This is an attempt (an essay/assay) into making a comprehensive (yet simple) manual to street photography composition. It will be based on my personal experiences, turned into theory.
Part I: Introduction to street photography composition
Let us start off with basic principles in street photography composition:
So the first question is this: what is ‘composition’, and why is it important?
The word ‘composition’ comes from the Latin word: “compositio“, which means:
arrangement, combination, mixture
So to me, ‘composition’ in photography is how you arrange the visual elements in your frame.
Furthermore, when you “compose” a scene– you are combining visual elements to make a photograph. You decide what to include in your frame, and what to exclude.
Content vs Form
Generally if you study the history of visual art, a lot of old-school artists talk about the debate between “content” (what is in the picture) and form (the composition).
For example in photography, the “content” is the person you are photographing, and the “form” is the shapes, lines, and visual elements in the photo.
When photographers like Garry Winogrand said that “…photography is a battle between content and form”, what I think he meant is this:
The dynamic tension, or the battle between content (your subject) and the form (visual elements) is what makes a photograph powerful.
The word I want to use to describe composition is “dynamic”.
Without getting too off-topic, I think a “good” composition is dynamic — full of power, energy, movement, active, and full of life.
Why make dynamic compositions?
For myself, I believe there are strong photos and weak photos. I believe that strong photos can be characterized by strong compositions. Weak photos are characterized by weak compositions.
Considering the fact that we defined ‘dynamic’ as being strong– strong compositions are generally simple, yet elegant. Simple in the sense that there are no superfluous distractions. Elegant in the sense that there is dynamic movement in the photograph, which can sometimes be characterized by a tilt, hand/body gestures from the subject, eye-contact from the subject, or dynamic contrast in the photograph (a strong contrast between the dark/lights in the photo).
For myself it is simple– if a photograph doesn’t have a strong composition, it is generally boring to look at. I only want to consume photographs that visually-interest and stimulate me! Because when I study the artwork of others, I want it to be a visual stimulus-aid to help me create more of my own artwork.
In street photography, a strong technique you can use is this:
Make surreal photos that confuse or disorient your viewer — to make them wonder, “What is going on?”
You can often do this by shooting from a very low angle or perspective, which we don’t commonly see in “real life”:
Or we can create a juxtaposition between the subject in the foreground, and what is in the background. Like this juxtaposition between the subject in the foreground and the advertisement of the woman in the background. It makes the viewer wonder:
“What is the relationship between the man and the woman in the photograph?”
Let your photos marinate
It is difficult to know whether you’ve taken a good photo or not, if you immediately look at the photo. Often you need to let your photos sit and “marinate” for a while, before you can determine whether your compositions are strong or weak.
For myself, I know my own photo is good or not based on this:
I know my photograph is strong if I like the photograph more as time goes on.
For example, if I have a photograph that I shot 5 years ago that I still really like now (or appreciate more now), it is a strong photograph.
On the other hand, I have photographs that I once thought were great a year ago, but now I dislike. There are also certain photos that you start to dislike the more and more you look at them. These are weak photos.
But ultimately my suggestion is this:
Disregard whether others like your photos or not. Only consult yourself and ask yourself: “Do I like my own photo?”
If you like the photo, it is a strong photo. If you don’t like the photo, it is a weak photo.
But once again, recognize that time is your ultimate counselor in photography. If you are uncertain whether your photograph is good or not, just wait. Wait a few days, a few weeks, a few months, or even a few years.
If you took a photograph 10 years ago and you still really like it, it is a strong photo, which deserves to be in your portfolio.
Monochrome vs Color
(For now) in photography, we generally have two choices for aesthetics in photography: monochrome or color. Personally, I like both.
I don’t think there is a “better” aesthetic. This is a silly idea– it is like saying that vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate cream. It all comes down to personal taste.
More importantly, you must determine which tastes you like and which tastes you don’t like.
For example, let us consider food. I like really bitter, astringent flavors. I prefer light roast espressos, that are bright and fruity. Others like darker-roast coffees. People who prefer dark-roast coffee aren’t stupid or inferior to me; they simply have different tastes. Because I know what tastes I like, I generally order Ethiopian coffee (when given a choice).
