“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:
- 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.
- 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:
Honestly, great details are everywhere!
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!