Sometimes the Devil Is in the Detail

If you’re like me, there are occasions when you look through the shots you’ve taken and you come across one which prompts the question: “Why on Earth did I take it?”

The composition is poor, there are yawning gaps in the corners, and there seems to have been no point to taking the subject whatsoever. Then you look closer and realise: it’s the detail. In some shots, the devil really is in the detail — and somehow you have to extract it and show it to its best advantage by cropping.

An example is my featured image (above). I was crossing the road in Phuket Town and saw a group of people standing behind a huge Harley Davidson. Make no mistake: this was one mean hog. Unfortunately, the onlookers appeared to be on the point of leaving — the owner was taking a letter to the mailbox and starting to move out of shot — so I had to take the photo quickly.

The result was very disappointing. One onlooker had extremely bad sunburn but couldn’t be excluded without removing most of the background: the highly customised “Biker’s Bar.” The bike was also at an awkward angle, leaving lots of bare road surface that spoiled the shot. Then I saw the detail: a stack of skulls not only on the windshield but also on the gas tank. I hadn’t noticed those on the tank when I took the shot.

Yes, the bike is truly insane: tempting fate with human skulls on a full tank of gasline, right between the rider’s legs. If God had a sense of irony — and who’s to say He doesn’t? — He might be inclined to terminate the journey before the rider reaches his destination.

But of course, for this rider it’s a case of “Destination Unknown.” Luckily, he’s still in the picture — and by removing his head, and those of two of the bike’s admirers (the owner’s friends, customers?) — I’m able to make sense of the photo. Just one onlooker remains more or less intact, her skirt blending nicely with the bike’s design. The owner’s arms are slightly splayed, almost as if he’s grasping some imaginery Harley handlebars. The diagonals balance, the corners are filled — and the picture makes sense. Because of the detail.

Waiting for Customers
I have little doubt that it’s more profitable to run a lively Biker’s Bar than to sell heavy drilling equipment from a small retail store. In my second photo to illustrate the role of detail (below) I offer an image of two men in adjoining stores, waiting for business.

Now, let me see…your partner has gone out to buy sugar, milk, eggs and a new roll of kitchen paper. You unpack them and say: “Honey, where’s the 12-inch diameter drill bit I asked you to pick up?”

I’m always fascinated by these shops on the fringes of Bangkok’s Chinatown, mainly because I’ve never seen anything like them in the UK, Europe or the USA. They’re right there, on the street, in places where you’d normally expect to find a newsagent or a liquor store. I wonder if they have regular customers — because I can’t imagine anyone buying a massive drill bit on impulse.

In this photo I’ve given equal space to the human and the metallic subjects, on the understanding that it’s the detail in the twisty bits which “makes” the image. Their vertical shapes are echoed in those of the columns and folded grills. The two guys are the very personification of patience, quite unlike the restlessly spiralling drills and the clusters of coloured hooks.

On previous visits to the area I’d photographed similar scenes, such as men sorting through stacks of metal girders and pipes, but they always looked like dull corporate illustrations (“here’s our man in the girder department”) rather than proper street photos. This one is different. It has tension and contrast — and the whole composition revolves around the position of the man’s hand.

Like I say: sometimes the devil really is in the detail.

The Subjects Are Hiding

When subjects are fleeing into darkness, or when they have their backs turned towards us and are studying something unseen with intense concentration — that’s when you can get a good street photo.

Street photography does not always have to be open and explicit. The idea that you need subjects to be facing you, with the camera just a couple of feet from their noses, is pure nonsense. I prefer to take shots that allow ambiguities to enter, because then the human figures cannot be seen with sufficient clarity to explain their actions.

Take my featured image (above), for example. It’s a grocery stall in Hong Kong with a row of Chinese sausages hanging from hooks and gleaming in the morning sunlight. The sausages are the most prominent objects in the picture. Those dark ones appear to be selling well! To a western eye they look a lot more appetising than the scrawny birds (surely not wading birds?) hanging beside them. The stallholder has turned his back on the customers as if trying to avoid looking at the dead birds — but their shadows pursue him by clinging to his dark blue tee-shirt.

The other feature of the image is the row of newspapers (or pamphlets?) on the makeshift counter. Are these merely for wrapping the sausages, or do they serve some other purpose? Are people actually meant to read what’s printed on them? They seem to be too neatly arranged to be merely wrapping paper. The darkness of the stall’s interior adds to the feeling of mystery, even on a bright, sunny day.

Behind the Truck
From a pictorial point of view, a plain, dark background makes the subject stand out and gives any photo an organised appearance. Of course, if the subject is “standing out” — illuminated by the sun against the darkness — the sense of mystery or ambiguity can disappear. The onlooker may not tempted to speculate on the content of the darkness when there’s plenty to see in the light.

My next image (below) is slightly different. There seems to be an interesting coffee bar beyond the three shoppers who are about to walk behind a parked truck. Yet there are no tables, no chairs — nothing to see whatsoever, except for the banners which proclaim “Original Phuket Roasted Coffee.” Can this be where coffee is unloaded to a warehouse? The logo of the firm has a ship on it, suggesting the importation of goods.