Unfortunately, most people don’t know what they like. Many individuals don’t know what flavors of food they like, what type of coffee they like, or what kind of aesthetic in photos and art they like.
What others like or don’t like isn’t our concern. Our concern is to know which aesthetics for our own photos we prefer.
So ask yourself — what kind of photos do you like to look at? High contrast color photos? Low contrast color photos? High contrast black and white photos? Grainy and gritty film photos? Or smoother and more muted colors?
For myself, I like high contrast, grit and grain. I like punchy photos, that give me a visual punch-to-the-face. Not everyone likes this aesthetic, but I like it!
Once again, it isn’t our concern whether others like our aesthetic or not; what matters is whether we like our own aesthetic or not.
Golden Triangle Composition
Probably the best compositional tool I’ve learned is the ‘golden triangle‘ composition. The basic concept is this:
Don’t center your subject. Put your subject a little to the far left or the far right — having your subject leaning into the center of the frame, or out of the frame.
Why is this compositional technique strong and dynamic?
Well, the diagonal line is one of the strongest lines we have– that adds the most dynamic movement. Furthermore, when you have a subject about to exit the frame, it feels more dramatic.
Sub-divide the frame
Another simple way to look for when you’re shooting on the streets– look for rectangles inside rectangles:
Also, if you want to add more depth to your photographs, shoot layers. This means, make a photograph that has subjects close to you and far away. Subjects in the foreground, middle-ground, and background:
The difficult thing about shooting layers in street photography is this: simplifying your scene. An easy way to simplify your scene is to stack visual elements on top of one another, to compress your scene:
Another effective technique: find a simple scene with leading lines, and wait for your subject to enter the frame, preferably where the leading lines are pointing to:
A good way to add dynamism to your photo compositions– try to create a triangle by connecting 3 different visual elements in your frame, in the shape of a triangle. Sometimes you notice this when you’re shooting, and sometimes you will discover the triangle composition after you’ve shot it.
Another simple street photography composition technique is the ‘fishing technique‘. The basic idea: find an interesting background, and wait for your subject to enter the frame. You can use a flash to freeze the motion of your subject, make sharp photos, and also create strong contrast and dynamism to your photo:
Fill the frame
I generally recommend shooting with a prime (non-zoom) lens in street photography: a fixed focal length, such as a 24mm, 28mm, or a 35mm lens. The simple concept to ‘fill the frame’ is to use your “foot zoom” (your feet) to walk closer to your subject and scene, to fill your frame with interesting visual elements!
When you see an interesting scene, don’t just take 1-2 photos and run away. Rather, keep your feet planted, and be patient– sometimes even more interesting things or people will enter the frame!
Less is often more. Try to simplify your scene as much as possible, cutting away as much superfluous fat as you can.
To do this, just start off with a very simple background (just one single color or tone), and just wait for your subjects to enter the frame.
To me a photograph without emotion is dead. One of the easiest ways to evoke emotion in your photos is to capture hand-gestures in your photographs.
Or when you’re shooting on the streets, and you see an interesting hand-gesture (like a thumbs up), get close and start clicking!
If you want to make more dynamic and interesting compositions, find busy intersections on the street, and wait for your subjects to come to you! You can experiment shooting during sunset, and shooting at -1 or -2 exposure-compensation, to make the darks/shadows very dark, and to light up your subjects.
If you see someone interesting you want to photograph and you want more dynamic photos, you must shoot head-on. To shoot head-on, try the ‘cutoff technique‘. The basic idea is this: as someone is walking, walk slowly on the side, and at the last moment, cut in front of their walking path, and take a photograph head-on.
Another effective tip to make more dynamic street photographs: use the ‘dutch angle‘ (which means, tilt your camera to the left or right when you’re shooting). This is a cinema technique a lot of film noir directors used, to heighten the drama of a scene.
Focus on the background
Another principle: to add more depth and interest/intrigue to your photos, don’t always focus on the subject closest to you. Rather, focus on what is furthest away in the scene. If you’re using ‘zone focusing‘, this means to shoot at f/8, ISO 1600, and set your manual-focus to around 5 meters. If you shoot autofocus, set your focusing point to the background.
