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Composing Without the Camera


Sometimes one of the best things I can do for my photography, specifically for improving my compositions, is to put my camera down and walk around without taking photographs.

While street photography itself is one of the best ways for anyone to train their eye to notice fleeting subjects and moments I often find myself so focused on that kind of image that I fail to really stop and take in my environment for atmospheric- and compositionally-oriented images.

I find that seeing the world through a viewfinder can lead me to only see things from that one perspective — usually eye-level to my subjects — and I can forget to explore possibilities from high/low angles or to find elements outside of my frame-lines that may be worth moving to for a better angle. But when I see without the camera, I am able to think more critically “outside the viewfinder” and tend to see things that I would have missed otherwise.

Despite using rangefinder cameras for the majority of my work, which allows you to view outside of the frame-lines for possible context, I still find that just looking with my eyes is a better way to understand different elements and play with how they might interact.

This doesn’t match up exactly with my philosophy to always carry a camera, so I sometimes balance this idea by using a camera with a lens that’s far from the way I usually compose. This means either a 21mm or 35mm as I tend to shoot between 50mm to 90mm.

This way I can work a scene and come away with a few images, but return later with my notes to capture all of those scenes I noticed beforehand but couldn’t shoot. This also means that I will have had time to think about the space and may have even more ideas I could apply — or remove ideas from my list that I decide aren’t as good on that visit as I thought they would be.

All of this depends on the kind of mood I’m in for what kinds of photographs I want to be taking. I think that this has been most effective when documenting my local area — all the shots featured in this article were taken within a five-minute walk from each other around King’s Cross and represent only about an hour of actual work photographing.

Whether you think of this as location scouting beforehand or shooting images by memory, I think it is definitely something worth trying to see if it’s worth adding to your workflow.

Overall, this is a much slower way to work but one that can prove to be more rewarding, with more keepers (in that specific style). It also informs the way I shoot other environments as I may recognize elements that I’d worked with previously and learned from in previous scenes.

About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.