Finding a Frame Within the Scene

When the scene you’re taking is surrounded by a natural frame, composed of objects such as doorways, windows, openings in walls, and so on… well, that’s a good start. However, it’s not enough to have a frame. You need to have something within the frame to make it all worthwhile.

The featured image (above) fills all the criteria. The frame is not too regular, only approximating to a rectangle. Fortunately it’s visually interesting, being composed of several types of vegetation together with other elements. When I took the shot I liked the way the grey planter underlined the scene and anchored it firmly to the ground.

In this case, the composition works because the frame is mostly green, brown or grey, whereas the subjects are brightly dressed. When you look at these figures and try to see what exactly they’re doing, you are still aware of the natural frame which isolates them into an almost-secret world of their own.

Street art of boy with keyboard, glaring at the onlooker

Why Are Frames Satisfying?
We take physical picture frames very much for granted and rarely does anyone display a painting in a gallery without first placing it into frame. But why?

The frame exists on the periphery of our gaze, meaning that we are only aware of it subconsciously (unless we start to examine it). In nearly every case, it improves the picture. When we use a better quality frame, we add even more more aesthetic value. Nothing detracts from an image more than a cheap frame.

A frame helps the onlooker to concentrate on the image, yet increasingly we view photographs on digital displays without any surrounding barrier to stop the eye from wandering off the edge of the picture. I’ve never liked the idea of placing digital images into “faux frames,” in imitation of a gallery painting. After all, you need to choose a frame carefully. But it’s great when you can view photos surrounded by a plain, preferably dark frame – even if it’s the monitor’s bezel (although photo and screen proportions rarely match).

Literally Finding a Frame
It’s not often you find an actual frame in the scene, through which is a glimpse of reality rather than a picture. However, some recent renovation work in a nearly town gave me what is, in effect, a ready-framed image.

Workman, seen through a picture frame, courtesy of the town council

The work was taking place in the Suffolk town of Ipswich (about which I have an ongoing series of posts). The heart of the town is Cornhill, with the Town Hall and Corn Exchange buildings dominating the square. The Council had placed a giant hoarding around the work, interspersed here and there with peepholes surrounded by picture frames.

I like the irony of showing a ornate picture frame, with real workmen beyond it, right next to a photograph of the Town Hall which occupies a thin and barely noticeable frame. Once again, I’ve included some prominent colours in the scene, for which I had to wait a few minutes until the man with the orange jacket came into view.

Yellow walls of restaurant, at end of white passageway

The Joy of Passageways
One place to find a frame within the scene is to visit a passageway and stand a few yards back from the end of it.

The photo (above) is one of the entrances to Neal’s Court, in London. There’s contrast between the plain white walls and the brightly coloured buildings beyond them. We can see enticing menus and puffs of steam, both of which indicate the presence of food. We are drawn towards them, yet, in the still image, a woman remains rooted to the spot, examining her phone.

I wonder, does she counterbalance the tension? Does she hold back the onlooker from plunging into the picture? Or does she merely provide temporary relief, and in so doing actually exaggerate the feeling of movement towards the distant scene?

I think it’s the latter. When I took the shot I was worried unless she suddenly decided to move rapidly. Even one step would have ruined the photo. So the tension remains. Even though the scene has its own, built-in frame, it’s by no means a static shot.

The Joy of Entrances
Here (below) is another entrance, this time to the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. When I’m in Bangkok I often pop in to the BACC to view the photographic exhibitions. There’s always something of interest!

The BACC has a splendid entrance, accessed by walkways which connect it to various shopping malls. However, it’s tricky to get a balanced composition because of the thin white pole on the right.

I solved the problem by waiting until more people were going in and out of the left hand side than the side nearer the pole.

Elegant modern entrance, people coming and going

Three of the images above involved a brief wait and one of them needed rapid action to get the shot. Only “Keyboard Graffiti” was independent of any constraint on my personal time. The boy with the keyboard even has two frames of his own: the frame of the sarcophagus and another through which he is sticking his head.

A frame within a frame! I think I’ll print and frame it.

Shooting From the Hip, Part I

Is shooting from the hip a good way to take street photos? Such an innocent question! The answer is yes. And no.

In thinking about it very carefully and weighing up the arguments for and against I find myself questioning the very purpose, essence and philosophy of street photography: its ethics, its aesthetics, its whatever.

Let’s look at three arguments in its favour.

1. Shooting from the hip certainly gets you great shots, if only occasionally.
2. It enables you to take shots that would otherwise be impossible. For example, when you know the subject may glance in your direction and ruin the shot if you raise the camera to your eye.
3. It’s often good to get a lower angle of view, looking up at your subject and cutting out extraneous detail from the background.