Part II. Masters of Composition
To study composition, I suggest studying the work of the master photographers from the past, and deconstructing their compositions, to better understand why you like them, why they are dynamic, and try to figure out how you can incorporate their techniques/imagery to your own photos.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is the master of composition in street photography. Start off by studying his work.
More Henri Cartier-Bresson compositions:
2. Josef Koudelka
The next master to study: Josef Koudelka. Study his elegant, dynamic, and timeless photos:
3. Sergio Larrain
Next, let us study the work of Sergio Larrain, a contemporary of Henri Cartier-Bresson:
4. Eric Kim Compositions
Some of my compositions:
Some of my black and white compositions:
Never stop composing
Find inspiration in composition anywhere and everywhere. For example, some examples from ‘projective geometry‘ I’ve been studying:
Or study cinema to find great compositions. For example, some screenshots from the film ‘Battleship Potemkin‘ from the 1920’s:
Or even classic Renaissance art– like the paintings of Raphael:
Composition will be a life-long obsession for you. Keep it interesting, fun, and never run out of inspiration to shoot!
As a photographer you’re an artist. Never let anyone else tell you otherwise.
Why is there a negative bias towards photographers?
The reason people don’t really call photography “art” is for these reasons:
- It is open and democratic: Anyone can take a picture, yet crafting poems and painting is more difficult to learn.
- Painters paint for the sake of it; photographers started off as documentary image makers. Thus, the beginning of photography had more of a “newspaper reporting” tradition (Magnum photos and photojournalism) than photography as art.
- With digital photography, most people have a hard time seeing something which is easily replicable as “art”. Most people believe that true “art” must be one of a kind (like there’s only one Mona Lisa in existence).
What does “art” mean?
The best definition I have for art is this:
An intentional “putting together” or something.
My definition is informed by the etymology (root of the word) ‘ars’ in Latin (it means a skillful craft). This is what inspired me to make my photography feedback startup platform to be called “arsbeta.com”— I see photography as art! And as artists, our work is always in flux or evolution — in a “beta” form!
Or the photo-Indian ‘her’ which means “putting together, to fit, to fix.”
So an artist is someone who intentionally, skillfully, puts things together!
Composition means to put something together. So for composition in photography and all visual arts, we are trying to best “put together” or “arrange” visual elements to make a powerful image.
I think photography is all about composition. However you put together visual elements is how you create meaning in a photograph. Because composition ain’t just lines, shapes, and forms. Composition is who you decide to put into your pictures. For example, your loved ones. For me, it is Cindy.
Do you like your own photos?
Now, to me, I see all photography is art. But I don’t like all the photos I see. Therefore, I am a judge of the pictures of my own and others.
I have pride in my pictures, and I like my own photos. I don’t like all the photos of others; but I always appreciate the heart and soul they put into their work.
Ultimately, when I look at the photos of others, I don’t really care too much if the photos are good or not. I’m more concerned whether the photos are authentic or not — whether I can see the soul of the photographer in his or her photos.
You’re an artist, and the camera is your sword
Some last words of advice: a “photographer” is a sketcher or a drawer of light. The camera is your paintbrush or your art-creation tool. Thus,
Paint your own reality with your camera.
JUST SHOOT IT.
I want to share why I personally photograph.
1. I photograph to make a social critique
To start, I photograph because I want to make a (positive) social impact. I have worked on projects like my SUITS book, to make a social critique on the sucker mistake many of us (myself included) make, which is:
Having more money will make us happier.
To tell you a bit about my personal history — I grew up pretty poor (my mom filed for bankruptcy, and my dad was addicted to gambling, and my dad also didn’t work). Every month, I knew that it was a real possibility that we might go homeless. Why? My mom was barely making ends meet while working full-time as a waitress, and my dad demanded that we live in an expensive house. And it didn’t help that my dad would force my mom to give him the rent money (so apparently, “he could pay it”), whereas he would go to Reno for the weekend and would gamble it away (his rationale was he was trying to “earn money” for the family).
