Working a scene in street photography (and waiting for Humphrey Bogart)

“You have to milk the cow a lot to get a little cheese.” Henri Cartier Bresson

Spoiler alert: the only image I’m happy with is at the very bottom, but bare with me.

You see that shot above? I took that about two weeks ago and it’s not that I don’t like it but the more I saw it the more I thought there was a better composition there. With that in mind I went back to ‘work the scene’.

What does that mean in street photography? It’s about not just taking one image and moving on. It’s not even firing off a few shots in burst mode and moving on. It means moving about, take a shot, move forward a little, move back, shimmy to the side. Don’t stop to check your LCD – just keep moving and shooting. As Henri said “…milk the cow a lot…” (how many time is that I’ve name dropped him on this blog?). It means when you think you’re done, take 25% more shots.

Magnums Contact Sheet books are great examples of this – for some of the most iconic images of our times the masters often shot an entire roll of film just to get one shot. Eric Kim has also written extensively on the subject.

The lane I shot that first image in is pretty unremarkable; running from Sauchiehall Street to Bath Street in Glasgow it’s only memorable to most because of the pungent smell of urine but when the path tops out on Bath Street it doubles back on itself and ascends into the multi-storey car park above. It’s lines that cast the great triangular shadows and create leading lines and shafts of light. It’s also backlit which helps those moody silhouette shots. All of that and then the texture on the pavement and walls… if you told me a year ago, before I went on this street photography adventure, that I’d have fond feelings for an alleyway that doubles as a homeless people’s toilet, well…

As soon as I got there I saw this guy with his trolley and dog but unfortunately he’s not in the brightest part so the shadow is week and the shot was a little hurried.

I moved around into the light to try and shoot silhouettes over the horizon, and as much as I enjoy that texture and leading line of the brick walls, I don’t think this one works either.

I decided to go vertical composition. I think this makes more powerful use of the leading lines but the background is a little messy.

This is a better shot from much the same vantage point – I even tried removing the distraction of traffic lights etc from the horizon but still, I don’t think this ones a keeper either.

I decided the I was best back to the left and removing the sky from the shot but I honestly don’t know what I was thinking with this one – it’s just rubbish. I love this location because of its dynamic lines and shadows and this shot makes the best of neither. Then I nailed it.

Back in the spot where the first image was taken, but with a vertical composition. This guy clearly likes the sun on his back as he walked through that beam of light the whole way. What makes this shot work? Leading lines are always a winner – the line of shadow around the left frames him and the line where wall meets ground on the right, and the row of darker bricks at head height lead us to the subject and the framing shape of the wall above his head. A subtle, but important point in a shot like this is getting all the shadow. If I chopped the head off the shadow it would still be a decent shot but it’s improved greatly by the whole shadow being visible.

After all that I’m still not 100% happy with the image. I would love some guy in a trench coat and fedora, as Humphrey Bogart character, to amble down there towards my lens, so I’ll be back there soon – but at least I’ve worked the scene and know what works. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try some new angle I’ll just be taking this shot if the right character comes along.

I know that was a long one, thanks for reading.

Gary

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