Finding Great Compositions in Unpromising Subjects

If you were to ask me what I like most about street photography I’d have say it’s this: looking at an unpromising scene then somehow finding a composition that pleases me.

The sensation gives me a real buzz. It’s like winning a bet on the horses. You’re hoping your horse will come in, but you don’t really expect it. When your horse actually wins you feel you’ve cheated the odds, because the odds are nearly always against you.

For the street photographer, an unexpected winnings in an unpromising situation is “something for nothing.” It’s catching a bird with your empty hand. It’s manna from heaven.

On a Quiet Day
Recently I was taking shots in London’s Camden Market on a morning when most of the day’s visitors had still not arrived. It was early in the tourist season. Only a few people were walking around the food stalls which were just beginning to get ready for lunch.

I didn’t expect to find a single composition in the lunch area and was thinking of moving elsewhere. At that point, several things came together at once. Three chefs in a shabby kitchen started rummaging around in an interesting manner. A girl wearing a lovely stripey jumper walked into the scene, then a man paused in front of me holding a blue coat (see the featured image at the top).

With luck or judgement (I don’t know which) I managed to get each of the foreground figures so their profiles appear clearly against the background. Given the jumble and complexity of the background this was a definite bonus. If the man had moved a few inches forward the shot would have been ruined.

Getting Technical
Fortunately I was fully prepared for this kind of shot, although I didn’t expect to get it. With the camera in Aperture Priority mode I’d stopped down my 40mm lens from f/2.8 to f/5.6, giving 1/1000th sec. in the bright sunlight. I usually “expose to the right” (i.e., ensure that the shadows get enough exposure) but the mixture of white shirts and black stalls made me avoid setting any exposure bias.

Now, you may or may not think this is a good shot. It depends on how you look at it. All I can say is: it’s the sort of shot I really like — whether taken by me or someone else. There are plenty of diagonals in it to give a sense of dynamic movement. By contrast there are static items piled up in makeshift fashion behind the stall.

However, it’s not just the many diagonal lines that lead the eye to the centre of the photo, there’s also the gaze of the two visitors. These two potential customers don’t seem to know what to make of it all. The stall may be a bit too exotic for them — like the hot-air balloon tattoo on the back of the chef’s leg. You, the viewer of the photo, are invited to see the stall through the eyes of these two people with their respective — and clearly different — reactions of amusement and cool evaluation.

Forcing the Composition to Work
Later in the day I’d moved back to Covent Garden which was intensely crowded on a Friday afternoon. After taking shots of multiple people I began to look for isolated figures, just for a change of tempo.

Two men sprawled in awkward positions on the pavement beneath a colonnade do not make a promising subject, especially when their heads are bent down over their mobile phones. My first thought was to walk past and find a different subject. I prefer the challenge of photographing people who are moving around rather than lying down in “sitting duck” mode.

Then it occurred to me: why not give equal emphasis to the column and the cobbled street? By the simple expedient of squatting down, unnoticed, in front of the two men, I took the shot you see below.

I don’t really like to force a composition to work, but in this case I think it’s successful. The two working men are resting during their lunch break. Their extremely casual positions are in sharp contrast to the formality of their surroundings. Gravity seems to be pulling them towards the ground, almost matching pound-for-pound the weight of the stones and the column. Behind them are feminine fripperies in the shop windows (including the season’s “must have” handbags) so different from the building and the sort of men who built it.

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