I got an e-mail asking about how I compose my street photos. I started writing a response, but thought I might as well write it up as an article in case anyone else could be interested.
I’m not saying I’m any kind of expert on the topic, so feel free to reply with additional insight.
Composition in photography and other visual arts means arranging the elements of the artwork. Street photography is about capturing what is there, so you are not able to rearrange objects and move the light for better composition. In sculpturing they talk about additive and subtractive art. Subtractive is when you have a block of stone and carve out your sculpture, and additive is when you build up your sculpture with clay. I would say that documentary photography is a subtractive art, while painting, drawing and some forms of photography are additive arts. In street photography you are not building up your image from nothing, you choose what to show from something that is already there. This has great impact on the possibilities when it comes to composition.
Street photography is about capturing the moment and it can seem difficult to think about the composition while trying to capture that split second of interest. That’s why composition is all about planning and training. You can’t plan the moments, but you can find the scene and wait for the interesting moments to show up. With experience you might also see what minor adjustments you can do with your point of view to quickly improve composition.
Rule of Thirds and Golden Rule
There are hundreds of articles about these subjects that are much better than what I’m able to write, so I’ll skip it and focus on other compositional subjects.
Finding a Good Scene
Less is more – not always, but often. When looking for a good scene, I usually look for a minimalistic background. The simplest example can be a wall, and there is no shortage of walls in the city.
Think about how the light conditions are, and also think about how the light could be at a different time of the day. I often jot down spots I think are good for street photography and when the light would be optimal. Visiting the same places several times is good in many ways; you get to know the area, you know where things might happen and you know where to position yourself.
Point of Interest
Without a point of interest, an image can easily become boring. The viewer needs something that catches the eye. A lot of street photos lack a clear point of interest, depicting street scenes that are too chaotic. This often goes for my own photos as well. If you look at great photos, most of them have a strong point of interest – something that you immediately understand is the main motif. Even though it is the main motif, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it fills most of the frame.
Human shapes will automatically draw our attention, and are often a natural point of interest. We also tend to look in the direction that people in the photos are looking. This can be used to send the viewer’s focus towards something else in the picture – and might even tell a story.
Urban landscapes often feature a lot of straight lines. Lines are, in general, a good way to draw attention to key elements in your photo, connecting subjects together and telling a story. Lines leading into the photo give perspective and help focus on the subject.
I often think of lines in two categories: the physical and “light and shadows”. With physical lines I mean the lines that are in the architecture or landscape, this can be roads, buildings etc. With “light and shadow” I mean the lines that are created when objects cast shadows. In urban environments, buildings tend to cast a lot of hard shadows, especially when the sun is low. These lines are often good building blocks for your photographs. And they change with the position of the sun, so with some planning you know when the light is perfect. Not only does the time of day count, but also the time of the year. I know that some photographers think this through before traveling to new places, using maps to plan what to see at what time. Remember – the sun rises in the east.
Negative Space – Ma
Leaving room around the key elements of a photo will make them stand out. Even small objects can get attention when space is left around them. Applying this in your photos will often give a nice harmonious and pleasant looking image, and it is an efficient way to draw attention to the subject. The Japanese call this Ma, which relates to the space between things. It is not only used in visual arts, but also in other arts such as music, where silence can be used to really capture the listener’s attention. Sometimes areas of nothing can be a good thing.
Framing Inside the Frame
Framing your shot keeps the viewer focused on the subject. The viewer’s eyes stays within the frame. Often the frame is closer to the photographer than the main motif, thus adding a foreground to the image and creating a sense of depth. I think it also makes it easier for the viewer to get into the situation – you get a feeling of seeing what the photographer saw and being there to experience it yourself.
Doorways, tunnels and windows can be easy to find, and the possibilities are endless.
The eye has a tendency to look towards areas with contrast in an image. With contrast I mean contrast either in light, color, structure, size, shape or other forms of contrasts. Having something that breaks the rhythm or that stands out from the rest of the image in some way will make a point of interest in your photo.
S and O
In a lot of literature about composition you can read about various types of composition. I’ll briefly discuss two of them. To make them easier to remember, I label them S and O.
S. A zigzag curve – like an S or Z is a strong compositional structure. It adds motion and harmony to your photo.
An O, or simply put, a circle, is also a good and harmonious shape. Your eyes will follow the O, and whatever is inside will get great focus.
Having something intercept the S or O will break the composition in a strong manner. The viewer will have to look at what breaks the harmony, thus making it a very efficient technique – forcing the viewer to notice an object.
Similar to S and O, you can read about L and V composition. In my opinion, those are not as strong as the S and O, but much easier to find.
Here are some challenges you could try. Go out for a couple of hours and do one of the following things each time:
- Leave your camera at home, and bring a notepad. Look for good locations for street photography and write down the place and at what time of the day you think the light will be the best.
- Framing –Walk around just focusing on framing your shots. Don’t worry about what you capture, focus solely on different ways to frame your photos.
- Negative Space – Take photos of people on a minimalistic background.
- S – Walk around capturing various S-shapes in the streets.
- Break the rules!