Two ways to think about composition and how it relates to subject selection in street photography.
Whenever I go out shooting street photography, I'm likely to have a little conversation with myself about chasing moments versus chasing scenes. There are a couple extremely helpful advantages to planning your shoot this way. For one, it's gives you focus before you arrive and remove your lens cap. Two, it clues you in to what modes you'll likely be using before clicking the shutter even once.
As a reference, I talk about the Royal Modes here in my blog "When To Use Which Shooting Modes In Sony Mirrorless Systems". Essentially, there are only two modes I ever consider when shooting street photography. Even if you're not using a Sony mirrorless system, there's some take away here if you're using another mirrorless system or a more advanced DSLR. I will relate my use of the Royal Modes and how they're used in conjunction with moments and scenes. More on this later.
Let's talk about moments and scenes.
What is a Moment?
For our purposes here, in reference to people as subjects in street photography, a moment is spontaneous - a surprise that must be captured by camera. Most of the time, you'll be walking around and a subject will appear, doing something, looking a certain way, or otherwise exuding a worthiness which instinctively makes you want to take a picture. The moment is subjective in the sense that photographers differ in what they're after. My moment may differ from your moment. The important factor is that there's a connection between photographer and subject which is binding: the shutter button must be pressed. A note on composition
A moment is less concerned, or not at all connected, with foreground and background elements in an image. The moment must be captured regardless of how pleasing or displeasing the "stuff" is which surrounds the subject.
For example, maybe there's something about an old woman who is approaching me on the street. There's nothing special about the background; in fact, it's detrimental to the tune of traffic and chaotic movement. The foreground is nothing - there's a clear shot to the subject, no obstructions. The picture is taken, capturing the moment. Everything but the subject be damned.
Ideally, a good photographer would frame the subject according to background/foreground elements by anticipating the subject's movements. But this is not always possible. And it's already been noted that the moment is a must-have picture, regardless of what unwanted compositional elements are present.
Another note on the moment: our moment is not to be confused with Bresson's "decisive moment", although there could be overlap. And who isn't chasing the decisive moment, anyway? For our purposes, the moment is one of two ways of thinking about subject selection and preparations useful for capturing either type of image.
What is a Scene?
The scene is location and light-dependent. These elements are not separable. When I'm shooting a scene in street photography, it means I'm anticipating lighting conditions based on time of day and how the light affects a specific location. It follows then that a scene is naturally directional and perspective-based.
The most common place that I shoot which is scene-orientated is the beach at sunset. In this example, I specify the time of day - which is sunset as opposed to sunrise. The reasons for this to me are clear: I shoot sunset at the beach here in Mumbai more often than at sunrise because the sun sets in the west and our beaches happen to be on the western side of the city. There are more people out enjoying the sea towards the end of the day rather than at the beginning of the morning generally speaking. The end result is I'm capable of getting more shots because there are more potential subjects.
Furthermore, in this particular scene, I've got two very different lighting conditions to work with which require me changing settings or else I'll never get a proper exposure. If I'm facing westerly to the sea, I'm going to be capturing very saturated and heavily silhouetted shots. If I turn to shoot subjects in the opposite direction, I'll be capturing very flattering Golden Hour light on people and things and will therefore capture more details in these images. Both situations are scenes: they're both light and location dependent.
A note on composition
Background and/or foreground elements are foundational to scenic street photography. To use the beach-sunset reference again, I know that I'll be shooting subjects against the setting sun and the sea, in one of my two more pleasing options. Where I place my subjects against the sun, for instance, is important to my framing. Do I want the setting sun's rays striking my subject directly or do I want the main path of the sun's light beams landing to the left or right?
You may be asking yourself, wouldn't there be moments to shoot within a scene? The answer to this is a resounding yes. But there remains important distinctions, as mentioned above.
For the scene, we're anticipating moments to flow into our frames. We may know about them in advance or they make take us by complete surprise. It doesn't matter. The scene is location-light dependent. A moment is not. A scene is more planned. A moment is less so or completely unplanned. A scene is all about composition and framing. The moment is less so concerned with this because of the spontaneity factor.
The Royal Modes: Aperture Priority and Manual
It's by no coincidence that the only two shooting modes I ever use correspond directly to either moments or scenes in my street photography. Let's break it down.
For shooting moments, I'm in aperture priority. For scenes, I'm always in manual. The Royal Modes are natural allies for each style of shooting. Here's why.