The featured image (above) shows some of the virtues of shooting from the hip. I like the shot because it identifies a particular moment that cannot be repeated. The light is on outside the Gay Hussar restaurant (which has now closed permanently). Yet the whole scene remains typical of a chilly day in London. I couldn’t have taken the shot in any other way and achieved the same result.

Two women, one gesturing with her hand

The Easy Option?
One argument against shooting from the hip is that it’s too easy: like shooting ducks in a barrel. (Ducks have to be easier than fish). I would counter this by insisting: once you’ve mastered how to get the subject in sharp focus, which isn’t as easy at you might think, the technique does at least allow you to get close without being noticed (image above).

Other Arguments
Now let’s look at three, more effective arguments against it.

1. It can be very “hit and miss,” with a depressingly high percentage of failures.
2. It removes your main control over the composition of each photo taken in this way.
3. With loss of control comes loss of intentionality. In other words, you’re inviting Lady Luck to play her part, rather than deliberately taking the shots you want.

Should we imagine a pair of scales and place these two sets of arguments on either side? Which scale would have the weightier argument overall?

Frankly, I can’t offer a definitive answer. You’ll have to decide for yourself, after giving it a try. Personally, I quite enjoy shooting from the hip and I don’t see any harm in it unless it becomes habitual.

Other photographers are not of the same opinion.

The Winogrand View
For example, American street photographer Garry Winogrand, as reported by Mason Resnick in the June 1988 issue of Modern Photography, was surprisingly adamant that shooting from the hip was a really bad idea.

Wrote Resnick: “I tried to mimic Winogrand’s shooting technique. I went up to people, took their pictures, smiled, nodded, just like the master. Nobody complained; a few smiled back! I tried shooting without looking through the viewfinder, but when Winogrand saw this, he sternly told me never to shoot without looking. ‘You’ll lose control over your framing,’ he warned.”

On looking at Winogrand’s images one could reasonably reply: “What framing?” — and personally I have other objections to his technique, including all that smiling and nodding which tends to make subjects smile back! Would he not have achieved better results — more authentic results — by shooting from the hip?

I’ll leave that rhetorical question hanging in the air.

Parting Shot
Here’s my parting shot: an example of shooting from the hip that was not “hit and miss” and didn’t sacrifice control or composition. In fact, it had been my explicit intention to photograph a tourist couple marching past London’s Coco-de-Mer shop (“Fashionable purveyor of designer sex toys, lingerie and other clothing, erotic books and gifts.”)

I was quickly rewarded with this photo, in which the man succeeds admirably in keeping his eyes in the direction of his companion’s gesture, despite the delights on offer elsewhere.

Neither of them looked in my direction, either. Thank heavens!

tourists walking past sex shop

Why It’s Best to Have Low Expectations in Street Photography

On the day after Twelfth Night the weather was dull, the light fading, and the Christmas lights had just been switched off. People seemed not to have recovered from their New Year’s hangovers. The chances of getting a good street photo in these circumstances were low, to say the least.

I was quite right. People were scurrying home when I walked into town. The High Street was forlorn without much illumination and getting a shot seemed all but impossible. Then I spotted someone loading a large chair into a vehicle, with two girls sipping drinks nearby, staring wistfully into the distance.

I crossed the road for a better angle, waited for passers-by to catch up — and took the shot you see above. It’s not perfect, but I like it. Somehow it seems to fit the mood and the moment.

Try “No Expectations”
So is it better to have low expectations rather than high ambitions when you go out to take some shots on the street?

Never mind “low expectations,” it’s best to have NO expectations in street photography. It’s the only way to avoid disappointment when you return home without the perfect shot.

Frankly, I never have any expectations of getting a decent shot on a quiet day in my home town, but one time I chanced upon five men in motorcycle outfits walking side-by-side. I’ve always valued this shot because I didn’t expect it.

Five men in motorcycling gear

I’m not suggesting street photography is a hit-and-miss activity. It isn’t. With flair, skill and lots of experience you can go out and give a wonderful performance. It’s the rest of the cast — the world at large — who may be having an “off day.”

It’s possible you’ll find yourself asking, somewhat ungrammatically: is it me or is it them? (‘Tis I? Nay, ’tis they!) In other words, have you failed to get the perfect shot because:

1. You didn’t try hard enough.
2. You weren’t looking properly.
3. You missed golden opportunities.
4. You didn’t use the right camera settings.

Or did you fail because:

1. The weather was too gloomy.
2. There were too few people around.
3. Those who were around were too gloomy.
4. No opportunity presented itself.

These two sets of possible reasons tend to play off each other. You start mixing them together. For example, you may think that no opportunity presented itself because you weren’t in the right place (very likely!) and therefore you weren’t trying hard enough.

