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: