Take One Shot, Get Multiple Subjects

I read in the papers recently that a sniper, tasked with protecting the President of France, accidentally fired his rifle into a hospitality tent, injuring not only a waiter and but also one of the guests. His Inspecteur Clouseau-style achievement did not go unnoticed. Getting two people with one shot was remarkable — and hard to do, whether using a gun or a camera.

When I succeed in getting two or (even better) three or four subjects into the frame at the same time I feel very satisfied. It’s just what street photography needs: the sense that a lot of significant things are happening at the same time.

The word “significant” is important because it’s no use merely to include bystanders who contribute nothing to the picture. They have to be doing something recognisable, even if it’s only inspecting an artwork, like the man on the left of my featured image (above). By himself he would be of no account, but add the girl peeping out behind the taxi rider, together with the boy who is glancing back over his shoulder, and suddenly you get a complete scenario. It’s late afternoon on Charoen Krung, the oldest street in Bangkok.

Incidentally, don’t worry if my image looks a bit “Indian.” This area of Bangkok has long been an outpost of Indian culture, even though most people on the street are the usual mix of Thai and Chinese.

When you start getting multiple subjects in one shot you’re definitely on the final volume of the street photographer’s guidebook. I’d place it alongside concepts like “layers” and “multiple decisive moments,” both of which I cover or intend to cover in this blog. However, if you’re just starting to do street photography, please don’t look exclusively for this type of shot. Begin with one subject and build up from there.

Another Example

Here’s another example, one that’s more easily obtained because the subjects have not been caught in dramatic poses. The four figures are, however, nicely spaced — which separates them so that we can see each one has a distinctive personality of her own. The shopkeeper of the Chinese funerary goods store hovers discreetly in the background while the four customers respectfully browse the wares.

Had the customers been all bunched up and overlapping — as they usually are in photos — the image would be less successful. As it is, we can see unrelated strangers from three generations, all of them concerned about holding ceremonies for the wider family which includes those who have passed. The kaleidoscopic colours are every bit as solemn as the greys and blacks of European mourning — and so easily misinterpreted by westerners.

Useful tip: if you shoot in black and white it’s probably best to avoid this subject.

On a few occasions I’ve come across multiple subjects that were too far apart to get into the same shot. That can be very frustrating. For example, while taking pictures of a very small temple that was entirely enclosed by tree roots I suddenly noticed a man walking past with a large poodle in a shoulder bag — and beyond him a monk leading a water buffalo into the compound of another temple. I eventually got all the shots, but alas, each one is separate from the others.

Finding a Strategy

You’re probably going to ask me how to devise a strategy that will allow you to get several subjects into one shot. There no sure-fire way of doing it; you just have to be patient.

With the featured photo (at the top of this post) I always had in mind an image that included the piece of sculpture on the left. I was hoping to snap pedestrians as they drew level with it, thus getting them in sharp focus along with the sculpture. By chance, traffic emerged from the side street and one motor-bike was obliged to swerve around another, giving the impression of heading straight for the camera. In fact, I was standing safely on the sidewalk and the bike was obliged to turn on to the main road — or else leap the kerb and run me over (as the passenger seems to anticipate).

Here’s my final picture (below) to illustrate the topic of “multiple subjects with one shot.” I call it “Incident at the Flower Market.”

The man and woman on the left have a lively dispute or perhaps they’re sharing a joke. Whatever they’re doing is of no concern whatsoever to the woman sitting in the red chair. She’s calculating something, pen in hand, and looking out of the frame to the right. Her gaze helps to pull the viewer’s attention towards the centre, which is just what I wanted to achieve.

Although she’s not stepping forward and speaking (like the man) or reacting with incredulity (like the woman in the centre), the woman in the red chair with her intensely blue apron and wine-coloured cardigan is both the quietest and loudest figure in the photo. She sits silently but her clothes and chair shout out loud to us. In this sense, although she’s not part of the action, she’s one of the main subjects of the picture — perhaps the most important one. Fortunately, she doesn’t upset the composition, being within a brightly coloured context of dozens of flowers.

It Must Work As a Whole

When you succeed in getting several subjects into one shot you still have to make sure the picture works as a whole. Admittedly, our art form is very forgiving in the sense that people don’t expect compositions to have the monumentality of, say, a Raphael painting, where every figure is precisely positioned. It’s even OK to allow the frame to cut a figure in two if the rest of the composition hangs together. But a satisfying image can never be a jumble of activity, like a frame taken at random from Google Street View.

The task of the street photographer is to distill order from chaos, to make clear what may be unclear to the inattentive eye, and to preserve moments in time recorded from the photographer’s unique viewpoint.

Ultimately, the success or failure of your composition with multiple subjects depends on the balance you achieve between the separation of those subjects and the unity of the image.

I…hope…that’s…clear.

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