Drama in Street Photography

If you look at the pool of street photographs online (one that seems to be growing exponentially each day), the images that stand out tend to have some drama in them. Drama, as I define it here, can be the split-second when something interesting happens, the creatively incorporating visually stunning lines and perspectives or something completely unpredictable and random yet beautifully captured in a photograph. The presence of drama in a street photograph elevates its status to something standout and noticeable, compared to the otherwise ordinary, uninteresting and cliché shots which have been done to death. To define the characteristics of these “dramatic traits”, is not easy and there’s enough room for experimentation to let each photographer inject his or her own style/perspective.

As a follow up to the article on street portraits, today, I’m going to share my usual process in looking for and adding the elusive element of drama to my street photography.

‘What goes in, must come out. What goes up, must come down.’ 

I have to credit my friend Shaun Nykvist for this little phrase, since we both thought of this during one of our shooting sessions together. It’s premised on that fact that street shooting requires patience and a lot of waiting for something to happen. How do you know, or rather how can you successfully predict all the moments that will be worth shooting? When someone enters a building, office or shop, you know they have to come out eventually. And if that person was making a delivery for example, it’s likely that they will be out soon. It could take a short few seconds or minutes at worst, but this could just be the drama you need in the photograph! In the opening photo of the man jumping out of the side of the van, I knew he had to exit somehow and prepared for the shot – the jump was a bonus. Since I had anticipated and prepared, I was able to capture the jump in mid-air, which lent the image the element of drama I wanted. Sometimes, you need to actively work the scene to illicit drama, but keep the final intent and message in mind, as it may not be suitable for a photojournalistic image. For example, take the image of the cat getting down from the car roof below. Prior to the shot, I spent some time petting the cat so that when I walked away, it would follow me. And as you can probably guess, I walked away from the car, and the cat moved to get closer to me and could only do so by jumping down from the roof. I was ready with camera ready in hand to shoot it at the right moment!

For street portraits, I prefer to shoot someone with character. As you may recall from the previous article, I am known for my close up street portraits, but I don’t just approach anyone or attack them with my camera! I am very picky when it comes to my portraits of strangers. I will only approach someone if there is something interesting, unique or catchy about them. It could be an unusual hat, a well-groomed beard/mustache,  or a shirt with funky colors. These special characteristics help me add drama and create compelling street portraits – and not just another image of a stranger. There’s nothing wrong with been selective and picky when it comes to photographic subjects, you are the boss and you get to decide what or who you want to shoot. If there was nothing special about the subject (interesting lighting of the subject being a subset of this), the resulting outcome will reflect the same.

To put it bluntly, if something makes you go ‘WTF!’, there’s a good chance it is worth shooting. Being aware of your surroundings and being able to observe things that look out of place, or unusual is important for identifying drama. In some cases, the something that breaks patterns can be humorous or contradictory relative to its environment. This makes for an ideal scene to photograph but it is important to enhance the feeling of “wrongness” or “being out of place”. Usually, using a wider perspective, to show the environment framing the subject, helps with this.

Street photography is like a jigsaw puzzle, requiring you to find the right pieces that fit together. The most interesting street photographs combine several subjects and layers in a single image. This allows the viewer to explore the frame and think about the interaction between the subjects and the environment they are in. Like a jigsaw, some pieces can be combined to form a pleasing outcome, others don’t fit together and in our case, result in ordinary snapshots. To spot the compatible pieces and put them all together for that dramatic picture, is not an easy task. For example, if you have a nice wide dominant blue background like in the image below, and a man dressed in a similar blue shirt, these two elements work well together and have the touch of drama. However, once you begin to add more elements together and arrange them in a cohesive structure, then you’re taking the concept of drama to another level. Not just matching colors, but shapes, patterns, lines and creative play with light can create superb results on the street.

Find order in chaos. If you shoot in an urban setting, especially large cities (like Kuala Lumpur), you’ve probably found that there are too many people around, walking everywhere, and the visual mess can be difficult to sort. Isolating a subject for a clean composition is difficult with people dashing around chaotically. However, this chaos can  be both your enemy and your friend. The chaotic nature of city life and the busy-ness of the streets can make for an interesting playground. Look for something that stands out from the chaotic mess, or spot the small order of things in the pile of human traffic and that image can end up quite dramatic. Sometimes, there is no pattern or interesting element to be found and in such cases you just don’t shoot – the result will be banal and disappointing to you. Don’t give up easily though. It is important to know your shooting location well, and know what goes on when and where. Take your time to visually sort through the mess, walk within the crowd, and eventually once you are used to the visual overload, you will start to spot interesting elements and start seeing images. For example, while shooting in a local wet market in Kuala Lumpur, first timers tend to be overwhelmed not just by the crowd but also the smells, the wet floors and uncomfortable humidity – it can be disorienting. A little time helps them adjust and they start shooting images rather intensively. So remember, blend into the chaos and find order in the chaos.

On that note, I believe that the most important thing is to not complain about the circumstances, but focus on making the best out of a given situation. Sometimes, it is all about the mindset that we put ourselves in while shooting and being positive and enthusiastic will often be rewarding in the end.

I do hope my thoughts on drama and creating it will come in handy for your own street photography.


We are also on Facebook and there is a curated reader Flickr pool.

Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2017 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Months late – sorry Robin.
    I love your first photo – I would have given it a fairly heavy crop, to bring out the subject matter of the man jumping – but each to his own.
    The cat was clever – I do a lot of pet photograpy, I know how hard it is to get these animals to “do what we want”. Well done!
    And the one of the guys carrying the TVs out – that’s brilliant!
    To me, one of the basics of street, is to develop “the eye’. Otherwise it becomes pure chance, whether or not someone gets an interesting street shot.

  2. A refreshing approach to street photography. I’ve learned something from you Robin.

  3. Cat jumping: strong. Man jumping: lost in the distance amid the clutter. Get closer!
    Pink car and Help Me: strong. The rest, I agree with Harry. Even with the color support (I see what you are doing with that), the walking people are… just walking people. No emotional engagement.
    Portraits: clutter backgrounds, use a wall as a backdrop.
    Order in chaos: not much, actually, you’re not close enough again.
    Edit tighter! it will help your brand.

  4. It seems to me that the 3 photos of men walking in front of a wall with similar colours are the “cliches that have been done to death”, you mentioned. Am I missing something?

    • Appreciation of matching colors, patterns and shapes is something I seek for when I shoot on the street. Yes, they may fall into the cliches, and perhaps have been done one too many times. I too, like everyone else, shoot something, not to avoid being in the “cliche category”, but I shoot a scene because I was drawn to it.

  5. i like your picture

  6. good post

  7. Excellent!

  8. good article

  9. Very good storyboard !!!
    Bravo !!!

%d bloggers like this: