Opinion: Edmund Ronald offers tips for getting a human figure in a location shot.

Edmund Ronald
Edmund Ronald

On Street Photography

In a travel photo, the human figure provides expression and scale, linking the aesthetics of a foreign landscape or city to the viewer. And pictures with a human silhouette often look miraculous—"Gosh, he spotted that kid/old man and was fast enough to get that perfectly framed shot!" Below I'll expose a well-kept secret: All you need do is wait.

Sure, some intuitive geniuses like Cartier-Bresson will spot a scene and snap it as it unfolds—they don't need to read this. But for the rest of us slow dullards, waiting time can be used to construct some nice photographs. In this column, I'll share my construction plan for the location shot.

Waiting—let's explore that idea in a photographic context. We shall set up a mousetrap; when someone wanders into our finder landscape, the shutter will go off and that person's image gets stuck right into our planned picture. The formula I use goes as follows: composition, light, exposure, focus.

Composition: We're primarily photographing a location. This means we can do a static setup. Play with trial compositions. Look at the camera screen to check the aesthetics. At some point we'll know how we would like to frame the image. And we know what we'd like to have in focus.

Light: Now we wait for some people to walk into our frame. We look how the light falls on them. Watch their faces, check the specular reflections on their noses and foreheads, their cheeks, the eyes and the hair. Highlights or sharpness in some of the above places will help your shot come alive. You will be able to locate the spot where the people are well lit. If you want an anonymous silhouette, you can keep people backlit.

Exposure: This is the hard technical part. You need to stop down enough for depth of field. The shutter must to be fast enough to keep the camera handheld but may also need to be left slow enough to provide motion blur. The camera's ISO setting needs to be low enough to avoid noise. And everything of interest needs to be within the dynamic range of the sensor. Shooting Raw helps. If you are the more precise sort of person—I won't use the rude psychoanalytic epithet—set the white balance now.

Focus: Sharpness is never easy when several planes are present in an image; in fact, sharpness is not necessarily desirable. A bit of unfocus and motion blur in the right places will add a sense of depth and movement to the scene. Unrecognizable, blurred-out silhouettes indicate that you value the privacy of the passerby. Blurred faces can even be a necessity for publication in countries with privacy laws such as France has.

Now you wait. In an urban environment, or any place where people flow by, humans of all descriptions will walk, run, jump, crawl or shamble into your mousetrap frame. As the camera is pointed and adjusted, and the shot composed, and you know where the people will be well lit, then the result more likely as not will be a decent picture.

And do remember: With digital, film is cheap, film is free. Waste some!

Now for this week's interview of Mr. A. by Ms. Q.

Q: What do I do if I've missed the right moment?
A: Wait some more. Someone else will come along.

Q: What do I do if I've missed out on focus?
A: The Unsharp Mask filter in Photoshop will do wonders. Apply it selectively.

Q: What do I do if I've missed out on exposure?
A: Spend some time getting to know your camera; learn about saving shots by shooting Raw.

Q: What do I do if I've missed out on light?
A: Take your camera out to a busy street corner in the afternoon before sunset, and practice while watching people cross the road. As they move, the light will play on their figures.

Q: What do I do if I've missed out on composition?
A: Crop, or adjust the perspective in postproduction.

Q: What if I don't have time to wait for the perfect shot?
A: Buy a postcard. There's more to traveling than photography.

Edmund Ronald has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics, and he is currently on a sabbatical as a photographer in Paris.
Edmund Ronald's blog can be found at www.monitor-calibration.net.

This article first appeared in "Publish", courtesy of Edmund Ronald