Using Contrasting Content in Street Photography

In these blog posts I’m often talking about form rather than content, that is to say: composition, shapes, colours, depth, and the overall look of the picture as opposed to what’s actually being represented. I truly believe that form is significantly more important than content in street photography, whereas the opposite is true in photojournalism.

However, if you concentrate too intently on form your work will tend towards abstraction and you’ll find yourself no longer the heir of Henri Cartier-Bresson but one of the distant followers of the painter Kandinsky. Pure abstraction, surely, is the province of painting rather than photography.

One way to approach street photography is to look for contrasting content. This is fairly simple to do, although personally I don’t hunt for contrasts, I just seem to stumble upon them. You can do the same.

Here’s one example (shown above). I was walking down a major thoroughfare in Bangkok called Yaowarat Road when I spotted these two tourists intently studying a map. Standing behind them was a man in uniform — who looks at first glance very like a policeman, but is, in fact, a security man who works for the hotel.

I like the stark contrast between the casually dressed tourists and the man in uniform. They differ in so many ways: male and female; Thai and western; sitting and standing; no visible tattoos versus lots of visible tattoos.

The contrast that I found most striking was in the general attitude of the people involved. Although the man was on duty, doing his job, he looks very relaxed and carefree. The two woman, on the other hand, are clearly on vacation, but seem to be making heavy work of it. They could be plotting an arduous journey in the sun, or perhaps they’re well and truly lost. Opting for the latter interpretation I’ve called the photo “Lost, Yaowarat Road, Bangkok.”

You’re probably going to ask me: “Was it really the contrasting subjects that prompted you to take the shot or the tattoos and bare legs of the tourists or the absurd pile of gift boxes in the background?” Well, I have to admit it was all of the above. I think psychologists call it “gestalt,” defined as: “the ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world.” I’ll have more to say on this topic in later posts.

The fact is: when you go out on to the street you have to photo what’s there. You can’t rearrange reality to suit your photo or start placing friends and family in strategic positions within the frame. In this sense, your starting point has to be content rather than form.

It’s likely that you’ll be drawn to content with a singular characteristic: such as an appealing face, some outrageous clothes or someone making an unusual gesture. These singularities are fine; they can make a great photo. But when you find contrasts you’re adding a second, non-physical dimension to your work. You’re contributing your own content by inserting something dynamic: a wordless argument, a visual opposition, an unspoken dialogue. This can be much more effective than making a simple, singular statement.

From a formal viewpoint, when you introduce contrast you may (as in the example above) have the two contrasting subjects more or less side-by-side, or at least occupying separate parts of the image. This is not always necessary. The contrast can be between foreground and background subjects.

In this image, the teenagers sitting on the long bench in the background make a striking contrast to the hugging couple in the foreground. I happened to be walking past when the girl with the green backpack came bounding up to her friend and leapt on him to give him an impassioned embrace. In the photo it appears that theirs is the only act in town. The other kids sit passively in a line, mostly with their own hands clasped together, not speaking to each other (except for one who tries to chat but his friend pays him no attention).

Again, taking the photo was a gestalt experience: I was very much aware of the people in the background and somewhat thankful my camera settings — which I didn’t have time to change — did not make them too blurred. It was important to get the couple into sharp focus. They were in this position for only a split second, so timing was the key to getting the shot. I’ve called it “Pleased to See You, Colchester, UK.”

I think there were two elements of luck involved, but not in capturing the “decisive moment” which was entirely deliberate, or in seeing the contrast between the two major elements of the photo.

Once piece of luck was confining the background tree to what is probably its only proper position. If it has been directly behind the top of the man’s head it would have spoiled the shot. I lucked out again in capturing the wistful attitude of the man on the extreme left of the image. With his pale face and sunglasses he looks like he could be a fan of the late Roy Orbison (“Only the Lonely”), watching other people have fun.

I’m not suggesting you should search actively for contrasts, because you may miss plenty of other opportunities if you do so. It’s better to come across them naturally but then to react with the instantaneous response demanded by street photography. To do this you have to be prepared for them. You have to recognise them immediately and have your camera set to cope with this kind of eventuality (1/250th or 1/500th second, ISO 400 or 800, and aperture slightly stopped down — all depending on the lighting conditions).

The world is full of contrasts: rich/poor, fat/thin, dark/light, tall/short and so on. You can’t really fail to notice the obvious pairs. The art of street photography involves finding what’s not so obvious, yet is, perhaps for that very reason, more revealing and more likely to make a compelling image.

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