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What I look for in a street photograph.

I spend a great deal of my free time looking for opportunities to shoot "Street Photography", a popular genre that has resulted in some of photography's most iconic and memorable images. Though I must admit, it results in some pretty strange looks from people on the street, as well as from my friends.

I don't find something to photograph every time I go out to shoot street photography, and this is pretty normal for people who enjoy street photography. I am looking for a specific image when I head out. I, and many other street photographers, also go out to shoot to a specific recipe, even if the ingredients change often. So what might that image be, and what are those ingredients ?

People

Whilst a street photograph does not need to feature a person in the image, it often does, yet the image is not a portrait. Most of mine feature a person, even if the person can not be identified. The thing I'm specifically trying to do with my work is put a person into the context of their environment. Doing so helps people relate to your image, gives your image depth and a sense of scale, and makes the story behind your image suddenly lots of times more interesting.

If the story in the image is about the person depicted, then it's essential that the individual is sharp, well lit, but definitely something to do with their environment. If it's a market trader, they need to be in the market. If they're a train passenger, they need to be clearly in a station. The person needs to be interacting with their environment - if not, it's just a portrait. There's no shame in that, and I do also take (and enjoy to look at) posed street portraits, but there is a difference.

Market Trader

If the story is about the environment, you can be much more creative with what you do with the human element. You can silhouette them to provide a human link but make them anonymous, you can blur them to depict movement, or you can candidly catch them interacting with the world around them in some way.

London Leafleting - Blur

Geometry

Repeating shapes in the street look excellent in images. In most cities there is disorder and chaos on every street, so when you find order and pattern, you should definitely reach for the camera. Interesting repeating shapes can come from reflections, buildings with strong patterns, or man made structures like bridges or marks on the road. When I find a shape that repeats, I tend to look at the scene from different angles (especially different heights) to find the most interesting viewpoint. Looking through windows with patterns on them are interesting ways of seeing out into the world via a repeating shape.

Finish Line Repeating Squares

Light and shadow can paint a beautiful geometry in your scene in many ways - imagine artificial lights from a busy market scene creating strong leading lines through your image, or a low harsh winter sunlight creating long shadows.

Long Shadows

Juxtaposition

Closely related to timing and Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment", aligning a person, with an element from the scene around you, so that the combination of the static part of the street interacts with something there only temporary, makes for a great image. The effect should tell a story, often it's quite comic. There are some often used ingredients in this recipe for success - someone on their mobile walking past a phone box, people that seem to be interacting with advertising posters, or a well dressed man with a briefcase walking past a famous shop named 'Boss'. The really interesting ones come when you spot your own juxtapositions. They are out there !

Green

Layers

When you put all of this together, this involves building a picture by assembling layers. It's common to spot an interesting background or an interesting situation developing and waiting around for all of the elements to come together. Whilst I can cover tens of thousands of steps on a street photography day, most of the shooting happens when I am not moving around much at all. For this shot, I waited a while, until there was a single person on these public stairs, in one of the most populated cities in the world. I am glad I did.

Kolkata Steps

Take this image for example. I spotted the word 'Finish' on a shop and imagined it as a finish line to a race. It was a quiet street and I had to wait a few minutes for someone interesting looking to walk into the frame.

Finish Line

Moment

The perfect outcome in a street photograph is when background and foreground interest elements come together and the photographer tells a story about an interesting moment. The gust of wind which surprises a crowd, the moment a child is half-way over a big puddle jump, or the moment a person interrupts a perfectly repeating geometry in your scene in precisely the most photogenic spot. One of my favourite moments was when a couple had a romantic moment in front of the bin men, a confluence of juxtaposition and moment:

Moment