Listening to the Bass in Street Photography

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Downtown LA, 2014

I recently read something quite interesting about music. The concept was when you’re listening to music, you tend to listen to the treble (high notes) and tend to ignore the bass (low notes).

Therefore the author suggested to get a richer experience listening to music, focus on listening to the bass (not the treble).

So I gave it a go myself. I listened to some of my favorite classical music, and really paid attention to the low notes of the cello in the background (instead of focusing on the high notes of these violins).

What I experienced was a much richer and rewarding experience. By focusing on the bass, I actually heard and appreciated it– while letting the treble come to my ears naturally.

So you guys might be wondering: “What does this have to do with street photography?”

I find one of the biggest mistakes we street photographers make while editing (or shooting) is to focus on our subjects, and totally disregard the backgrounds. We find interesting characters in the streets and photograph them and cross our fingers and hope that the background works.

The bass is the background, and the treble is the subjects in our photos.

The problem with this approach is that even if you have a very fascinating character, the background will be distracting and crap. You might get distracting cars, trees, poles sticking out of people’s heads, and overlapping figures.

So when shooting, it is often a better strategy to identify your background first (a clean and interesting background) and trying to incorporate your subject into the frame.

One great tip I learned from my friend Charlie Kirk is to walk on the edge of the sidewalk and to shoot towards storefronts (instead of into the streets). This helps clean up your backgrounds a lot.

Also during the editing phase, we get too emotionally attached to photos which have strong subjects (but the background is distracting and doesn’t work). For example, I really like this photograph I took of a guy in Downtown LA because he has awesome tattoos, the light on him glows, and his expression shows his sense of loneliness to me.

Downtown LA, 2014.

Downtown LA, 2014.

However one of my students Vedran pointed out that the right part of the frame in the background was a bit too dark, whereas the left side of the background was too bright. I think in this case, the photograph I took of him at a different angle (in the beginning of this article) works better. I shot it from a lower angle, which makes him look more heroic– and the simple background helps focus on him.

Of course you sometimes want to have some more context in your backgrounds, because you want to give your viewers a sense of place. But try to do this by avoiding too much clutter in the background.

A big tip is to avoid overlapping subjects in the background. If you look at a lot of Alex Webb’s photos, he is able to give a great sense of place, have multiple subjects, without having them being distracting. I think this has to do with the spacing and balance of is his subjects in the frame.

So when you’re editing your shots (choosing your best ones), I suggest the following advice: start by looking at the background and then the subject. If the background doesn’t work, ditch the shot. Sometimes by focusing on the subject first– you get emotionally attached to the subject and don’t want to ditch the shot (even though the background might be crap).

Get cleaner backgrounds

If you want to get cleaner backgrounds in your street photography, I recommend the following articles:

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  • Jim

    Hello Eric,
    For me the greatest photos achieve a certain orchestral balance that you’re hitting on in your post. The “bass” in a photo might correspond to its darker tones. A photo’s tonal balance is tipped toward the low end when those darker notes — like the longest soundwaves — are sustained and burned in. I’m particularly interested in how a photo can achieve orchestral-like depth of field. On stage and in a photo you can see this depth of field…the percussion and basses might take up the rear, and the higher strings are up front. Perhaps if you can “hear” a photo as you would an orchestra, you’re seeing very deeply. There’s a lot more to this when you add colors to the mix…synesthetes might refer to a musical note and see a color. Alex Webb’s photos bring all this stuff together for me. The colors, the mad depth of field, the huge orchestral range of tone that’s perfectly balanced within a frame…the crazy rhythms…they’re all there in his great shots as they are in a Stravinsky masterpiece. You wrote beautifully about Alex Webb in a prior post, and I’d recommend “The Suffering of Light” to anyone with an interest in photography and music. Enough of my abstractions and yapping — all the best, and thanks for your fantastic contributions.

    • Eric Kim

      Thank you Jim!

  • Andy

    I have to disagree Eric. The second shot here is way more powerful. I love the light on the left hand side. Over analysing way too much ;)

    • Aunt Sally

      I’m with Andy. They are both nice but the second shot is much more striking, even with the bright white. If it bothers you why not just burn the area a bit?

    • Eric Kim

      Thank you for the thought Andy- will take that into consideration!

  • VarietyOfLight

    “The bass is the background, and the treble is the subjects in our photos.”
    That analogy does not fit. The bass is the dark and the treble is the bright areas, of course.

    • Eric Kim

      Hmmm a better analogy!

  • Howard

    Nice metaphor. Good post.

    • Eric Kim

      Cheers @disqus_Bdv6x1fXHM:disqus :)

  • Fred

    The ‘power’ of that photo has nothing to do with how the frame was exposed or composed The power is in what is not in the frame. You could photograph that guy with an analogue potato (not to take anything thing away from Eric Kim) and you’d still have a compelling image. When I say what is not in the frame I mean all the intangible bits we can never know – how the photographer encountered him, who is he, is he crazy etc etc. For all we know he could be an actor having a bit of down time on a movie set and the tats are makeup. Who knows, nothing is certain. I’d say the exposure is the treble and the fiction created by the photographer is the bass. A compelling picture whatever the case.

    • Eric Kim

      Agreed Fred!

  • Richard Floyd-Walker

    I know I’m a bit late to this post but I think you are being overly critical of the second photo.

    I really like this composition. I like the contrast between the rigid rectangular lines of the background and the spidery, sketchy lines of the tattoos.

    I also like the fact that the subject himself seems to divide the light and the dark sections of the background.

    You can read so much into a photograph like this.

    The background can be construed as to represent the need for our world to box and compartmentalize everything and the subject not willing to be a part of that world.

    Or maybe the light and dark division represent the extremes of the subjects own state of mind. This can explain the subject’s expression.

    Maybe the subject can be seen in a heroic guise. He is the very thing that prevents the light and dark elements of the background from coming together. His loneliness is that of a solo knight. His responsibility of preserving some kind of eternal balance a burden that must be endured.

    The thing is that even though the following of general rules or guidelines of composition can always yield a good photograph.
    And when I mean good I mean that it can make sense to the viewer, shows what it was meant to be showing. Maybe even hold the viewer’s attention for more than 10 seconds.

    It tends to be the images that break, or maybe twist, a rule or guideline, either by complete accident, by ignorance or by a willingness to experiment, that can sometimes create an image into which we, the viewer, can place our own narratives.

    Those seem to be the images that linger on in our memories.

  • L

    One of the best street photography blogs / websites on the planet, insightful, inspiring and full of great tips. Brilliant mate, from a Nikon d5300 + 35mm 1.8 G shooter in England. :)

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