Click to read more
© Martine Franck / RUSSIA. Moscow. Ballet Moisseev: young dancers rehearsing. March 2000.

When it comes to composition– one of the first things you should ask yourself is: “Who is the subject?

If you have a hard time identifying the main subject (or subjects) in the photo– you are in trouble.

One of the most difficult things to do in street photography is capture multiple subjects well. When there are lots of subjects in our frame, it is often difficult for us to focus on who the main subject is.

So how do we overcome this difficulty? I propose the compositional concept of: “Spot the not.”

“Spot the not?”

Now what do I mean when I say “spot the not?” Well, to illustrate the idea: imagine how difficult it would be to find a needle in a haystack. But then think about how easy it is to spot a wimp in the middle of a bodybuilding contest:

muscle
Spot the not: who doesn’t belong? You guessed it, the wimp in the center.

Now let us bring another example– this one a lot cuter. Let us “spot the not” in the photo below:

Who doesn't belong?
Who doesn’t belong?

Even when you have a lot more subjects in the shot– it is generally quite easy to see who doesn’t fit in, and who doesn’t belong. Let us “spot the not” in the photo below again:

Who doesn't belong in the crowd? You guessed it, the one guy in red (let us hope he doesn't get beat up).
Who doesn’t belong in the crowd? You guessed it, the one guy in red (let us hope he doesn’t get beat up).

So pretty much “spotting the not” is the idea that one subject in the frame isn’t doing the same thing as the others, doesn’t look the same, might look a different color, be a different character, etc.

Let us bring some famous photos from the masters to better illustrate this idea in street photography:

Constantine Manos / USA. Massachusetts. Boston. 1974.

Constantine Manos / USA. Massachusetts. Boston. 1974.
© Constantine Manos / USA. Massachusetts. Boston. 1974.

In this photo by Constantine Manos, we have lots of subjects in the photo– all presumably in some marching band or something.

But who immediately stands out from the rest of the crowd? Can you “spot the not?”

That’s right– you guessed it– it is the girl on the far right. Why does she stand out from the rest of the crowd?

  1. Well first of all, she is the only one whose face you can see. Everyone else’s head is decapitated.
  2. Secondly, she is a lot younger than the other women– who are full-breasted. She is obviously still a child.
  3. Thirdly, she is shorter than everyone– and she is out of order and out of line.

Therefore even though there are a sea of people, the shot is still quite simple. She stands out from the rest of the group, and you can easily identify her as the main subject.

In terms of the photograph itself, the reason I like it is because it looks like this young girl is so out of place, and confused. The way I interpret the photo is that the girl wants to grow up quickly and become mature like the other women in the photo — but she is still imitating and just playing along, having no idea what she is doing. It shows a great deal of innocence — the innocence of youth.

Martine Franck / RUSSIA. Moscow. Ballet Moisseev: young dancers rehearsing. March 2000.

Martine Franck / RUSSIA. Moscow. Ballet Moisseev: young dancers rehearsing. March 2000.
© Martine Franck / RUSSIA. Moscow. Ballet Moisseev: young dancers rehearsing. March 2000.

This photograph is quite similar to the prior photograph. This time the photo is taken by Martine Franck. You see all these young and elegant dancers– all interlocked and criss-crossing arms together. The pattern of their arms is quite fascinating:

Figure 1: Note the fascinating criss-crossing pattern their arms make. It almost looks like a chain link fence.
Figure 1: Note the fascinating criss-crossing pattern their arms make. It almost looks like a chain link fence.
fence
Note how the arms of the dancers looks like a chain-link fence.

The effect of their arms interlocked makes a pattern like a chain-linked fence. The effect of it makes them all seem connected– in unison. They are powerful, and one.

So when you look at the image– can you “spot the not?” Yes– it is the one girl whose face you can see– and is tilted to the side:

Figure 2: The one girl who stands out.
Figure 2: The one girl who stands out.

