10 Advanced Compositional Tips for Travel and Street Photography
Among the many genres of photography that we can specialize in, street photography is one of the most demanding. This particular genre pulls elements from a variety of others, including fashion/portrait photography and travel/landscape photography, and it requires intermediate social skills (at the very least). On top of that, the very nature of street photography makes it largely unpredictable and fast-paced. Fortunately, there is one tool (or set of tools) we can use to help navigate this genre and create amazing images no matter the demands. I’m talking about composition. All photography, as is true with other visual media, relies on composition to relay its intended message. Travel and street photography are no different. In this article, we’ll provide specific examples to lend context to our compositional tips for street photography.
Gear Recommendations for Travel and Street Photography
Before we dive into our compositional tips for travel and street photography, let’s touch briefly on gear. Having a good camera and lens is usually an absolute must, but what type of camera and lens(es) suits your style in particular?
Cameras for Travel and Street Photography
When it comes to choosing a camera for street photography, you’ll want something lightweight yet durable. You’ll also want something that is quick to operate, and quite good at focusing on any subject in any light.
Personally, I recommend any lightweight, full frame mirrorless camera. Sony still has one of the best autofocus systems around and by far the widest variety of lenses, (thanks to third party lens makers, make no mistake!). So, the easiest camera to recommend is something like the full-frame Sony A7C, or the APS-C Sony A6600.
These cameras are small in size, built to last, and packed with features for capturing incredible imagery.
Lenses for Travel and Street Photography
Lenses can be an even more important decision we make in street photography, just like every other specialty genre in photography, of course! An ideal street photography lens will offer both versatility and portability.
Best Focal Length?
A wide angle focal length, for example, will allow us to step back and capture a whole scene, or step forward and get really close to the action. Many street photographers opt for something in the 24-35mm range when it comes to wide-angle focal length choices.
There are times, however, when we may want to remove ourselves from the action and capture it from afar as observers. Or, maybe we simply can’t get close enough, and have no choice but to shoot from far away! In those instances, a telephoto focal length, especially on a zoom lens, would serve us well.
Prime Vs. Zoom
Unfortunately, most lenses only cover one focal range or a single focal length. Such as, a wide-angle zoom lens, or a normal prime lens, etc. This will often result in a street photographer having to quickly switch lenses, potentially missing the perfect candid moment.
Of course, we can get the best of both worlds with an all-in-one zoom lens that covers both wide-angle and telephoto focal lengths, such as the Tamron 28-200mm f/2.8-5.6 Di III RXD lens for full frame Sony E-Mount cameras. While it may not have the same fixed fast aperture of a prime lens, the flexibility of zooming from 28mm to 200mm makes it not only convenient for capturing every moment, but its lightweight portability also makes it an easy, comfortable tool for both everyday use and travel/adventures.
What About Aperture?
A fast f/2.8 aperture at the 28mm end of the zoom range will give you plenty of low-light hand-held capability, and the shallow depth will offer beautiful separation between your subject and the background, especially when shooting up close. Also, by the time you zoom in to 100mm or longer, the slower aperture of f/4-5.6 will still offer impressive background blur!
Other Gear Considerations
- Tripods: If you have the time and space to set up a tripod for street photography, you can use it to add stability to your shots, expanding your creativity to include long exposures, shutter drags, and night photography in general. Having said that, most street photographers will still opt for hand-holding at a fast aperture and a high ISO, with a bonus being if your camera has stabilization for avoiding camera shake.
- Camera Bags: Street photographers tend to make images on the go at a highly active pace, so it’s good to keep a low-profile, lightweight camera bag on hand to hold your gear (camera, lens(es), memory cards, batteries, and possibly a laptop) while also not shouting “I’m full of expensive stuff!” to everyone around you. One of our favorites is the Think Tank Retrospective Backpack.
- Lighting: In the rare instance that you need to illuminate your subject and actually have the time and capability to set up your own lighting, you might want to bring along a basic speedlight. Look for something with 50-60 watt seconds of power. Alternately, a small, battery-operated LED light can be great for illuminating a scene without the obnoxious distraction of a popping flash.
10 Advanced Compositional Tips for Street Photography
- Rule of Thirds
- Negative Space
- Depth of Field
- Leading Lines
Compositional Tip #1: Rule of Thirds
This is one of the simplest yet strongest rules of composition in all of photography, and for good reason. It works! You don’t have to follow this rule perfectly, but when given the opportunity to arrange any number of subjects in your scene, always consider the rule of thirds.
Sometimes, keeping your rule-of-thirds usage very subtle is a perfect way to balance a whole scene. In the above example, the horizon line falls almost exactly on the upper rule-of-thirds line, but also, the surfer is almost perfectly at the point of line convergence in the lower left, and the oil derrick is roughly in the upper-right convergence, making the image feel a little more balanced.