Regardless, growing up– I always had a complicated relationship with money. I wanted money, because I wanted money to buy cool clothes, money to fix up my car (Fast and the Furious style), and I thought that having more money would make me “happier”. Ever since I was 16 I knew that money wasn’t the key to being happy– but I always thought to myself:
“Would my life be a lot better if I had more money?”
Fast-forward; when I became around 28 years old, I broke the $200,000 a year income bracket (combined income with Cindy), and this is the lesson I learned:
Having more money didn’t make me “happier”, but NOT having to always stress about paying the bills and monthly expenses is a pre-requisite to happiness.
Which meant, as long as I kept my expenses low, and wouldn’t stress about money, I would have the ability to be happy. And I would be “happy” through creation. I’m only happy when I’m making stuff; whether I’m writing, making photos, films, videos, beats, etc.
2. I photograph to make art
I also photograph to create art.
- Photo: Light
- Graph: Draw
Thus, to photograph means to draw (or sketch) with light.
A painter is an artist. A dancer is an artist. A poet is an artist. A rapper is an artist, a cook is an artist, and anyone who makes something or does something intentionally is an artist.
To me, once we human beings have enough to survive (clean water to drink, enough money to pay our rent, and enough food to eat) we don’t really “need” anything else in life. And to me, considering that our lives are short, the best use of our human metabolism is to make art!
Making art is what makes humans, human.
Animals cannot make art. Only human beings can.
3. Why make art?
I think it is simple:
Making art makes us happy.
And then the next step:
When you make art, and share you artwork– you have the ability to empower other humans!
When you look at great artwork (from others), you feel lighter, gayer, and more powerful-optimistic in life! For example, I love the work of Claude Monet— because his colors make me smile, and it also gives me inspiration for my own color photography!
4. I photograph to be more engaged in life!
To live a real life means to leave your house, take risks, talk to other humans, and act and do stuff! You cannot live a real life just plugged into a computer at home, and not do anything in “real life”.
Photography gives me the opportunity to engage more with “real life”.
For example, I don’t like being at home. I like to go out and do stuff. And when I go out and do stuff, I always bring my camera with me! Then as I am doing stuff and experiencing reality– I have my camera and I make photos. When I am making photos, I am essentially proclaiming my joy of being alive! Whenever I see something and I photograph it, I tell it:
“I think you are beautiful; I am grateful I experienced your beauty. Thank you for sharing your beauty with others.” [Click]
I like to photograph my loved ones, strangers, and myself! I photograph nature, and try to embed my emotions and soul into my pictures. I know that eventually one day I die, but perhaps– my photos can live on.
5. Why do we want to be immortal?
I think secretly we all want to be immortal (or at least not die). But rather than seeking our own personal immortality, we should seek for our pictures to become immortal, or at least live on for a long time.
Horace once said,
“I shall make [poems] that are more lasting than bronze [statues]!”
Thus we can do the same– try to make photos that will live on after we die!
6. How to make photos that last a long time
To make your photos live on– some simple ideas:
- Don’t upload your photos to Instagram or Facebook: they won’t be as “archive-able”. Instead, start your own website or blog, and upload your photos there, and get your website indexed by Google with SEO (search engine optimization) techniques.
- Make PDF e-books of your work, and share them freely with friends, family, and anyone on the internet.
- Upload your full-resolution photos and media to archive.org (and one day, people in the future will be able to access your stuff).
- Print hard-cover books; they will last longer than digital media. For example this is why I printed SUITS as a hardcover book, so the photos will live on.
- Share your work: Don’t let your photos die on your phone or hard drive.
NEVER STOP SHOOTING!
JUST SHOOT IT.
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To make better photos, strive to achieve this aesthetic: simple and elegant.
Simple is difficult
Simple is hard. To cut the superfluous (without cutting away the essential) takes great skill and finesse.
Steve Jobs toiled endlessly with Jony Ive to make Apple devices as simple as possible, but not simpler (in the words of Albert Einstein).
Elegance is having a spirit of lightlessness, of levity, and unassuming confidence. To be elegant is to not be pretentious; it’s simply to be you, without any superfluous ornaments.
For example a woman can look plain, but be elegant in her beauty. It’s more how she carries herself, and how she acts, and assumes power and confidence.
