Framing, color and simplicity: Robin’s take

After sifting through a huge collection of street images shot within the past year, I found that I was specifically drawn to colour and simplicity. We all look for different subjects and approach street shooting differently. For example, I love MT’s appreciation of interesting and unusual urban geometry as well as creative use of dramatic shadows and light in his framing. In contrast, I take a more simple approach by focusing on a singular subject/content and ignoring everything else. I work with many human subjects – close up street portraits in particular – and keeping the image clean helps take the attention straight to the facial expression of the people. I have come to the realization, very recently, that colour also played a huge role in how I chose and frame my portraits and general street shots.

I never set out to intentionally seek colour in my photographs. In fact, almost every time I go out on a shutter therapy session, I start with no ambition or specific agenda in mind. I allow myself to roam the streets and let the subjects find me. After all, I believe that street photography should be free and easy and I want to enjoy every single moment without my mind pre-occupied with a list of things to tick off.

When did color start to become a regular theme in my shots? I guess I have always had a fascination for bold and vivid scenes, much like the colour palette of  animated Disney movies. In the opening photograph for example, there were many men standing on the street wearing neutral tone shirts but the man in the red top and hat standing next to red columns and walls stood out to me. I immediately approached him and asked if he was OK having his portrait taken. When I showed him the preview of the shot on the camera, the man immediately laughed and understood what I was trying to do. It was both the red colour and the simplicity that made it work.

Here is a short selection of images that have both themes; color and simplicity. All the images in this session were shot with Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and M.Zuiko 45mm F1.2 PRO lens. Under the tropical morning sun, the colours popped even more!

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II & M.Zuiko 45mm F1.2 PRO lens are available from B&H

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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2019 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Hi Robin, I think your post is wonderful and most of us need to be reminded that less is more. The challenge of a photographer is to remove what does not reinforce the subject or worse distracts from the subject. Obviously this is a lot more challenging with candid subjects. Contrary to one opinion, I loved how the red and white background matched the red and white clothing of the subject and how separated he was from the background. If this was a methodical portrait session, then a competent portrait photographer would have directed the subject position to minimize eye differences. However, for fleeting moment photography you have captured the soul of the person with a gorgeous image.

    I also like the image of the woman walking into the tree . A moment earlier would have been a boring discard photo for me. Keep up the valuable posts – I love and do street photography and always enjoy your images that I either enjoy or get inspired by to go out. thanks Brian

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Brian for the kind words! You were right about the red and white background on the portrait, as I have stated in the article, what drove me to shoot that was the prominent red “dress code” against red painted walls at the back. That itself gave me satisfaction when I captured the image. Also, the look of the human subject looking at the camera is very important to me. If I were to start interacting with my human subjects, that would change the expression – usually for the worse, since it is not natural anymore.

      Your observation on the woman walking into the tree was correct. I intentionally timed it that way, just before she disappeared behind the tree.

  2. Fine work, great visual appeal. Enjoyed the photographs. Thank you, and do keep at it.

  3. Robin Wong says:

    Hey guys, had a full day shoot and some workshops over the weekend, been crazy busy, but surely will get back to each and every single comment soonest I can! And just to be clear, I welcome and respect every single feedback, even if it is a critique of my photography, so please keep the comments coming.

  4. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    One of the problems with “street” seems to me to be “too much information”. Don’t for the love of whoever quote me on this, Robin, because I make no claim to any kind of expertise on “street”. But it seems to be in the nature of the beast that you catch what you want, without having any kind of leisurely opportunity to compose the shot, and frame it, to exclude extraneous stuff. Then later, a lack of willingness to do savage cropping.
    Working my way down the photographs you have included in this article, I was struck by the thought that “less is more”. You seem to have captured exactly what you want, either on the scene or on the cutting room floor!**
    I particularly liked the motor scooter/bike/whatever – I’ve been planning to take some bicycle shots with motion blur, around Paris, next time I’m there (the thought came to me too late, last time I was there). Of course there are the two alternatives – track the bike with the camera and blur the background, or freeze the scene and (as you have) leave the bike to blur itself.
    And I loved the shot of the workman looking over his shoulder! I confess that I do at least some “street” – and, when I do, I love to be able to invert what people expect to see – it almost always adds strength to the composition, as it does in your case.