I took the shot because of the banners, the darkness, and the dun-coloured truck which was covered in dust. A minute or two went by before some pedestrians moved into position — and happily they add colour to what could have been a drab and pointless image.

The sceptical viewer may still think it’s pointless. I don’t. I think the shoppers are walking in between two mysteries — the dark building and the heavily padlocked truck — and into another mystery: the rest of their lives.

The Mysterious Stall
Street photographs are doubly appealing when they offer intriguing content as well as satisfying composition. At first glance, my photo (below) seems to be of two ordinary customers standing in front of an ordinary stall where you can buy a tee-shirt. There are thousands of similar stalls in the Far East. Yet, somehow, this one is different.

For a start, it has lots of large pots in front of it, which would be completely superfluous to requirements for a typical trader who’s intent on making money. Then there’s the hat. Or hats. One of them is a pointed hat of the kind you can purchase from beach vendors, the other is a helmet woven from dried leaves. There are brushes and palette knives in the stall — which is more like an outdoor workshop than a stall — and there are framed pictures hanging up, for display or sale.

Even after studying my own picture carefully I’m still mystified by the purpose of the stall. The only real clue is the girl who is wearing a tee-shirt similar to those hanging up. Is she an existing customer? Does the man customise the tees with designs while you wait? Is this a part-time job to make money to support him as a painter of pictures?

The image of the painter’s stall is every bit as mysterious as the others I’ve shown, despite the full sunlight and a wealth of detail which can be seen quite clearly. The point of the image is actually in the detail: the comb sticking out from the girl’s back pocket, the object (a soda can?) in the man’s right hand, and the colourful hat.

Above all, it’s the girl’s hesitant gesture and the man’s smooth talking which complete the image. Maybe he’s saying: “Sorry, no refund.” Your guess is as good as mine.

In Praise of Shadows in Street Photography

To write a blog post I enjoy switching on my computer in the morning and be greeted by another splendid landscape from Microsoft on the start-up screen. Mostly, the photos are well chosen: spectacular icebergs or beautiful rolling countryside. But today’s image of trees on a tropical beach was almost entirely devoid of shadows, even in the deepest shade. In this age of HDR (high dynamic range) it’s time I leapt to the defence of shadows.

I would not, of course, be the first person to do so. Most famously, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, in his 48-page essay “In’ei raisan,” (In Praise of Shadows, 1933-34) wrote poetically of the rapid disappeance of shadows from the Tokyo cityscape. All the shadows fled before the onslaught of electric light, a Western invention that destroyed the conditions necessary for viewing Japanese paintings, houses, theatrical performances, and even the rice served in lacquerware bowls.

Wrote Tanizaki: “…only in dim half-light is the true beauty of Japanese lacquerware revealed.” “Our cooking depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness.”

The Mystery of Shadows
In photography, shadow is every bit as important as light. Deep shade makes us appreciate the well lit areas of an image; it provides essential contrast without which the illuminated parts make very little sense. Even in a high-key portrait, there has to be a hint of shadow, here and there, to delineate the face and show that lips and eyebrows are darker than surrounding skin.

The fashion in photography for HDR will probably disappear when people become tired of it. Nine times out of ten it looks wrong, whether in landscapes, cityscapes or interiors. This is because it’s almost entirely artificial, generated by computer calculation.

While it’s OK to “lift the shadows” so we can see in the photo what the eye sees in reality, it’s not often acceptable to banish shadows completely. They contribute more to the image than you may at first suppose. They set free the onlooker’s imagination, stimulating a vital response which is fundamental to the appreciation of any work of art.

In his novels and short stories, Tanizaki liked to leave as much as possible to the reader’s imagination, guiding it with hints and suggestions rather than directing it with detailed description. There is no reason why the street photographer should not do the same, even though a modern digital camera captures detail with utmost precision. Mystery can occupy parts of the photo, replacing some of the extraneous information that gets revealed when we chase away the shadows.

Shadows in Chinatown
In homage to Tanizaki I’ve called my featured image (above) “In Praise of Shadows.” It’s one of my favourite images from Chinatown in Bangkok, partly because the subject is clearly not typically Chinese. In itself, this fact gives the image (in my eyes, at least, because I know the location) a sense of mystery. But the mystery is accentuated by the deep shadow which conceals another figure and the interior of a shop.

The bright sunlit area on the left becomes connected to the deep shadow by the roll of purple material on the beat-up scooter. Light and shadow need each other in this picture!

When I took the photo I was very conscious that the man’s face was half-concealed by shadow. That and the purple roll are what attracted me to the subject. Fortunately, the image is balanced by the scooter’s illuminated handlebars and the sloping bamboo cane. They draw our eye to the scooter’s unusually capacious bag which leaves little room for the rider’s legs. Whatever does he carry in such a bag?

Go Where the Shadows Are
It would be easy to ruin the picture by dampening the highlights and filling in the shadows so that we can see more detail in both. With my love of shadows I can resist this temptation and leave you wondering about the missing content. The man with the beard has raised his sunglasses to see more clearly in the shade, but we don’t need to do the same. The shop has no artificial light so why should we make it brighter than it really is?

