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.

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