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Storytelling In Street Photography

I want to tell you the story of one my favorite photos I’ve taken to date, and the lessons it taught me. I think it’s a good photo, perhaps one of my best, but the lessons behind it were probably even more important than the photo itself, because of what this shot taught me.

This photo was one of the first actually good street photos that I took. I took it in Tokyo during the spring of 2018. Funnily enough, I took it by accident.



I was on the way somewhere, but because I carry my camera everywhere especially in Tokyo, I was just trying to snap some random photos on the train station. I like the yellow trains, it’s a nice aesthethic. And on this day, I was using a totally manual lens with a very thin f0.95 depth of field, so I was putting all my effort into nailing the focus and the composition with this unforgiving manual lens. I didn’t have time to look at the scene unfolding. And I literally only took about 3 photos total in the station. So I wish I could take credit for capturing this moment, but really it was just pure luck.

The first lesson that this photo taught me is that photos that have a story in them, however small, are so much more meaningful than ones that don’t. By accident, I seem to have captured the beginning of a love story. At least possibly. It’s actually not entirely clear if this couple is even looking at each other, or past, but it certainly looks like a romantic comedy about to start. Comedy, because of the guy at the back, the side character that I tend to relate to the most.

Before this, I was only paying attention to composition and the aesthethics of a photo. Which is important too. This photo is well composed and has good color balance, that’s part of what makes it objectively good and poster-like. But the story is what really makes this photo. And while this photo in particular was blind luck, it taught me what’s important – and after I knew that consciously, I knew to pay attention and look out for potential stories. Not every shot is going to have amazing stories inside them, but as long as you pay attention and look for it, your timing will improve and you may be able to find things that you would have otherwise missed.


Let’s talk about a couple of ways that you can add a story to a photo.

1. Anticipation, catching the moment

The most obvious way

“live in the moment” is great advice if you want to live a happy life. But really, is happiness that important?
Isn’t it better to be good at street photography? Because if you live in the moment, you’re reacting, and one step behind.
If you live in the future and anticipate scenes,
you’ll be the master of catching moments by anticipating them before they happen.

So start paying attention to clues in the environment.

2. Intrigiue – The Saul Leiter method
Let the viewer tell their own story by adding some mystery in your photos.
The way you can do is by obstructing details, not showing things directly, leaving things out.

3. Collages / series
Photo series tell a story, because there’s a theme to all the photos. Doing a photo series is one easy way to add a story,
it’s the most classical way to do things.

Another way is by making collages, thinking of each photo as kind of a still frame in a movie and then combining them together.
I’ve been doing this a lot on social media recently. As someone who’s a fan of cinematic photography and has an interest in
filmmaking, capturing these kind of “movie like stills” is one of my favorite forms of photography.

The final tip – combine all these elements.
Want a really good photo? Don’t just have a story to it, also pay attention to composition. A story alone isn’t gonna
make a photo great, you can further improve it by having beautiful visual elements. So when you’re anticipating things on the street,
pick a spot that is visually pleasing – once the moment happens and you get lucky, you’ll have the best possible shot.

This is kind of evident in my photo as well – it’s well composed and there’s nice color balance.
It even has some mystery in that it’s not entirely clear whether the couple is facing each other, or
if it’s just a well timed mystery.

And no, i’m not saying every photo has to have a story. But what I am saying is that if you want to take your
street photos to the next level, this is probably one of the best ways you can do it.

Execution is of course the hardest part, but once you start paying attention to storytelling, then it’s just a matter of going
out and shooting enough, and eventually you’ll start catching more and more meaningul moments and you’ll become more and more
consistent in your work.

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