Actions Speak Louder Than Words

One of the “rules of thumb” in movie editing is to “cut on action” in order to achieve a natural transition to the next scene. The movement within the action has the effect of preparing the eye for a new camera set-up, whether it’s a close-up or just an alternative view.

Can this idea be translated to street photography? I think it can, although, unless you’re working in video, there is clearly no “next scene” to cut to — and therefore no need to worry about transitions.

Finding action, such as someone gesticulating or moving rapidly, gives you the opportunity of freezing it into a dramatic pose. It also brings the image to life!

The story encapsulated by my featured image (above) is plain to see. The lady wants a low price; the driver is asking for more. I guess they’ll meet in the middle, with four fingers each.

Most street photos are devoid of action. I see far too many in which pedestrians seem to be idly standing around, like sheep. Yet what I see in the city is constant movement, gestures, and action. When you find action and freeze it at the right moment you’re giving the picture a vital meaning by introducing a narrative element.

No, We’re Not Sheep
Certainly, crowds of people who are united in common belief can appear, from a distance, to be sheep-like — as in a church congregation. In fact, people are often delighted to become one of “the flock” because of the religious connotations this idea carries.

man in front of graffiti wall, looking anxious

Up close, however, it’s a different matter. People are individuals, each with his or her own story: a story from which the camera records just one moment. When someone makes a gesture we often get an additional insight into that person’s character and we see them “doing” rather than just “being.”

I wouldn’t say the man in the photo (immediately above) is “doing” very much, but because of actions (grimacing, scratching his ear) he demonstrates a little bit more about his state of mind.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Demonstrative
In English, when a trivial action or incident is revealing of character, we often say it’s very “telling.” I guess this is an abbreviation of the word “storytelling” and it describes exactly what I mean.

The actions we freeze in street photos don’t have to be demonstrative. In fact, they can be very subtle. The onlooker has plenty of time to study the image and will certainly notice a trivial action, but only if it’s telling.

At first glance, the woman in pink (below) seems to be holding an umbrella, but actually her raised hand is shielding her eyes from the sun. Her other hand is entwined with that of her partner.

It’s now obvious that the “phantom umbrella” belongs to the woman walking behind them. Like you, I know nothing about the main actors in this photo, although the couple and the guy with his hand in his shorts all display distinctive personalities.

Ironically, it’s the demure woman with the umbrella, she with the downcast eyes (probably checking her phone) who reveals nothing at all in the photo. Yes, it’s cookery writer Oi Cheepchaiissara, my partner of thirty years, who was with me on this occasion. I’ve no idea how she got into the picture!

pedestrian in Bangkok on a sunny day

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