Street photography composition is challenging because the scenes you’re photographing often change (and at a very rapid pace, too!). As you hunt for the perfect light, you may encounter dozens of locations and subjects, and with each new opportunity, you must think about how to create an effective image arrangement.
Composing compelling street photos is both challenging and rewarding. It often demands a strong sense of timing to capture that elusive decisive moment, but once you understand the basics, taking great street photos will come naturally.
In this article, I share 13 practical tips to help improve your street compositions, starting with:
1. Use foreground elements to add depth and context
Most street photographers just focus on the main subject – but if you can include something relevant to the story in the foreground, it’ll help draw the viewer’s eye into the shot. Aim to frame this element so it’s not the main subject but instead helps draw attention to the most important part of the shot.
This technique is most effective when there’s a lot of depth to the scene. Landscape photographers love this style of composition, but it can also be very effective for street photography. The wider your lens’s focal length, the more dramatically the foreground element will appear.
2. Use leading lines to guide the viewer’s eye
Another great street photography composition technique? Leading lines. These are strong lines in your composition that help draw the viewer’s eye through the photo toward the main subject.
Positioning yourself to make use of strong lines that run diagonally through your frame is particularly effective. When a line appears to emerge from a corner – or close to a corner – it will have the most impact and effectiveness.
Once you’ve identified a line or two in your street scene, take your time determining how to position your camera. Ask yourself: Which focal length will make the most of these lines?
3. Experiment with different perspectives
It’s easy to get in a habit of shooting from a standing height, but if you want to capture unique images, try to change it up. Look for opportunities to get up high above the action or down low so you’re looking up at your subject.
For instance, you can use a footbridge overlooking a street or market area to capture life as it carries on below you. In an ideal location, you’ll be able to shoot for as long as you like without being interrupted. Take your time to watch the activity below, and wait for the decisive moments to occur.
And look for places you can get down below the action. This is often more challenging but can produce some dramatic street compositions. (I am noticing, too, that the older I get, it’s not so much the getting down to take the photo that’s challenging – it’s getting back up!)
4. Look for patterns and repetition to add visual interest
Patterns and repetition often provide wonderful backgrounds to interesting action. And when the patterns are especially interesting, they make wonderful compositions on their own.
When you find a nice pattern, move around and look at it. Watch how your perception of the pattern changes from different angles. Does the light alter the way the pattern appears as you move about? Aim to take your photos from a position that makes the most of the repetition.
5. Pay attention to the background
How often have you seen an interesting subject in a street photo, only to realize that it’s disrupted by a distracting element in the background? All too often, photographers notice a cool thing to photograph and fail to check the background.
Often all you need to do to create a more interesting composition is to change your position (sometimes very slightly). As you move, the relationship between your subject and the background changes, which can provide you with an interesting subject that is suddenly isolated from the background.
Sometimes, however, you’re in a good spot – you just need to wait for traffic or people passing behind your subject to move on. Then you can capture a more compelling, simpler street shot.
6. Use negative space to simplify the scene
Negative space refers to areas of emptiness or uniformity within an image – and when used carefully, it’s a great street photo composition tool.
It can help balance your shots and draw attention to your subject, though it’s important that you pay careful attention to how much negative space you include in each shot. Excessive negative space can significantly change the mood of your shot to give you a very minimalistic, tranquil result, which isn’t always ideal.
7. Experiment with a variety of focal lengths
When you find an interesting street subject, don’t just take a single shot and move on. Instead, spend some time experimenting! Photograph using different focal lengths and different lenses. Look carefully at the relationship between your subject and the background. How does the relationship change as you zoom from a wider to a narrower field of view?
I prefer using my 35mm lens for street photography. But I also carry my 105mm lens because I sometimes want to capture less of the surroundings and focus more on the main subject. Having a short telephoto lens on hand helps me create more diversity in my compositions.
8. Use the light to create mood and drama
As you walk the streets, always be aware of the light and how it’s changing. Light is the essence of street photography (and photography more broadly), so no matter what you’re taking picture of or where you are in the world, the light you use is key to capturing a good photo.
Pause every now and then to take stock of the light. Think about what the light is doing, and consider how it can bring more drama to your photos. Alternatively, think about the mood the light creates and choose a subject that suits the atmosphere.
9. Look for contrast in the scene
Many street photographers love to create compositions based entirely on contrasts. They’ll find a spot where the light and shadows play nicely together to create strong shapes or interesting patterns. Then they’ll wait for the right moment – when a person, a cyclist, or a dog moves through the scene.
When you find such a location, position yourself in a convenient spot. Then, with your camera to your eye, move around until you create a pleasing composition based primarily on contrast. Ask yourself: How can I make use of the rules of composition? Does the rule of thirds work in this scenario? Are there strong leading lines? Can I create a frame within a frame?
10. Capture motion to add a sense of energy
Including motion in your street photos is a great way to add interest and plenty of dynamism. People walking or running, cars whizzing by, or crowds flowing past the camera can all make great subjects.
But whenever there’s motion within your composition, think of the most effective way to capture it. Don’t just fire that shutter without careful consideration. Should you use a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion? Or could you use a slow shutter speed and create motion blur instead?
(If you’re not sure how to approach the scene, go ahead and try several shutter speeds. That way, you don’t have to worry about missing the shot, and you’ll have plenty of time to evaluate the images down the line.)
11. Use reflections to add depth and interest
Reflections, when used carefully, can add lots of extra depth and dimension. A reflection can duplicate a subject, or it can introduce other elements that may not be otherwise visible in your compositions (such as a person sitting nearby or a beautiful sky).
When including a reflection in your street shot, think about where you should focus. If you’re using a wider aperture (and hence creating a shallow depth of field) when you focus on the reflective surface, the subject itself might be out of focus. Notice how, in this next shot, the vehicle itself isn’t sharp, but the reflection is:
There’s no right way to handle this, but it’s important that you carefully choose your aperture and your point of focus so you get the result you’re after.
12. Capture the feeling and atmosphere of the place
What you include and what you exclude from your frame can dramatically impact the atmosphere of your photos. Always look to see what is filling your frame, then do what you can to make the most of it (or to exclude it entirely).
Think about each element of the composition and how they interact with other elements. How does the mood of the photo change in response? Do what you can to create an image that encapsulates the feeling of the environment!
13. Be patient and wait for the right moment
Timing is a key part of any good street photography composition (assuming the scene includes movement). For instance, when people or vehicles are passing by, it’s essential that you choose your moment. Press your shutter button at the wrong time, and you’ll end up with a weak composition; press your shutter button at right time, and the result can be breathtaking.
Learn to be more patient. Carefully watch the activity you’re wanting to photograph. Look for patterns of movement. Once you can predict the action in advance, you’ll be able to create much stronger compositions.
Street photography composition tips: final words
Understanding the basics of street photography composition takes time, effort, and – most of all – practice. The more you practice, the more you’ll understand what works and what doesn’t.
As you spend time in the street with your camera in your hands, you’ll become more confident and capable. Use the tips in this article to level up your shots, and make sure you have plenty of fun along the way!