This article is based on a series of articles I published in my blog Fuji-Xperience, where I enumerated what, to me, are the fundamental rules of composition in street photography.
One of the fundamental characteristics of Street photography is the urgency needed to capture that unique, unrepeatable moment, which is supposedly the essence of this discipline.
This particularity might make it seem like there is no room for a carefully composed image in street photography. While there are styles within street photography that are all about capturing the moment, you can also opt to work this form of photography a little more carefully, and when I say “carefully” I mean looking for something more than just harmony in composition.
You may have noticed in my blog entries that I usually insist that there are very few rules that are unbreakable in photography, well the same goes for street photography. It’s all a question of taste and style. It’s not better or worse to work on composition in these shots, it simply depends on your style. Greater control means taking a little more time with your shot, which will create a more paused style.
Even though this article explains the basic composition rules, it’s done with a focus on landscape and urban landscape photography. Although some of the rules are commonly applied in street photography in general, in some cases their application will vary a bit since in this field you’ll occasionally come across certain peculiarities when it’s time to compose.
In this article, I’ll enumerate what, in my opinion, are the basic positive composition rules in this discipline.
Watch the Background
This is a concept we should always keep in mind with any genre of photography and it is also applicable with street photography. A carefully chosen background with not only provide esthetic value, but it is a fundamental tool for getting shots that have “soul.”
When I talk about shots that have soul, I mean photos that transmit sensations, making them stand out from typical “capture a memory” shots. But not just from the aesthetic point of view that we already mentioned, but as a way of reinforcing the elements or playing with contrasts and light, textures…You want the image to make people ask questions. On many occasions, a good photo gives spectators more questions than answers, which gives a certain depth to our work. I recommend that you try to frame with the cleanest backgrounds possible, empty, lacking elements that might distract attention from the protagonist of the image…Whether you want a light or dark background depends on what idea we want to give. To that end, we have the possibility to provoke silhouettes against the light and create other similar effects in our photos.
But that is just a rule I use that is adequate for my style. Other photographers look for just the opposite, what we might call a “chaotic background.”
It is your choice to create one sentiment or another, but always keep in mind the fundamental nature of your background in creating a good shot.
The second point in reference to street photography is about the importance of the uneven number in composition.
The Uneven Number
In a blog post I wrote, I explained that composition rules aren’t so much an element that you look for, but rather a form of explaining and understanding why a photograph works. In contrast with what occurs in landscape photography, with street photography we won’t have more than a few seconds to compose and capture a scene, which is why it is of utmost importance that we give these rules that I believe are important, due consideration. They are a tool of understanding that we must give priority to when we head out for a photo walk.
I am of the opinion that you can assimilate the rules of composition automatically if you spend time viewing photos that work because of their use of the rules. If you do so, you will begin to look for the same compositions in your own photos instinctively.
The uneven number rule is common in all genres of photography. The uneven number, specifically the number three, is magic in the photographic world. The presence of three principal elements in a shot or a balance of light in uneven successions give rhythm and a greater force to a photograph.
Compositely, photographs that highlight three principal elements or at least an uneven number or elements have much more impact and visual depth.
This relates to a landscape rule that is fundamental and reflects the tendency of our mind to find geometric figures that facilitate the digestion of a shot. The simplest is the triangle, which needs three elements to take form. As I like to explain it, our mind is lazy and looks to simplify everything.
Continuing with the rules of composition applied in Street photography, I am going to go over a resource that will help us to add a dynamic feel and depth to our shots. This resource is none other than taking advantage of the lines in a scene to create the aforementioned dynamism and depth.
Take Advantage of Lines
Logically, these lines can present themselves in an obvious way, such as road markings, or they can appear implicitly, such as a shape created by light contrast or a building’s profile.
Working with diagonal lines is simple and only a few photos we release will have these guides to vanishing points and give such depth to our shots.
