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Storytelling in street photography: Developing subjectivity

Cinema, as an art, has long been using camera angles to create either objectivity (the act of distancing oneself from the scene/subject) or subjectivity (the act of associating oneself with the scene/subject). And indeed, the choice of camera angle will have a deep impact on how the viewer will eventually experience the scene and the story. Will they observe at a distance or will they feel part of the action? Will they identify themselves with the subject or will they react to this confrontation?

Understanding when and how to develop subjectivity is key to creating impactful street images. In this chapter, I analyze and explain the difference between objective and subjective viewpoints: how we can achieve them, and what effect they will have on the viewer. Ultimately, my goal is to help you decide what angles and viewpoints will work best to support and amplify your potential story – thus generating greater emotions and impact with your images.


1.  The omniscience effect

Behind the idea of omniscience lies the principle of showing the big picture. The viewer is given the opportunity to see the scene in its entirety. Long-range and medium-range shots are best fitted to create that effect. Shots that are at eye level (not higher, not lower) will provide the most objective point of view, while lower / higher shots will create interesting subtleties in the way viewers perceive the overall scene. The key to omniscience is to integrate all meaningful elements into one shot: the subject of course, but also all the surrounding context that will extend the story from that of a man alone, to a man within its environment.

Omniscience primarily results from large range shots, taken at the most natural angle possible (straight, eye level etc.)

In the above image, viewers are shown the entire winter scene, emphasizing the loneliness of the subject. Without the context of the bridge and fog, that feeling of loneliness would be less strong. It is by distancing oneself from the details that we can see the big picture. The lonely figure exists because of the lonely city – both elements resonate and respond to one another to create a more cohesive story.


2. The experience effect

In films, many scenes are meant to make the viewer feel at the center of the action. As the camera follows the actors, we are often given the impression that we are moving along with the camera… following their every step. When two characters discuss together, we feel in the middle of their conversation – yet the characters never actually look directly at the camera. Most of these tactics will, at least, enable viewers to experience a scene from the inside, not from the outside.  And this is where the magic happens in cinema: from being a mere observer, we become an invisible actor: we are forced into the story whether we like or not.

Experience: Getting close and personal

When you do get closer, your images will often become more experiential.  Close-ups and mid-range images tend to bring the viewer in the story, more so than images taken at a distance.

In this example, the man in the foreground anchors the viewer in the story: the viewer feels as if he was looking through the eyes of this man, and observing the winter scene from his POV. Without the man, this image would be less personal, less subjective. It would portray an urban winter scene from which the viewer is a mere observer (i.e., omniscience effect).

Experience: Shifting the point of view

Tilted orientations, compared with straight orientations, generally add strong subjectivity to your images. When done so meaningfully, the POV becomes highly subjective, as if the viewer was really part of the scene: observing and taking part in the action, yet unobserved – invisible.

In this image, the addition of a low-level angle (the camera is looking up at the man) creates additional emphasis on the subject – making it look more important and imposing than he really is. It also clearly reinforces the subjectivity being created here.

Experience: Learning from cinema as an art

The closer you get from people, the more “voyeuristic” the experience will be, and the more strongly your viewers will experience the scene from the inside – as if they were there, invisible actors of a story that they do not control.

This shot shows a very intimate scene between two lovers, a scene that we can appreciate from very close, not unlike tactics used in cinema to allow viewers to enter the story and identify themselves with the subjects.


3. The connection effect

The connection effect relies primarily on establishing direct eye contact. By doing so, the photographer establishes a strong relationship between subject and viewer – as if the viewer could read the mind of the subject, and as if the subject could see beyond the frame – perhaps even into the mind of the viewer. That connection is so strong in fact that it can be disturbing to the viewer at times. When there is a connection effect, camera angles can strongly influence the feelings associated with the subject and the scene. Taking a shot at eye-level puts the viewer and the subject at the same level – and consequently, establishes a peer to peer relationship. Lower or higher angles will change the equation, resulting in different types of feelings.

Connection: Looking eye to eye

When subjects are looking straight into the camera, a strong relationship gets established. The level of the camera will then determine the nature of this relationship. If the image is shot at eye-level, a sense of equality gets created. Viewer and subjects are on one equal foot – looking eye to eye, peacefully or intensely, depending on the expression of the subject.

Connection: Generating emphasis with low-level angles

Taking your subject from below (what we call a low-level camera angle) will in fact dramatically emphasize your subject. Not equal anymore, the person will appear bigger than real, provoking a shift in perceptions and emotions.

Oftentimes, the viewer will feel overpowered or overshadowed by the subject – associated with a sense of superiority, strength, charisma.

Connection: Minimizing the subject with high-level angles

The opposite is also true, as cinema has shown many times. Shooting a subject from above will result in minimizing the subject, giving it less importance, less strength. These types of angles can generate a sense of vulnerability, of a need for protection. It gives a sense of inferiority to the subject who appears to be lost within the scene.

Hope you enjoyed the reading! To the next chapter, I wish you a very good day :)