I think one of the most difficult compositional techniques in street photography is to incorporate multiple subjects in the frame — without it becoming too cluttered or overwhelming. Generally the problem is that most photographers that try to incorporate multiple subjects have some of the following problems:
- Overlapping subjects
- Distracting backgrounds
- No central subject
- Not enough points of interest
In this article I will share some of who I think are the finest photographers to have used multiple-subjects in their photos. I will analyze the images, and hopefully provide practical tips to anyone trying to incorporate more multiple subjects in the frame.
Why multiple subjects?
As a disclaimer, I don’t personally have much multiple-subject work in my portfolio. I prefer to create more simple images, generally that include a single subject.
However I think it is still possible to create complex multiple-subject photographs that aren’t complicated.
What is the difference between a complex and a complicated photo?
For a complex photo, there are multiple points of interest– and lots of areas in the frame for the viewer to enjoy. Complex photos are much more difficult for photographers to capture– and they need to take much more risk. They try to fill more of the frame with multiple interactions and people.
For a complicated photo, the image may be a bit too messy and distracting. You’re not quite sure who to focus on– and the image may feel cluttered. You don’t really know what is going on in the photograph– and it leaves the viewer frustrated and confused.
Therefore when it comes to multiple subject photos, we should strive to take complex photos, not complicated photos.
Tony Ray Jones / Beauty Contest Southport, 1967
What I love about this photograph is the strong juxtaposition (contrasting effect) between the woman in the middle of the frame, seemingly yawning or fixing her lipstick– and the older man in the bottom middle of the frame sipping a cup of coffee. The more you look in the frame, there is another great interaction of the 3 characters on the top-right of the frame. One of the men is looking over (perhaps at the beautiful woman in the beauty contest), and the woman on the far right seems to be laughing about something.
In terms of composition, I like the triangle composition of the man on the bottom middle of the frame, the woman on the top left, and the three characters in the top right frame gawking over. It also is great that they all have different hand gestures: the woman with her hand on her mouth, the “decisive moment” of the man sipping his coffee, and the expression and looks of the people in the top-right of the frame:
Also what I like about the frame is the two women in the far left of the frame which balance out and fill the frame. I only wish there would have been another figure that filled the bottom right of the frame– but I still think the image is an amazing one.
Bruce Gilden / NYC
In this photograph from Bruce Gilden‘s “Facing New York” (you can see it online here)– I love all of the different gestures, interactions, and expressions in the photograph. Gilden is generally known mostly for his single-subject flash work, but he is also a master when it comes to capturing multiple-subjects.
First of all, we can also see the strong triangle composition — in which all the figures fill out and balance the frame perfectly. You have the couple in the top left who look as if they are about to kiss, their shadow in the bottom middle of the frame, and the two older men in suits in the top right corner.
It is hilarious that one of the older men in suits is closing his eyes and putting on a sour look (as if he doesn’t want to see the couple kiss)– while the other man in the suit looks quite proud. It also looks as if the two older men have their arms linked (another couple juxtaposed against the couple on the far left of the frame).
Overall the image is great because of the triangle composition (which balances out the frame), the tender moment of the couple about to embrace and perhaps kiss, their shadow perfectly silhouetted in the bottom middle of the frame, and the funny expressions of the two older men in the front of the frame. There are so many great little elements that lead your eye around the frame, and are a visual treat. It is also a photograph which you feel a gamut of emotions and symbols (love, couples, and age).
Bruce Gilden / Haiti
Another phenomenal image by Bruce Gilden is from his book: “Haiti” (you can see online here). Gilden captured this image at the intersection of a wall, where you have all of these people seem as if they are going to collide with one another. There is great energy, tension, and movement in the photograph.
Compositionally speaking, I love how the frame is so well filled with all of the subjects, and it feels well-balanced. Not only that, but all of the subjects are gazing straight to the middle of the frame, which brings the tension:
I also love the triangular composition which is from the light hitting the edge of the wall:
Not only that, but there also seems to be another triangle on the top of the frame which balances out the bottom triangle well too:
In terms of the little fictional story that comes into my mind: the piercing look of the woman in the middle of the frame is so intense– looking on with suspicion to the man who is about to cross the corner. Then you have the other onlookers on the edges of the frame looking in– wondering what is happening. You have a young man in the far left with nice floral patterns, a older lady in the middle right of the frame, and another young woman on the far right of the frame. There is a nice balance of different ages and sexes looking unto the frame– part of the scene:
Therefore the image is memorable to me not only because the multiple-subjects are well-spaced out and looking into the middle of the frame, but the tension, anxiety, and movement of the photograph. It is an image that is burned into my mind.