Here’s another image (above) which conceals more than it shows. On first glance you can see only the orange pillar and the main subject who is resting her arm on a box. As your eyes become accustomed to the shadow you may become aware of two other figures: a woman with a colourful dress and, in the background, a man silhouetted against the pale light of the interior.

In this case, there is no balancing object to stop our eyes wandering off to the left, but it doesn’t seem to matter too much. We’re anchored to the right by the pillar against which the subject is leaning. It gives the impression we’re “on her side,” whatever thoughts she may be having. Do those thoughts include the man in the distance or someone even further away? When an image raises lots of questions it holds our attention and goes beyond the superficial appeal of visual entertainment.

At the end of his essay, Tanizaki writes: “I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing.”

So my advice to street photographers is this: don’t just go where the people are. Go also where the shadows are.

More About Words in Photos

I’m reasonably sure that words appear in a disproportionate number of my photos. Maybe the ratio is one to ten: one picture containing words to ten without. For whatever reason, I always notice them. They loom large in my vision and I try to figure out a way of using them to my advantage.

Most of the time the words I see on the streets of London are parts of various advertising campaigns; product names, slogans, and the like. But there are also posters and street signs, graffiti and tee-shirts, newspaper billboards and “polite notices” telling us to “stop it.”

One day I came across a little sticker saying “Never Ask Permission,” which I thought would be great if I could combine it with a cheekily-taken candid shot. Did anyone walk anywhere near it? No. It was so tiny I needed a passer-by to be right beside it, not even a yard away. I thought perhaps some enterprising (but misguided) street photographer had created these stickers to frustrate his competitors. If so, the ploy worked admirably.

Words in advertisements usually seem too familiar for inclusion in street photography. However, I think you need to take the long view and bear in mind that what seems familiar today may look quite different in twenty years time. The named product — and even its manufacturer — may disappear, giving the photograph a valuable, documentary quality and turning it into an historical record. I know this is not much comfort to anyone currently shooting, but it’s true.

True Wit
Fortunately, wit comes to the rescue when you take candid shots. If you can find a genuinely witty message, phrase or slogan, displayed in a public area where people gather, you’re halfway towards getting a pleasing image.

I loved the message on the sign above the head of the woman in my featured photo (above). Apart from anything else, it looks like an antique, but I suspect it may not be as old as it appears. Maybe that’s why no one has bought it: its message of distrust is so well expressed: “Beware of the dog. The cat is not trustworthy either.”

The picture works partly because the relevant sign is in bright sunlight and near the centre of the image. It doesn’t have to compete for attention with the other signs, some of which are more than a little sentimental. The coats of the women on the right form an abstract pattern of layers in tasteful colours. They lead the eye towards the centre — where two shades of bright red are poised to shout their message at us.

Prepping the Scene
I’d never make any significant alterations to the reality I find in the street — such as placing a sign or a poster at a given location. In fact, there’s only been one occasion when I’ve done anything that could remotely offend the ethics of photojournalism, which are a lot more strict than those applicable to the street photographer. Here’s the result (below).

There are many places in London where you can purchase a sweater with the words “Normal People Scare Me” emblazoned on the front, but one day I found the item at eye level in busy Oxford Street.

Perfect! Except for the fact that no one could read it because it hung awkwardly, displaying: “Nrma Ple Scre M” — which makes no sense. OK, I confess! I smoothed it out (much to the consternation of the shopkeeper) and waited for some normal (scary) — or abnormal (non-scary) — people to show up.

I’m not suggesting that the people in the photo are either one or the other — normal or abnormal — but the image is ambiguous and very much open to interpretation. The setting could scarcely be more urban, seeing as it’s the busiest street in one of the world’s largest cities, yet here is someone kitted out for a hike on the Yorkshire moors or a trek across the Alps. I can only guess he’s been shopping for camping gear. He’s probably like everyone else. Normal.

The Label Proudly Worn
Here (below) is one of my cinematic, “face-in-the-crowd” shots, taken at a winter market in the local High Street. All I saw was a pretty face, with red and green awnings in the background, an interesting way of gripping a mobile phone — and the single word: “Dope.”

Of course, it’s possible that the full word is “Dopey” — and the item of clothing something bought from the Disney Store — but I like to think it really does say “Dope.” The shorter word is cuter because of its obvious ambiguity. Dope has multiple meanings, ranging from “information” (“I’ve got the dope on all the fashion stores in town”) to “gullible fool,” and “marijuana.” It can be an instruction, as in “administer a drug to this racehorse,” or a adjective meaning “very good,” as in the slang expression: “this woollen hat is dope!”

I like it. The hat looks especially good when you walk, chat on the phone, and close your eyes at the same time.

In all three of the examples I’ve given, words add something vital to the image. I can’t say exactly what the added ingredient is, because it’s different in each case.

That’s the beauty of words. They speak urgently to us and trigger ambiguous thoughts in ways otherwise unknown to the silent world of appearances.

