What’s at the Centre of Your Street Photo?

When a street photo has a central core, you can take liberties with the rest of the composition. A central core establishes a pivot point around which other elements can dance.

Can you make a great composition without such a pivotal object? Yes, of course, but it certainly makes life easier.

I’ve spent more time than I care to calculate on thinking about composition and what looks right and what looks wrong. I don’t expect everyone — or indeed anyone — to agree with me, but I can honestly say I’ve explored thousands of possibilities.

My conclusion is: the central core is the one element that’s most likely to give the onlooker a sense of rightness, even when there’s a jumble of other shapes and colours around it.

Returning from a recent trip to London I discovered that a high percentage of my photos had an “object of interest” right in the centre — or at least somewhere along the vertical line that divides the image into two halves.

Big Earring
Take the featured image (above), for example. The object of interest is the woman’s large, circular earring which catches the light and seems to echo the swirls of the graffiti wall in the background. In fact, it’s this correspondence between the two that pulls the image together and makes it worth showing, despite the somewhat hackneyed concept of “people walking past graffiti.”

The earring is not dead centre, either vertically or horizontally, but it’s close enough to become the pivot of the composition. I’ve deliberately placed it slightly to the right because the two people are walking from right to left. The eye anticipates their direction of travel and compensates for the offset.

Now I need a good excuse for not having the earring exactly halfway up the picture. This is an entirely different issue. This object looks better above the central point rather than below it because the main subjects are people. When you include an entire, upright, human figure in the image, the onlooker’s attention has a bias towards the head (in the absence of interest lower down). We expect the head to be in the upper half of the picture.

Incidentally, the two subjects in question seem to form a pyramid shape, with their elaborate backpacks and floppy trousers. This is all to the good because the pyramid points to the earring (and the woman’s eye-catching hairstyle).

Rainy Colour
Shortly before the day brightened up and enabled me to take the above image, there was a rainstorm which flooded the streets and attracted my attention to the pavement. A woman in a vivid dress walked towards me, carrying a red-handled umbrella (below). Her dress in primary colours matched the colours of the motorcycles in the background. I picked up focus from the pavement and hoped for the best.

The shutter speed of 1/500th sec. has not quite frozen the swinging umbrella, but at least some of the subject’s hand is in sharp focus. Fortunately, the red wristwatch goes perfectly with the colour scheme. The reflected hues from the rainy pavement create a mood of “the storm is over, there’s a bright day ahead.”

And so it proved. For much of the day I had to cope with sunlight washing out the highlights while condemning everything else to deep shade. It’s not my favourite set of conditions, but I tried to find strategies to cope with them.

Where’s the Drama?
Central to my coping strategy was to focus on figures or objects in sunlight against a dark background. After all, if you can’t beat the conditions you have to join them: try to enjoy the high contrast and seek out dramatic subjects to make use of it.

In Soho I headed towards an area where several lorries were delivering liquid concrete (below). If I could play you the soundtrack to this image you’d be amazed. It’s completely at odds with the calm, orderliness of the composition! Two or three men were yelling instructions at the tops of their voices as the driver revved his engine and reversed his truck towards some expensive limousines with only inches to spare.

I took a dozen pictures — “working the scene,” as they say. I’m glad I did because only two of them had decent composition: one of a fashionably dressed passer-by and this one with the woman who seems to be enjoying a quiet cup of coffee despite the cacophony going on around her.

OK, you can argue about its merits, but I think it works because of the central figure: the man in the white helmet. Everything in front of him (to our left) is work, movement and action, whereas everything behind him (our right) is a world of leisure, stillness and relaxation. He stands between these two worlds, dressed in tough, working gear but assuming a calm, unflustered attitude — as if he were a guardian angel to the woman at the table.

Going to Extremes
Here’s another example, from earlier in the day (below). I’m know I’m pushing my luck with this one. There’s a woman in the foreground on the extreme left of the image and very little to balance the composition on the right. Yet I insist it works, chiefly because of the strength of the mysterious central figure.

I spotted the man coming towards me from the other side of a busy street. There was no time to lose. I got as close as I dared and took the shot before he moved into the dark passageway.

Now here’s the trick. The woman’s profile is set against the narrow pillar on the left. I delayed the shot a fraction to make sure this would happen. As luck would have it, the angle of view makes the pillar on the right look wider (we’re seeing two sides of it instead of one). As a result, it helps to balance the picture without destroying its disturbing quality.

So there we have four, very different compositions, each with its own feeling and atmosphere. Yet all four pictures have a central core that holds them together. It’s a technique anyone can use. I thoroughly recommend it.

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