So you can see that by “breaking the pattern” — we can see the main subject who stands out.

In terms of the image itself– I love the elegance and the simplicity of it. The background is a simple clean white of a ballet school. You see the strong horizontals in the background– which make this landscape composition work well:

Figure 3: Note the strong horizontal lines in the background-- making this photo work better as a landscape photo.
Figure 3: Note the strong horizontal lines in the background– making this photo work better as a landscape photo.

There is also great figure-to-ground (contrast) in the photograph, as you can see the dark outfits of the ballet students stand out against the white. A technique that my friend Adam Marelli taught me is to blur the background– and see if you can still see the subjects:

martine5
Figure 4: A good “figure to ground” test is to see if you blur the image, you can see the subjects clearly. Yes, this passes the “figure to ground” test. Sorry if the photo makes you feel a bit nauseous (it does for me too).

Let us analyze the main photograph again for a second:

The reason I love the photo the most (besides the composition) is the feeing of despair of the girl in the middle of the photo. Everyone is standing upright–powerful and posed, while she seems like she is almost giving up. She might not have the strength to keep her head up and continue these perhaps grueling ballet lessons (I hear they are). And the look in her eyes is that of dismissal– and it looks like her mind is somewhere else.

Even though the composition of the image is beautiful, the photo feels quite sad and melancholy.

Martine Franck / RUSSIA. Moscow. Ballet Moisseev: young dancers rehearsing. March 2000.
© Martine Franck / RUSSIA. Moscow. Ballet Moisseev: young dancers rehearsing. March 2000.

So a question you might be asking yourself is: “Does there need to be a main subject in a photo?

The way I will answer this is “not necessarily.” But at the same time– having a strong main subject makes the photo have more focus, is generally more compelling, and sticks in your mind longer.

Christopher Anderson / CHILE. Santiago. 1995.

Christopher Anderson / CHILE. Santiago. 1995.
© Christopher Anderson / CHILE. Santiago. 1995.

Another way to easily spot the subject of your photo is to see who is closest to you in the frame.

In this photo by Christopher Anderson, you see a sea of soldiers in the back, all in perfect formation.

When there is a pattern that arises– psychologists call it “chunking.” Pretty much the idea is that you generalize the background to be all one pattern.

So in this photo if you look at the soldiers in the background, you don’t see 30 individual soldiers. Rather, you just see one big “chunk” of a pattern:

Figure 1: Our brain "chunks" the repeating pattern of the soldiers in the background and interprets them as one unit.
Figure 1: Our brain “chunks” the repeating pattern of the soldiers in the background and interprets them as one unit.

To better illustrate this idea of “chunking“– when you look at a forest– do you see a thousand individual trees, or just “the forest?”

Do you see hundreds of individual trees? Or do you just see "the forest?"
Do you see hundreds of individual trees? Or do you just see “the forest?”
Psychologically, our mind just "chunks" the trees together. We just see this grouping of trees as one unit.
Psychologically, our mind just “chunks” the trees together. We just see this grouping of trees as one unit.

Anyways to get back to the Anderson photo at hand– another way we know the general in the front of the photo that he is dressed differently from the rest of the soldiers– and also is closest to the viewer in the frame. Not only that, but all the subjects in the background are blurry:

Figure 2: The subject pops out at you in the center of the frame.
Figure 2: The subject pops out at you in the center of the frame.

The feeling of the image is also that of impending doom. I can almost hear the soldiers in the background marching along– about to go fight some war or something.

Then the general in the middle of the photo is biting his lip– and looking cautiously toward the direction where the rest of the soldiers are going. The fact that his eyes are in the shade from his visor also makes the shot more dramatic:

anderson4
Figure 3: The strong direction and movement of the eyes and the soldiers add energy and tension to the photo.

Abbas / IRAN. Shahr Rey. 1997.

Abbas / IRAN. Shahr Rey. 1997.
© Abbas / IRAN. Shahr Rey. 1997.