Sharing That Warm, Cozy, Fuzzy Feeling

If the photo is warm, cozy and fuzzy there has to be a bear involved somewhere. In Bangkok a couple of years ago there was a craze for the teddy bear and it certainly made a change from all those elephants. Every shop had an assortment of bears — and so did one or two cafés and restaurants.

My featured image (above) shows what can be achieved by the judicious use of a bear. There’s nothing like a large teddy for making the lone diner feel less lonely — and therefore more likely to sit down and order something from the menu, perhaps honey on toast.

Sure, there are some disadvantages. Accommodating large bears tends to eat up the available space for customers, but at least there’s no danger of the customers themselves being eaten. The very existence of the teddy bear is symbolic of the fact that human beings have brought large chunks of nature under control. We haven’t quite mastered all the microbes, but bears — though fierce — are a pushover.

There can be little doubt that we all enjoy what I’ve called a “warm, cozy, fuzzy feeling” whenever we get the chance. I know it’s probably frowned upon in artistic and intellectual circles, where the artist or thinker is supposed to focus on topics that demonstrate greater social responsibility. But I would argue: it’s part of life, isn’t it? Why leave it out in street photography?

A Surfeit of Cuteness
Because everyone occasionally chases the warm, the cozy and the fuzzy, there’s been an epidemic of cuteness, emanating largely from Japan but then spreading throughout the entire civilised world: cute dogs, cute cats, cute children, cute everything. I’ve even seen cute crowd control barriers with rabbit ears (Japanese of course).

In real life, bears are not always cute, as such, but they can certainly look cuddly as long as they don’t stand on their hind legs and bare their teeth in an ugly snarl. Apply the epithet “teddy” — acquired when Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt spared a small bear while on a mission to shoot its parents — and you have cuddly in spades; warmth, coziness and fuzziness “par excellence.” And with a bit of artistic license in the design, you can have cuteness too.

A Question of Taste
The question for the street photographer is this: how can you incorporate “warm-cozy-fuzzy” — the so-called “feelgood factor” — into your pictures without falling into sentimentality and triviality? Can you do it without resorting to cuteness, without showing poodles, persian cats or (especially) teddy bears? Is such a task impossible?

The triggers for “warm-cozy-fuzzy” are things like: enclosed spaces, familiar domestic items, human smiles, anything signifying warmth, conviviality, and togetherness. These triggers can go a long way in compensation for the absence of a bear, although they probably don’t go far enough.

In the image below, I’ve included most of the above-mentioned triggers: five people enjoying a cozy meal on Koh Kret (a river island in northern Bangkok). I took it after eating at the same restaurant, where customers can dangle their legs over the water while downing a few beers (beers! not bears).

That’s the trouble: it was I who was feeling “warm-cozy-fuzzy” but the image doesn’t really communicate the same message. The enamel cups look hard and uninviting, the pots are empty and no one’s smiling. The image simply doesn’t meet the spec.

Does the next one get any closer (below)? As you can see, it’s of a child asleep, cradled in mother’s arms, riding on a bus. Yet even this doesn’t seem to meet the criteria I’ve set. It doesn’t give you the absolute certainly of complete safety which is vitally necessary for the “warm-cozy-fuzzy” vibe. The baby’s head seems to be perilously close to the metal edge of the seat, despite the parent’s protective arm.

We really need more ingredients. Besides domesticity and enclosed spaces, we need to add some happy words — like “happy,” for example — together with some gesture of affection and a display of patience. Here they all are, in the photo below. The light was fading, but it’s the best I can do until I do better.

When the Camera Is Near the Ground

When it comes to vantage-points, there’s the bird’s-eye view, normal eye-level, chest height, knee height and subterranean. For the last of these categories you need to be emerging from somewhere underground, like a tube station or a pedestrian subway.

Maybe subterranean is a bit extreme. It can yield good results, but I usually wait until I’ve nearly reached the top of the stairs before taking a shot. I usually get a reasonably good image because I’ve had time to think about it on the way up.

The Featured Image
I’d like to dedicate my featured image (above) to a Chinese gentleman who was talking on his mobile phone in our local park. Without his unintended help this picture would not exist.

There are two paths in our local park which run more or less parallel, one being a couple of metres lower than the other. I was walking along the lower path when the man with the phone starting shouting in Cantonese at the top of his voice. I hastened my step in an attempt to get out of earshot — and as I did so I found myself drawing alongside a woman pushing a pram.

It’s possible “the busy young mum” of my photo was herself trying to escape the bellowing voice behind us. She was moving rapidly and would have disappeared had I not been walking at the same speed.

Our paths began to converge and as soon as I could get a clear shot I grabbed the picture you see. It looks like it was taken from “ankle height,” but that’s the effect of the low elevation of my position. It’s made a huge difference to the quality of the image.

The Analysis
What can I say about it? I think it speaks for itself: a young woman in charge of a baby, hurrying across town, talking on the phone, shopping tied to the handle of the pram — but can she really be a “young mum,” or, with such a trim figure, is she perhaps the “au pair”? It doesn’t matter.

