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.

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