For many street photographers people are the primary focus of their images. With that, one big challenge is to avoid distracting backgrounds. Some will try blurring the background with shallow depth of field, use a longer focal length, or perhaps convert the image to black and white. I must admit I’ve used some of these ‘tricks’ many times in the past. However, over the years I’ve slowly changed my thinking behind my street photography. I no longer consider ‘people’ as the centrepiece of my street photos. Instead of taking to heart Robert Capa’s famous line, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”, I’m stepping further away to improve my photography. Instead of people being the focal point in my street photos, they’ve become just one of many ‘elements’ incorporated into the overall image. As many street photographers try to gain the courage to get closer to their subjects, I’m moving in the opposite direction.
Just by stepping back, it didn’t automatically make my images better. Obviously it’s more strategic. Rather than focusing on having a single subject, I looked at the overall image and balanced the various elements, like juggling balls in the air. I actually start from the edges and then make my way to the centre of the frame, unlike many photographers who do the reverse. For me, there’s no background to blur. My subjects need context and sometimes the surrounding and layered scenery becomes an integral part of the subject.
If I do include people into my photographs, they rarely take up more than 5-10% of the overall scene. However, don’t assume that because the subject is small, that the impact of their presence is insignificant. Bigger isn’t always better. In fact, I find that smaller the subject, the more powerful the image becomes. When people are photographed within the right frame and composition, it gives the image context and a story to tell. The context is the surroundings. I want my images to have context, not blur. If you notice most of my street photos, I try my best to have as much depth of field as possible. I want everything in focus. One way to do this is by shooting with a wide angle lens and playing with perspective.
Another very simple technique is spending time watching the direction and flow of your subjects, and then frame the image with an interesting or dynamic background. Perhaps its a building, perhaps a road or light that gives leading lines. Spend a few minutes framing, watching, and waiting. Once you understand the flow within the composition you have created, start taking images as people come in and out of your frame.
I know there are times when a close up of a person really makes for an interesting or dynamic photograph. I can appreciate street portraits and up-close candid street photos. However, as I see everyone trying to chase the same type of photo, I want to do the opposite. The photographers I currently admire are also stepping back. They are also using people as just one of many elements incorporated into their photographs. Perhaps some wouldn’t consider them contemporary street photographs, and that’s fine with me. I don’t really care what people label my images or the images I appreciate and enjoy. All I know is that I want my photographs to have a mood, to have impact, and to have context. Instead of stepping closer to my subjects, I want to take a step back to give my image more breathing room. I want my images to have a cinematic feel, a sense of motion and movement. Give it a try and let me know what you think. Thanks for reading and happy shooting!