What matters is the low angle which places her head and shoulders against the sky. What matters is the way the early summer sun “makes” rather than breaks the image. The woman’s naturally pale skin looks perfectly congruous in this situation, as she walks towards the light. The white gables of the house on the right and the white penthouse on the left provide blocks of whiteness on either side to keep her company.

I think the image has an iconic quality that would be missing if I’d taken it at eye level while standing alongside the subject. Was I thinking of William Egglestone and his famous photo of the child’s tricycle? Not when I took the shot. The viewpoint may be the same, but I’ve included dynamic action which is deliberately absent in Egglestone’s picture. Yet somehow the iconic quality remains. I think it must have something to do with the angle!

The Inside Illusion
I was approaching the top of a flight of stairs when I took the image you see below. You could almost classify this one as “subterranean,” but I think it’s from around “knee height,” slightly above the viewpoint of the featured image at the top.

Again, the angle makes the image — because the girls’ heads and shoulders are seen against the beautiful curved roof of the building behind them. But there’s another factor at work here, too: an optical illusion.

The low angle combined with foreshortening of the image (courtesy of the 40mm lens) have given the impression that this is an interior shot. It’s not. The building is forty yards away and there’s a huge open space and clear sky in between.

Because it’s an exterior shot, taken on a bright day, the subjects are brightly illuminated in a way that would be impossible indoors. Adding to the illusion, the iron railings to the left and right are suggestive of an open doorway, possibly part of the same building. In fact, they’re across the street and completely separate from the enclosed area you can see.

If the picture has any quality, it exists because of the illusion I’ve described. You could look at it for a minute or two without realising its secret. But, of course, the secret is given away — ultimately — by the windswept hair of the girl in the leather jacket. Of course, it has to be outside! I’ve put a clue in the title by calling the photo “Windswept.”

Keep Looking Up
I greatly prefer the shots I get by looking up at the subject from below to those I get from looking down. That’s not to say looking down doesn’t give you an interesting perspective — it does — but it’s much less flattering to the subject.

For every shot I take looking down I’ll take ten looking up. I think I’ll keep it that way. If pessimists look down and optimists look up I guess this makes me an optimist. And you really need to be an optimist as a street photographer.

Off to One Side — Making Unusual Compositions

As I continue to write these blog posts — and I have a small stockpile of articles as well as those already on the site — I’m beginning to realise the blog is mainly about composition.

After all, composition is surely the key element in street photography. It ranks above content, whereas in photojournalism the opposite is true. It also ranks above technical perfection because a brilliant, technically imperfect street photo can still be utterly compelling. Ultimately, composition is key because the subject itself is not “composed” (i.e. arranged) by the photographer, but discovered and torn from the muddled, ever-changing reality of the street.

Given that composition is so important, it’s incumbent on the street photographer to explore every possibility. The death of street photography will occur when everyone goes for the easy option and says: “Do this, it works.”

Placing a single subject in the middle of the image is a ploy that “works,” but it’s scarcely pushing any boundaries or exploring new ideas. I don’t think we’ve yet exhausted the encyclopedia of possibilities in street photo composition — and I’m determined to create some new entries.

For example, take the idea of “off to one side,” in which a vital element of the composition is on the extreme left or the extreme right of the rectangle. Is such an idea acceptable? Could it “work”?

To answer this I’m submitting a couple of pictures in which the most interesting content is off to one side, in the hope that someone will see the value of this unconventional approach.

The Green Truck
I took my featured image (above) in Hong Kong, while walking down a long, narrow and extremely commercial street that was clogged with delivery vehicles. For once, I decided to “work the scene” because men were going back and forth between the truck and the store behind me. Eventually, I guessed, they’d make a decent composition.

In fact, they didn’t. What I was trying to get was a picture with some great “layers” (which I’ll discuss at some length in a two-part feature), arguably the most elaborate and rewarding style of composition in street photography. With layers you have successive planes of interest in the composition, with good focus maintained from the foreground to the background.

In my image (I’ve called it “Green Truck”) there are certainly planes of interest, but nothing lively in the foreground. At first I thought this was disappointing, but now I no longer mind. The image is all about the little girl on the right who is studying the scene with interest. She looks as concerned as I was, hoping it will all work out for the best.

Of course, it’s all very well to have a charming cameo on one side of the picture, but it has to be counterbalanced in some way, otherwise the composition simply won’t work as a satisfying image. My picture is counterbalanced by the five men over to the left, all huddled in a group around a meat stall. Unconventionally, the centre of the photo is occupied by the side of a truck. Sorry about that!

No, I’m only joking. I really think the composition is successful — despite being initially filed in my “You Must Be Kidding” folder. It works because the green truck has an antique charm, being painted in British racing green and looks as if it may have served for many years when Hong Kong was prospering under British rule. It works because one side-flap on the truck is down, adding more counterbalancing weight to the left of the picture. Linking it all together is the young man who is leaning nochalantly up against the back of the truck, checking his mobile phone.

Holding the Centre Ground
When I suggest that you can place active elements at the sides of the image I’m not suggesting you leave the centre to its own devices. It has to be strong. As the poet W.B. Yeats wrote: ” Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…” It’s a fundamental principal that — in a conceptual sense — there must be a controlling “centre” to keep everything in order.

