Anyone can pick up a camera and take pictures on the street, but great street photographs require more than pointing and clicking. Street photography may be about documenting everyday life, but there are many ways one can create more compelling images by adding some drama into the frame.
Creating drama isn’t just about making an image more visually interesting, but about evoking emotion. This is what will help your viewer connect to your work on a deeper level, ensuring your images remain last in their mind longer. In a time where people consume more photographs than ever, you have to work to make a strong impact on your audience.
But adding drama to a street photo is much easier said than done. Having the right camera for the job helps, but there’s much more to it than that. Sometimes, drama will naturally exist in the scene, and sometimes you have to create it yourself. Going beyond more general street photography tips and tricks, let’s take a look at four specific ways in which you can build drama in your photos.
Getting close to your subject and allowing them to fill the frame is a fantastic way of adding drama to your photograph. Firstly, it allows you to really pick up on their facial expressions and their mood, without allowing their surroundings to give further context to the reality. This encourages the viewer of your photograph to start building their own narrative. It guides them to ask questions about what is happening and who your subject is.
Secondly, getting close sends the message to the viewer that there was a sense of tension between you and your subject. Standing only a few feet away from a stranger and taking their picture takes guts and risks confrontation, and people recognize this. There’s an intimacy to this type of photo, and the tension built between you and your subject will transfer to your audience.
Now, you could “cheat” by using a telephoto lens, but such a setup is never advised for street photography, especially if you want to go as unnoticed as possible (big lenses tend to draw more attention).
What’s more, audiences tend to be familiar with the different looks of different lenses, and understand that a close-up wide-angle shot is different than a far-away telephoto shot, even if both images fill the frame with the subject. They may not understand why, but people can generally recognize when the photographer was actually close to their subject based on the look of a photo.
Shoot street photography in bright sunlight
In almost all photographic genres, bright, clear, harsh sunlight is your worst enemy — but not in street photography. Sure, in a wide-open space it probably won’t work, but once you get inside the streets, especially with tall buildings lining them, direct sunlight makes magic happen.
Direct sunlight isn’t just about the light, but the shadows it casts. Deep, dark, dramatic shadows will appear which you can use to help frame your photos. The pockets and stripes of light that split the shadows are perfect for placing your candid subjects in. Yes, this often means you’ll have to be patient to catch someone in the perfect position, but the results are worth it.
Such lighting calls to mind the age-old themes of light versus dark, good versus evil, or the known versus the unknown. You can balance sun and shadow to illustrate conflict, beauty, ugliness, or mystery, turning an otherwise mundane scene into something intriguing.
The reason street photography is so difficult is that most people are just mindlessly walking the streets, offering nothing compelling. That’s why you have to be patient and consistent. You need to be constantly looking for stories that may unfold in front of you. For the most part, just taking photos of pedestrians on their morning commute is boring, and nobody is going to want to spend more than a few seconds viewing your body of work.
The best way to find a story is to stand still. Instead of focusing on the hunting side of street photography, let the catch come to you. Position yourself near a busy intersection or storefront and keep your eyes up. Without rushing around looking for the story, you become more observant to the stories that pop up around you. Keep an eye out for conflicts, physical expression, and any moments out of the ordinary.
Avoid street photo clichés
There are some clichés we often see when looking at street photography. These mistakes are easy to make, especially when you’re just starting out, but there are good reasons to avoid them.
Photographing homeless people
One of the first things newbie street photographers do is photograph homeless people. In their mind, they are making a stance and showing people the wrongs of our world. While their hearts may be in the right place, their actions are usually far less meaningful than they realize.
The reality is, just taking pictures of the homeless adds nothing to the conversation. Everyone knows homeless people exist, and everyone has seen countless photos of them. In fact, all the photographer is doing is taking advantage of a person’s misfortune to try and better their work. Nobody wins in this situation, and it’s best to avoid it.
If you’d like to actually help people, consider volunteering your photography services for an organization working to uplift people in need.
Turning photos black and white
Black and white photos offer a timeless, classic look. But what a black and white aesthetic doesn’t do is make a boring image interesting. Yes, there are plenty of situations where desaturating an image is a fine creative choice, but don’t use it as a crutch. If it’s a bad photo in color, it’s still a bad photo in black and white, plain and simple.
That’s not to say a photo cannot look better in black and white. However, it must still show an interesting subject, moment, and/or lighting. If a photo looks great in color, but even better in black and white, then go for it. But if it’s a poor image to begin with, nothing is going to save it.
Use the tips above to start making your street photography more interesting. As with anything, practice is going to be needed to execute each technique to a high standard. But with time and consistency, you will begin to see more value in your photographs, more drama, and more importantly, more quality.