Garry Winogrand / World’s Fair / 1964
This is quite possibly one of the most famous photographs by Garry Winogrand. It is a compelling image which upon first analysis doesn’t do justice. It is an image that requires you to take a moment and consider all of the things going on in the frame.
First of all in the west, we tend to read images from left to right (the same direction we read text in the west. I heard in the Middle-East people read from right to left– not just text but images too).
To start off from the far left, you see a young black male talking or perhaps interacting with a white woman. The man is turning to the woman, and the woman has her legs crossed– mouth gaping open, and has a hand lifted perhaps in protest. The story that goes off in my head is the man is trying to hit on the woman, and the woman is quite offended and protesting against his advances. Of course nobody really knows what happened in real life– but note that in the 60’s there was still a lot of racial tension. So I feel that in a way this image is symbolic of the times in America during segregation during that period of time.
Moving to the middle of the frame, you see another interesting interaction: the woman in the far left whispering to the woman in the middle, with another woman on the right perhaps passed out. The woman in the middle is consoling the woman on the right by caressing her head with her hand.
What is going on here? The story I tell myself is that the woman on the far left is telling the woman in the middle that there is a black male hitting on one of their friends. The woman in the middle looks a bit shocked. Then perhaps the woman in the far right can’t take the drama, and maybe passed out.
Even more puzzling is when you look at the far right of the frame– of the two women looking outside of the frame– to the far right. The woman on the left is fully turned to the left, with her hand presumably fixing her hair. Does she see some handsome man approaching her and her friend? And the woman on the right is taking off her sunglasses, perhaps to get a better look at this attractive person heading toward them? And then there is the man on the far right reading the newspaper in a suit– seemingly unaware of all of this.
To be clear, this is just how I analyze and interpret the image. I don’t think that truly “objective” photos exist– they are simply moments plucked from reality. So however you interpret the image is purely subjective– and the “story” is purely fictitious. Regardless, this image lives with me because of the strong symbolic racial overtones of the image, the 3 separate interactions, and the uneasiness of the image (the tilt of the frame makes it feel so much more dynamic).
Martin Parr / The Last Resort
First of all, the strongest subject in the frame is the woman in the center of the frame– who has her hands on her hip, and is turned towards Parr– and doesn’t look too amused. But if you look around in the frame, you can see a boy with two ice cream cones — staring at something he perhaps shouldn’t be staring at:
Then you have the kid in the far left who is trying to reach for the ice cream cone (perhaps his older brother bought for both of them). But obviously, his older brother or friend is distracted:
Small details which are lovely in this shot is also the little girl in the middle-center of the frame, who is taking a bite out of her ice cream and looking straight into the lens:
Another small detail which I love is the “behind the scenes” look of the ice cream counter, of all the ice cream cones — just scattered around everywhere:
Even though the scene does have a lot of subjects in the photograph– the eye gazes and gestures of the primary subjects in the frame are so powerful that they take precedence or the highest authority/attention in the image. The photograph is also memorable to me because it is quite humorous — juxtaposed against the unsettling look of the woman looking straight at you, the viewer.
Martin Parr / The Last Resort
Another absolutely brilliant photograph by Parr from his book: “The Last Resort” is this image that is quite surreal and has so much going on.
First of all, you have a man (or perhaps woman?) sunbathing in the center of the frame — face down on nothing but a thin white towel over very hard looking gravel. You have a little girl looking over to him (or her) — maybe wondering if he/she is still alive or not. You have nice little details like the towel in the top left corner, the little blue shovel int he bottom of the frame, the sand buckets, and random rubbish hanging around the frame.
Then of course you have the tension of the tractor machine that looks like it might run over and crush the innocent sunbather– which gives the image a sense of danger. To me the “cherry on top” (my favorite detail) is the man in the top middle of the frame, with his arms crossed, walking away nonchalantly from the frame.
If you look at the contact sheet, to see how Parr “worked the scene” is brilliant. First of all (in the top left shot) — you see that he saw the person sunbathing all alone under the machine. He took a photograph, and waited for another moment to arise. Then he took another photograph when there was some interaction in the background. Parr considered the image, which is marked with a “?” mark.
At the very end he saw the perfect arrangement: when the man in the background walked past, and the little girl in the pink showed up.
Constantine Manos / American Color 2
In Constantine Manos’ “American Color 2” (you can see the photos online here)– he has this one image that (like many of the other photos) is very colorful. But no only that, but it has great depth, multiple subjects, and points of interest.