Simplicity and elegance in photography
In photography, generally black and white is more simple. But monochrome is tricky; to make a good simple photograph in black and White is easy, but to add elegance is difficult.
To me, adding elegance in a photo means to add soul, emotion, gesture, and mood. It means embedding your soul into the photos you choose, and being able to select the photos which best represent your artistic vision. Generally, our image as a photographer-artist is seen through the photos we decide to share and publish.
Simplicity is also good in cameras. I think more and more about the RICOH GR II, how they have been able to keep the form factor and functions simple, without adding (too much) additional features.
In photography, simple can also mean shooting with simpler settings, like shooting in P (program) more, or what I enjoy with the Lumix camera— the intelligent auto (iA) mode. The more we simplify the shooting process, the more focus and energy we can have on capturing personally decisive moments for ourselves.
I’ve also realized that I’m a fan of shooting color in JPEG, because generally the colors look better! For monochrome, I shoot RAW and when importing my photos into Lightroom, I apply ERIC KIM MONOCHROME preset.
Using presets, filters, or shooting JPEG will simplify your life as a photographer in a good way!
Don’t seek the “best”
Often we get suckered into thinking we want “better” things; whereas in reality, I think what we’re searching for is more simple!
For example, shooting with your phone isn’t the “best” camera in terms of image quality, but it is certainly one of the most simple. And we shoot more pictures when we use a phone, which is good! The more photos we shoot, the better.
I generally believe that as photographers and human beings, we should try to seek more simplicity in our life, but not to make it boring — let’s seek to make it fun, spontaneous, a bit chaotic, and to live with an air of grace, elegance, and “sprezzatura“ (studied carelessness, something which the Italians do very well).
In all domains in life, seek the combination of simple and elegant.
My favorite monochrome pictures:
A philosophical question I was pondering while lying in bed this morning–
“What kind of photos will last, and what kind of photos will not?”
In studying a lot of philosophers, artists, and poets of the past, it seems that the ultimate test of how good an artist-philosopher-thinker is depends on whether their work lasts or not.
Think about it– in design, art, and life, it is difficult to know what is “good” or “bad”. But generally, whatever has existed for a long time has existed for a good reason (maybe for reasons unknown to us). Nassim Taleb calls this the “Lindy Effect”, generally what is older is better.
In photography, art, and design– consider the “old school” stuff is usually the best.
For example, with camera design, there is a reason why the Leica M-Rangefinder design has been so “timeless” and has lasted from the 1920s until now (around 100 years!).
Another good example is the RICOH-GR series cameras. The original film Ricoh GR 1 camera came out in 1996, and now we have the digital RICOH GR-series cameras that are thriving! The ergonomics of the camera are perfect for a point and shoot camera. At least for the next few thousands of years, our hands won’t change and evolve much. Thus generally things which are designed which fit well into our hands (pens, books) will continue to exist in their present form.
In today’s world, we are drowning in a digital black sea of images. And to be honest, there are lots of really really good images out there now! But the practical question we must address is this:
In a world with trillions of images, which few images do we decide to consume?
It would be silly to try to consume all the images in the world. That’s like trying to eat every single food item in all the fast-food restaurants around the world (Instagram). I would rather say let us take the “old school” route of studying photography books. Why? It cost photographers real money to print their photos into a book, so there is a greater likelihood that the photographs in (printed) photo books will be better images!
And also generally photographers who are dead (who are still famous now) have existed for a long time for good reasons– either because they innovated in photography (Henri Cartier-Bresson and black and white photography, or William Eggleston and color photography), or because their work has merit and is good!
So far, the best (two) human artwork which has existed until now is probably Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Generally in literature, authors are remembered for books written. For myself personally, my favorite literature books include 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and the Iliad.
For painters, generally painters are remembered for their best (single, stand-alone) paintings. For example Leonardo da Vinci and the Mona Lisa, Picasso and Guernica, or Andy Warhol and the soup cans.
For photographers, they are either remembered for single images, or books. For example when it comes to photo books: “The Americans” by Robert Frank. Or “The Last Resort” or “Common Sense” by Martin Parr, “The Decisive Moment” by Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Exiles” or “Gypsies” by Josef Koudelka, “The Suffering of Light” or “Istanbul” by Alex Webb.
