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The human-city relationship: Putting street portraits into context

Chapter 2 of my upcoming eBook: Understanding the human-city relationship explores the make-up of street portraits through greater integration of city elements. Getting close to people can be such a euphoric sensation. Appealing, addictive, rewarding a million times. But what makes street portraits and close ups so much interesting are not the people only – it is in fact their relationship with their surroundings: the city and the people surrounding them and giving meaning and depth to the scene. The second chapter of this book explores the human-city relationship from the perspective of human beings. How can we extend street portraits with elements from the city, evoking the fleeting essence of urban life to give deeper meaning and depth to our subjects?

Because, eventually, it is all about context. Street portraits with no context lose of their power – the candid moment is lost, the story is incomplete. Capturing the essence of strangers is at time challenging and obsessive, but the search of the perfect moment requires it. And the closer you get, the more important the city becomes in fact. So how do you transform traditional portraits into reflections of our busy, dreamy, exciting city life? How can you leverage the city – its maze of light, its trains in motion, its never-ending streets - to emphasize emotions and give substance to a portrait?

 

> Principle 1: Provide context
Give your subject space and context to exist beyond the limits of the frame

Context differentiates typical portraits from street portraits. Providing space to your subjects in the street, even at close distance, is essential to tell a unique story which will give substance to their personality, explain their joy or sadness. At times, using the right context will even add incremental drama – hinting at the presence of others, observers of the scene at hand. While street portraits are highly subjective because of the short distance between subject and photographer, the context will make it personal – helping the identification with not only the character, but the human story at play.

Compose your images to anchor your subjects in city life

Sometimes, the simplest step in adding context to your image is to take a step back to include recognizable city elements as part of the frame. The greater the relationship between these elements and your subject, the better your story will be. In this image, I added the London Eye behind my subject on purpose, as I wanted to give her smile and overall joyful personality some context. It results in a simple image where the city itself reflects her joy and smiling face, as we often associate wheels with happy moments.

Provide enough space for emotions to expand and travel

Even at very close distance, like in this image on the left, context is important. It is easy to go directly to the face of your subject, shooting, and forgetting what’s around. But eventually, your image is a whole, and the whole is stronger than the sum of its pieces. The profile of the woman in the dark, quiet and sad, is emphasized by the light and the blurry silhouette of someone at large. The frame provides space for her sadness to expand and exist, and the lights in the night reinforce my story ten times – providing enough context for emotions to travel.

Leverage background and city context to create new drama

The closest you get from your subjects, the most subjective the scene will become, as was already discussed in my first eBook. This is when adding context elements can add dramatic storytelling – such as the man behind this couple, reminding us that our own personal drama can be seen and witnessed from multiple viewpoints. The presence of the stranger immediately changes our feelings toward the image – there is a direct contradiction between the strong intimacy of the couple, and the space where this intimacy exists: outside, under the snow, in the middle of a street. In front of the eyes of the world.

 

> Principle 2: Integrate the city
Allow the city to act as a supporting character in your street portraits

A second step in learning to create impactful street portraits relies on integrating the city as a secondary character in your images. This new character will give more meaning and depth to your primary subject, attributing thoughts and emotions that you may not have imagined. Whether you choose to leverage the lights of the city, its millions of reflections, its moving trains and cars, city elements can add dramatic substance to your portraits. Close-ups will take on a different meaning, and new emotions emerging from these interactions can provide the basis for unique stories that will draw interest in your viewers.

Use city lights as secondary storytelling elements

The lights of the night can add beautiful mood or storytelling elements in your portraits. At the very least, they will transform traditional close ups into more interesting images. They not only will lighten up your characters, but also instill new emotions in your viewers. In this image, the lights are used to fill in the frame like a pattern. They seem to hang in the sky, almost magically. The resulting effect creates incremental interest in what is overall a much traditional night portrait – placing the subject in a magical, surreal settings.

Capture reflections to add depth to your images

Reflections can be found anywhere, in a pond, on buildings, on windows, bus stops and cars… And they offer limitless opportunities for the imagination. Reflections of the city, in particular, can help tell a much deeper story that the subject itself. Here, in this image, the lady looks at her phone – a very common, boring scene as they often exist. But the addition of the reflected cityscape behind her adds an incremental layer of interest which contributes to the story. It becomes the story of a woman representing our busy life in the city, absorbed by a small screen, in the midst of overpowering towers and buildings.