Aperture Priority for shooting Moments
Aperture priority is about spontaneity, is all about capturing moments on the fly, regardless of lighting conditions and compositional considerations. But you can control one element of composition which can have a profound effect on your images, the aperture.
Within the aperture range, whether it involves opening all the way up to f1.4 or stopping down to f16, there is only one major consideration in this mode as it relates to moments: subject to background/foreground separation.
When I'm shooting moments it's not that I'm approaching my street photography in a completely random way in order to capture random moments. My intention is to anticipate the action, always. To do this, I'll adjust my aperture on the fly to achieve the desired subject to background/foreground separation that I want.
For example, if I'm walking in a crowd and I'm looking to photograph single individuals who stand out, maybe I'll open up to f1.4 on my 35mm lens and shoot accordingly. Or maybe I'm walking along the street and there's a divider with spaces - like a gate - behind which are potential subjects. Then maybe I'll open up to f8 or so so that I'll be able to capture the subject in focus versus risking the autofocus make the decision to capture the gate instead, leaving my subject blurry. This goes for anything that may be in the foreground. I'll anticipate foreground elements while looking for moments.
On the flip side, if I'm looking for background elements to be present to lend context to my subject, maybe I set my aperture to f5.6 or f8 or so. Maybe I walk around like that for a while before deciding to open the aperture up again. The point is, I'm determining, at all times, what my aperture is based on shooting conditions or what I'm looking for in a moment.
The above image of the boy with flowers is an example of a moment - and having the aperture opened up all the way to blur the foreground and background. When I saw the boy coming my way, I decided quickly to open up the aperture all the way with a few quick clicks of the dial. Had I been in manual mode, there's a pretty good chance I would have missed this shot. This is because of the very nature of manual mode and all the settings at your fingertips. There's a time and a place for such things - but not for shooting moments.
Manual mode for shooting scenes
Manual mode is the natural ally for shooting scenes. Because what we're shooting is light and location dependent, we can adjust our all settings manually in advance to take advantage of where our subjects are in relation to background/foreground elements.
To reference the beach-sunset scene again, I know in advance that I'll be setting very specific values in manual mode to capture subjects in favorable ways. And usually, there are some common settings.
For the header image of the horses and buggy at sunset, I set my ISO to 100. I always set my ISO for this value during sunset (and sunrise) because there is more than enough light for my exposures. There are only two other major factors to consider, the aperture and shutter speed. For this shot, I was at f8 because I wanted detail in the foreground and background. I had previously shot a lot of sunsets with my aperture all the way open, so I wanted to shoot this differently. So with the aperture set - after setting my ISO to 100 - I use my shutter speed then to adjust how bright the exposure is. In this example, a shutter speed of 1/750 was giving me the most pleasing look. The rest of the details were divined in Photoshop in post processing.
Again, do not confuse moments with scenes. The above shot of the horse and buggy, with the boy giving chase, is undoubtedly a "moment". But my settings were already set in advance well before I started framing the shot. I was ready for the action. It also didn't hurt that I knew the man driving gives paying customers rides prior to sunset. I already knew his path. And I already knew this boy was going to give chase. Hardly a surprise to me. Hardly a moment, in the street photography sense, because everything was staged for a successful image. Furthermore, aperture priority would have botched this shot, especially if I had my ISO set to AUTO. The image would have been too bright (although properly exposed) for the look I was going for. And it would have been far too time-consuming to fix in post.
I acknowledge that there are many different ways to approach street photography or any genre, for that sake. The reason why I'm sharing this approach is because it's part of my way of doing things - it's not some theoretical impulse which has no solid footing in the real world.
Another reason why I share my insights is because I'm sometimes asked about it. When I run street photography workshops, I've had clients ask me, after a brief encounter with the chaos on the streets of Mumbai, how to figure out what to shoot?
I answered this question as referenced to the chaos one may encounter in the streets in my blog, "Making Sense Of Chaos: One Method For Street Photography". This was mainly directed at beginners and those who are new to street photography, particularly in very busy places where it may prove difficult to contemplate a shooting strategy.
In Chasing Moments Vs. Scenes In Street Photography, this information is more geared towards intermediate to advanced shooters who understand their cameras and modes and who are looking to develop their shooting styles and capture worthy subjects more frequently.
As a side note to all of this, I may write a book on street photography at some point in the future based on my blogging. If this is something you would be interested in, please mention it in comments. I'm always curious what people are looking to learn and to see whether there's something that I'm already doing which can help and provide insight.
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