Taking Pictures From Across the Street

I try every possible strategy to take candid pictures in the street. Sometimes I “work the scene” by finding a subject and concentrating on it for while; at other times I keep walking and take the occasional shot here and there.

I’m always on the lookout, calculating the odds, trying to predict people’s movements, and thinking up new compositions which I hope will work. However, at some point during the day I’ll pause and hit the reset button. I banish all the fancy ideas and clever strategies! I tell myself: just do one thing. Go back to basics, keep it simple — take some shots from across the street.

When I say “take shots from across the street” I mean take them at precise right angles to the scene, so the kerb across the way makes a horizontal line near the bottom of the frame. I mean hold the camera without tilting it, so as to keep vertical lines precisely perpendicular to the horizontal. And I mean use a lens that will bring the subject reasonably close: not 28mm, but 50mm or 85mm.

Apart from anything else, changing your mode of operation is always beneficial. Don’t do it if you’re “on a roll,” with your current strategy working nicely. Do it when you feel you need to secure some reliable shots, rather than continuing to hope for that pot of gold (the one-in-a-thousand shot) which always seems to be just out of reach.

Squared Away
I find that by squaring up the scene into straight horizontals and verticals I’m already half-way to getting a reasonable photo. On a busy street in any major city someone interesting is bound to show up, sooner or later. Maybe the person is already standing there, like the well-dressed woman in my featured image (above).

I was looking for a shot which said “this is London” — and there she was. The poster indicates the area and lists some of the streets in its vicinity. The colour scheme is ready-made, with no intrusive or distracting hues. I particularly liked the different textures in the black wall: four shades of black, all underlined by the grey pavement at the bottom.

The image and the technique used for getting it are both very simple, but I think the result is pleasing. The shot is entirely candid: I’ve no idea who the subject is, or why she’s holding an unlit cigarette. Her appearance is so amazingly efficient: with headphones not only keeping her hair in place but which are also entirely cable-free, thus allowing her to avoid the geeky look that usually puts people at odds with their surroundings.

A Slice of Life
I’d only just switched to my “keep-it-simple” mode when I came across the above subject and the same is true of the one below. I don’t think this next shot is quite as simple, but it does carve out a typical slice of London life, on a certain day, in a specific year. In fifty years’ time any onlooker will be able to identify the fashions, together with the music and events mentioned on the posters, and say: “This was London in 2017.”

Before the Dawn

The photo exemplifies my point about horizontals and verticals. If I’d taken the shot at an angle it really wouldn’t have worked. Not everything would have been in sharp focus. The light was not especially bright, obliging me to work at ISO800 with a fairly wide aperture of f/3.2. In turn, the ISO and aperture settings enabled me to get a fast shutter speed of 1/800th of a second, necessary to freeze the movement of people walking slowly across the frame.

From a compositional point of view, the image is more complex than the technique I used for taking it. There’s an obvious directional movement from left to right, from the gesture of the boy in the poster, right the way through to the man with the shoulder bag who’s about to exit the frame. Normally, such a composition wouldn’t work at all, but here it does — because of several counteracting elements.

For a start, there’s a pause between the woman in the leather trousers on the left and the one with the red bag who is pointing to the right. In between them is the bus stop and the full, uninterrupted width of the Kate Bush poster. Kate, floating in the water, tends to make our gaze revert to the centre of the image, despite the left-to-right movement of the other figures.

I’ve never seen any studies about eye movement and how it relates to street photography, but it would seem to be a promising area of research.

In English, we read from left to right, so our eyes are already trained to perform this movement when we see any visual pattern or representation. Arabic is read from right to left, so we might expect arab street photographers to compose images with a natural right-left bias. Let me know if you think this occurs. I’ve looked — and I think I see it — but the western influence may be too strong for it to become dominant.

In my photo the bold symbols for music, movies and books also help to counteract the movement of the eye from left to right. But what really makes it work is the correspondence between the gesture of the woman on the left (reaching into her pocket) and the pointing gesture of the woman on the right. By contrast, Kate Bush seems at first glance to be making no gesture at all, until you notice that her arms are outstretched — spanning the gap between the two halves of the picture.

Study in Grey
My third shot (below) is a study in grey, in much the same way as the featured image was a study in black. Again, I find this a pleasing shot, despite it being not entirely “squared away” with true horizontals. Something in the window has caught the man’s eye. He pauses for a split second before continuing, one foot lifted an inch above the ground. His grey suit tones with the grey walls and the monochrome etchings. Clearly we’re in a very different part of London compared to the settings of the other two shots.

The Hesitant Buyer

Yet I think this image would be largely without merit if it were not for the subtle colours in the lower panes of opaque glass below the main window. Whereas there’s nothing to be seen behind the row of framed pictures, there’s clearly something interesting going on in the basement.

Pink and yellow light seems to emanate from these basement windows. Whatever can lie behind them? Is it a workshop? A gallery? A brothel? I didn’t investigate as there seemed to be no public entrance.

Like the man in the grey suit we must remain on the other side of the protective iron railings. Just watching. From the other side of the street.

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