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 two of this series

New Street Photography Workshop Dates!

Hello everyone,

My 2018 workshops in Vancouver (June & August), Paris (July) and Toronto (August) are now sold out.   Thank you!

I have been asked to add a third Vancouver workshop in September, which is now scheduled to run from September 14th to 16th.  Course and registration information can be found on this page:

Vancouver Street Photography Workshop – September 14th to 16th

I cannot thank you enough for your support.  I still have the same passion and enthusiasm for teaching that I did when I started 23 years ago, and I am looking forward to another summer spent with a wonderful group of artists.

Cheers,

Ian

Photography Saved Me

I know I am in the middle of a series on street photography composition right now, but June is PTSD awareness month and I’d like to talk about that for a bit.  This post is probably going to be a little bit long, but stay with me because I think it might be helpful to you or someone you know.  

By any measure my life is a success.  I am happily married to a wonderful woman and we have an 11 year old daughter who inspires me every day.  I am a brand ambassador for what I believe to be the best camera company in the world, I run a successful business and I work with amazing students and clients.  I am able to experience joy through art, both as a photographer and a musician.  Honestly, the list just goes on and on.  It is easy to look at my life, especially on the surface, and see nothing but kittens and rainbows.

Life is funny though, because there is always so much happening that people cannot see.  An analogy that is used often to describe this phenomena is that of a duck swimming: on the surface everything is calm and serene, but underneath the water that duck is kicking its legs like crazy just to stay afloat.  This metaphor definitely describes my life at times, especially in this busy day and age, and I would imagine it is probably applicable to a lot of us.   

Photography has been a large part of my life since 2004, but it wasn’t always my full time vocation.  For decades I worked as a paramedic.  Over a span of 20 years, through the chaos of day and the darkness of night, I responded to 15,000 calls for assistance.  I cared for the sick and dying.  I delivered babies.  I received praise for the lives I saved and the care I provided, but was also occasionally the target of violence and ridicule from people who were not happy to see us arrive on a scene or from people who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  Such is the life of a paramedic.  It is honourable, noble work, performed by a brotherhood of men and women that I am fiercely proud to have been a part of for much of my working life.

Few things come without a cost though…

Many years ago something started building inside of me.  It started with anger that would come without warning, directed without prejudice toward anybody in my way.  For people who know me, and know how much I love helping others, this is often hard to believe.  The truth is that I wasn’t even aware that these changes were happening to me.  During this time my young daughter, unbeknownst to me, became unsettled and uncomfortable around me.  Not for reasons of violence or fear of injury of course, but because I was rarely happy, because I was becoming increasingly impatient, and because I was quick to snap.  When I was not around she referred to me as angry daddy.  How crazy is that?

I didn’t know it yet, but I had PTSD.

The tipping point for me came years later when I started having panic attacks during the days leading up to work, on my way in to work, and yes, even when I was at work.  It is ironic that I am a skilled emergency health care provider, one who has provided care to people during the worst moments of their lives, yet I couldn’t see what was happening to me.  

Such is the nature of PTSD.  It can be subtle at first… silent… It can manifest in ways that you don’t even notice.

This went on for months before my world caved in.  When it finally did though it was a crushing, suffocating thing.  Nightmares.  Fear.  Panic attacks.  Tears.  Loss of hope.  Depression.  

It took some time for me to find the right trauma counsellor, one who had a long history of working with soldiers, police officers, paramedics, etc.  I spent a year working with this remarkable woman, who picked up the pieces of my life and helped me rebuild them one by one.  It was a long, slow process, but I came out the other side.  I’m sure that I still have a few demons of course, you can’t see what I’ve seen and not have a closet full of them, but they are no longer a factor like they once were.  My life is amazing again, though there are probably still times when I struggle a bit.

Now, this is supposed to be a blog post about how photography saved me and we haven’t talked about that yet.  It wasn’t just photography of course, because that doesn’t take into consideration my family, my medical providers, or my friends who had been there and understood what I was going through (one in particular, who has also battled his own demons). There is, however, no denying the fact that as important as of all of those people were, it was photography that became my salvation through those hard times.

In the darkest of days my camera was where I found solace.  Something happens when I pick up a camera and go out to shoot:  I become mindful and focused, the process of photography bringing me an inner peace.  My mind doesn’t wander, and, during that dark period of my life, I didn’t think of my demons when I had a camera in my hand.  Photography became the thing that got me out of the house when I didn’t want to leave.  It became the thing that brought calm to my life.  It was one of the few things that I still found joy in while I was learning how to live again.  Photography became the light at the end of my tunnel.

The camera brought joy back into my life again.

When I came to the realization that I couldn’t be a paramedic anymore it was obvious what the focus of my artistic and professional life needed to be.  By that time, so much had already happened:  this site was experiencing high volumes of traffic,  I was guesting on podcasts, I already had a small group of clients, I had a wonderful circle of friends from around the world (you) that I had made through the photographic community… all of the pieces were in place to make a transition to being a full time creative.  It is fair to say that photography didn’t just sustain me through the process of healing, it also gave me an entirely new life that allows me to be an artist, work with my amazing students and clients, represent a camera brand that I love, travel the world and have more time with my family.  It is an incredible thing.

In some ways it is hard to write an article like this, to put yourself out there naked and vulnerable.  In other ways, however, it is the easiest thing that I have ever done because I know that there are people still suffering, people who are in the same dark place I was in, and I want them to know that it gets better.  It takes time.  It takes work.  It isn’t easy, but it gets better.  You might not have PTSD, maybe you have depression or anxiety or something else, but please know that you are not alone and that things can and do get better.  

My life now is truly wonderful and has been for quite some time.  I get to be a husband, a father and an artist.  I spend my time shooting, teaching, writing, traveling and of course just living.  And yes, I am sure that I still have off days occasionally too.

I have had a photography project related to PTSD bouncing around my head for almost a year now and I think I finally have it worked out.  I probably won’t get to shoot it until the winter, but I am excited to share it with you.  And, if any of you are feeling stuck, I hope this article helps just a little bit.  Please know that many of us have been there and can help.  

My thanks to all of you for everything that you do and for everything that you have given me.  I love this community of people and look forward to sharing photography with you for many more years.

Best wishes,

Ian