How can you create a stunning image from unrelated elements? How do you combine those elements to craft a compelling photograph? Why do observation and patience play such an important role in the process? This in-depth article will show you new ways of seeing your street and combining elements to design new worlds without using Photoshop.
People sometimes ask me if I am a street photographer and I must admit I have a hard time answering this question. The problem is that the badge “street” is often taken so bluntly that it creates a certain mind-set. It imposes limitations and barriers embedding a certain way of seeing the world and crafting the imagery. In time, this approach could seriously limit your ability to see with new eyes and craft unique imagery.
The best example of this visual trap is the way we perceive elements on the street. When viewing most street work, certain street patterns emerge, even in the most popular images. Somehow, our photographic persona gradually becomes aware of physical and design elements which should be included in the design of a street photograph. Why don’t we replace “street” with “total” photography (for the lack of a better word). For those of you who are looking for a more expressive term, how about the word poetry?
Why poetry? Because poetry allows you to arrange words in a way that would not always be acceptable in a book or essay. It allows you to take ANY word and ARRANGE it in an UNLIMITED number of ways. That is exactly what creative street photography is all about.
For those of you who have read our previous pieces, it won’t come as a surprise if I start with the concept of observation. This state of awareness and visual tension must be the starting point. When walking the streets of your city or town, a photographer must be aware of ALL the elements. Let me repeat – all the elements. During my workshops, I often notice students automatically skipping certain elements as if they were not there. They somehow assume that they will never be part of the image because they are not photo-worthy. This is a major mistake.
Of course, it is easier for a photographer to notice the colourful hat of a flamboyant character on the street than the reflection of a discarded coffee cup. But if you want to craft unique imagery your seeing must consider both. At first glance these are two totally unrelated elements – the only common thing is the fact that they are present in the same scene.
In short, being aware of every single visual element in the scene must be the starting point of a creative photograph.
Then there is another trap awaiting the photographer: the abundance of elements in a typical big city street environment. Even before we start sorting out all the components, our brains are already doing this for us. We are eager to prioritize and clean up what’s in front of us. For example, when walking along, this sorting mechanism allows us to be productive, get to our destination on time and keep us safe. But for our creativity it is a major stumbling block.
The best way to overcome all these limitations and habits is to find a confined space, for example, a plaza or a street corner, and spend some time (1-2 hours) there. In this way you will allow your seeing to observe your USUAL and after a while you will naturally start paying attention to other elements. This new curiosity is the result of visual boredom.
Think about the time when you were a kid and your parents took you to a place when you had to wait for them for a long time. Once you had explored and played with the obvious things around you, you most likely started looking around searching for new ways to entertain yourself (in the pre-cellphone era!). This is exactly the attitude you need while observing and seeing. You will be exploring new visuals such as those hidden pockets of light or tiny geometric shapes reflected in the floor.
Not only do you need to see all the elements around you but you must try to use them in an unconventional way. Let me illustrate this approach with the following photograph.
Fujifilm X100F, 1/320sec at f/5.6
The image above was taken during my recent Streets of San Francisco Photography Workshop. This mysterious image often provokes the questions: “What is it?” and “How did you shoot it?” It is almost impossible to turn away from this image without engaging with it. What may come as a surprise is that the image was created out of numerous elements completely unrelated to each other, at least at first sight.
Here is what the scene looked like from a different angle.
Yes, it is the interior of a bank taken through a window. The round shape is nothing else but a lamp. We didn’t have access to the bank so our work had to be confined to one street corner with huge glass windows. One great thing about huge windows is that they allow you to see what’s inside while reflecting elements from the street. Not only do you have a rich set of unrelated elements but you also have two visual worlds totally different in nature, lighting or even theme (in this case inside of the bank and the street). Here is where your role as a creative visionary starts.
The first objective is to explore this multi-layered scene and find a starting point. In other words, you need to find your first piece in a huge puzzle. Without this first visual brick, it is difficult to move forward. Don’t try to see everything at once or design the entire image at this point (it is possible but incredibly hard). What grabbed my attention first was the round lamp, which was clearly the brightest element in the scene.
Once underexposed (making the image darker) the lamp turned into a round circle with the elements inside turning dark. This one adjustment eliminated a lot of distractions but also created a narrative for me. At this point I needed to change the perspective by walking along the big windows and/or raising or lowering my camera to find the best set of elements which would create my final image. In other words, by changing my perspective I was adding or eliminating elements from the frame.
Initially I wanted to show the entire circle and make it my subject. Then, as I started deciding on elements (the building on the street plus the set of lights) I decided to include only part of the circle.
At this point I settled on three key elements: the circle, the building reflected in the window and the set of lights at the bottom of my image (other lamps inside the bank). To be fair, I completed my vision in post-processing, mostly cropping the image and underexposing.
Notice how we started with a bank interior and ended up with a science-fiction image of the city that was never there. In other words, we created our own world, forcing the viewer to engage and ask questions. That is what creative photography is all about.
Fujifilm X100F, 1/320sec at f/8
The square is an office lamp in a very dark office. The rest is a reflection of high-rises in the window. Both lamp and buildings are prominent because these were the brightest elements in the frame. All I had to do was to decide on the placement of the lamp within the image and the level of underexposure.
Fujifilm X100F, 1/320sec at f/9
In this picture I had four distinct layers to work with: (1) the statue and surrounding elements, (2) the red interior of the telephone booth, (3) the texture of the window, and (4) the reflection of the buildings. With a scene of such complexity it is important to pay attention to every single element in the frame.
Fujifilm X100F, 1/320sec at f/4
While all previous images were created over an extended period of time (all static elements), this one involves moving elements. During the Streets of San Francisco Workshop I tried to take a portrait of one of the participants reflected in the glass which was part of the railing. The two huge shadow-like areas are not shadows at all. They are part of the glass railing which I tried to use to frame my subject (at this point a workshop participant). As I was moving my camera around, I noticed two people approaching from the right. I decided to reframe my shot and wait for the new subject to walk into the frame. Having said that, I stayed with my original idea of using the railing as a part of my composition. Then, as the two men entered my frame, they raised their heads and looked up. At that moment, I took the image.
When I uploaded this image to my computer, it immediately caught my eye. The fact that these two men seemed to be looking at the giant “shadows” reminded me of scenes from apocalyptic movies about alien invasion.
Notice how I added an element to the frame unrelated to the scene (at first glance) and created a brand-new narrative. What differs in this image is the fact that the crafting of the image itself was in part a deliberate arrangement and in part an action shot (men walking into the frame).
Many could argue that I was lucky. Yes, I was but when you start designing this sort of imagery you won’t believe how sometimes the missing “IT” falls into place. You must just keep creating and experimenting!
Here a few things to keep in mind when trying to design such multi-layered visuals.
- Most of your ideas will fail! Scenes of this kind are usually very, very busy and it is extremely difficult to design a strong photograph. A high failure rate is just part of the adventure of seeing. Accept it and don’t make it personal.
- Watch for the brightest areas in the frame and start from there.
- Eliminate, eliminate, eliminate as many elements as you can. Leave only 2-3 of the most prominent elements.
- Keep your camera close to the glass/window for the best effect.
- Explore all possible angles!
- Come back if you need better lighting conditions.
- Experiment, experiment and experiment!
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