The centrality of control, however, is entirely conceptual. For example, our brain controls our body but it’s not in the centre of it, it’s up at the top. Wars are fought at the frontline where battles take place, but organisation is done behind the scenes, back at headquarters.

Bear those thoughts in mind when you look at my next image (below). I’ve called it “Reaching for Chopsticks” because the woman on the left has a plate of food in front of her and is about to grab a pair of chopsticks in order to eat it. The other customers are already enjoying their meal, so it’s this lady who, by virtue of her outstretched arm, become a focal point of interest…off to one side.

There’s something clinical and canteen-like about this restaurant in Bangkok. Most of the diners are alone, and all facing towards us. Much of the place is covered in white tiles and the tables and chairs are all made of stainless steel like the kitchen equipment. Tables are clearly numbered and each one is equipped with separate metal holders for chopsticks. Indeed, the restaurant seems to have been designed entirely with the convenience of the owner in mind. There’s no doubt about who’s in charge.

I can get away with placing the customer at the side of the image because the centre is being held by the woman with the tasteful, old-fashioned blouse. She’s pointing in a commanding manner, in contrast with the woman beside her — clearly an employee — who checks dutifully if everything is “tickety-boo” (as people said in World War One).

The big circular fan is so prominent it brings our attention back to the centre where the two figures with their backs towards us are framed by the outline of the distant kitchen.

Yes, I’m aware the image is unconventional, but I know it works as a composition. In fact, I’m every bit as confident as the lady with the raised finger.

When the Subject Date-Stamps the Image

I love it when a subject date-stamps one of my street photos — when it mentions the day of the week, or the name of the month, or tells us the year in which the shot was taken.

The art of street photography and the concept of time are irrevocably intertwined. In all photography, time is embedded in the still image: a passing moment fixed forever in the representation of the subject. If you want to know exactly when that moment occurred you can look up the EXIF file and find out the time and date of origination, unless processing has stripped away the details and consigned them to the unrecorded past.

Yet I find it surprising that so few street photographs carry any visual information to indicate time of day, day of month, or even a reference to the current year. I guess it’s because everyone now has a mobile phone and wristwatch so there’s no longer a practical need for clocks in public spaces.

I’m not suggesting that every street photo needs to refer directly to the date. That would be absurd. But it’s good, occasionally, to remind ourselves that our images are located precisely in the flow of time, even when many of them may look deceptively timeless — at least for now.

I say “for now” because although street photos don’t look dated for the first year or two after they are taken, they do assume their place in time once a decade or two have passed. Fashions, car designs, buildings and street furniture change quite rapidly, making our photos a record of the past in less time than we care to imagine.

Landscape photographers can play with the concept of time more easily: balancing the ephemerality of changing seasons against the relative permanence of geological features such as rivers and mountains. Only when something really dramatic occurs — as it did recently with the complete collapse of Malta’s famous Azure Window — can we locate a photo of such a feature in the flow of time. Pre-2017 the Azure Window existed. Post-2017 it did not.

So if time is inextricably bound up with the photo, regardless of the subject, why is it good when the subject declares the time overtly? Why do I sometimes like to see “2017,” “Tuesday,” or “March” — or other such specific, time-related reference — within the image?

I’m not sure if I can answer that question. It just feels right.

What Day Is It?
The best way I can explain my feeling about this topic is to look at a specific example. My featured image (above) shows a girl wearing a tee-shirt that says: “Sunday, Funday.” The photo is one of my personal favourites, although I think some viewers will find it rather ordinary. I took it on a Sunday when not much was happening. The streets of Bangkok were quiet and everyone seemed a bit hung over from the night before.

Thai people are very aware of the days of the week. My partner and her friends always exchange “virtual flowers” in specific colours to mark Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc., on Line (the oriental equivalent of WhatsApp). In case you’re interested, the “lucky colours” are red for Sunday; yellow for Monday; pink for Tuesday; green for Wednesday (day); grey for Wednesday (night); orange for Thursday; light blue for Friday; and purple for Saturday.

My photo has a prevailing atmosphere of “ennui,” evoked by the anxious gesture of the girl on the left and the downright miserable expression of the man who is entering the frame from the right. Only the figure in lucky Sunday red seems cheerful. The central figure, the girl with the “Sunday, Funday” tee-shirt, is neither sad nor happy but just stares dreamily into the distance. She hopes for the best although her day could go one way or the other.

I’ve checked the EXIF and I can confirm I took the photo on a Sunday. In fact, I remember it well. The photo captures my own mood at that moment as well as the collective mood of the subjects. Up to that point my day hadn’t been very successful and could have gone downhill even further. But getting this shot turned everything around. Maybe those lucky colours really do work!

What Year Is It?
Time seems to pass slowly for young people but all too quickly for older people. This is mostly because we fall into regular habits as we get older and the days become less memorable as a result.

My next photo (below) shows an elderly man standing in front of a poster of four young children and looking at something which has attracted his curiosity beyond the frame. Whatever can it be?

