This kind of image is not easy to plan, simply because the conditions are so specific — a place which at the time of shooting is for the most part free of people, yet with an occasional figure passing through it.
Consider how obvious, to a viewer’s eye, the figure will be in the image. Some delayed reaction adds to the interest of looking at this kind of photograph, and there is even an element of surprise if the scale of the place (perhaps a cathedral interior) is larger than expected. On the other hand, the point of this style of image is lost if the viewer fails to notice the figure and moves on.
Pay close attention to where in the frame you place the figure — the more off-centre, the more dynamic the composition is likely to be, but only up to a point. If the figure is walking, you may want to consider the conventional treatment of placing it off-centre so that it walks into the frame.
A few shots from the archive
Before really getting into this exercise, I found it useful to look back at images of my own from the past that meet the criteria, to inspire me and get me in the right visual mindset. I don’t always do this (in fact I very rarely do, I like to look forwards) but in this instance it helped.
New shots for this exercise
I took a few shots in different environments, with the figure-to-background ratio varying, to see what effect this had on the viewer’s experience.
1. Station platform
This is the one where the person is of the most significant size in proportion to the surroundings. The figure-to-ground contrast is strong, and the leading diagonals move the eye towards him. There is no danger of not noticing the figure. I liked the implied mystery in this: why’s he walking away from his luggage…?!
Here I went to the other extreme. The figure is very small in relation to the setting, and slightly blurred through movement. At first glance this is a simple mid-distance landscape-type shot, but after a few moments the secondary point of visual interest emerges. The size and lack of sharpness means that it takes a little visual processing to work out that it is a little girl running away, but once you see it, a potential narrative suggests itself.
Another one where the figure is very small in relation to the main point of interest, and one where I used the concept of setting up then breaking a rhythm. The eye starts on the most prominent boat in the foreground and steps backwards into the picture until it rests on the figure. This is, of all the submissions, the one with the greatest risk of the viewer not even seeing the figure. The contrast isn’t very strong, but hopefully the rhythm of the boats helps the eye.
4. Side street
The contrast of the figure is helped by the backlight that gives kind of a glow around his body. The shaft of light helps to lead the eye.
What I’ve learned
After an initial lack of confidence – or maybe patience – in being able to find the right situations and fortuitous passing of sole figures for this exercise, I found quite a few examples. I’m not sure they’re all wholly successful but they’re different enough that I included them all here.
Unrelated to the direct point of this exercise, I am finding that I am drawn to images that hold some kind of implied or potential narrative, an idea of a back-story that gives the image some interest over and above the purely aesthetic. This was the case in a couple of the images I chose. I’m finding myself doing this when editing my shots rather than at the time of shooting, but it’s something that I am increasingly conscious of in my own thought processes – what attracts me to certain shots. Interesting.