If your first instinct is always to place the subject in the middle of the photo, think again. It’s often better in street photography to tuck the subject off to the left or the right, allowing the rest of the picture to counterbalance the composition.
I’m not talking about those impromptu street portraits which may very well have the subject somewhere near the middle of the frame. Rather, I’m talking about photos in which “the subject” is not just a single person or even a small group of people. It’s when the real subject is the whole scene: people in the context of their environment.
The Fortune Teller
For my featured image (above) I placed the three women in one quarter of the frame, letting the unusual background occupy most of the available space. I’m very glad I did. The small group is sufficiently engaging to hold our attention, yet the rest of the scene has its own charms which make us explore the image to see what’s there.
We can read the stickers, most of which are in English: “Whistle While You Work,” etc. We can check out the garden, which appears to be very well tended, complete with bird-feeders and neat pathways. Yet the eye constantly comes back to the group of three people, because each of them is caught mid-action while performing a particular activity.
Despite all the English stickers, unless you read Thai it’s hard to figure out exactly what’s happening in the photo. The two girls are deep in thought while enjoying their drinks because they’re having their fortune told for the very reasonable price of 39 baht. The sign on the left says they’ll learn all about what’s happening to them as regards work, money, luck, love, everyday life, enemies, partners, and the future. No wonder they look serious!
The image is another of those in which the real subject is “time.” This time it’s all about the future and what will happen in the future. By preserving the present moment, photography itself always has the concept of time embedded into it. Here, the present moment is full of life and movement, yet everyone is concerned about the future. Meanwhile, the past lingers in the stickers and in the can of discarded Nescafé in front of the fire hydrant.
Fifty Percent Off
The next image (below) has no messages about the passing of time, unless you count the limited time offer of a fifty percent discount.
Again, the subject is off to one side, leaving the large advert to dominate the image. Normally this would be an odd composition, but I think it works because of the unusual elevation of the camera. No, I wasn’t lying flat on the pavement to take the shot. Between me and the subject there was a steep flight of steps, enabling the style of shot you see.
Looking up at the subjects made the verticals converge, as you can see on the right. However, I’ve made the verticals truly upright on the left, so that the two figures can approach the entrance while seeming to be propelled towards it by the leaning verticals on the right. Meanwhile a mysterious, shadowy figure appears be reflected in the window at bottom right, helping to stop the image from tipping over completely.
Inside the Store
Having created such a lot of anticipation about entering the store, I guess we should go inside. You can tell this is Robinson’s Department Store from the above image, as the name appears in the large advert — and the reflected road sign says: “Charoen Krung Road.”
This store always makes me think of green and turquoise blue because these always seem to be the dominant colours whenever I visit. In the pharmaceutical area especially, there’s a clinical feel of newly squeezed toothpaste, with very few warm shades to enliven the scene.
I was fortunate to find contrast in the figures on the right: flesh and blood human beings in the midst of an otherwise sterile environment. They can be at the side of the image because what matters is the contrast between them and the rest of the shop.
Placing the subject off-centre is a way of avoiding what’s obvious in favour of creating a more complete image. You still have to balance the composition, but there’s often something you can use. In the picture above I’ve chosen the glaring white of the displayed products to counterbalance the figures standing in shade. The distant figure in the background links the two halves of the picture.