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Composition for Photography part 1 - Street Photography

Thursday, August 11, 2011
Walking around a city with your camera is fun and potentially a creative endeavor. I see so many people taking photos in New York City and wonder, "what are they photographing that I don't see?". I look and it is another snapshot. I can already pre-visualize what the photo will look like. Composition for photography has many different aspects. One of the more difficult things is to find the composition within the chaos of moving parts. Good street photography is hard because many of your subjects are moving, the composition does not stay static and does not reproduce very easily.

I found that photographing the Horse Carriages on 59th Street in New York City at Central Park were much harder than I first anticipated. putting aside the thought that the composition is always changing so you have to see and act very quickly there are more difficulties.

One such issue is the amount of chaos moving around the subject in the background which can distract from the photograph. While you can find an interesting subject, also looking at and reacting to what the background will look like is another major skill. Being able to match up your background to highlight your subject might be one of the most important skills in street photography.

The other problem I had with this subject was finding a pleasing shape the horses can fit into that makes for a successful composition. I could always zoom in really close and get a horse head, but that is not composing a story telling scene. It is more of horse portraiture. Showing the carriages being pulled by the horses also created compositional problems as seen below. I wanted to show horse and carriages in an active and environmental photo.

The photo above is an interesting subject, the horse and carriage. It is a nice snapshot subject. The horse is cleverly echoed by the statue in the background. I had to crop out all of the distracting people so the viewers eye could focus on the subject. But, in the end I think this photo fails because the horse and carriage are long objects that always point towards the right or left side of the scene, out of the frame. I don't think the lamp post does enough to stop the viewer form leaving the frame. This was the ultimate challenge of creating an interesting horse and carriage photo. What angle should I take that will create a pleasing composition?

The photo below does a much better job. So good in fact that I was not worried about the distracting people and objects to the left or right of the subjects. It starts nicely from the bottom left and moves to the brightest object, the carriage driver with the white shirt. From there your eye can wander over to the other carriage because it is another bright white subject. The other carriage driver brings us back into the scene because he is looking to the left. At this point the viewer can look at the photo in more detail. Ask yourself, hat other aspects of this photo make it an interesting photographic composition.

I see people taking photos of buildings all the time. Usually famous buildings. But always from the ground. This creates keystone in a photo. Where the lines start out wide and point upward to a perspective point. In this photo there is plenty of keystone lines but ultimately it works. The reflected building adds curve to a very angular photo. Another layer with interesting shapes and tone that leads the eye to the top of the building with the American flag. The building with the American flag brings us back into the frame and to the trees which point back to the reflection ofn the building. The keystone lines on the building to the left and right become a frame instead of distracting angled lines leading the eye to the top of the frame and out of the photo.

Composition in street photography is no easy task. It is chaotic and most shots turn out to be snapshots of interesting objects with very little emotion or story. If you understand some of the basics of compositional design then you will be more selective in the photos you take and more successful looking for the best angle to take the photos from. The photos above show that by using thought out compositional techniques anything that may be distracting disappears from the viewers mind. People or signs are easily overtaken by the interesting subject and you don't have to over crop or replace items in the photo.

Composition for photography on the streets of a major city does not come easy, but studying it, looking at only GREAT photography and practicing seeing will mold this type of thinking over time. The more you practice and see how other great photographers dealt with difficult photographic compositions the faster you will be able to use it in your day to day street photography. Finding the order in the chaos of street photography.


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