Compositional Tip #2: Negative Space
I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying, “Sometimes, less is more.” Leaving the vast majority of your image “empty” with just a single subject or two arranged carefully anywhere in the scene can be a very beautiful way to simplify the world around us.
Compositional Tip #3: Depth of Field
Nothing helps a subject stand out like blurring the background, of course. This is where having a fast aperture comes in very handy. Whether you’re using a crop-sensor camera and a lens like the Tamron 17-70mm f/2.8, or a full-frame camera and lens like the Tamron 28-200mm f/2.8-5.6, you’ll be able to achieve beautiful background blur by setting the aperture wide-open and then framing your subject against a background that is as far away as possible. As a general rule, the distance between your camera and the subject should be at least half the distance between your subject and the background
Make sure to carefully nail focus on your subject! If you’re capturing a portrait, you may even need to pay special attention to focusing on the subjects’ eyes, otherwise you might wind up with the tip of their nose being sharp, and their eyes being blurry! With most Sony cameras, using the Eye AF mode will completely eliminate this potential problem.
With a full-frame sensor, shallow depth of field becomes a lot easier to achieve. At almost any focal length, and with most apertures, you’ll have the ability to create substantial background blur, even when your lens is at f/4 or f/5.6 on the telephoto end.
When zooming in, the aperture of the 28-200mm stops down gradually, however, you’ll still achieve very shallow depth thanks to the full-frame sensor. At a “normal” focal length such as 60mm, when the lens is set to f/4, the bokeh remains very smooth.
Compositional Tip #4: Leading Lines
One of the best ways to create an image that just grabs a viewer’s attention is to include any sort of line that leads from the foreground of the scene and draws the viewer’s eye inward. A leading line can go directly to a strong subject, or it can merely lead into the scene in general, or towards the distant background.
Either way, this is an excellent trick for causing the viewer to feel like they are looking through an actual window to the scene and the moment itself, as if they were seeing in 3-D.
Compositional Tip #5: Texture
Including any sort of texture in a photograph is a decision that needs to be made very carefully, because that texture can take away from everything else, including the main subject, or any strong compositional lines, shapes, colors, etc.
In a way, often the texture itself, even when it is just a flat surface, becomes a primary subject. This is okay as long as it is interesting and aesthetically pleasing to look at, and as long as the whole composition maintains a sense of balance.
[Related Reading: Beginner’s Guide to Street Photography & Photographing Strangers]
Compositional Tip #6: Patterns
Patterns are like textures, but they’re usually much easier to manage and capture creatively. The simplest thing to do is to just fill the entire frame with them! This compositional trick allows you to create all sorts of reactions from a viewers’ eye. Is it merely a pleasant, calming subject to look at? Or, is there an element of ambiguity or abstraction that puzzles the viewer’s eye, leaving them to wonder if they are looking at a very large or very small subject, or if the scene itself seemingly goes on forever?
Looking for patterns can be a very exciting photographic activity, whether it is street photography or any other genre.
Compositional Tip #7: Framing
Placing a lesser, unimportant subject in the foreground of an image is a bold compositional decision, and sometimes it doesn’t always pay off, but it is always worth trying if you are feeling creative.
As a general rule, try not to let other subjects visually “touch” or obscure your view of the main subject, so that the main subject still stands out a little bit.
Compositional Tip #8: Perspective
Viewers always think “wow!” when they see a unique perspective. Whether from up high and looking down, or vice versa, a quick change in perspective can make all the difference. One of the easiest ways to capture a unique image is to simply get down and look up or do the opposite.
Compositional Tip #9: Color
Don’t just look for brightly colored subjects and cram a bunch of them into your frame! Try to think in terms of entire color palettes, and how colors go together. A range of similar colors (analogous) or a pairing/triad of opposite colors (complementary) will give the most powerful results.
Compositional Tip #10: Lighting
With street photography, we rarely have control over the time and place for our pictures. Most of the time, we are at the mercy of the light. Sometimes, however, wonderful lighting offers itself as a subject. On those occasions, we can use that beautiful light to frame our composition.
Sometimes framing the “best light” is obvious, and other times it is more subtle. At sunset, for example, don’t just point your camera directly at the sun itself, at least not every time! Sometimes, you can find beautiful compositions when pointing your camera in a completely different direction! So, always look around you.
Another fantastic way to capture dramatic light is to look for opportunities to mix it within your frame. Framing the natural ambient light in juxtaposition to added light is tricky, but mixed light done right can be beautiful.
We hope you found these compositional tips for travel and street photography useful. No matter which genre of photography we ultimately specialize in, we all must master a general set of fundamentals. That said, mastering composition should rank very high on our list of priorities as photographers, especially with anything candid. Use these advanced compositional tips for street photography to create strong images, tell a story, and captivate the viewer’s eye.
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