Photographing graphic shapes – creating a frame
Most built-up areas are created using three basic shapes and the variations on them; rectangles, triangles and circles. Alongside those basic shapes we have the lines that define their edges and demonstrate their existence. When we recognise these shapes, and acknowledge that they are the foundations of the city structure, we can begin to make the most of them in our pictures. And when we do that, we tap into an awareness that can create really powerful images.
This picture is all about shapes and the lines that create them. The shapes of the world this man lives in are hard-edged and rigid, while his own shape is rounded, organic and soft – so he stands out against the foreground and the background. That act of standing out makes us aware that he is the subject, but only in the sense that his presence makes the hard/soft contrast possible – and it is that contrast that helps us to notice the hardness, rigidity and geometry of the world around him.
I shot this through a vast metal sculpture at Liverpool Street station’s Broadgate Circle entrance, in London. Looking between the great sheets of metal, I liked the way a giant doorway could be formed and the way the soft light of the overcast morning was bleeding into the deep dark shadow inside the structure itself.
The viewer’s first thought on seeing the image is probably that we are looking through a four sided aperture, but the four-sided idea comes only from the fact that the triangle made by the converging edges of the metal sheets meets the top of a wall that leads into another darkness in the distance. The two dark areas can play the trick of fooling us that they are one – and the overall visual effect is that they are as between them they contain our attention and hold all the action.
Composition and shooting position
I had to position myself quite carefully to ensure that I made the most of the shapes and lines on offer here. To get the full impact of a structure and its angles it’s important to have some sort of baseline that grounds us and lets us know we are standing straight and upright ourselves. In this picture that levelling anchor is the group of lines on the steps – that travel left to right parallel to the bottom edge of the frame. These, whether we recognise it immediately or not, let us know we are upright and perpendicular. When we know that, we can appreciate the relationships of all the other lines and shapes in the picture – that they really are off at an angle, and that it isn’t just us leaning over ourselves.
The lines of the steps are a strong visual element as they contain so much contrast themselves. The treads are lit from above, while the risers are comparatively dark. The combination makes a series of black and white lines, running like those on a sheet of ruled writing paper. They are powerful and influence our perception of the scene. That they are straight, and that our brain knows that, allows us to see the slope of the path, the diagonal of the handrail, the man’s upward journey and the angled edges of the sculpture.
The right man
I shot quite a few images from this position, as I experimented with composition and the different types of people using the path. Once I was satisfied with the camera angle and my exposure, I just had to wait for the right person. While it is easy to project what you think the right person will look like before they arrive, we should always be ready for whatever comes along. Here I knew I wanted a ‘city person’, and a suited worker would fit the bill, but with the light-toned background I had expected to be making a silhouette of someone in black. It didn’t occur to me that Colombo would come by, with a pale raincoat and newspaper – but he did, and I’m very grateful for that.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 with Taylor, Taylor and Hobson 2in f/2 Telekinic lens via a C-Mount adapter
I run regular street photography classes around London, both during the day and at night, so why not join me and a very small group of other photographers for some instruction and inspiration – and a lot of fun?
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You would think there was a law against taking pictures on a rainy day, as hardly any photographers ever do. They look out the window, see the drips and drops falling from the heavens, and decide automatically that it is a day for doing something else. But one of the things they are missing out on is a chance of getting unique images – with all the other photographers indoors anything you shoot on a rainy day is going to be an exclusive!
And rain happens – it is part of the experience of life, so we should be photographing it. This shot was taken on a rainy morning in London when the commuters were rushing to work, heads down and brollies up. If you are at all nervous of taking pictures of people in the street a rainy day is great, as no one is going to bother stopping to ask what you are doing.
As I walked along behind this person I enjoyed how the water was forming into big droplets on the umbrella material, and how those droplets were sparkling in the light, and I wanted to make a picture to show that. Obviously the person under the brolly was moving pretty quickly, so I set myself an ISO of 1600 and an aperture of f/2 so I could get a motion-stopping shutter speed – in this case 1/2500sec. Then I set my AF point to the lower third of the screen and followed the brolly trying to walk in time with the person under it. When we walk we naturally bob up and down, so getting in rhythm with the subject is important if we are going to avoid motion blur. I knew I was pretty safe though, with that very fast shutter speed, but the timing was important so I could get the focus point exactly where I wanted it on the moving subject.
I was happy to shoot at f/2 because I knew I didn’t have to get the buildings in the background in focus for people to know what they are. You mightn’t recognise Old Broad Street, but it is enough to see that this is a city scene and you get the sense of the old buildings and the new glass tower block in the distance. Also the narrow depth of field would make the droplets the only part of the picture in focus, so you would know that they are the subjects and what I want you to look at.
