five part series on street photography composition has come to an end.   No series, not even a five part one, can cover all aspects of a vast topic like composition.  I hope you have enjoyed it though and perhaps picked up a thing or two along the way.

If you have liked these posts, or would like to see articles on other aspects of photography, please let me know in the comments section below… I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Cheers,

Ian

Part One – Overview

Part Two – Crafting Street Images

Part Three – Capturing Spontaneous Candid Moments

Part Four – Making Street Portraits

Creative Composition in Street Photography – Part Four

There are many street photographers that only shoot in a candid fashion.  They wish to remain invisible, unseen, photographing the streets without interacting with their subjects.  Some feel that this is the only way street photography should be shot, preferring the more candid approaches we discussed in Part Two and Part Three of this series.  I don’t subscribe to that philosophy, however.  Yes, I love shooting candidly, but street photography offers so many opportunities to interact with and meet new people that I would find it restricting to limit myself to one method.

Interacting with strangers can be intimidating for some people though.  My students often say that approaching a stranger on the street, and asking to make a portrait of them, is the one thing that they are the most nervous about.  In part four of this series, which is a re-written and expanded version of an article I wrote on street portraits a few years ago, we are going to discuss some methods you can use to ease that discomfort and become confident making street portraits.

first things first – WHY YOU SHOULD Be Confident

When you are considering asking someone to pose for a street portrait what you are really doing is paying them a compliment.  You are saying that there is something unique about that person, something so interesting that you are compelled to capture it.   This is a beautiful thing, so there is no reason to be nervous.  As a matter of fact, nervousness shows and will only serve to make the interaction more awkward.  Be proud of your work, be proud of wanting to meet someone new, and be proud of wanting to create art by making a portrait of someone.

Another thing to consider is this:

“What is the worst thing that can happen?”

The worst, ultimately, is that the person says no.  That’s fine, nobody ever died from being told no.   Sure, it can be soul crushing when that amazing person declines your request for a portrait, but life goes on and you continue shooting.  It’s all good.

ease into it if you are nervous – Shoot street entertainers

A great way to start making street portraits is to begin by photographing street entertainers.  These artists are used to being in the limelight and will usually not have a problem with it.  One strong word of advice though:

Pay them!

When I am shooting on the streets I keep small denominations of currency in my bag just for situations like this.  We should always remember that street entertainers are artists, who are out there working for a living.  We are artists too, so we should be respectful of this fact.  You will always get better portraits from street entertainers if you throw a small amount of change in their hat first.

Once you are comfortable approaching and photographing street entertainers, don’t forget to really work the scene:  move around, shoot from different angles, continue adjusting your composition until you are happy with your image.  All too often, people who are nervous fire off one or two quick un-composed frames and then hurriedly move on.  You should take the time to compose a decent shot.  Shoot a lot in the field and then edit later, when you are on the computer and can take the time to select your favourite image from the series.

Here are 3 images, from a series of probably 15 or 20 frames that I shot of this gentleman in Las Vegas:

It is also good to grab a detail shot or two if it is appropriate, which can make for a nice diptych to present later.  Here is a shot I grabbed of this gentleman playing guitar, then a close up of his hands afterwards:

Approaching Strangers

This is where it can get harder for some people:  you see that amazing person, you know that they would look perfect in a portrait, but you are unsure about approaching them.  Here are some things to consider:

Does it look like the person is open and receptive to being stopped for a few minutes?  If the person is talking on their phone, probably not.  If they are walking full speed down the sidewalk, with intention and purpose, they are probably in a rush and also not likely to have time to stop.  When I see somebody I’d like to make a portrait of my first consideration is usually this:

Do I think they have the time?

If I think they do, the next thing I try to find is a “hook”, or a reason to approach them and begin a conversation.  It could be a hat they are wearing, a dog they are walking, a painting they are working on, a tattoo, etc.  I’m looking for an icebreaker that I can use to start a conversation.

For this gentleman it was his bird:

While for this lady it was the art she was drawing:

Once you have initiated the conversation, don’t bring up your camera right away.  You approached this individual because they are a person, so take the time to get to know them a bit.  This is the beauty of making street portraits:  your camera is a passport to meeting new people and making new friends.  Enjoy that aspect of it!

After speaking with them for a minute or two you will get a feel for whether or not they would be amenable to a portrait.  If you do decide to ask them, be sure to let them know that it will only take another minute or two.  Be respectful of their time.

If they agree, it’s time to shoot!  As discussed above, don’t just nervously pull up your camera, snap a frame or two, and then quickly walk away.  Do the job justice:  look around for a clean background.  Don’t be afraid to change your angle or composition.  Compose the image properly and make a portrait of them that they would be proud to have.  Again, shoot a lot, you can pick the winner later.  Here are  a couple of examples:

Finally, always offer to send the person a copy of the photograph via email.  Be generous, as they are doing you a favour.

What about when you can’t talk to them?

There are times when you don’t have the opportunity to have a discussion with somebody.  Perhaps there is something physically separating you, perhaps you are in a noisy environment, perhaps there are other people around the person, etc.

In this case simply making eye contact with a smile, and lifting the camera up to indicate that you’d like to take a photo, is often all you need.  If they smile back and nod their head you are good to go.  If not, that’s ok too…. nothing ventured, nothing gained.  This process worked perfectly fine for the portrait below, shot when I was in Amsterdam with this lady who didn’t speak English (and I don’t speak Dutch):

Practice the important things often

Becoming confident at making street portraits is really about having great people skills, much more than it is about the camera, and you can practice developing these skills anytime:  engage your waiters and waitresses in conversation, have chats with people waiting in line at the bank, or speak to the person walking their dog past your house.  Being able to engage a complete stranger in conversation is like a muscle, it can be strengthened, which will better prepare you for when you are out shooting on the street.

One final thought…

Don’t be afraid of rejection when you are out there.  The reward when somebody says yes, and you get to make the art that you love, is always worth the risk of hearing somebody say no.   This final image, from the top of the post, is one of my favourite street portraits.  If I had never asked, I never would have taken it.  Be brave.

I hope that you found this post helpful.  In part five, the final post in this series, we will look at shooting detail shots on the street.

Until then!

Ian

Click here to view part FIVE of this series

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.

Summary:

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!

Ian

Click here to view part FOUR of this series