Use motion to portray the passage of time

But the city itself is rarely static, rarely staying in place. If you look around you, objects are moving in multiple directions – flow of people, trains in motion, speedy cars and taxis… This motion effect can be captured to tell specific stories and emphasized existing emotions. For example, in this image, the quiet lady offers a neutral expression. But with the train behind her moving so fast that the eye can only see a trace, her attitude can take many different meanings. She appears deep in thoughts, oblivious of the world moving around her.

 

> Principle 3: Extend with layers
Incorporate layers to add meaning and depth to your human stories

Layers are incredibly fascinating, and so difficult to handle at the same time. Layers create complexity, but they need to connect to the subjects: they need to extend the story, not create random chaos with no meaning. When mastered, layers can add extra dimensions to the story, filling the frame with contrasting and complementary elements, placing the subject at the heart of a booming city, where people seem to connect in random yet orchestrated manner. So go experiment with human layers – giving substance to your street portrait in ways you would have not thought possible.

Extend what’s in focus to capture the world around your subject

While simplicity is often sought when taking a street portrait – in order to draw attention to the subject vs. their surroundings – a different approach can also yield spectacular results. Large depth of field can help include highly relevant context and elements that will help reinforce your primary subject. Of course, the difficulty lies in determining whether these elements are distracting, or whether they help tell a better story. In this case, the umbrella drives direct attention to the subject, connecting all other elements to the subject – and extending the image from a simple street portrait to a microcosm of life.

Play with focus to give a sense of motion or isolation

Layers can also be created with elements that are out of focus, especially when the photographer wants to draw attention to one character in the middle of a crowd. In this image, 3 distinct layers can be defined – yet only one is in focus. The resulting feeling is that of isolation. The primary character is surrounded yet alone, and the blurred secondary characters only add to this feeling of isolation. The contrast between sharpness and blurriness in this image also conveys an impression of motion within the crowd, with human elements moving in opposite directions, across different planes as well.

Coordinate human and city elements to add incremental complexity

And at times, stepping back from your primary subject can let you capture a complex world encompassing random strangers, reflections, contrasts and shapes. Layers provide infinite combination of elements, foreground and background, emerging from the chaos to be orchestrated by the photographer. In this image, while appearing random at first, all elements and layers coordinate to tell a story around my primary subject. I create leading lines, blockers and double reflections that add to the story and her frowned expression without compromising the initial story at play.

 

> Principle 4: Shift the perspective
Shift the usual perspective to experiment and create novelty

Street portraiture should not stopped at taking usual portraits of people in the street. While the people may be ordinary, new perspectives and angles will make them appear extraordinary – at times unveiling deeper the mysterious connection existing between them and the city. Experiment with windows, perspectives, and angles to create a deeper story, full of creativity and unexpected connections. This is through looking at what could be that we may be able to unveil what’s invisible to the eyes. And this is through experimenting that we can create new perspectives on human beings.

Use lower angles to emphasize the human-city relationship

As I have explained in my first eBook, angles often create highly subjective images that takes viewers inside the story, passively, but certainly. In particular, lower angles like in the example provided here often emphasize the subject, making it look bigger than life. But angles can also create connections that would have gone invisible otherwise: connections between humans and their city, between long silhouettes and buildings, busy walkers and busy streets. In this image, the connection between the man and NYC skyscrapers is noticeable, because of the angle chosen – making us feel as if he was owning the city.

Take novel points of view and experiment with your street portraits

Seeking novel points of views through windows and glasses can also be very rewarding. Instead of capturing a straightforward image, here, I captured a women in a maze of steel curves – creating thereby a surrealistic settings for my primary subject. So go around experimenting yourself, looking for different perspectives, holes, windows, and other elements that will decisively take your viewers into another world, and create unexpected connections between elements.

Shift the focus away from your primary subjects to disrupt and attract

And finally, to take the experiment a little step further, I have also played with different focuses – shifting the focus away from my subject to create different emotions and stories. In this example, the camera focuses on the window frames, leaving the subject in a zone of slight blurriness, merging with the shadow of my own reflections. This not only creates appealing layers, it also adds some mystery and attraction to the subject itself – the scene becoming as important as the individual, with its beautiful light and pastel colors emerging from all sides.