I specialize in Travel Photography, which means being a proficient landscape photographer as well being able to photograph cityscapes, architecture, and people on the street. I went to Cuba specifically to focus on improving my street photography.
In this article, I’ll talk a bit about how to improve your street photography, specifically focusing on composition, using photos from my Cuba trip.
Watch the video version of this post at https://youtu.be/xnPBbvWRWbg
If traveling to a place for the first time, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the experience. We often take wide-angle photographs that have no strong subject in attempt to trying to take it all in – in one frame. Go ahead and take a few of these establishing shots to document your experience, but these may not be your best photographs.
In person, experiences don’t necessarily transfer onto film. We’ve all seen photographs of sunsets that are just clouds and sky. The photographer may have had an amazing experience photographing the sunset, but the experience doesn’t automatically transfer to the viewer of the photograph. The trick with Travel Photography is to translate the experience onto film.
Finding a Subject
On the street, people are obvious subjects, but they aren’t the only subjects available. Buildings, public art, and modes of transportation work as well.
When snapping a photograph, ask yourself a couple of questions:
- “What am I taking a picture of?”
The answer to this question can be broad – “The hustle and bustle of a city street.”
But if you follow up this question with another:
- “What do I want my viewer to look at first?”
The answer to this question will focus your attention on the scene a bit more directly.
This is your main subject.
I wanted to take a photograph showing the hustle and bustle of a typical street in Old Havana.
I waited for a classic car to drive down the road – classic old cars is something that makes Cuba special and they’re everywhere – so I didn’t have to wait long!
The green car is my main subject and the people and architecture of this narrow street in Old Havana provide the backdrop to the car, giving it a sense of place, but also the feeling of activity.
I want my viewer to look at the green car first and take in the background. Notice that the aperture I used creates a slightly unfocused background, emphasizing the car and deemphasizing the background.
Answering a third question will add levels of complexity to your photograph:
- “What do I want my viewer to look atsecond?” or slightly rephrased “Where do I want my viewer’s eyes to move within the photograph?”
In this photograph, the green car is the main subject and I expect my viewer to look at this first, but the green of the car is imitated in the green of the street vendor’s plants. I expect my viewer’s eyes will move to the plants next and then to the vendor himself.
The car, not the street vendor, is the subject of this photograph. He’s actually relatively small in the frame and not even looking at me, but he’s in focus and his face is not covered by the foliage – like the other guy (did you even see him behind the big plant?) Further, he’s placed in a clean space created by an open doorway so he stands out against the background.
The viewer’s eyes go from the car to the plants to the street vendor.
Street scenes develop and dissipate quickly, so it’s not always possible to create multiple layers into one photograph, but start with a main subject and be on the look-out for colors, shapes or patterns that might add further interest.
Find a different angle
Especially when traveling to a popular destination with lots of tourists, there will be favorite places to take photographs where everyone with their cell phones are clustered. By all means, take that iconic photograph to document your travels, but it’s likely your photograph will look like a thousand other photographs.
I have the classic photograph of the Italian town of Manorola. I like this photograph a lot, but every so often a friend will be certain that someone has stolen my photograph for use in an advertisement of some sort – no it’s just that we all have the same shot from the same viewpoint.
Traveling is a personal experience and the photographs from your travels should also be personal.
Part of finding your own travel story is getting off the beaten tourist track. Look at the crowd of tourists and then move in another direction.
This photograph is taken along the Malecón, the street in Havana alongside the sea wall protecting the city. The Malecón is a popular gathering place and the road is about 10 lanes of busy traffic (though not so much at dawn when this photo was taken).
I took quite a few photos standing by the sea wall, but then moved to set up my tripod on the traffic island in the center of the road. This takes some courage when there’s a lot of traffic, but it is a protected space so it’s generally safe. This gave me a different angle on the road and a leading line into the capitol building in the background.
When looking for a different angle, move slowly and look – really look. Move left and right – then move up and down (yes — even on the ground if necessary!)