However, you’d be wrong to beat yourself up. You were trying hard to be in the right place, but it didn’t work out. At that exact time, somewhere else in the world, another photographer was getting (and perhaps fluffing) a better opportunity. You just didn’t know where to go.

Empty Hand Syndrome
I’ve spoken with other street photographers about the “empty hand” syndrome — of returning home with nothing worth sharing — and I think it may affect the experienced photographer more than the beginner. It happens when nothing you see fits perfectly with your style. Beginners have not yet developed a style, so they can feel reasonably satisfied when returning with just a few visually interesting shots.

When you develop a style — when you start to notice certain configurations of people in the street and photograph them in your own particular way — you begin to have expectations which are not fulfilled every time. That’s why you should be prepared to have a post mortem analysis when you return home.

Was it I? Or was it the world? Just possibly it could have been both.

How to Choose a New Camera for Street Photography

If you’ve fallen in love with street photography you may have a nagging feeling that you need to buy a new camera to help you get better shots. What happens next?

The next step is to start gathering information. My favourite strategy is to spend a lot of time examining and comparing sample photos from all the cameras on my short-list. This is therefore No.2 on my list of strategies, after first creating the short-list!

1. Create a Short-List
I’m assuming you know roughly what kind of camera you want in terms of image quality, portability, and price. It’s good to keep an open mind on these issues, because, as you gather more information, you may need to change your mind. You can add to the short-list as you read reviews and news announcements, but don’t let it get too long. Make a Top Ten list, for example. Ten is a good, round number.

Here’s an idea! Read my latest article on PhotoStartSheet.com, called “The Best Camera for Street Photography 2019.” In this article I’ve drawn attention to all the outstanding features and possible drawbacks of using twelve of the best cameras for street photography. You may be able to omit three or four cameras from the list because of price, weight, etc., so maybe add one or two of your own choice, and you’ll have a short-list of 10.

2. Compare Sample Photos
It’s much easier to compare sample shots a few months after a camera’s launch when there are plenty of photos to see. At launch date you have only the manufacturer’s sample shots, then a week or two later come the hastily taken shots on major review sites. These images are often highly unsatisfactory and give only a vague idea of each camera’s capability. So, this leads me to the next point, which is “Wait a While.”

3. Wait a While
Unless you’re buying a camera that’s been on the market for at least a few months, I think it’s best to wait until at least a few hundred people have used the product in real-world situations (not just in typical outdoor or studio tests). Once you seen what a skilled photographer can achieve with a camera on your short-list, you’ll have much more confidence in the product. However, you must still read all about it to see if it’s likely to meet your needs.

4. Read the Reviews
In fact, it takes a while for in-depth and carefully considered reviews of the latest cameras to appear online. Of course, there’s always a rush to be first, but I never trust those early evaluations. They’re often written before users find the bugs!

Yes, new cameras often have bugs which don’t get picked up during testing. We’ve had light leaks through the viewfinder, banding in low light, unwanted artefacts caused by the on-board processor: all kinds of faults which get ironed out eventually.

The latest bug: a wobbly control dial on the Ricoh GRIII (below, surely one of the most desirable of recently announced cameras for street photography). “We’ll fix it free of charge,” says Ricoh, in an April announcement.

Ricoh GR Three camera

5. Try Before You Buy
Nothing beats actually having the camera in your hand, plus the opportunity to take a few shots in the style you intend to use. The best solution is to invest in a day’s hire of the camera, but I appreciate that this can add several percentage points to your total expenditure. At the very least you should take your own SD card to the camera store and persuade the salesperson to let you take a few shots outside.

So there’s my 5-step process. If you’ve paid for rentals, feel free to shop around for the best price when you come to purchase. Otherwise, support your local camera store if they’ve been especially helpful in letting you try the product. My local branch of the London Camera Exchange has been brilliant in this respect.

Ready to build that short-list? Here again is the link to: “The Best Camera for Street Photography 2019.”

When the Composition Isn’t Obvious in Street Photography

There’s a school of thought which says the best compositions are the tried and tested ones, but another which insists on the need to be creative and avoid the obvious. Who’s right? And why?

No art form can advance if all the people who practice it merely adhere to a set of rules, however sensible these rules may appear to be. After all, fashion changes. Nature evolves. Dinosaurs become “so last year.”

I’m conservative by nature and I strongly disapprove when someone builds an ugly extension to a house I once occupied, or when the government imposes new regulations affecting tax or business. But in matters of art I assume the role of agitator, provocateur, and would-be revolutionary.

Invention v. Tradition
Art requires both stability and instability: the steady hand of tradition and the killer instinct of revolution. Most artists combine characteristics from both categories. Their creative talents compel them to be inventive, but taste, tradition, and a desire to communicate in a language people understand — all act as restraints, keeping them firmly grounded.