Also for photographers, we can be remembered for great single images, such as any iconic single image by Steve McCurry (Afghan Girl), The Bicycle Photo or Jumping Man photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson, or Garry Winogrand’s famous “Bi-racial couple” picture with the black man and white woman and the two chimpanzees.
What are my best photos?
Okay honestly we can theorize about art, other artists, etc– but more importantly, we need to judge our own photos. So the practical idea I will give you is this:
You know what your best pictures are based on which of your photos (from very long ago) you still like!
For example, a picture that you shot 5 years ago (that you still like) is probably more likely to be a good photo than a photo you shot 1 year ago (and still like).
So as (another) practical tip, spend some time looking back at your older pictures and re-sharing or re-uploading/experiencing them!
Also as a practical note, spend some more time re-looking at some of your favorite photo books, instead of always buying new books. Re-read some of your favorite literature from the past, and spend more time re-watching some of your favorite old-school films.
Keep it classic.
One of my passions is composition — why? It’s a fun visual exercise and game!
Why is composition so fun?
Well this is my thought.
First of all, composition and framing a scene is a challenge, especially if you’re shooting with a wide-angle lens, and if you cannot zoom in and out (instead, if you’re forced to use “foot zoom”). Thus, framing is a fun exercise to stress your visual muscles in a good way. Any fun challenge of composition to try to arrange visual elements in a frame in the most interesting and visually appealing way is a fun challenge!
Now, are there “rules” to composition? I think not. Why? Composition simply means “what something is made up of, or ‘comprised’ of”. There’s no such thing as good or bad composition. However I think there is such a thing as dynamic and vigorous composition, and dull and boring composition.
Why is composition important?
I believe composition is important because it’s the root of art. Without composition, you cannot have photos and you cannot have art.
If you study a lot of artists in the past like Picasso, cubists, Futurists, Bauhaus folks; they were obsessed with composition. They were always trying to change perspective, and how they showed and expressed visual reality.
As a photographer you’re an artist. Even Horace said,
“A picture is a poem without words.”
I’ve actually had greater insights about the poetry of images and photos through studying (written) poetry, instead of studying photography. Why? The art form of photography is still so new; only 100-200 years or so. Poetry goes back at least 2,500+ years, which must mean there’s more wisdom in the philosophy of art-poetry, than photography.
Anyways, if you want to make better photos, study composition! Not just the great master photographers from the past, but study painters! Study Piet Mondrian, Picasso, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and the other greats.
When you see compositions you like, ask yourself:
Why is this composition so good or interesting, and how can I emulate it or make an even more dynamic composition?
Never stop composing!
ERIC KIM COMPOSITION
Some of my favorite photos:
LISBON STREET PHOTOGRAPHY: RICOH GR II:
RICOH GR II in Marseille:
I love Prague, for the food, the people, and the street shooting!
Photos shot in Kyoto, with Lumix LX100:
ERIC KIM STREET PHOTOGRAPHY
All my favorite street photography:
Some more photo philosophizing: what we are trying to do as photographers is to communicate our life experiences, our perspective, and to transmit the emotion and mood we feel to the viewer!
So how do we convey mood in photos? Often, the aesthetic — how do the photos look? How does color affect my emotions?
For the mood, I wanted to convey:
- A feeling of anxiety and stress, and grittiness through color.
- A combination of street scenes with people, and some urban landscapes, as well as textures, details, or colors for the sake of it.
- Using a flash to accentuate the dynamism of the city:
Boston Street Photography 2018
RICOH GR II in JPEG positive film preset, with Lightroom iPad additional contrast processing:
Osaka x Uji Street Photography 2018
Osaka is super cool for street photography (and very fresh sushi) and Offal BBQ, and go to Uji-Kyoto and stay at a local Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) for the onsen!
RICOH GR II Chroma
RICOH GR II Monochrome
New PDF BOOK: SUITS PDF Book Direct Download link >
ONLY IN AMERICA
New PDF BOOK: Only in America PDF Book Direct Download link >
COLOR STREET PORTRAITS
ONLY IN AMERICA