It was a pretty grey day in a pretty grey place, so rather than turning the picture black and white I just de-saturated it a bit and then overlaid an orange tone to give it a warmer feel.
It might sound odd to describe to someone else that this is a picture of an umbrella, and it wouldn’t sound very exciting, but it is a picture about the atmosphere of the place at that time. Often it is the small details that can describe an atmosphere more fully than a wider shot of the whole street, as details are filled with clues and you force the viewer to look at them.
I hope you like the shot, and that it has encouraged you to go out with your camera next time it rains. Please do leave me a comment below. I run regular street photography classes around London, both during the day and at night, so why not join me and a very small group of other photographers for some instruction and inspiration – and a lot of fun?
I can help to improve your photography whatever your level of experience. Find out more in the Events and Courses section.
Try something out. Put your camera in its bag, and put the bag over your shoulder. Now, pretending you are Clint Eastwood in a cowboy movie, see how quickly you can ‘draw’ your camera, including switching it on and squeezing a shot off. Providing the settings are about right for the light levels and light types you are practicing in, it probably takes about four to five seconds. If you need to adjust the ISO to achieve a shutter speed at which you can hand-hold the camera and lens, that ‘draw’ time might extend to ten seconds – depending on how user-friendly your camera’s menu system is. It’s a good job you are pretending to be Clint rather than fighting against him, as you’d never get that shot off.
Whether you are a fan of Mr Eastwood’s movies or not you will have noticed that when the man himself is sliding round the side of the General Store in search of the bad guys he keeps his gun in his hand, safety catch off, so it’s ready to fire. And if you are into street photography and catching ‘the moment’ you need to take a leaf out of his book.
Keep reviewing your settings
The day I shot this picture it was heavily overcast and dark. It was also very cold, so I was wearing those fingerless burglar gloves, so that I would be able to hold the camera in my hands all day and still be able to work the controls. As the day got darker and darker I had been adjusting my ISO settings so that I would be able to maintain a shutter speed of at least 1/30sec – the camera had anti-shake built-in. I had a 28mm lens fitted, which gave me a 42mm equivalent focal length on my APS-C sensor, and I’d got it stuck wide open at f/2.8 to let in as much light as I could get.
Rounding the corner of a building I came across these two lovers hiding away from the world to share an few intimate moments together. Before I knew it I had the camera at my eye and was focusing the manual lens. As the shutter fired she just had time to look a little bit sheepish, and he just had time to hide his head behind hers.
Ready to shoot
I took one shot, smiled at them as they laughed at being caught, and then I walked on. It all took about two seconds, and I got the shot because the camera was there in my hand whirring and straining at the leash to take a picture. Had it been curled up snoozing in my camera bag this incident would have just been another one of those occasions when the shot got away. I wouldn’t even have drawn, as I’d have known immediately that as soon as I’d started getting the camera out the dynamics of the picture would have changed and the moment would be passed.
Composition in an instant
With practice I’ve learnt not only to get the subject in the frame in a split second but also to ensure I have a composition. I never know what the next composition is going to be, but I do know that even the sort of picture that is grabbed in a fraction of second needs to respect the viewer and respect the laws of image construction. I managed to keep the camera straight so those blocks wouldn’t create a distraction by sloping off to one side, and I positioned the couple at the bottom of a tall frame to prevent a centre-weighted or top heavy composition. I had to keep her feet in too, and his, and frame the pair of them in their alcove by showing some wall either side so the viewer can understand they were hiding away.
The wide aperture has combined with the overcast sky to create an almost dreamlike softness that works well in the sooty black and white, blue/green channel conversion. There is romance in the softness that adds a fairy tale quality.
Pentax K10D with Ricoh XR Rikenon 28mm f/2.8 at f/2.8. ISO 400.
The sun had well and truly gone at this stage, and its setting had not brought the spectacle I had been hoping for. Nice enough, the colours hadn’t played across the sky as there were simply too many clouds. I was determined though to go home with something in the bag, so I sat down to take a rest and to have a think. I had brought a folding chair with me to do this, as I was beginning a faze of purposeful looking and contemplation. I figured that rather than rushing between locations and snapping what occurred to me first, I should try to slow down a little and spend more time looking. The chair thing would help me do this, as by sitting I would be more likely to stay in one place for longer. This wasn’t a trekking sort of day, as I knew I wasn’t going anywhere other than on this stretch of beach. I could carry the chair, dump it down and work around that as a base.