I’m guessing that many street photographers find themselves caught in this dilemma when they have to make basic decisions about where and when to point the camera, how to frame the composition, and what camera settings to use.

When you’re faced with thousands of different options you need to have an overriding purpose to govern your actions. Honing this purpose (yes, you can hone a purpose!) consists of balancing the stable and unstable elements in your work. You need to cling to certain things — such as your guiding moral sense, or a desire to represent objects faithfully, or even something simple like retaining at least one true vertical in the image — while still leaving room to experiment and play.

Composition, For Example
I think this process can best be demonstrated in composition, which is clearly one of the most fundamental aspects of street photography.

Being guided by easy rules of thumb like the “rule of thirds” is not sufficient in matters of composition. You need a much larger repertoire of compositions that you know will work. For me, composition is a key element in my photography, so if I had only one overriding option — such as compose in thirds — I’d soon get very bored with the results.

Here are a few options among the dozens you can use. You can divide the image into two halves, separated by a natural dividing line, providing there is a vital relationship between each side of the image. Alternatively, you can base the composition on a pyramid shape, anchored by deep shade at the bottom and tapering to a point higher up the frame. Or you can make one object the central focus of the image, with all the other figures and objects seeming to dance around it.

I chose the last of these three options when I took the featured image (above). My overriding purpose (honed beforehand) was to keep the composition stable while moving in close to achieve some kind of intimacy with the subject. In other words, I was reasonably certain about the effect of the stable composition, less so regarding the “dance” of the others elements around it.

In the Centre
The central object is the voluminous bra and panty set hanging from a plastic chain on the stall. The bra says “I love you, I love you” over and over again, while the other item says “Shine like a star, shine like a star.”

The young women take no interest in the large brassiere, being more concerned with feeling the quality of various inserts that will make breasts look big enough to fill it. It’s as though the large bra has been deliberately displayed as the standard size, to which all women must adjust themselves artificially — regardless of their enviable figures.

By moving in close I was able to capture several elements that express the feeling and message of the content. One woman scratches the back of her head in a gesture of indecision, the other two feel the sponginess of the inserts. Are they serious? Or is this the female equivalent of “kicking the tyres,” as when men prowl around the forecourt of a car dealership?

Frankly, I have no idea — and I didn’t really like to ask. In fact, I don’t think they were aware that I was taking pictures. I would have told them they could save their money by not believing the message on the box: “Become attractive lady with perfect breast.” To my mind, any lady with “perfect leg” is, by definition, attractive.

Avoiding the Obvious
Here’s another, perhaps less exciting subject, to which I’ve applied the same principle. I’ve placed the purple backpack in the centre of the frame, partly because it’s such a striking colour but also because it’s being gripped firmly by a young man’s hand. Behind him are a stack of posters: Chairman Mao posters on the left, and kung fu movie posters on the right.

hand clasping bag in front of posters

Because it’s a stall selling antiques and memorabilia, everything on it is old, or, being in Hong Kong, old-ish. Only the man’s hand is young and alive. Even his bag has seen better days!

My method, as before, was first to find the content for a photograph, then to chose a composition, and finally to figure out the best way — and the best moment — to get the shot. As always in street photography, timing was crucial. It was important to get a clear image of Chairman Mao on one side and Bruce Lee in “The Way of the Dragon” on the other. The impression I wanted to give was of a young man holding on to the present in the midst of the past, brought to a standstill by the undesirability of all the objects offered for sale.

In neither of the examples I’ve given were the compositions obvious on first looking at the scene in front of me. When faced with a market stall a photographer naturally sees the stallholder as a potential target, perhaps in conversation with a customer. You have to look more closely to see what’s less obvious, to find the details that allow you to tell a different story.

By moving in close, by shifting your attention up, down or to the side, and by ignoring the siren call of the obvious — you can uncover stories where you least expect them. That’s the joy of street photography. When it works.

Up Close and Personal

One of those silly “rules of thumb” in street photography is: “You can never get too close.” I think you can, but I’m not going to show any examples of it here.

There’s close and there’s too close. We need to define which is which. My personal view is that “too close” is when the lens begins to distort faces, as when you shove a 28mm lens a couple of feet away from somebody’s nose. I mean: what do you expect? The result is always the uglification of the subject — and frankly, I don’t think that’s fair.

Shooting strangers close enough to distort their faces is like shooting polar bears with a machine gun from a helicopter. The latter has nothing to do with “sport” and the former nothing to do with street photography.

After all, where’s the street? Without a little bit of context, the photo is not a street photo but simply a candid portrait, taken at too close a range.

