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

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.

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