I guess the clue is in the bubbles. A child was blowing some huge bubbles from inside a pram — it was definitely worth stopping to look. Meanwhile, my camera snaps the moment before the bubbles burst (at eight minutes to two in the afternoon). The EXIF doesn’t tell me the exact second but at least the image gives a big clue as to the year. “Opening 2017” places the photo in either 2016 or early 2017. The man’s light jacket tells us it’s summertime: hence 2016.

The photo of the man and the bubbles is not nearly as good as “Sunday, Funday” but it still has internal tensions which raise it above the ordinary. The overt mention of time — the statement of a proposed opening date the following year — is a factor that plays well when the theme is old age versus youth. But there is also the dignified expression of the man with the bag, which contrasts sharply with the cheeky attitudes of the children in the poster.

There is something disturbing about the Primark poster kids. I think some of them have been photographed separately then photoshopped together. Moreover, the girl with the long hair seems to have a huge left hand. It’s bigger than the boy’s hand in front. Can that be right? When I look at the poster I feel as bemused as the old gentlemen himself.

Time passes quickly for people, posters, shops and bubbles; slowly — but no less inexorably — for stones and mountains. With the progression of time, disorder in the universe increases. Stones and mountains eventually crumble; we’ve seen it with the Azure Window. As Professor Stephen Hawking says in “A Brief History of Time”: “The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.”

Photographers swim against the flow of time, bringing order by representing people and places in ordered compositions. Surely it’s worthwhile to give this activity a seal of approval, now and again, by allowing the subject to place a date-stamp somewhere in the image? It can’t do any harm.

See the Whole Shot, Not Just the Subject

I’ve already written about the desirability of filling the frame in street photography (“Why It’s Good to Fill the Frame in Street Photography“) but on rereading the post I realise I didn’t explain how to do it. You can guess why.

The reason is it’s really hard to fill the frame deliberately, and even harder to explain. However, I’ll do my best to say how, on quite a few occasions, I’ve achieved it.

Here’s the secret: don’t just look for a lone subject — such as a person, a figure, an incident — look for multiple subjects adjacent to each other.

My featured image (above) is a good example. I was attracted to the scene because there was plenty of activity and it all seemed to say “green!” I’ve always liked the way the ubiquity of a single colour can unite a scene, pulling together parts that would otherwise be unrelated. Here they do exactly that.

To the male eye, the girl’s brown legs make a natural focus of interest, but they also form a pyramid that leads the eye away from them (well, momentarily at least) to the guy taking a photo and the head of the woman with the garrulous tee-shirt who is watching him. If your eye strays back to the girl’s legs you’ll see the huge pair of roller skates being worn by the man with long hair who’s checking his phone. From him, it’s a short jump to the other side of the picture where another man is writing notes on a pad. His reversed baseball cap fills the top right of the frame; the green scooter fills the bottom right.

I took the photo quickly, from the middle of a busy side street with motor bikes and taxis whizzing back and forth. In this kind of situation you need to have all your senses on full alert. The threat of being run over tends to open the “doors of perception” so you can see an entire composition in one glance. Incidentally, I don’t recommend you try this technique because there are other, safer ways of achieving it. I’m just saying…

Did I “work the scene?” No, I took a single shot and moved on. That wasn’t solely because I was confident I’d taken a successful photo. I had to get out of traffic, the bus was waiting and my partner was calling.

How to Practice
OK, so now you’re wondering about the “safer ways” of achieving the state of mind that enables the street photographer to see an entire frame-filling composition. The best way — the way I recommend — can be summarised in one word: practice. I practice a lot, but not in the way you might expect.

Because I’ve been shooting with a heavy Canon 5DIII I spend a lot of time walking around without it. I’m not a person who obsessively carries a camera with me at all times. What’s the point? It’s no good having a camera with you unless it’s switched on and you’re already holding it with one hand and pointing it towards potential subjects. I can’t spend my entire life in that mode of operation. That’s work! I can’t work when I’m doing something else, such as buying a newspaper or going out for lunch. Street photography needs one hundred per cent concentration.

So how do I practice finding compositions? Whenever I walk in the street I compose images in my mind’s eye. I practice with multiple subjects, saying to myself: “Now this sort of composition would be good. What camera setting and lens would I need to achieve it?”

In this way, I assemble a small catalogue of potential compositions in my head, together with notes of what I might need to record them. When I go out with the camera I’m ready for most eventualities. I can recognise those frame-filling moments when they happen in front of me.

The Old Flower Market
Here’s another example (below). I was walking through the old flower market in Bangkok (sorry, they’ve moved it!) when I saw this lady with a black and grey hat talking on the phone. I probably wouldn’t have taken a shot had it not been for the vertical arrangement of bins, decorative birch twigs and bright plastic stools immediately behind her. Thank heavens I was not using my 85mm lens (with which I took the featured image above). Even wide open, the brilliant Canon 40mm could get the background into reasonably sharp focus so that the composition — of five equal parts — would make sense.

