One of the most difficult candid shots to get is the classic “one person, centre frame” composition, with the subject facing the camera. In this scenario, the likelihood of the subject looking up and reacting with alarm, delight, or some other emotion (most likely embarrassment or irritation) is probably around ninety percent.
I think it’s easy to underestimate the appeal of this basic style of composition. Although it’s identical to the composition used by millions of people every day when they snap each other with their mobile phones, it still has the power to hold our attention in a photograph taken with artistic intent.
Personally I don’t think there’s any need to “big up” the subject by getting close with a wide angle lens. That’s what street photographers do when they go over to the other side and start collaborating with the subject. My own motto is “Never Ask Permission,” a slogan I once found on a sticker in London (no, I didn’t put it there!)
How To Do It
The only way to get such a shot is to find a subject who is absorbed in some activity — or else sitting dreamily, staring into space and taking no notice of the camera whatsoever.
My featured shot (above) is an example. For obvious reasons I’ve called it “Relax Time.” The woman is sitting in a comfy and partly open-air bar which faces directly on to the street. Hence she is lit entirely by natural light, which is slightly unusual for an interior setting.
In the “one person, centre frame” composition the setting is every bit as important as the subject. Street photos — even those taken a couple of yards off the street like this one — show people in the context of an urban environment. For this particular shot I found a mini-environment, a true haven, adjacent to one of the main thoroughfares in Bangkok. I took the shot just as I was leaving — and the subject was completely unaware that she’d become part of my day’s work.
I doubt if I’d be able to get a similar shot unless I were in the mood for taking pictures. On this occasion I’d been sitting at the open window, observing pedestrians and photographing them in close-up as they passed the bar’s welcome sign. I was pleased with the results. Then, pausing just a yard or two away from the “Relax Time” subject I noticed this entirely new composition at once.
It’s divided into a “busy” half on the right and a “relaxing” half on the left. The jumble of decorations are confined to one corner and below them are the brightly lit table and cushion. On the other side are brown stools, a brown chair, a light brown wall and the edge of a picture frame.
In the late afternoon the bar is at its quietest, my partner and I being the only customers. Once the drinkers start arriving the subject of my photo will soon find that her “relax time” has come to an end. Her working day is divided into busy and relaxing spells — and my photo, similarly divided, encapsulates the story.
I’ve been looking through my pictures to find other examples, but they are few and far between. Most of the time I’m not trying to place the subject centre frame and I tend to include several people in each shot.
However, here’s another one (below), taken in a busy street, with the subject in the centre of the frame. Like the other shot this one deliberately places the subject in context. People hurry past; I linger for a moment to take the shot. The man at his makeshift desk doesn’t take any notice, He’s completely absorbed in reading a message on his phone.
I’m tempted to say: “That’s the best thing about mobile phones!” They distract people sufficiently to enable us to get a full frontal shot without being noticed. The downside is that you end up with a gallery of mobile phone shots — but that’s OK if they have some genuine quality.
I like to think this is the case with the image above. I took it partly because the light was particularly good at this location on the street. The red table was striking and I liked the glimpse of the stool to the right, plus the yellow sign which enlivens the image. I deliberately waited to catch a passer-by in mid-step, which adds a decisive moment to an otherwise static image. There’s also a sense of depth, added by the scene in the background where someone has paused, holding a blue suitcase.
Yet none of these qualities makes the image truly unique. There’s one detail which elevates it to my Chosen Few folder. Can you see what it is?
The subject has quizzical eyebrows which curl up at an angle. As if in sympathy, his spectacles do the same. One side of them is broken and the plastic rim points up at a noticeable angle. It looks as though it’s part of the man’s expression, perhaps one of shock or surprise at what he’s reading on the phone.
I’ve called the image “Broken Glasses” to draw attention to the detail. Many people who enjoy looking at photos don’t actually linger long enough to read them.
That’s really the secret of street photography. Look, linger, and see the image. Afterwards, you can only hope viewers of your image will do the same.