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 one of this series, click HERE.

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

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!

Ian