|Fujifilm X-T2 with XF 35mm f/2 R WR. Classic Chrome film profile|
If someone asked what the #1 tip I can give for creating a great street photo, I would say focus on composition. It's even more important than finding interesting people. Really? Many prioritize the search for interesting people and then composition comes after, but my approach is the reverse. Most of us understand what the term 'composition' means, but do we know how to prioritize it in our photography, especially when it comes to street photography? I've conducted enough workshops to know that many of us need a little help, but once we get it, we get it. Developing a systematic approach to our composition will take time, but it's time well spent. Once we acquire an eye for it, our street photography will improve dramatically. So let's stop chasing people and focus on composition. But how? Let's begin now.
The first step appears easy, but it's the most difficult. We can spend our entire life pursuing it, but never feel that we've mastered it. This is a good thing. It's partly systematic, part persistence, part luck. To begin, we need to find an interesting background to frame our subjects within. This takes a good eye and a talent for composition. Sometimes studying other great photographers, cinematographers or painters can help, but we should develop our own style. When I say background I don't mean just a simple wall or some place that has dramatic light (although this is a good start). Imagine an image that can stand on its own, even without a person in it. The picture might be a bit dull, but does it stand up compositionally? Think of Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous picture of the bike rider. Even without the bike, the image has strong compositional elements (the spiral stairs, the curved road). The decisive moment is important, but I would argue that finding the right spot to frame the image and then waiting for that moment is more important. The decisive moment is the final product of inspiration, creativity and composition. The above image is an example of my starting point of every street photo. Although uninteresting, I always take this type of photo first, study it, make adjustments (exposure, perspective, framing) and then proceed.
As a quick side point, don't be so focused on composition that we forget about people. I've done this many times. Make sure there's enough foot traffic to capture people walking into our frame. There's no point in composing for a great street photo, only to have no person walking into it. If we believe in the location, we may need to come back when there's more people. Conversely, if you know where there are a lot of interesting people, make sure you scope out the best spot to compose the best possible image in that particular area. We also have to consider the light. Where is the best place to stand and how will it hit our subject? I loved the way the light was hitting the image inside the cafe, but what happens when someone crosses the light? My first image shows what happened. Also consider the balance of the composition. The far right side with the red tile wall seemed like a separate frame within the main image, especially with the grey concrete wall creating a visual border. The portrait of the child in the window creates a strong central focal point, and the left side is a window reflection of the street behind me. Again, all the compositional elements seemed to be in place. I just had to wait and see what would unfold in front of me, and wait I did.
Sometimes the position of the subject and reflections worked out, but I would lose the far right red wall portion of the image. Other times the reflection portion didn't work out as a big bus or an odd coloured vehicle entered the frame. Reposition yourself if you can, change focal lengths, shift your lens, or patiently wait and see what happens. It's pretty random, but we do have some control. Where we stand in relation to our background and subject (perspective) and how we frame this relationship (composition) is 80% of our image. The rest is timing and luck.
I eventually gave up on the idea of having all 4 elements in one picture (person along red wall, person walking across my frame, perfect reflection, picture of child in window). I had to decide which element(s) took priority. The first image was close to what I wanted, except the main subject was too dominant and the picture of the child was being blocked. I decided on this final image as my favourite. It was the closest in concept to what I initially wanted, although I still wish I had something more interesting in the reflection. Remember to go back to our favourite spots more than once. Landscape photographer Michael Kenna famously visited the same tree in Japan for decades (aka the 'Kenna Tree') hoping to get something different each time during different seasons and different light. That's commitment. Perhaps if I go another day, everything will come together, or maybe not. It doesn't matter. This was just an exercise in composition, and I was reasonably happy with the results.
As a side point, this entire article and the images produced was based on a workshop assignment I was conducting. You can't see this part, but I had my student standing just to my left. These pictures weren't about me or my photography. I took these pictures as an exercise to help my student to understand the importance of composition. I helped him find this location and was talking him through the process of constructing a good image. Up to this point he was learning about perspective, composition, timing, etc. After studying his initial image sans human subject, I turned off his image preview and told him to stop chimping. He shot away for about 10 minutes and was getting fantastic photos. He was so excited. In fact, his position was better than mine and I was a bit jealous. He was getting better pictures than me! The lesson? Forget about chasing people or posing them. Human movement is beautiful. Allow people to be people. Our job is to make sure we first understand and then pursue the art and craft of composition as a fundamental tool in our photography. Thanks or visiting and happy shooting.