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