If you ask me, 90% of photography is perception and 10% is the rest. That’s why I’m convinced that a photographer who can train their eye to perceive the world through a creative and artistic lens can make amazing work no matter the conditions or gear he or she is using. This is great news because no matter what your situation, you too can be a great photographer. But it will take a lot of practice to train your eye to look for the things that will make your audience stop and truly admire your work.
So what are some of the things we should look for when out on the streets that will make for great photography? Lets break it down to a few simple techniques and tips to get things started on what to look for and lighting.
Composition at its most basic is the arrangement of elements in your photo. Every time you snap the shutter you make a conscious decision of what to exclude and what to include and where in the frame those things will be. Composition is vital. When starting out I highly recommend you to familiarize yourself with the compositional rules. Just understanding these basics can take your photos from something ordinary or even unpleasant to something that lends power and emotion. Once you feel comfortable in shooting within the rules though I’m an advocate of feeling comfortable enough to break them and create images in the say you see the world. This is especially true in street photography which for me should be much less rigid than other forms of photography.
Photos should be presented like a journey for the viewer and the more you understand how our eyes flow through a photo subconsciously the better your composition will be. By changing the arrangement of some elements here and there, you change the photo’s entire structure – and therefore how a viewer’s eye flows through the image.
My top 7 Composition tips
Cropping - cut out the unnecessary and put focus where its needed. Also, be mindful of where you will use your final image. Instagram? 4 x 5 crop, so remember to take your shot with your final crop in mind.
Rule of Thirds - is all about dividing your shot into nine equal sections by a set of vertical and horizontal lines. Place your elements where these lines intersect.
Frames - look for elements on the street that you can use to frame your subjects
Leading Lines - our eyes are naturally drawn along lines so think of where you want the viewers eyes to start and take them through a journey until the end.
Background - watch out for distracting elements in your background that pull focus away from your subject. Sometimes these distractions can be edited in post but save yourself time by being mindful on the streets.
Symmetry - repeating patterns that lead to an ending focus point.
Depth - add 3 dimensionality to your photos by having elements in different focal planes. For example, a foreground, mid ground and background element.
When we say contrast, think opposites. This applies to lighting as well as subjects.
When we discuss contrast in lighting there are 4 different types which we’ll touch on briefly:
Tonal contrast - which refers to the difference in brightness between the elements of the image. The most obvious example would be a sunset image with a light sky and a dark foreground.
High contrast - which have bright whites and dark blacks without a lot of medium tones.
Low contrast - which have very little tonal contrast, so instead of whites and blacks, you will see a lot of grey tones.
Color contrast - which makes use of other types of contrast (tonal, high, and low contrast) to create an image with varying degrees of contrasting colours.
In terms of subjects I think this is just as important to create photos that go beyond a visual style and more into creating a photo that makes the viewer think. One of the reasons I love photographing in Tokyo for example, is the stark contrast between the ‘future of the city’ type of vibe sitting right next to old and traditional landmarks. This contrast invokes a certain sentiment of intrigue and gives the viewer more to consider than just a pretty picture. Think conservative/liberal, ugly/pretty, or young and old.
Whether it’s the gesture in a persons body or the expression on a persons face, emotion can be the foundation of an entire image and this is especially true in street photography. If a photograph doesn’t make you as the photographer feel anything then how do you expect the viewer to. To portray emotion you might need to be close enough to your subject to do so or as famed photojournalist Robert Capa said "If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough”
"If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough” - Robert Capa
The most common emotions captured by street photography are feelings of impatience, boredom, frustration, anxiety, embarrassment and amusement.
The (right) Light
Day or night, it can’t be stressed how important the right light is to your photography. From a purely aesthetic point of view it can add depth and an almost 3-D effect to your photography making your subjects pop. From an emotional stand point it adds drama and intrigue. The right light can completely stylize your images such as high contrast midday light or a warm golden hour sunset.
At night, look for any sources that can light your subjects. This can include lights coming from a store front that are typically large and act as a massive soft box. Conversely, small directional lights can be used to great effect to invoke a certain emotion and drama. Neon lights, my personal favourites, not only stylize your shots but can also add great colour effect.
When you do find a good light source at night pay attention to how that light is hitting your subject. For example, a subject leaning against a shop with a lit sign above will be hit with a striking light with beautiful colour.
Also look for how light is reflecting off of surfaces. For example, how light shines and creates effects when hitting metal or other reflective surfaces. Or when it rains the way light reflects off the wet cement to create all sorts of beautiful colours that wouldn’t otherwise exist under dry conditions.
Also look for how light is reflecting off of surfaces. For example, how light shines and creates effects when hitting metal or other reflective surfaces.
When you do find good light, wait. Work the scene and be patient and wait for the right subject to come into the scene if one is not already there. I know some photographers who will work a scene for 2-3 hours to get the right shot but everyone is different.
For those wanting to go beyond the light afforded to them on the streets, some photographers will bring a flash. When starting out, however, I might not recommend this as it draws a lot of attention and can lead to confrontations. Leave the flash for guys like Bruce Gilden for now.
TIP: Blur can be your friend so don’t be scared to experiment. People don’t have to be tack sharp, your focus doesn’t have to be spot on. Adding motion blur or out of focus subjects can turn out great if done with intention. But I will gladly admit I’ve had some great happy accidents as well. In any case, I firmly believe that night is the perfect time to experiment with mistakes.
NOTE: Night is my favourite time to explore but it should go without saying that you have to be careful. Cities like Tokyo are so fun to shoot at night because of the low crime rates but this is not the case for a lot of you. So please know where you are going, be safe, be street smart and when in doubt, bring a friend along for the experience.