At this point I should note that when you go out with a lens of fixed focal length you must look at everything with that focal length in mind. It’s no good saying: “Oh, I wish I had an ultra wide angle to get the whole of that elephant in the frame!” You shouldn’t be looking at the world with ultra-wides in mind, even when confronted with an elephant. Mentally frame the scene exactly as your chosen lens does, making sure you don’t leave out any essential elements. As a last resort, stand further back. You shouldn’t get too close to an elephant anyway.

The original of the lady in the flower market measures 5460 x 3640 pixels, so you can see there was virtually no cropping involved (just minor straightening/trimming). Here, I’ve reduced it to my standard 1600-pixel width as I never release my full size images into the wild!

Make Composition a Priority
I can’t help but notice that a lot of street photographers pay very little attention to composition, let alone make an effort to fill the frame. This is a pity because they could take their work to the next level if they made composition a priority.

The informal, almost casual and throwaway “look” of street photography is, of course, one of its charms. The genre offers us quick glimpses, stolen moments, photos taken “on the sly,” images à la sauvette — to use Cartier-Bresson’s expression. Yet the photographer has already made a selection, chosen to show us a particular scene at a given moment. Why not go further and be even more selective, showing only those subjects which have an inherent aesthetic appeal on account of their arrangement of shapes and colours?

If you’re coming to street photography from portraiture, landscape, wedding, or some other branch of photography, you’ll already have a number of compositional patterns in your head. Glamour and fashion photographers know a hundred different ways their models can pose, but even that’s not sufficient for the street.

I rather think that many professionals regard street photography as an opportunity to “go slumming,” and free themselves from the shackles of conventional composition. That’s OK, but actually, taking shots in the street can be a step up, not a step down on the ladder of potential merit. It can be both more challenging and more rewarding than you expect.

Hands Can Walk Away with the Photo

When I was five years old, my parents decided to pay for some professionally taken family photos. We all got dressed up, as though for Sunday church, and I looked like Little Lord Fauntleroy after his return to Dorincourt castle.

The project was a qualified success. There was only one hint of imperfection: I was doing something odd with my hands, crossing my fingers in a peculiar manner. All these years later I distinctly remember what I was thinking at the time. “When I’m grown-up I’ll recall this moment because I’m crossing my fingers.”

Hey, it worked! Maybe even then I understood something about photography. Tiny, off-key details can be the making of a photo, turning it from being a run-of-the-mill picture into something exceptional.

So do I have any shots of people making odd shapes with their fingers? I certainly do.

Dress Shop Duo
The featured shot (above) is one of my personal favourites. I used it as the basis for an art work, bleaching out the colours into two shades of monotone, turning two of them into negatives, and cutting the images into twenty-one segments while retaining the original composition.

The result was “Dress Shop Four,” a set of four, framed, limited edition prints. Alternatively, the original version (the one you see) stands on its own: capturing a moment of boredom in a fashion shop just before closing time.

The two women are engrossed in a discussion about hands. Can it be about a broken finger nail or something more serious? For the onlooker, it doesn’t matter too much. Only the action matters. Every bit of attention is directed towards the hands — not just those of the woman on the right but also those of the other woman who clasps her own hands nervously together.

Because of the contrast in the poses of the women, we’re more inclined to notice the contrast between the left and right sides of the image. On the right, on the customers’ side of the shop, stands a row of impeccably presented carrier bags dressed up with ribbon handles. On the left, in the admin area, are calendars, notepads, phones, memos, handbags, paper clips, payment systems, fax machine, internet router, scissors, glue, calculator, adapter — all on display even though such things are meant to be invisible to the customer.

Indeed, the items probably are invisible to the two women who don’t notice them because they’re such familiar objects. Yet everything else in the store is squared away, with “storage” being the theme of the design. The multiple drawers and closed suitcases are just an intregral part of the designer’s concept, not something to be appied in any practical sense. After all, three of the drawers at the top left are placed on their side so that any contents — if they had contents — would fall out.

I’m beginning to think the shop is a brilliant work of art in its own right. Perhaps the knick-knacks in the office area have been placed there deliberately to show the workings of the business — rather like the inside-out architecture of the Lloyds building in London.

The Smokers
Out on the street, I found two men lighting up cigarettes. They’re as far from the world of fashion as you can get, but, like the two women, they’ve assumed poses that direct attention to their hands rather than their clothes.

The man sitting down on the right is about to draw deeply on his cigarette and I’ve caught his elegant gesture mid-movement. It would have made a good advertising shot, thirty years ago. As it is, the young smoker disrupts the photo — just as I did as a boy — by splaying the fingers of his other hand. Meanwhile, the older man looks tired and removes one foot from his sandal to stretch his toes.

I was fortunate that the colours of the tee-shirts harmonised with each other and with the green of the tuk-tuk. Nearly everything else in the image is fairly neutral — including the row of curious vases in the window on the left. The heavy concrete base of a sign that’s long since disappeared anchors the image, giving it stability. Converging verticals, for once, are not a distortion of the lens — but there in reality — and they echo the angles of the men’s legs which form a triangle at the bottom of the image.

Too much analysis? Probably, but I had to explore why I find the image satisfying.

On the other hand, maybe it holds my attention because I was once a heavy smoker myself. You can never really kick the habit entirely.