I had been to this location so many times before, and although I had taken plenty of nice, and even good, pictures there, I never felt that I had quite captured whatever it was that appealed to me about it. In actual fact, the issue was that I hadn’t actually identified what it was that appealed to me – which kinda makes it difficult then to capture it in a photograph. The idea of the chair was that I would sit for a while looking at the scene to try to unravel the mystery. If I sat I wouldn’t be bothered by the weight of my camera bag, or the urge to move on you get sometimes when you stand, so I could sit in comfort until the answer came to me.
I’m not sure that I really did find the answer to the question I had in my head, but I did find an answer to a question I hadn’t thought of. As the sun went even further below the horizon and the land areas became silhouettes against the sky and its reflection in the sea I realised part of the attraction of the place is the curved line of the shore around the bay. In the simplified form of the monochromatic moment I saw the light. Where I live we don’t see much sky, as there are houses and trees all around, but here the sky is massive, stretching right down to the ground – so the big sky is one factor. And the shape of the coast line is the other.
Waiting until the sun had gone the sun turned a cool blue that showed up perfectly in the daylight white balance of my camera. My eyes were seeing grey, as my brain filtered out the evening shades, but the camera was able to help me see the reality.
I tried plenty of compositions, but what worked best was when I just concentrated on the principle elements of the curve and the sky. With the camera angled upwards slightly I got rid of the foreground shingle and plants that were fighting for attention in the dim lighting. Removing those details simplifies the scene and makes it clear what I am trying to draw the viewer’s eye to. And exposing for the sky has brought out its detail, and kept the land mass to a basic silhouette.
I don’t think I have really captured the essence of this place yet, as this shot is a bit of a side track. I’m actually quite pleased as it means I can still go back and carry on trying – it’s a wonderful place.
Using layers in your compositon • low angles to show the foreground • selective focusing for emphasis
It’s hard to create a sense of depth in a photograph, as we are trying to convey our impressions of a three dimensional scene using a flat piece of paper. To get the message over to the viewer we have to choose carefully what we show, as well as how we show it.
We are told that a 50mm lens gives the same angle of view as our eyes, when it’s mounted on a 35mm camera or full frame sensor (it’s about 35mm for APS-C sensors). Really, though, this only represents what we can concentrate on, rather than what we can actually see. There is a big difference between what we take in when we look directly at something, such as when we are talking to another person a few feet away, and what we experience when we are taking in a view or enjoying a pleasant scene. We build a profile in our heads of the atmosphere of a place not by looking in one direction or by concentrating on any single element, but by looking around ourselves, at our surroundings and the sky, and combining all the elements to create a whole and complete impression. We analyse the details, notice what is at our feet and what is in the distance, what is to the side of us, and how the place is made up.
On this morning I was enjoying the high grasses and plants as I pushed my way through their rain-wet leaves to get to the shore. Before I got to the water’s edge I stopped and took in the scene. What I was struck by was the combination of the flowers up to my waist, the stillness of the water and its gently turning boat, and the pale colours in the pre-sunrise sky. The horizon was almost out of sight in the mist, but before it was a splendid foreground, a high-contrast attention-seeking middle ground, and the shapes of the other side of the loch against the pale blue sky.
To get a sense of realism rather than sheer impact I used the 35mm end of a 16-35mm zoom lens, and, fitted to a tripod, dropped the camera to below the level of the flower tops. Rather than stopping down and focusing a third of the way into the scene for maximum depth of field, I focused on the flowers just a few feet in front of me. I wanted them to get the attention, as even when soft the sky, the boat, the loch and the distance could look after themselves. Viewers are going to look into the distance anyway, but by pulling the focus to the foreground it ensures they pay attention there too.
Obviously, with such a range of brightness values I wasn’t going to get the correct exposure for the flowers while still showing the colours of the sky, so I used a 0.9 (3EV) neutral density graduated filter to hold back the illumination levels of the sky and its reflection. This balanced the exposure enough so I could show all the elements within the camera’s dynamic range.
With white balance set for daylight I was able to capture the cool tones of the morning without the camera attempting to turn the scene into a Caribbean dreamscape.
I think that what I have created is a picture that has a real sense of depth that allows the viewer to place him or herself there at the scene, on that morning and see and enjoy the things I experienced too. And if you get yourself up at 4am to look at it the experience will become even more real again!
Canon EOS 1Ds III, with EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens set to 35mm, 1.6sec and f/16 at ISO 100. I used a HiTech filter system 0.9 ND graduated filter to reduce the brightness of the sky. TeamWork sells them
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Seeing relationships • using humour • the importance of straight edges • catching a moment
There is nothing new in street photography about targeting how the world of advertising compares with reality, but it remains a rich stream of original-looking and visually exciting images. It is not just the contrast of the advertiser’s dream world with that of the everyday existence of those these adverts are intended to influence, but this type of picture often has some significance as a document of social trends, wants and aspirations of the time.
