Make no mistake, street photography is not everybody’s cup of tea. When I started out, I was just like every other newbie, scared at the prospect of having to point my camera at a stranger. Coming from a conservative place where aiming camera at a stranger is usually frowned upon I had often found myself short of the confidence to practice images out on the streets. Even if your immediate environment is more accommodating, learning how to guise yourself and get away with good images is an important skill, one that is worth learning and practicing. You never know when you would be forced to use that. But with that you will also need to focus on some of the key aspects of street photography. This article aims to highlight some of those.
One of the lesser used themes in street photography, but one you will have lot of opportunity to shoot, especially if you are traveling in South East Asia, is juxtaposition. Juxtaposition, means when two completely opposing concepts collude in a composition to make an alluring image. Think of something, anything and then think of something else that is completely the opposite of it. Like a young woman wearing fashionable clothes and another lady, old frail and wearing ragged attire standing close to her. Another example could be a couple of guys moving a big banner promoting some liquor brand and obstructing the view of a drug store.
Contrast denotes the tonal range in an image between pure black and pure white. An image lacking contrast is likely to have a histogram that will be clustered more towards the middle. A high contrast image looks better, in the sense that it is naturally eye-catching. It is sharper and edgy because the tones are different to each other and thus create a visual jerk. However, you don’t always have to shoot at mid-day in order to achieve the desired tonal range. High contrast can be achieved simply by shooting in black and white. Speaking of which, black and white photography is the favorite mode of expression of street photographers. This is because sometimes the mundane and boring routine of daily life can be too cluttered for an image in color. Minus the distracting colors it is possible to cut through the clutter and focus on the elements that the photographer wants to highlight. On the other hand, you can use contrast to hide the main subject. Not everyone might find it, but those who will would feel rewarded for spotting the hidden message. For example: in the image below you don’t notice the man with all of his worldly possessions right away but once you do the whole photo changes its meaning. You can read more about Black and White photography in our Black and White Photography Basics article.
Shapes tend to define an image when there is lack of contrast and details otherwise. It can make an already interesting image more compelling. One of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s (master of candid street photography) endearing images is the one where he photographs a group of children playing in front of a house with windows in Spain. Another example where he played around with shapes is in the image shot in Valencia where a person looks out of a slit opening on a wooden door. The image is a tantalizing one that teases the viewer with shapes, circles, semi-circles, rectangles and so forth. Cartier-Bresson’s images are filled with such elements. Interesting shapes are all around us, you just need to train your eye to be able to compose the shot correctly. Once you start paying attention to all kind of different shapes all around us it will get progressively easier to compose.
4. Motion Blur
Image blur can sometimes make compelling compositions. But that blur has to be used in such a way that it isolates the non-essential aspects of the image and in effect highlights the ones that are important. E.g., a cyclist making his way through traffic can be an example. Here the trick is to use a slow shutter speed while panning the camera in tandem with the subject. While the cyclist will be sharp in focus, the background and the foreground will be completely blurred. This approach is a little different to motion blur technique, where the main subject is blurred.
5. Defining moment
If you need to understand what constitutes the defining moment get a copy of the Magnum Contact Sheets and study some of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work. It is one of the best resources to understand how, even when some of the images captured by to quote the great photographer himself –
“Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.” – Cartier-Bresson speaking to Washington Post in 1957.
Indeed, some of the best moments ever captured on film / digital sensor have all been on an impulse, at a fraction of a second when all that made the difference was the quick reflection of the photographer.