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Why I Took This Street Image

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

I once read a reply from a photographer who was asked if he did street photography. His answer was that he didn’t want to fill his computer memory with pictures of 'random people in random places doing nothing interesting'. I was just becoming interested in street photography at the time and I was disappointed by his answer yet I couldn’t explain, even to myself, what I liked about taking photographs involving people in public places.

Today I can answer that question for myself. I don’t see random people in random places doing nothing interesting; I see unique individuals going about their daily lives and when a group of individuals gathers in a common area they bring together a small part of the huge diversity of human existence. It is this diversity I love to witness and capture with my camera.

I have taken seven of my recent street images, very different in nature, and analysed why I took this photograph. I asked myself,

What drew me to the scene?

Why was it worth photographing?

What do I like about the image that makes it worth keeping?

Each of the images was an experiment for me in street photography, and explaining why I took this street image has helped me on my learning journey.

Image 1

This first image was taken in a small town in Portugal called Vila Real de Santo Antonio during my recent stay there. I spent around 3 weeks in the town and I went out walking each morning when the early morning light provided strong contrast. As I walked around I saw people doing all the regular things people do on a regular morning - going to work, opening shops and cafes, setting out stalls for the day, cleaning and preparing shop fronts, painting, cleaning the streets, having an early coffee, chatting to neighbours and co-workers. Children were heading to school; runners, walkers and dogs were having their morning exercise; a yoga class was taking place in the park. Some visitors were strolling along taking in the atmosphere while others were taking their seats outside the cafes to people-watch in the cool of the morning.

I was there to witness this slice of life every morning and I immersed myself in all that was going on. I particularly loved the way the sunlight provided streams of strong contrast against the buildings and how it back-lit features of the town landscape.

I returned a few times to the spot where this image was taken. I liked the strong contrast between light and shadow, and I moved around the scene to get different perspectives. When I found a position I liked I waited for an interesting subject to come along. I particularly like this image of the street cleaner who was part of the fabric of the town every morning. In some versions of the image I underexposed to leave few details in the shadows, but I do like this version where the cleaner’s cart is just visible in the shadows yet it doesn’t feature prominently to detract from the main subject.

The street cleaner

Image 2

The second image I have chosen is a street scene with a few things going on within the frame. There are three layers - foreground, mid-ground and backgound - and these add depth to the image while inviting the viewer to move around the frame.

I am just beginning to experiment with this type of image so the image itself is not wonderful but it is a type of street image that I want to do more of so it’s worth including in this study.

Night scene

The image would have been improved if there had been a main subject surrounded by smaller interesting scenes but unfortunately they didn't exist for this frame. I still think the image is worth keeping as it is an example of the type of image I will be looking out for. There is a little bit of interest to encourage the viewer to look around the frame.

Image 3

This next image is inspired by the work of Fan Ho, who I greatly admire. Fan Ho was considered to be one of the most important street photographers of the 20th century. He managed to include light, composition and interest in his street scenes, three elements that combine to make a great image. Although he was not as well known as his western counterparts, the images he captured of Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s still inspire photographers today.

In my humble image I have tried to see beyond the obvious to extract some meaning in the scene. On a simple level, people are coming and going on an escalator. Yet they are unique individuals each with their own story, their own reasons for being there, their own destination in mind. They just happen to converge at this point and capturing the image tells a small part of their story.

On the escalator

Image 4

I love urban photography because of the opportunity to find interesting geometry.

Sometimes I like to place a single subject in the frame surrounded by lines and shapes. I wanted to capture this image just at the spot where the subject was framed between two of the rails. Many of those going up or down did not make for a good image, often because they were looking down at their phones. I waited in the same position until I spotted this woman going up the escalator but obviously looking at something beyond.

I thought that her expression added a bit of mystery to the image - what, or who, is she looking at?

Between the lines

Image 5

I picked the next image simply for its visual appeal. I liked the prominence of the orange colour of the hi-visibility jackets, the three levels created by the workmen and the overall impact which it makes.


Image 6

I took several versions of the following image, from different positions, as the women were chatting. In some versions I took a wide shot and included the surrounding building to put the subjects in context, in other shots I zoomed in a bit closer. In my view the image picks up a natural moment of interaction between two people who know each other well and there is something about capturing a human moment like this that appeals to me.

A morning chat

Image 7

Finally, this next image is a bit experimental for me. I wanted to compose an image using different layers to add depth and interest. The options were limited but I have at least given it a try.

Cafe street scene

Many of the greatest street photographers perfected the use of layers in their images. Layers create depth, they allow the viewer's eye to move around within the frame, they provide multiple connections and interest for the viewer in one image. However, layers are difficult to capture well. They have to be of interest and achieving that is the hard part. I have realised that to get an image with good layers I need to first of all find a scene that I think has potential, see if there’s an ‘anchor’ within the scene that’s not going to move, and wait for the other elements of the scene to come together.

In this image the people were already sitting at the table and the two men were standing talking. However, there was a gap to the top right so I waited to see if someone would pass by. I took the image too soon and didn't position the man who was walking properly, allowing him to overlap with the man who was bending down.

This type of image making is a real challenge for me but I intend to keep working at it.

Final thoughts

I don't consider any of the above to be great images, or even good images, but they were worth taking because they each taught me something and they give me the incentive to keep working on my images and to make progress in my photography journey.

I believe that street photography is difficult and challenging. A moment can make a great difference in photography and I have missed many moments by not seeing what was around me. To quote the words of Henri Cartier-Bresson, widely acknowledged as a master of street photography,

‘There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.’

In each of the images here i saw something that drew me to the scene and urged me to press the shutter. I don't think I managed to catch any decisive moments, but I'll keep working to find them.

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