Another rather easy way to see who the main subject of the photo is by through eye contact.

Generally if there are multiple subjects in the frame– and everyone is looking away, the one person looking at you is the main subject.

So in this photo, you see a man and three women in burkas riding a moped. You can’t see the eyes or the gazes of the 3 subjects in the left of the frame, but the one woman looking straight at you is the main subject. Her eyes simply gaze at you and captivate you.

So an easy way to capture the main subject is to have them look straight at you. There is a saying: “Eyes are the windows to the soul.” Photos in which the main subject are looking straight at you are generally more compelling and powerful. Almost all paintings of portraits are done in the manner that the subject looks straight at you.

Think about the “Girl with the Pearl Earring” and the Mona Lisa. Part of the reason they are so captivating is that they are looking not just at you– but into you:

"Girl with the Pearl Earring" by Johannes Vermeer, 1665
“Girl with the Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer, 1665
The Mona Lisa, and her forever mysterious gaze and expression.
The Mona Lisa, and her forever mysterious gaze and expression.

Similarly, if you have one person looking away from you– they stand out like a sore thumb (and are probably the main subject). This is why whenever we take a family or group photo, the one kid who looks away is so absolutely distracting:

t-ball-looking-away-from-camera1
The one kid looking away from the camera catches your attention more than the dozens looking at you.

Istanbul, 2013

Istanbul, 2013
Istanbul, 2013

To illustrate the idea of “spot the not” with one of my photos– here is a photo I took in Istanbul this summer.

The main subject of the photo is quite obvious– he is the one in the smack center of the frame. Generally subjects placed in the center of the frame is a good indication that they are the main subject.

But also another cue that shows he is the main subject is that there is a sea of arms in the photo — and only one pair of eyes looking straight at you, the viewer.

The feeling I have heard from others is that it is quite menacing– the guy in the middle looking intense.

The truth of the photo is that the first photo I took (tried to take it candidly) — the guy in the center gave a massive smile. I then joked around, and laughed along– then told him that I wanted to take another photo of him not laughing. I took two more, and I think the last photo was the best:

86940018
Photo 1. The first photo, he is smiling too much. Isn’t interesting to me.
86940019
Photo 2. Still smiling a bit, still not interesting to me.
86940020
Photo 3: I think this is the best — even though I told him not to smile, I think it is an interesting photo.

Conclusion

To conclude this lesson on “spotting the not” — let us remember to consider a few points:

1. Identify the main subject

Constantine Manos / USA. Massachusetts. Boston. 1974.
Constantine Manos / USA. Massachusetts. Boston. 1974.

It is not always absolutely essential to have a main subject in every photo– but trust me, they make for stronger images.

So whenever you are out shooting in the streets– ask yourself: “Who is the main subject?” The easier you can identify this in your images (and that of other images)– you will build a stronger connection with the photos you look at.

2. Break the pattern

Martine Franck / RUSSIA. Moscow. Ballet Moisseev: young dancers rehearsing. March 2000.
Martine Franck / RUSSIA. Moscow. Ballet Moisseev: young dancers rehearsing. March 2000.

Generally a good way to “spot the not” is by seeing which person or subject breaks the pattern. The person who breaks the pattern is generally your subject.

3. Get eye contact

Creating eye contact is also another great way for you to help identify your subject. So when you are out shooting on the streets, try to wait until you get eye contact.

For example if you are at a crosswalk and you are standing next to somebody, take a photo of someone not looking at you. Then hold up your camera and wait for them to look at you, then capture the image.

You can see a good example by Thomas Leuthard doing this in the video above.

4. Get close to your subject

Christopher Anderson / CHILE. Santiago. 1995.
Christopher Anderson / CHILE. Santiago. 1995.

Generally subjects that are closer to you in the frame are easily identified as the subject. So when photographing your subject, sometimes being closer is better.

Learn more about composition

If you haven’t read all the articles I have written on composition– you can get started below :)