Adverts and posters have a very short shelf life and can often really tie a picture down to a specific period in our history.
I spotted this scene in Warsaw, Poland, through the window of a hairstylist shop in the city’s smartest shopping street, Nowy Swiat. I couldn’t tell for sure what the young lad was thinking, or what his motivation was for having a haircut, but obviously he was shelling out a bit of extra cash for this upmarket treatment and I’d say he was expecting to get more than just shorter hair. The ad in the window says it all really – get your hair cut here and you’ll score with a hot chick like this.
I love the way it appears as though the stylist is giving the lad a haircut just like his own, and that the haircuts are so extreme. A skinhead is a proper teen statement, a sign of rebellion – as though shaving your head demonstrates that you have taken full control of your own destiny. Shaving your head is the first step to becoming a man, and attracting a beautiful woman with that strong sense of your own identity. Of course, we can all see that there is no strong identity at all, only a passage of conforming to a series of stereotypes that starts with the beautiful girl aspiration, as though that is what we all want, and ends with the idea that a hairstyle can define a personality.
Bizarrely, there is a certain amount of sexual suggestiveness in the curly bamboo canes as well. The way in which they twist around the girl’s nipples somehow demonstrates what the lad will want to be doing once his hair-do is completed. The look in her eyes suggests that we could all get a slice of the action – so long as we get that all important haircut.
When I took the picture I couldn’t possibly have identified all of these elements, but in a glance I could see there was something quite funny going on. It’s the same with composition – you don’t have to sit and analyse the leading lines to know you are seeing something powerful. On these occasions we need to go with our instincts and analyse later – shoot first, ask questions after.
I know I go on about keeping the camera straight and upright, and not allowing sloping lines or drunk horizons, but in this picture the viewer is allowed on concentrate on the subject because there is nothing to distract the attention away from it. The picture elements are in their own neat boxes and the lines are all parallel. Had that central poster edge been slanted I’m certain the picture would have lost some of its impact.
Although I usually keep my white balance settings to ‘daylight’, whatever the conditions, on this occasion the tungsten balance proved to be a better choice. Again, this is because by neutralising the colours they become less of a distraction, so we can concentrate on the people and their relationships. In fact, I shot the picture in raw and converted it using the tungsten setting, but if you are a jpeg shooter you’d need to be thinking about white balance at the time of the shoot.
Pentax K10D, 135mm manual focus f/3.5 lens, ISO 1600 and f/5.6 @ 1/125sec.
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It’s often the case that I ‘see’ a picture, or at least a potential picture, in a split second, but it then takes me more than a few seconds to work out exactly just how the picture should be composed to be shot. Although my brain was able to identify almost before I realised it that there is a picture waiting to be captured right there in front of me, actually working out what it is in the scene that is making my alarm systems ring.
When I spotted this chap making a call from a bank of phones in Orlando I was able to identify straight away that it was the way the green colour of his t-shirt contrasted with the red of the phone booths that caught my eye. The line of the metal-fronted phone boxes also made a striking connection with me – not to mention his haircut, sun glasses and square-set features.
My subject was so engrossed in his conversation that he wasn’t noticing me at all, so unusually in this kind of situation I was free for twenty seconds or so to shoot away trying a few different compositions and crops.
At first I was simply too far away, and the greater distance between me and the subject compressed the perspective in a way that couldn’t show the front of the phones very well . I was also at too acute an angle. I wondered forward and then moved round to get an angle more in front of him. Having found the right position in the horizontal plane, I then realised the next problem was that I was looking down on him slightly – which was making the diagonals of the phone booths converge to taper in at the bottom.
Bending my knees slightly was enough to lower my position so that I could get all the verticals parallel. Getting things parallel is really important, as it simply makes a shot look as though you took care over taking it – and it lends a professional feel. Converging verticals and wonky horizontals just look sloppy. Keeping this in mind will make a massive difference to your pictures – and not just those showing tall buildings!
For the final shot I moved in to frame things a little tighter and then waited for the subject to put on the right expression and lift his head a little. I was lucky that he brought his head up so his eyeline view was almost completely horizontal too – and then I knew I had the shot I wanted.
If you find you have shot a picture that has slightly converging verticals or a wonky horizon you can correct the problems reasonably easily in a software application such as Photoshop, Photoshop Elements or GIMP (free download).