First of all, I love all of the colors that are represented in the photograph, especially in the top right frame. You have yellow, red, and blue. The daisies of the blue against the red bikini almost remind me of the American flag. And of course, they are (presumably) pretty ladies who are dancing on the back of a truck. You see their shadow in the bottom of the frame, throwing up their hands and having a good times. Then you have all the men in the top left frame, looking over and checking them out.
In terms of all of these elements- you have a strong triangle composition (like many of the other examples we saw in this article) — and strong depth: you have the women partying on top of the truck closest to us, the shadow of the ladies in the bottom of the frame which leads to the men in the red car in the mid-ground, and the men in the green SUV a bit further in the background.
What also works for me in this photograph is that there is no real dead space. Every part of the frame is well-filled, and is also well balanced. And the mystery of the women’s faces cut out of the frame makes it a bit more mysterious as well.
Alex Webb / Suffering of Light
Of course, how can we talk about multiple-subjects without bringing up Alex Webb. This is one of his images (included in several books) — and also in his “The Suffering of Light” book, one of my favorite color books (you can see the images online here).
This is one of my favorite images from Webb- in terms of the simplicity, multiple layers of interest, and the framing.
First of all, all parts of the frame are well filled: the person in the far left with a book covering his head walking out of the frame, with the man and his daughter silhouetted in the middle of the frame, and the couple in the far right. And of course you have a nice little arch which connects all of the subjects and frames them nicely:
Overall I like the minimalism and the different interactions in the image. There is the man in the far right who is trying to shield himself from the sun and leaving the frame, there is lovely intimacy between the man and presumably his daughter in the center of the frame, and the man with his arm on the wall, engaged with a woman who looks as if she is enjoying it. It is one of Webb’s finest multiple-subject images, which is quite simple and works well.
Alex Webb / Haiti
Below is a more edgy photograph and graphically complex image by Alex Webb. In this photograph, there are some many great visual lines to look at:
First of all, you have the direction of the cigarette of the man’s mouth pointing towards the center of the frame, the donkey’s ears which connect and make strong diagonal lines, and the light of the walls which also connect the silhouette of the boy in the middle of the frame to the man in the top right of the frame:
Not only that, but you also have great colors in the image that work really well. I love the red of the woman’s cap juxtaposed against the blue of her outfit, and the little touch of color in the woman’s dress who is walking out of the frame in the top left of the frame.
The elements of the image are also well spaced out, don’t overlap, and create many points of interest in the frame:
Overall what works best for me in this photograph by Webb is the connection of the lines in the image, the well-spaced out subjects, the subtle use of colors, and the mystery and intensity of the image– especially with the little boy in the dark silhouette looking in.
Alex Webb / Mexico
This is another classic Alex Webb shot which is embedded in my memory. On first glance, I love all the blues in the photograph– and the great use of depth in the photograph. Closest to you in the frame is a boy spinning a ball on one finger– which almost looks like a spinning globe. Further out you have a little boy at a higher elevation, with his hand on his mouth, looking over. If you look around the frame, the subjects are all well spaced in the shot. You see an argument between two boys in the bottom left of the frame, and two other boys in the right side of the frame who all have their hands on their hips.
One of the “cherry on top” was pointed out to me by Brian Day, of a basketball that just is going through the hoop in the far left of the frame. The architecture of the place in the top right of the frame also is interesting and fills out the frame very well:
Graphically, compositionally, and in terms of filling the frame the image works very well. My only critique of the image is that is lacks a strong sense of emotion– something that Webb does better in his other images.
Joel Meyerowitz / Falling man
Another master of multiple-subject photos include Joel Meyerowitz, one of the early color street photography pioneers.
In this image, you have a lot of subjects in the frame– but a perfect arrangement of them around a cenral event: a man who fell down.
There are lots of puzzling details in the photograph, like the man who is stepping over the fallen man with what looks like a hammer in his hand, and the man carting along boxes in a rolling transporter. What brings your attention to the man who fell down is all of the onlookers of the scene, including the people in the far right of the frame, the man in the tie in the bottom left of the frame, and the man in the bicycle turning around to see what happened:
If all the gazes didn’t go more or less straight to the fallen man, I don’t think the image would have had the same visual impact and attention.
Joel Meyerowitz / NYC
One of Meyerowitz’s most enigmatic photos is that of this scene in New York City (you can see it is on W 46th street). He took a huge step back in this photograph, trying to include as much information as possible. Visually it is bursting at the seams, and is on the verge of being too busy and complicated. However I feel there is enough separation and light/shadows to balance out the image.
