Early on in my street photography career, I went on YouTube and searched for some inspiration on other street photographers. I came across the work and approach of Bruce Gilden, who absolutely blew me away. He would photograph people at very close proximities (about an arm’s-length away), while shooting with a flash on a 28mm lens.
A lot of people called him an a**hole, but I personally found his work to be inspirational. I loved how raw, intense, and intimate his images were. Not only that, but his photos were also well-composed.
I then thought to myself, “How can I create similar images?” I wanted photos that had more energy, passion, and life, but I also wanted photographs that were well-composed.
One compositional technique I found helpful was utilizing “leading lines” when shooting up-close and personally. In the above photograph, made in Chicago, I saw this guy dancing in the streets. I got really close with a 17mm, crouched down really low, and tried to have his body positioned in the center of the frame, with all of the leading lines pointing straight to his body. What I also think makes the shot more dynamic is how his arms are also positioned along the leading lines.
In this next photo, I saw the leading lines on this wall, and waited for someone to look through the peephole (there was a movie Santa Monica, 2010 playing on the other side of the wall). The “cherry on top” is the man’s hand and sunglasses in the bottom-right.
For this one, I saw the leading lines of this sculpture, and waited for the right subject to enter:
Perspective and Leading Lines
Another way you can integrate leading lines is with changing your perspective. For example, one of the perspectives I love to embrace are low angles. By shooting at a low angle (crouching down), you make your subject “larger than life.” They also call this the “superman effect.” If you ever wonder how a 5-foot-7-inch Tom Cruise can look like he’s 6+ feet in a movie, it is because they show him from a low angle/perspective.
When it comes to shooting street photography with different perspectives, I recommend trying to embrace the extremes: either very high perspectives, or very low perspectives. This makes for unique imagery that interests your viewer.
A common mistake that taller street photographers make is by shooting slightly down on their subjects, making them look awkwardly small. Try to photograph your subject at least eye-to-eye level (which might mean crouching down slightly if you’re taller).
By crouching down, it is easier to integrate leading lines directly to your subject.
I saw this man in Hollywood, and I loved his tough look and hand gesture. I crouched down and photographed him with a wide-angle 24mm lens.
This accentuates his tough look, and you can also see all of the leading lines in the background which direct all of the viewer’s attention on him.
With leading-lines and low perspectives, try starting off with just 1 subject.
Seeing Leading Lines After the Fact
Sometimes when you’re shooting street photography, you don’t see the leading lines or the composition while you’re shooting it.
For example in this photograph I shot in Downtown LA in the night with a flash, I had no idea that there were leading lines in the image background (the spiked fence that leads your eyes to the subject).
But does the image has any less inherent value because you didn’t intend the composition to turn out that way? Not necessarily.
I think 90% of street photography is about editing; deciding what your best photos are after-the-fact. Therefore when it comes to leading lines or any other compositional technique, the more you study it, the more perceptive you will be in applying it while you shoot. However if you get “lucky” when you find your compositions unintentionally, be grateful.
One quote I love is from the Roman philosopher Seneca: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” The more you prepare yourself by studying composition, the more opportunities will present themselves to you.
About the author: Eric Kim is an international street photographer who’s currently based out of Berkeley, California. You can find more of his photography and writing on his website and blog. This article is an excerpt from his new free eBook, titled “The Street Photography Composition Manual.”