Close, But Not Too Close
The pictures I’m showing here represent the maximum closeness I’m willing to tolerate. My featured image (above) shows a smartly dressed (and presumably married) couple checking their phones. I was tempted to use it for a blog post called “Everyone’s On the Phone,” but I had so many others from the same session it became surplus to requirements.

There was something so “Titianesque” about the woman’s beautiful scarf I couldn’t resist taking a shot as I walked past. I wasn’t looking through the viewfinder so I could only guess the framing and focus. Fortunately, this gets easier with practice, and I was confident the shot would work.

Apart from the subjects’ smart dress, their absorption in their task (probably checking a map), and the low camera position, what makes the image is the quality of the light. This was no accident. Before scheduling a day’s street photography I study the weather forecasts closely to make sure conditions will be favourable.

It’s possible to shoot in all weathers, but I prefer the day to be cloudy but bright, illuminating people and their surroundings with soft, even light. Only on those days can you move in close and take candid street portraits which are not unflattering to the subject.

The Virtue of Light and Colour
Here’s another example (below), taken two hours later. It’s now around lunchtime — and on a sunny day this would have been a terrible shot. As it is, the colourful jackets of these ladies are shown to best advantage (did they buy them together?) even though the lady at the back is curiously out of step with the others. Fortunately, the word “Splash” appears just above her head, accentuating the discrepancy and making it seem deliberate.

You can see why I like to photograph in colour. Once you’ve decided to use colour you have to start thinking about the light — and, of course, the colours in the subject. That’s why I concentrate on light and colour, which I regard as being at least the equal of “form” in the triumvirate of key elements in the art of street photography.

My next shot (below) was also taken in good light. On carnival days in my hometown you’re pretty much guaranteed to see some colour, but you just have to hope for the right conditions. This time, I was lucky. The light was ideal for candid portraits, bringing out the beauty of everyone who’d chosen to present themselves attractively.

Girl in carnival

The girls in the photo are wearing dresses that are somewhat in the Renaissance style, with flared shoulders not unlike Michelangelo’s design for the Swiss Guard at the Vatican. Sorry Michelangelo, I much prefer this shortsleeved, feminine version, without the deep yellow. The Swiss Guard always seem to be “out of gamut” in colour photography, making yellow look orange in most digital pictures.

When the Sun Comes Out
Here’s a final shot which I’m including to show the difference when the sun comes out. It’s not bad — I like its informality and the way in which the subject is clutching her jacket under one arm. The April sun is not especially intense, but it’s not as flattering as the gentle light of an overcast day.

Woman smoking cigarette, chatting on phone

You can tell a lot about the uncertainty of the weather by looking at the photo. Whereas the main subject has removed her jacket, the girl with the red and grey coat is keeping hers on, while another person at the edge of the frame appears to have ventured out in a flimsy, sleeveless dress.

It makes me wonder. Are they all calling up to get the latest weather forecast? Or are they checking if their lunch dates are on their way?

That’s the trouble when “Everyone’s On the Phone.” You can never tell what they’re doing, no matter how “Up Close and Personal” you get.

Should The Viewer Be Unable to Detect Your Enhancements?

I recently watched a YouTube video by Thomas Leuthard entitled “23 Ninja Tips For Your Next Photo Walk,” no.23 of which was: “Don’t overcook your photos with too much editing. If you can tell what photoshopping tools were used, you’ve used too much.”

My inner ninja started wondering if this is true — and if it is, WHY is it true?

If it’s a valid rule it would certainly exclude a lot of creative work, including the composite images by Danny Santos in Singapore which show an accumulation of figures in the frame, derived from shots taken with a remotely controlled camera.

It would also exclude my own composite artworks which I make mostly from street photo rejects — but then, I don’t claim this activity to be “photography” as such, let alone “street photography.”

However, I don’t think Thomas Leuthard is referring to deliberately prepared composites or to such routines as “convert to black and white” (bearing in mind that his own work is chiefly in black and white). I’m sure he’s talking mainly about processing routines such as sharpening, levels and curves adjustments, and colour correction. Any of these can lead to hideous examples of bad taste unless you use them with the utmost discretion.

Acceptable Enhancements
1. What about cropping? Surely we have to accept the need to crop street photos from time to time? Some photographers are steadfastly opposed to it in the belief that capturing the perfect whole-frame shot is their primary objective. Others, myself included, deliberately use a high resolution camera to enable some cropping at the editing stage.

However, I think Thomas Leuthard’s rule (or guideline) still applies, because if the composition looks impossibly perfect the onlooker will immediately detect it’s a crop — and downgrade it accordingly.