I love all of the signage in the shots, which really give you a wonderful sense of place. Not only that, but the interaction of the two men in the center of the frame, and the mysterious man with the hat and cigarette in the bottom of the frame:
While the image doesn’t depend on some sort of true “decisive moment” (except perhaps the men in the center of the frame exchanging a piece of paper) — it is more about the visual imagery of NYC and the sense of place– with all of the characters, signs, and vibrant colors.
Josef Koudelka / Gypsies
A great way you can incorporate multiple-subjects in your photo (while still having a main subject) is to capture a moment where eeryone in the frame is looking an opposite direction– while one of the subjects is looking straight at you.
In this image– Koudelka did a superb job of filling the frame with his 25mm lens, and has a lot of children in the extreme edges of his frame– all looking away, with different hand gestures and expressions. But in the middle of the scene, you see a little lone girl, hands on her hips, showing her authority– looking straight at you, the viewer. She looks so young, but powerful and assertive– and the white space around her gives he a wonderful glow and sense of power.
Josef Koudelka / Gypsies
Another great example from Koudelka’s “Gypsies” book is this image– in which people are dancing and playing music inside a house. You see that Koudelka is working the 25mm lens well, by crouching down, and creating this image which pulls you into the scene. You first see the man on the far right playing the saxophone, the man in the bottom-middle playing the accordion, and the man on the far left looking away.
Visually the most interesting part of the frame is the couple dancing (which is reflected in the mirror) — as well as the pictures of Mary and Jesus framed well. My only critique of the image is that I wish there were more figures in the upper-right of the frame (it is a bit empty)– but it is a powerful image nonetheless.
Henri Cartier-Bresson / Madrid, Spain / 1933
Henri Cartier-Bresson also has many enigmatic multiple-subject photos in his portfolio — including this one from Spain.
It is a quite surreal image, with a lot of children playing in the bottom of the frame– and the one mysterious (somewhat fat) man in the top hat walking by. This creates a nice juxtaposition between the authority-figure of the adult-world against the children playing next to the wall.
Not only that, but the wall itself is fascinating and surreal. There are randomly dispersed squares cluttering the plaster-white wall, all different sizes. Are they windows, peeping holes, or something else? We don’t quite know- but the little squares on top of the frame balance out the figures on the bottom of the frame. It is an unusual composition– but still works quite well for me.
Eric Kim / Mumbai
One of my multiple-subject photos is from Mumbai (you can see the full set here). I saw the scene and the mysterious-looking man with the black scarf walking by, with his finger pointed out. I tried to space all of the subjects to my best ability, and I quite liked the end result.
What I like about the frame is how none of the figures are overlapped that much (except a bit of the masked figure against the red of the man’s shirt in the background) as well as the shadows, and directions of the gazes and fingers. Also the rubbish on the top left of the frame which fills out the frame.
Multiple subject photos are very difficult to execute and pull off– as the more elements, variables, and subjects you try to add into the scene, the more chances of failure. Here are some tips to better incorporate multiple-subjects into your photographs:
1. Try to avoid overlaps
When photographing multiple subjects, watch out for ugly overlaps (when you have a subject with a pole sticking out of his head), or two subjects merging into one another.
Try to move your feet left to right, up and down, to prevent these overlaps.
2. Try to avoid empty space
Another part of effective multiple-subject photos is not to have any empty space in the frame. Of course there are situations in which having negative space does help the photograph– if you are trying to fill the frame, try to make sure every edge of the frame is filled.
3. Try to avoid having only one area of interest
In multiple-subject photos, I feel the most successful ones are the ones in which there are multiple points of interest, multiple points of interaction, and multiple gestures.
Therefore when you are shooting on the street– try to find one subject that isn’t moving to be your “anchor” and wait for other people to enter your scene, or try to add other people to your image.
While shooting multiple-subjects may be far difficult than shooting single subjects in street photography — this is a technique you can try to experiment with to create more visually and emotionally complex images.
Learn more about composition
If you want to learn more about composition in street photography, catch up with the links below!
- Composition Lesson #1: Triangles
- Composition Lesson #2: Figure-to-ground
- Composition Lesson #3: Diagonals
- Composition Lesson #4: Leading Lines
- Composition Lesson #5: Depth
- Composition Lesson #6: Framing
- Composition Lesson #7: Perspective
- Composition Lesson #8: Curves
- Composition Lesson #9: Self-Portraits
- Composition Lesson #10: Urban Landscapes
- Composition Lesson #11: “Spot the not”
- Composition Lesson #12: Color Theory
What tips/advice do you have when it comes to shooting multiple subjects in street photography? Share your advice and experiences in the comments below!