I had heard of Cuba’s famous classic cars and was thrilled to find that they were everywhere and painted all the colors of the rainbow! This parking lot near the Malecón, is a gathering place for these colorful cars, used by tourists as taxis.
I took quite a few photos of the cars from lots of different angles, but getting down low allowed me to capture the front view of three of the cars showing the different colors. I waited a bit and another, pink car drove into frame bringing more color and a bit of motion to the photograph.
Wide-angle photographs set the scene, but the real stories are often in the details of a place. Zoom lenses will work, but nothing beats moving yourself physically closer to the subject. Not only will this create a connection with your subject, but also your camera will technically be able to capture the image better. There is less camera shake at a shorter focal length and you’ll have more options when deciding on depth of field.
The car photograph above is an example of getting down and really close to the bumper of the front car. Because I’m so close, my depth of field becomes shallower making the pink car slightly out of focus. This gives depth to the photograph.
Get closer and Interact
Photographing people is an important part of street photography.
Don’t worry if you don’t have the language skills, I don’t speak Spanish and got by fine in Cuba. I’m limited in how much I can learn about the person without knowing the language, but a smile goes a long way.
If I smile and wave my camera around the person easily understands that I want a photograph. Sometimes, they shake their head “no” and I respect their wishes, but most of the time the person smiles back. They may think I’m a bit crazy for wanting to take their photo, but they don’t have a strong objection. They may even feel a bit flattered.
Even without knowing the language, I can give basic direction by acting out what I’d like the person to do – like putting on a hat or puffing a cigar they happen to be smoking. Mime an activity and the person will probably do that activity.
This man seemed to me to be iconic Trinidad. He was colorful and relaxed and quick with a smile even at 7 o’clock in the morning. He was sitting in a doorway chatting with a friend, which seems to be a favorite pastime in Cuba. He was also holding the straw hat when I first started taking pictures and obligingly put it on when I mimed the gesture to complete his tropical look.
Further, when it’s a person that I’m photographing, it’s important to interact, make eye contact and get to know the person a bit – I always get better photos for it!
I didn’t have a lot of time to take this gentleman’s photograph. The group of photographers that I was with was on a mission and we were moving fast, but this man was sitting in a wheelchair in an open doorway in Old Havana watching the world go by. I only had a few seconds, but I had to stop – he was so colorful and the history of the country seemed somehow reflected in his face. He was happy to pose for a few photographs even giving me a “victory” hand gesture connected with the revolution. Perfect!
And because I’m smiling and making eye-contact, I see that interaction reflected back in my photos.
The man is interacting with me, but by looking directly at camera means he’s also interacting with anyone looking at the photograph, creating a more personal connection with the viewers of my photograph.
Having discussed the importance of interacting with your subject, sometimes it’s best to be a fly-on-the-wall and capture an unexpected moment. As soon as you ask someone for a photograph, they tend to pose. Sometimes, that takes all the energy out of the photograph.
It can be that unguarded moment that makes for a good photo.
Let me show you two photographs taken within seconds of each other. This boy is in Cienfuegos, Cuba waiting for his train to leave. I photographed him gazing generally out of the train and then again when I caught his attention and he looked directly at the camera.
Both photographs work, but for different reasons. In one, I have captured an unguarded moment with the boy looking contemplative, in his own thoughts. In the other, he is smiling at me (and by extension, anyone looking at the photograph) and sharing a moment.
And sometimes when traveling, all you’re going to get is a “butt shot” as a person moves out in front of you. Of course, if I can, I try to find a better position, but that’s not always possible.
That’s ok, take the shot. It’s best to capture faces, and better still the eye-contact, of the people we’re photographing – it makes for a closer connection, but there’s always an exception to the rule – just try to make these shots the exception.
These boys stepped out of their home and onto a Havana street right in front of me and headed off down the street. I had no opportunity to get in front of them or even see their faces and they were moving faster than I was. That’s ok, in this photograph; they are leading me into the streets of Cuba.
In this article, I talked about composition, making the most of a wide angle shot and then how to move in closer to get more personal interaction with our subjects. The video version of this article, posted on my YouTube channel includes additional photos of Cuba.