That said, in reality very few vertical and horizontal lines exist. Working with these will depend on each individual photographer’s style but in any case lines are a resource that requires a higher level of photographic vision. This is one of the most difficult resources to use, as demonstrated by the people who attend my street photography workshops.
As a brief side note, using vertical lines will accelerate the viewer’s visual path, that is, poorly used, they will make the viewer “step out” of the image. This is the worst thing that can happen to a photographer – for their image to have only a two second lifespan in the eyes of the spectator. On the other hand, horizontal lines are an obstacle to the natural line of sight, which makes them especially delicate in photography. The combination of and balance between lines is difficult to capture, but if you can achieve it the results are truly good. This is applicable in street photography too.
As I’ve brought out on many occasions, the rules of composition that I list here are usually applicable in street photography. Next, we’ll discuss rhythm.
Rhythm in Photos
Once again I insist that the rules of composition in this discipline are relative because of the nature of street photography – the immediacy and rapidness needed to capture that unique moment. This is why we shouldn’t treat them the same as composition rules for landscape, where we try to play with the rules either to follow or break them.
In this series, we’ll go over the rules that complement those detailed in this article, or adapt to the nature of street photography, the rules that – once we have knowledge of them – help us, not so much to consciously apply when we shoot, but rather to understand why certain photos work. With time and practice, if we understand these concepts we’ll end up assimilating and applying them whenever possible in an intuitive manner.
The protagonist of this section is a rule that has its clearest exponent in a photo that developed a career in another kind of photography. We are talking about Ansel Adams, who dominated photographic rhythm in a majestic way. So, why study this rule as a possible useful tool for street photography? Mainly because photography is made up of several different, yet interconnected genres. And in street photography it is important to always be aware not just of our subject or subjects, but also the background.
The combination of these elements can create a rhythm between light and shadow, a pattern that, once again, serves the mind’s tendency to “make vague” or simplify.
Since the concept is a little complicated to explain, the next image indicates how to establish rhythm between light and shadow.
The photo, super simple, is part of a test I did for a compact Samsung camera, but I think it is perfect for illustrating this concept. In it, we see how the succession between light and dark is regular. I recommend observing Adams’ photographs, which dominate this concept to perfection. The simplicity of his photography will help us identify these patterns, before we begin to analyze them in street photography images.
In any case, remember that these rules are more for understanding why a photograph works, so that we might have them as a reference for later on. As occurs in landscape photography, only the experience and instinct you’ll develop will make you “search for them” in an instinctive way with time. The magic of street photography is its immediacy.
Until now, this article has covered a series of rules (how I dislike that term in photography…) that were not directly related to the main subject. Well, in the following section we’ll talk about it.
Identifying the Main Subject
First, we should mention a couple of considerations.
On one hand, like I always say, these rules are not something you should constantly be thinking about when you practice street photography, but rather concepts that you can apply that can make the final product a little better.
On the other hand, some photographers have a style in which a concrete subject or group of subjects does not exist in their images. This is the case for example, with Alex Webb. This MAGNUM photographer’s images are characterized by their chaos, in which the presence of a multitude of scenes within one shot fill, on many occasions, the total area of the frame. Personally, this is not my favorite style of photography, but hey, everyone has an opinion.
And after that intro, we’ll get to the point…
Identifying your main subject can be done in many ways. It’s clear that the highest expression of main subject identity is the ID PHOTO. A plain, colorless background and the “guy” centered and looking at the camera…but of course, if you are reading this article, it’s a given that you want your photos to be a photographer’s images, not regular old photos. So let’s see how we can give our images a real protagonist.
To do so, there are several resources that you can apply to individuals or groups in photos. The fundamental resources go as follows:
Isolate your subject from the background. This will give the subject importance in the frame. If there is a single subject, then there will be no doubt from the people who enjoy (or suffer through ;)) our photographs as to who is the center of attention in the image. You can achieve this with the well-known blur by using the diaphragm openings properly or if the subject is placed in a way that he creates a very sharp break in contrast to the background or overall scene. This can be achieved for example if the subject is substantially more illuminated than the rest of the elements in the scene (here a good, bright flash can work miracles), or because the tone or temperature of the subject are quite different. These last cases are in part concepts related to the next concept.
