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Storytelling in street photography: Learning to see possibilities

Here’s my philosophy: Street photography is a journey which starts with the willingness to see the world differently. Below is the introductory chapter of my ebook Storytelling in Street Photography, Creating Impact, and is all about seeing… which is where you should start.

Street photography is not about capturing the reality as it is: it is about, as we say, turning the mundane into the extraordinary. I am not talking about post-processing, but about vision: what you see and feel is what you will want to express. And unless you commit to see the world differently, you won’t create any meaningful street images.

Seeing the world differently means paying attention to what others will not see by themselves, should it be the simple reflection of a woman in a bus window. It means looking at that city that we know so well, and yet discovering it for the first time, each time you’ll go out on your own. It means being able to see some form of beauty in the most common things, in the most common smiles, in the most common eyes. And it means not only seeing, but feeling – feeling deep inside us that a story is born, right in front of us.

So how do we know when this happens? What should we be looking for exactly? The decision to shoot – and all subsequent decisions around framing, speed, depth of field etc. – is a very intuitive process. Yet, we can train our mind to recognize opportunities, and, in doing so, allowing us to become better photographers. This first chapter provides an overview of what I consider myself to be opportunities in street photography.

1.       Unique expressions of life

At the very heart of street photography, the keen observation of human expressions is a talent that can well pay off in a striking picture. Candid expressions that will create a strong impact on viewers are those that tell a story and convey a specific emotion: either through direct eye contact with the camera, or through the capture of well identified facial and body expressions. Many expressions and emotions can be captured on everyday people; one just needs to look carefully…

In this image, I particularly like the intensity of the eye contact between those two girls and the camera. The beauty of her candid smile almost brightens up the sadness of the rain falling on the city.  This expression really turns a conceptual umbrella scene into a human story.

2.  Striking faces and attitudes

Some people, by their attitude and their physical presence, tend to eclipse everybody else in my eyes. And crossing their path brings about deeper feelings, at the intersection of their stories and of my own. I do not see them for who they are, but I see them for who they could be, within the realms of my own fantasy world. Whatever you feel about this person during those random encounters, it is this feeling that you will need to remember, process and express through your photography. And this is this very feeling that will make your capture unique, timeless, memorable.

I saw this woman by the window of a shop, one Saturday afternoon. I instantly felt transported into another world, a world of iridescent beauty and timeless mystery. This is this very feeling that I have tried to express here, in this image. 

3.       Uniqueness in the crowd

Shooting crowds is very difficult, and is an art all and by itself. But finding a unique subject within the crowd can also be very rewarding. The context and story that provides a crowd is worth many words: the most important thing being to find and isolate this unique subject appropriately. There are several techniques that one can use to make this happen. You can change the settings of your camera: either choose a large aperture to produce a shallow depth of field, or identify a non-moving subject and decrease the speed to get the crowd in motion. You can also isolate a subject through colors or differentiated tones, if they happen to be distinctive enough.

In this example, the closeness to the subject and the effect of stillness vs. motion of the crowd clearly identify the woman as the primary subject. The umbrella as well, as an all-encompassing element, brings up clear focus on the woman vs. the busy surroundings – at the same time separating the subject from the background while bringing all elements together, in a cohesive manner.

4.       Interconnected stories

Last, but not least, the human element in your images can be dramatically improved with multiple, interconnected stories. The most sophisticated street images will play not across a single layer, but across multiple layers. In those images, photographers not only isolate a clear and distinct subject, but also create connections across multiple human elements in the frame. When those stories are, apparently, disconnected, composition elements can work very well to establish that connection and tell an interconnected story.

In this example, the two stories are connected by the overall line created by the stairs in the background. The shadow adds additional dynamic and acts as a strong point of entry into the picture: first leading the eye to the woman with the child, then taking us to the other woman through the intermediary of the stairs.