2. Another acceptable enhancement has to be straightening. Fortunately people are never going to notice it. This a godsend to the street photographer because plenty of pictures are taken in haste and a high proportion of them need to be corrected. Luckily, you can’t overdo straightening; the image is either straight or crooked.

3. Along with straightening there’s the whole issue of perspective adjustment to consider: whether or not to correct for converging verticals. If you’ve tilted the camera up or down, vertical lines will converge towards the top or bottom of the frame. Sometimes they look right — especially if you want to emphasise the elevation of the camera — but they can also be a distraction. Is it OK to pull them into shape?

Again, it’s a question that requires an individual answer in each specific case. If you have a large, flat-topped skyscraper in the background it will be distracting to correct the verticals. People will notice the correction because they expect the top to look narrower than you’ve shown it. Rule 23 still applies!

Unacceptable Enhancements
1. Along with many other photographers I strongly disapprove of “high dynamic range” (HDR). When it first came along it seemed new and exciting, showing detail in deep shadow even though the highlights were still intact. It had a positive impact — getting close to what we see with our eyes — until people started to overuse it.

Once exaggeration crept in, HDR found itself on the “naughty step,” with photographers condemning its use entirely. That’s a pity because I’ve seen many pictures in which it seems natural, despite there being thousands more where it looks truly awful.

Would my featured image (above) be better in HDR, with detail in the shadow and highlights? I don’t think so.

2. Deliberate distortion of objects and figures in the photo can be noticeable if the onlooker compares the image to others of the same subject. For example, making people fatter or thinner is completely unacceptable in street photography, as is transposing faces, beautifying or uglifying your subject, or adding figures that were never in the original shot.

If you make any of the above distortions, transpositions or additions, it’s very likely someone will see the discrepancy and call you out. Rule 23 wins again!

3. The majority of software filters are useless and completely unacceptable for street photography. Anything which crudely stylizes, pixelates, solarizes, posterizes, or texturizes the image is not OK (and please note that I’ve drifted into American spelling because these words are too familiar to write in British English). I know their exclusion deprives Photoshop Elements users of half their software controls, but you can’t “sketchify” or introduce “craquelure” (a brick-like texture) and expect to be taken seriously as a street photographer.

In my view (although I don’t use them) certain carefully judged presets are OK. After all, if you accept the JPEG that comes out of the camera you’re accepting the manufacturer’s preset which produces it. Similarly, you may like the “look” you can get from a complex combination of adjustments and wish to apply it to all your photos. If you shoot in RAW and always retain the RAW file — as I advise — the process is reversible.

Man cooking fish in golden sunlight

Refining the Rule
Overcooking your photos is every bit as bad overcooking your vegetables. It makes photos indigestible to the visual system, bringing discomfort rather than satisfaction.

However, I think there’s a more general rule you can apply to street photography. It’s simply this: “Don’t exaggerate.”

The English poet Eliza Cook (1818-1889) wrote: “Exaggeration misleads the credulous and offends the perceptive.”

She was right, up to a point. I think it’s OK — and perhaps even necessary — to exaggerate when you’re postulating ideas, but it’s not OK when you publish your conclusions.

So apply adjustments sparingly. Keep processes like sharpening and shadow lightening to a minimum. Before you commit yourself to anything as permanent as printing, return to each picture and see whether you’ve overdone the adjustments you’ve made.

I didn’t overcook the colour in the shot above (the sun was setting), but I think the fish are nearly done.

Why Did the Street Photographer Cross the Road?

The answer is: to escape! Having just taken a picture of people about to cross the road, I don’t really want to hang around for objections, so I cross the road in the opposite direction and make a safe retreat.

The technique works best when you’re sporting a medium telephoto, such as a 50mm on a crop-frame camera (my old Fuji S5Pro) giving the full frame equivalence of 75mm. This is what I used for taking my featured image (above).

The seven people in the shot had been waiting patiently for a gap in the traffic and were not going to miss their opportunity. They all set off with speed and determination — and I was fortunate to record them at the precise moment when this happened.

More Tech
I don’t often give all the technical details in a blog post, but I think they’re worth mentioning this time. I’d stopped down the lens from f/1.4 to f/4, ISO 400, 1/900th second. Because of the dark background I’d also set an exposure bias of -0.7 step (two thirds of a stop). This is the key to the success of the image because I’ve not had to tinker with the exposure in post-processing, which always results in a loss of tonality.

The Fuji colours really sing in this shot, helped by the pink car and other coloured objects in the background. By contrast the women and girls are dressed more soberly: five of them with white shirts or tee-shirts and one in brown.

I think the two central figures saw me raise my camera and they responded with a split-second “deer caught in the headlamps” reaction. It’s a good thing they did. The girl at the back has her eyes closed (someone in a large group often blinks, which is why group photographers take more than one shot). The contrast between “wide awake” and “a bit dozy” echoes that between the hesitation of the girl on the left and the full commitment of the girl with the black backpack, worn jauntily the wrong way round.