Break the pattern. If an element breaks up the “rhythm” or system to which the rest of the elements conform, this will be the main subject. Imagine a row of seats in a soccer stadium. It’s full of fans, all decked out in their team color, let’s say blue. If in the middle of them there was a fan of the opposing team, dressed in red, that would be the main subject of the image. A tip, if you ever see a single opposing fan in a sea of home team fans, you’d better get his picture fast 😉 .
Make viewers feel like they are participating in the photo. You can achieve this by having your subject look at the camera. This makes the shot open, since the gaze will submerge the viewer in the shot and make him a participant. The connection that is established between subject and viewer is what makes it clear who the protagonist of the shot is.
Of course, if one or more of these elements are present in a person in your frame, it still isn’t a 100% guarantee that the person will be the “main subject” of the image, but it gives them quite a few votes. As always, photography has an element that goes beyond talent and can’t really be taught, only practice can develop it.
The next rule we will consider for street photography composition is closely related to one of the fundamental parameters in photography –shutter speed.
Traditionally, people look to freeze movement, to the extent possible, in street photography. For example, one iconic image represents the moment just before a man breaks the tranquil surface of a puddle. As you probably suspect already, we are talking about one of HCB’s famous photos.
If you have seen my blog and therefore my personal street photography style, you’ll have noticed that it is clearly influenced by my activities as a landscape photographer. This is why the composition and the idea of simplifying the message in each shot, basically seeing each photo as a concept, is clearly seen in most of my photos.
Getting back to the purpose of this post, shutter speed is a tool that I use to affirm my photographic style.
Take Advantage of Movement
Take advantage of movement to tell a story or to give life to a protagonist or the elements that interest us.
In addition to allowing us to freeze a subject’s movement, we can work movement in another way.
For example, we can create ideal environments if the exposure is long enough.
In the following photo, the only static elements are the buildings on the street and the two brothers that you can find there every afternoon for the last 10 years in the same place. Here, I can reinforce the idea that like them, their principles are some of the few things that haven’t changed in the last 10 years.
On the other hand, in this image, the main subject appears disfigured because of the movement. In this case, the exposure resource is used to create contrast between the beggar that is transporting his belongings in a cart in front of the completely defined people that are entering the luxury hotel. This reflects the situation of people who find themselves socially excluded and may even lose their identity in an established system that ignore these people in a large way.
As a theoretical reference, I share with you an extract from a blog entry in which I review the tricks all photographers should be using:
- Shutter speed to freeze objects is usually said to be 1/125 sec, but this is quite relative depending on the direction, proximity, etc…
- To photograph in an oblique movement towards the target, shutter speed should be at least 1/250 sec and 1/500 sec if the movement is perpendicular.
Next, we’ll cover a concept that – even if it doesn’t form a strict composite concept – can translate in a series of guidelines to apply when it comes time to compose.
This concept, like others that we’ve covered in this article, is common in many genres of photography.
It is said that a good photograph is one that tells a story, and many add (myself included), that photos which make viewers ask questions are also great photos.
This principle, translated to street photography, means that we must refine our moment of composition.
One good piece of advice is to try to include in your frame a motivating element, while leaving the story out of it. For example, in the photo that opens this section, we don’t know why there is expectation written on the faces of the people in the frame. However, the tension and emotion that “something” provokes is plain to see in the faces of the adults and in that the children have climbed up on what they could to satisfy their curiosity.
A video in which you can see how that photo was taken:
Maybe the simplest form of provoking a search for answers on the part of the spectator, is to take a close-up of someone’s face, a closed portrait that makes a person ask, “what’s that guy’s story?” This is a common practice in street photography, but it’s not one I tend to use. It doesn’t go with my style. The same goes for “stolen” images and “belly-button” photography, as one of my good friends calls it. These aren’t my favorite practices either.
