How to Compose Your Street Photography Like a Painter


You may have heard that photography is also referred to as "painting with light". However, would you consider yourself a light painter so far? If not, let's change that real quick to massively improve your street photography composition!

The difference between photographers and painters is that painters add elements and photographers reduce them. When you hit the streets, your "canvas" is already filled with all sorts of elements on the street: subjects, sceneries, cars, trash bins, billboards, street lights, people in the background and so on. Your challenge is to kick as many unimportant elements out of your frame as possible.

Do you see how the famous painter Edward Hopper only put the most important elements in his painting? Nothing is distracting you from that gorgeous lady.

  Summertime  by Edward Hopper | 1943

Summertime by Edward Hopper | 1943


4 Ways to reduce distracting elements

  • Always capture only 1 subject, 1 couple or 1 group of people
  • Compose your street photos in a way that distracting elements don't show up in your frame
  • Find a scenery that is less crowded
  • Crop out "noise" as much as possible

You can see the importance and power of reduction in the following 4 examples. You can see how I made progress over time in getting rid of unimportant and distracting elements.


1) Street Photo with lots of distracting elements

  Untitled  by  Vijce  | Düsseldorf, 2013

Untitled by Vijce | Düsseldorf, 2013

This is one of my earliest street photos from back in the day. The subjects are supposed to be the elderly couple on the right half.

Do you see how the distracting elements in the background ruin the photo. There are two people on the far right, a woman eating next to the old man, another woman behind her, a woman on the far left and many people in the background.


2) Street Photo with a few distracting elements

  A Promise Kept  by  Vijce  | Düsseldorf, 2013

A Promise Kept by Vijce | Düsseldorf, 2013

A while later, I tried to capture a couple again. As you can see, the scenery is much more reduced. However, there is one guy right next to the woman, a couple talking on the far left and the streetcar on the right.

As you can see, I also improved my post-processing by using a vignette and split-toning in Lightroom.


3) Street Photo with 1 Distracting element

  One Night In Amsterdam  by  Vijce  | Amsterdam, 2015

One Night In Amsterdam by Vijce | Amsterdam, 2015

I captured this golden moment a few years later. The couple not only pops out due to great natural contrasts, there is also a lot less distraction.

There is only one couple in the background that's barely noticeable. However, it's still something that shouldn't be in the frame.


4) Street Photo without distracting elements

  Snowflakes and Butterflies  by  Vijce  | Thuine, 2015

Snowflakes and Butterflies by Vijce | Thuine, 2015

Do you see how there is nothing distracting from the couple? You notice the couple with the dog immediately. The fence, light and trees in the background serve as a beautiful scenery.

In terms of post processing, I increased the clarity for the snow and used split toning to achieve the intense colors.

Ready to paint with light?

At first, it's quite a challenge to squeeze everything unessential out of the frame. However, you'll quickly see massive results with a bit of practice!

Always ask yourself with every element of your photo why it's in there. That way you'll reflect your photos more and compose more thoroughly.

...and never forget: Your most important gear is your eye, heart and soul!

  Mask Of Society  by  Vijce  | Düsseldorf, 2013

Mask Of Society by Vijce | Düsseldorf, 2013