I took the picture because I liked the individual looks of the people — and they rewarded me by revealing their personalities in gesture and expression.

Same Idea, Different Everything
My second picture in this post is very different, although it’s the same subject: a group of people crossing the road. I took this one mainly because of the old tree in the background. Hong Kong has quite a few trees like this, sometimes, against all the odds, clinging to life on the side of an exposed rock face.

 

Somebody always sees you

Yes, everything is different: my camera (Canon 5DIII), the country, the light, the climate, and the style and culture of the people in the shot. This time only my lens has a slight similarity — in its angle of view (85mm on full frame). These people are at an official crossing. They have a green light, so they can all walk without fear of being run over. One of them — the tourist holding hands with her partner — can even do a bit of sight-seeing on the way across.

Again, I think the central figure has spotted me (quite an achievement as I’d popped out from behind some street furniture at the last moment. The settings (FYI) were: f/1.8 lens stopped down to F/5, ISO 800, 1/800th second (not too dissimilar from those of the Bangkok photo).

I hesitate to show these two images together because the photographic styles simply don’t match, despite the subject being the same. Yet I think it’s been worthwhile. Comparing them has given me the idea of “Same Subject, Different Cultures” — a possible project for the future. If I had the wanderlust of, say, travel photographer Forrest Walker (fd walker), I could photograph people crossing the road in every country on Earth.

Or maybe I’ll just stick with these.

Placing the Subject Off-Centre

If your first instinct is always to place the subject in the middle of the photo, think again. It’s often better in street photography to tuck the subject off to the left or the right, allowing the rest of the picture to counterbalance the composition.

I’m not talking about those impromptu street portraits which may very well have the subject somewhere near the middle of the frame. Rather, I’m talking about photos in which “the subject” is not just a single person or even a small group of people. It’s when the real subject is the whole scene: people in the context of their environment.

The Fortune Teller
For my featured image (above) I placed the three women in one quarter of the frame, letting the unusual background occupy most of the available space. I’m very glad I did. The small group is sufficiently engaging to hold our attention, yet the rest of the scene has its own charms which make us explore the image to see what’s there.

We can read the stickers, most of which are in English: “Whistle While You Work,” etc. We can check out the garden, which appears to be very well tended, complete with bird-feeders and neat pathways. Yet the eye constantly comes back to the group of three people, because each of them is caught mid-action while performing a particular activity.

Despite all the English stickers, unless you read Thai it’s hard to figure out exactly what’s happening in the photo. The two girls are deep in thought while enjoying their drinks because they’re having their fortune told for the very reasonable price of 39 baht. The sign on the left says they’ll learn all about what’s happening to them as regards work, money, luck, love, everyday life, enemies, partners, and the future. No wonder they look serious!

The image is another of those in which the real subject is “time.” This time it’s all about the future and what will happen in the future. By preserving the present moment, photography itself always has the concept of time embedded into it. Here, the present moment is full of life and movement, yet everyone is concerned about the future. Meanwhile, the past lingers in the stickers and in the can of discarded NescafĂ© in front of the fire hydrant.

Fifty Percent Off
The next image (below) has no messages about the passing of time, unless you count the limited time offer of a fifty percent discount.

Shoes Fifty Percent

Again, the subject is off to one side, leaving the large advert to dominate the image. Normally this would be an odd composition, but I think it works because of the unusual elevation of the camera. No, I wasn’t lying flat on the pavement to take the shot. Between me and the subject there was a steep flight of steps, enabling the style of shot you see.

Looking up at the subjects made the verticals converge, as you can see on the right. However, I’ve made the verticals truly upright on the left, so that the two figures can approach the entrance while seeming to be propelled towards it by the leaning verticals on the right. Meanwhile a mysterious, shadowy figure appears be reflected in the window at bottom right, helping to stop the image from tipping over completely.

Inside the Store
Having created such a lot of anticipation about entering the store, I guess we should go inside. You can tell this is Robinson’s Department Store from the above image, as the name appears in the large advert — and the reflected road sign says: “Charoen Krung Road.”

Star Product

This store always makes me think of green and turquoise blue because these always seem to be the dominant colours whenever I visit. In the pharmaceutical area especially, there’s a clinical feel of newly squeezed toothpaste, with very few warm shades to enliven the scene.

I was fortunate to find contrast in the figures on the right: flesh and blood human beings in the midst of an otherwise sterile environment. They can be at the side of the image because what matters is the contrast between them and the rest of the shop.