In addition to the expressions and emotions that subjects may reflect, we can play with driving elements of photography to avoid “the obvious,” which means giving clues, but not showing what the source of the story is that is being told. In this case, we should use the rules of composition we’ve already seen in the previous sections to get the desired effect.
Depriving the main subject of their identity is another way to pose questions. In this case, the resource is used to reflect how an excluded person loses their identity to a large part of society when they are “outside of the system.”
That is, if you want to play with this guideline in composition, you should leave clues in a subtle way for your viewer, and avoid a direct presentation of the story. It’s inevitable in this case, we must work on our photos much more and flee from practices that center on stolen images from a person six feet away from us. Instead, we must decide what story to tell and how to make the spectator work to discover it.
In this eighth topic, the concept is perhaps the exception that breaks the rule.
And it’s because in general (as occurs in landscape composition rules), there should be a certain tonal rhythm and balance, a pattern that makes it easy for the mind to interpret the photo, one that makes the photo “work.”
In this case, we must try to break the pattern, alter the cadence, introduce an element that is clearly different from the rest of those that appear in the capture.
This “alteration” of pattern, can be made by focusing on the form, position, color or emotions that the subjects or elements in the photo transmit.
When there are many subjects in an image, capturing this break in pattern can either be tremendously difficult or quite the opposite. Once again, we must be patient, since we should capture a scene that transmits this guideline and at the same time breaks it with one of its elements.
A variant of this composite concept is that of “facing,” to put a name on it, two subjects. In this way, the contrast between both establishes a composite rhythm in the shot. It is important that if you are using this composite resource, the two subjects in the “face-off” present characteristics that put them in front of one another very clearly.
If you would like to see how the photo at the beginning of this subheading, watch this video:
This is important since all the weight of the photo will fall on the “struggle,” be it of color, form, expression, position…which is why we can’t trump this image if the contrast between the two protagonists is obvious and very sharp. For once, let’s be “radical” in photography.
We’ve arrived at the ninth installment of the Rules of Composition in Street Photography.
This section centers on the Theory of Color. You can read an article that explains the base of this rule of composition, if you want to call it that, by clicking here.
But, before we get into this rule, we should ask ourselves what is achieved by shooting in black and white. I think since street photography is usually dominated by black and white images, we should at least mention the apparent reasons for suppressing color in our images.
The best way to respond to a question is to try to simplify it, to take it back to its essence. What do we get when we photograph in black and white? The elimination of color.
That is, we eliminate an element of nature. What does that imply? (It would be the second question that we could ask ourselves). Well, I think that it is obvious that we make it easier for a photo to work.
Beyond personal taste and mere aesthetic (which is fundamental), when we eliminate color, the protagonists of the image become the forms and textures. In addition, from the point of view of the creation of the image, we leave an element to free will, the “assigning” of color of each subject gives to the photo to assimilate it. And that is because, in the mind of the observer of the black and white image, colors are produced instinctively to assimilate the image. This is due to the fact that in the real world, there are colors and like the animals that we are, we need to process the information in a way that is comprehensible for our brain. This is one of the reasons why we are all attracted to black and white photography, because in reality each person “completes” the photo as they wish.
Good, now that we know why a color street photography is more difficult to capture in a way that satisfies (since the closer the image is to “reality” the easier it is to fall into the day-to-day street scenes we all see in an excessive way), we must try to play with the resources we have.
This includes using colors (in their different tones) that complement one another, that give the shot more visual appeal. If you want to study this topic deeper, take a look at this blog entry, you will find it quite useful.
In this way, you will understand what complementary colors are and how to combine them appropriately. And of course, in a genre like street photography, where we aren’t exactly in a controlled environment, successfully combining colors and making the captured scene attractive is a bit complicated…but not impossible. 😉