5.       Urban geometry and architectural line

The contrast between harsh architectural lines and soft human lines provide the basis for interesting story telling. Lonely figures passing in front of immense architectural buildings tell stories of loneliness in the city, while highly graphic elements emphasize the modernity of our urban surroundings. When using urban lines and shapes to create dramatic geometry, it is important to give space for the human story to happen. Stagnant compositions where people could be erased without hurting much the story are not human stories, they are architectural stories.

In this image, the repetition of shapes between the bridge and the body of the person creates a strong connection between the two; it is as if the man was bent in synchronicity with the bridge, forming a symbolic whole. The subject absolutely belongs to the image, seemingly fighting with the bridge against the winter wind.

6.       Complementarity of colors and shapes

Colors that complement each others are appealing to the eye and to the mind. They tell a story of their own, a story of harmonious contrasts, of duality and complementarity all at the same time. While neither colors nor shapes create stories on their own in street photography, they add that extra dimension that can help tell greater, more impactful stories.

In this picture, the color version is very strong because of those complementary colors: the cyan talks to the pink in an invisible dialogue, along with the shapes that seem to contradict each other – the roundness of the umbrella against the very polynomial shapes printed on the background wall.

7.       Dramatic light and clair-obscures

Photography is all about light. In fact, photography literally means “writing with light”, and the amount of light going into the lens is what, in definitive, will determine your exposure and the resulting image. But light, as a composition element, is also incredibly fascinating; added substance or tension can be born out of great use of light and darkness. Light can take many forms, and play many roles, as we will see in the next chapters. In definitive however, understanding how to take advantage of the light is critical – and following the light is an important first step.

This image was taken in a fairly usual street in Chicago, full of parked cars, with little interest per itself. But those figures crossing the street in front of the overpowering light is all that was needed to transform the ordinary into a picture seemingly out of time and space. 

8.       Patterns and repetitive elements

Repetition of human elements or objects can become a story in itself, especially when that repetition is unusual or unexpected. But when thinking about patterns and repetitive elements, it can also be interesting to integrate elements that “break” the patterns: such as a tiny human figure set against a highly symmetric architectural setting. Or the façade of a large building only interrupted by the sight of a man looking through one of the windows.

In this image, the repetitive forms created by the human bodies are as ironic as the subjects themselves: cut from their heads, looking alike but for the colors of their clothes. More complex than what the eye is accustomed to, this image creates interest beyond the repetition itself, and the irony is not lost on the viewer.

9.       Atmospheric settings and weather

What creates atmosphere is hard to describe, and could possibly become a whole chapter in itself. There are, however, easily recognizable elements that you can leverage: architecture backgrounds telling stories of the past, interesting artificial lights that leave part of the picture in the dark, as well as rainy and / or foggy weathers bringing a mist over the world. Whatever this is, pay attention to the world around you and look for opportunity to add mood to a potential human story.

In this picture, taken fairly recently, the soft contrasts created by the light of a rainy day, and the particular architecture of the large and old building all contribute to taking the viewer into another time, another age, far away from today’s busy city life. This atmospheric charge really makes the shot – telling a widely different story from the real and the mundane.

10.       Mysterious nights

Nights are as mysterious as you want they want to be. Artificial lights and areas of darkness can tell stories of another time, filled with this incredible atmosphere that only the night can bring. The most mundane scene turns into a film noir or a fairytale, depending on your mood and imagination. Fantasy, strangeness, drama: you can borrow so much to those magnificent lights falling on the city half asleep, all of sudden as foreign as a faraway country. The way the world gets transformed at night makes it an incredibly powerful time to shoot and tell unique stories.

In this image, the lights of the bridge, along with the atmospheric snow and half-darkness falling on the subjects’ face create a deep sense of mystery. And mystery is good: mystery forces the mind to cope with ambiguity, with a story only suggested, never totally revealed. It opens up the door to the personal imagination of the viewer – forcing the mind to fill out the void created by the open-ended story.

You can see opportunities everywhere, but you need to open your eyes and be mindful of them! Till the next chapter, I wish you a very good night...