Placing the subject off-centre is a way of avoiding what’s obvious in favour of creating a more complete image. You still have to balance the composition, but there’s often something you can use. In the picture above I’ve chosen the glaring white of the displayed products to counterbalance the figures standing in shade. The distant figure in the background links the two halves of the picture.

What Are the 3 Most Important Factors in Street Photography?

Here’s a Long List of candidates.

Drama, humour, colour, depth, eye-catching interest, facial expressions, sharp focus, balance, frame-filling content, texture, beauty (“Did someone say beauty? What do you think this is? Art? Get the hell outta here!”) clarity, mystery (“Can you have clarity and mystery in the same image?”) mean-streets grittiness, energy, decisive moments…

Oh, sure. Those are all very nice, but I’m afraid the three most important factors in street photography are a little bit…excuse the pun…a little bit more pedestrian.

Light. Background. Figures.

If you pay attention to those three factors (they’re not ranked in order of importance) a lot of the others will take care of themselves. At least, they’ll show up occasionally if you’re patient.

Light
When photographers talk about “good light” and “bad light” they’re making a subjective judgement rather than indicating something that can be identified and measured. “Good light” means light which is best-suited to the style of the individual photographer; while “bad light” makes it more difficult to achieve images in the same or similar style.

For example, if you see the city as being a grim, prison-like environment, populated by inhabitants who are miserable and downtrodden, then you’re unlikely to get the best results by taking photos bathed in the gentle rays of the evening sun.

In street photography there is very little you can do about the light except take advantage of it or wait for it to change. I have friends who like to go out with off-camera flash, an accessory that suits their style of photography. Personally, I find it an encumbrance, so I use natural light most of the time, augmented by light from shop windows, neon signs, street lamps and car headlights.

If you want to put in a full day’s work on the street, your style needs to be sufficiently accommodating to include morning, noon and evening light. Intensely sunny days are the most challenging — as well as being the most frequent in some countries. For my own style I prefer bright days that are just slightly overcast (giving results like those in my featured image, above). Wouldn’t it be good if we could order these at breakfast? “Sunny side up? No, thanks, I’ll have mine with a thin covering of cloud.”

Background
Photographs are often made or ruined by what’s in the background. Nowhere is this more true than in street photography. The background can be every bit as important to the picture as the foreground figures. Sometimes the background plays a greater role; sometimes it’s “just there,” minding its own business while the figures dominate the scene.

The Guvnor

I often think of these two elements — background and figures — as working hand-in-glove with each other, or, to vary the metaphor, behaving like a singer’s voice and its musical accompaniment. In some works of music the accompaniment is mere strumming, while the voice soars above it. But sometimes there can be a dialogue between the two, yielding additional layers of meaning.

A street photograph can show men and women dominating or being dominated by their environment. Equally, it can show them moving within a space that supports and reinforces their presence. All of these three types of street photograph are valid and you may have a preference for one over the other.

For example, if your eye is caught by the abstract lines of buildings illuminated by shafts of light, you may like to have tiny figures in the middle distance and nothing more. Create a set of images like that and you’ll impress the jury. But eventually the dynamics of street photography will command you to move in closer: to focus on the figures whose activities and movements are the true subject of this rewarding but difficult art form.

Figures
Given that figures are so highly significant in street photography, shouldn’t we be identifying the most likely people to fill the frame and start chasing them down the street?

Well, no, that’s not the best tactic, although I admit I use it occasionally. A better tactic is to chose your background, then wait for the right figure to move in front of it (as below). This, I suppose, is the classic ploy known to all experienced street photographers. When you choose the background you can also, in a sense, choose the light — because light can hit the background in many ways: full-on or at an angle.

Facial expressions, from joy to misery, may become a key feature in your work, but unless you’ve allocated most of the frame to people’s heads then much of the image will still be torsos, arms, shoulders, maybe even legs as well. That’s why I refer to “figures” as one of the three most important elements. Your photo can have emotional content, expressed facially, but there’s no escaping the considerations of form. From a formal point of view every part of each figure’s body makes a contribution to the success or failure of the image.

Working with a wide angle lens, you’ll capture figures plus their immediate background in sharp focus. However, there’s usually very little depth-of-field between the point of focus and the camera — far less than between subject and background. It you include figures between the point of focus and the camera you’re likely to make them large and blurred: an effect that spoils many street photos, in my opinion.

There’s a good reason for why the “foreground bokeh” effect looks unsatisfactory. When a figure is shown large it’s more noticeable and deemed by the viewer to be more important, but if it’s blurred it’s clearly intended to be less important. This is a contradiction! It makes me uneasy. By all means use it if you want to instill a sense of unease in the viewer.

So there are the three main factors of street photography: light, background, figures. Think about all three of them at the same time and you’ll be on the right track to taking great photos.