Street photography seems like such a spontaneous thing. It's so dependent on that decisive moment, and being in the right place at the right time, and conquering your fear—that you may have forgotten something important. Composition.
Oh yeah, the rule of thirds. Remember that? Sometimes when we're getting wrapped up in all the newness of a technique or a skill, we forget about our roots. Even though you're out there on the streets talking to strangers, overcoming your fears and waiting for the decisive moment, that doesn't mean you're allowed to forget about composition. The rule of thirds, the rule of odds, the rule of space, all these things still apply (and then some).
Against the waves by Flickr user Le TchÃ©tchÃ©
Street photography does have its own set of guidelines when it comes to composition. Some things are universal, but others work best in specific situations. For street photography, you need to look at the way your subjects interact physically with their environment. You need to simplify your composition by angling or blurring out distractions, but you also need to look for strong supporting elements. For street photos, this often means geometric shapes.
Street photographs often have a strong sense of geometry—bold squares and rectangles, straight lines, and diagonals. When you think about it there are some pretty obvious reasons why—cities are manmade, and our structures are mostly built from regular, geometric shapes. But it just so happens that incorporating geometry into your photography can make for a very strong statement as well as bold visual appeal regardless of what you happen to be photographing (even if it's something natural). So think of this as a golden opportunity.
When you find that perfect subject for a street photo, think fast. Sometime between that moment of discovery and the moment you actually make the exposure, you need to quickly scan the scene and find an angle and vantage point that makes the most out of the setting. Since you're in a city, you have a leg up. Start by looking for rectangles—they're everywhere. You can find them in obvious places like a skyscraper, a sidewalk or a set of stairs, but you can also find them in less obvious places like the empty space next to a building, or the torso of a person. Including multiple rectangles in a composition can give your viewer's eye incentive to move around the frame, from rectangle to rectangle. And geometric shapes inspire emotion, too—rectangles give your photo a sense of order and stability (so do squares). Rectangles and squares are calming and trustworthy. When we look at a rectangular or square shape, we get a sense of something that is strong and timeless.
Use rectangles in your street photography when you want to convey the power of the environment over its human inhabitants, for example, or when you want to give your viewer a sense of the fleeting existence of human beings among towering, ageless buildings.
Deux rectangles by Flickr user ClÃ©ment Belleudy
Triangles aren't as common in the city as rectangles, but you will still find them. A bannister together with a set of stairs can make a triangle shape—some buildings are triangular, too. Look for triangles in odd places as well—in the space between two people or in the shadows. Like squares and rectangles, a triangle that sits firmly on its base implies stability and strength, but if you turn it over it suddenly becomes a little alarming. An inverted triangle can make us feel tense. It implies conflict.
Circles are everywhere in the city, too, although you will probably find most of them in the wheels of cars, trucks and bicycles. But they also appear in architectural features such as fountains , or the details of a bannister or other ornamental structure. Circles are infinite—no beginning and no end. They will give your image a sense of completeness and feeling of motion.
Crossing the Circle by Flickr user Variegator
Horizontal and vertical lines
You don't have to seek out complete geometric shapes in order to give your street photos a strong composition. Line will do that, too. Like squares, strong horizontal lines give your image a sense of stability. Horizontals are straight and level, and like the horizon we feel secure that they are permanent and unshakable. Horizontal lines are orderly, but they also tend to be static—and that's because they give such an impression of stability. We don't really expect horizontal lines to move, so our eyes don't tend to follow them.
Vertical lines, on the other hand, imply power and strength. They aren't quite as stable because gravity is always working against them. We know that vertical objects like trees and skyscrapers are vulnerable to falling over, but we also know that it's sheer strength and structural integrity that keeps that from happening. This makes them more dynamic than your basic horizontal line. We instinctively want to look up and find the top of those tall buildings and trees, because we find both their strength and vulnerability fascinating.
Both verticals and horizontals can be strong components of your street photographs, but take a moment to consider what these lines will do (or say) in your final image. And don't be afraid to combine them—too much can create chaos, but a little can create a lot of interest.
Watch (triptych #2/3) by Flickr user Le TchÃ©tchÃ©
Finally, let's talk about diagonal lines. Diagonals are dynamic. They're active. They draw your viewer's eye into an image, and they tell it where to go once it's there. Because a diagonal line is always tipping like a teeter totter or a playground slide, we can easily imagine that line in motion. We can imagine water spilling down an incline or a child rocketing down that playground slide. Diagonal lines say motion, motion, motion. And because of this natural sense of motion, they also act like arrows, directing your viewer's eye to a particular part of an image.
Two diagonal lines can be combined to create the so-called "golden triangle," which is another one of those more advanced compositional ideas (along with the golden section and the golden spiral). Without getting too much into theory, you can create a strong composition by intersecting diagonal lines at a 90 degree angle, as in this example:
[ Top image Sjoerd Lammers street photography by Flickr user Sjoerd Lammers street photography]
This is a "golden triangle" composition, which you can create by visualizing a diagonal line from corner to corner of your frame, intersected at a 90 degree angle by a diagonal drawn up from a third corner. Use this composition when your scene has a lot of triangular or angular components. Try to place the focal point of the shot close to that intersection where the two diagonal lines meet.
You can also use diagonal lines as a sort of pathway, connecting one subject to another or giving your viewer's eye a road to travel, from one part of the frame to another. This is especially true when you include converging lines (such as a railroad track vanishing into the distance or a straight road or walkway). Those two parallel lines will appear to converge, and then meet at a distant point. You viewer will immediately use this visual clue as evidence that the scene exists in three dimensions, even though technically a photograph can never be anything more than a two dimensional. This is important because it helps give your viewer a sense of being there in the scene, experiencing it in person. For a photographer, that's a very powerful accomplishment.
Station lonely #2 by Flickr user Le TchÃ©tchÃ©
Now always remember that you must temper this with the content of your image. In other words, don't fail to see the forest for all the trees. Your photograph is the sum total of all the different elements within it—it should have a strong subject and strong supporting characters (these include secondary elements and the background itself). Don't neglect the content in favor of the background, or vice-versa. This can start to seem a little bit like playing a sport, because your mind has to take care of so many details in a very shot period of time. Find a great subject, but look for strong lines and geometric shapes in the background to help pull all those elements together. And do all of this before the decisive moment gets away from you.
Finally, and just to confuse the matter even more, you can look for strong shapes and other objects that are not geometric—these sorts of elements can make for an interesting contrast with those very man-made geometric shapes that often exist in a city. To make a bold statement about man vs. nature, try to include some organic shapes in your composition. An organic shape is more free-flowing and less structured than a geometric shape. It's often asymmetrical (though it doesn't have to be—a leaf is one example of an organic shape that can be perfectly symmetrical). Raindrops splattered on dry pavement are a good example of organic shapes that you might find in the city. Or a weed struggling to grow through the pavement, or even the crack in a stretch of sidewalk.
I know it seems like a lot, and I hope I haven't overwhelmed you. It can be really hard to keep all these different ideas in mind when you're already devoting so much brainpower to conquering your fears and looking for that all-important decisive moment. But if you do this often enough, it will all come together and you will no longer find yourself scrambling to get through a checklist every time you raise the camera (Is the background any good? Is my aperture correct? Am a making good use of line and shape? Is the moment right?). I doubt that any of the street photography greats spent too much time consciously considering each component of each shot—for them it all happened behind the scenes, subconsciously. And with enough practice, it will happen that way for you, too.