    ** My spontaneous reaction – Ingo seems to have a different view – people DO that sort of thing – life would be dull, if we all wanted the same thing.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Jean for the kind response and I appreciate your opinion. The motorcycle blurred shot was probably the only one of this series that I had to wait for at least 5 minutes to get what I wanted. I liked how all the cars have different yet bold and vivid colors, framing the shots from all corners. I needed another subject to enter the frame, preferably a walking man, or anything. However, I soon figured out that no same human would walk down in the middle of the road where vehicles were driving by. Hence. I settled for a motorcycle, and decided to slow down the shutter speed to have some motion blur, adding a bit of drama to the otherwise perfectly static shot. This was the shot that took me most effort, time and patience to get it right. It was not by all means anything spectacular in terms of technical execution, but this was a bit more complex than my otherwise very simple and straight-forward approach in street shooting.

  5. Very well done Robin.
    I’m not into critique unless asked. I looked at your post as a visual essay in colors, not technicalities of composition of anything else.
    If looking at colors (as is the title of the post) you captured exactly what you wanted.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Bill for the response, much appreciated. I welcome suggestions and feedback, and we don’t necessarily have to agree on everything. After all, this is a site publishing photography-related articles and discussions. Input from everyone is always valuable and it keeps me and MT going.

  6. Robin, you discuss an interesting element in capturing images. The thoughtful approach, where we can be constrained by actually looking for a specific combination or juxtaposition of the subject matter, or going “freestyle” and simply capturing what pleases us. I suspect we all do a little of each. There are times where I’m actively seeking the best shot I can in specific scenarios I come across; I think about the composition and light, and if they don’t combine into something I want, I accept defeat and I don’t take it.

    At other times, I know that I simply take what is before me without my actively thinking about the result. The exposure may not be spot on, but given the metering prowess of digital cameras, it is usually OK, and there may be a clash of colours. The compositional element may not, and usually doesn’t, comply to recognised norms, but the result more often than not still pleases me. And this is what is important to me. And sometimes, when viewed in the relaxing atmosphere of viewing the results on screen, I find myself responding better to the image than I may have done when I took it. I don’t find myself analysing why, life is too short, but glad I responded when I did and took the shot.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Hey Terry, I think at the end of the day, the photography that we do is very personal, and we only answer to ourselves. I am speaking about photography as a hobby, of course not from a commercial photographer’s standpoint (where client’s needs come first).
      Therefore, when we shoot, we must choose to do what we want to do, even if that means compromising on the generally “agreed” rules and regulations. We almost certainly cannot get everything right in a single photo, and that is perfectly OK! It is fine to have some technical flaws in an image, as long as the message, idea or emotion that you want to express can still successfully get across to the audience. Photography is after all a medium of visual communication – the key here is to communicate! Shoot what moves you, and your photography will truly be yours!

  7. Hi Robin,
    lovely colors. I think i can see your relaxed way you shot the photos.
    But this comes at a price. The loose composition shows in some of this photos.
    Maybe the “Ferrari Man” could have turned his head on the other side, his right eye seems bigger and should have bee in the front. On the fifth picture the woman is running into a tree, should have been i little Moment earlier? In the seventh photo the pipe cuts his head off his body, like his expression, but a Portrait of his face only could have been stronger here? Love the eighth Photo, composition and color. But even here, less is more. If you crop just under the dark gray area below the fence (or have zoomed in) the composition would have looked stronger to me. The light grey area looks a bit too distracting and makes the picture look cluttered.
    Sorry, didn’t mean to sound harsh, i like watching you exhibition and the strong colors. But especially in this series i see you concentrate a lot on the colors and don’t pay the same attention to the composition.
    But maybe i sound much too negative because I’m from Germany and the weather is a bit harsh here ;-).

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      ( Robin, pardon me for butting in! )

      Ingo,
      Allow me to disagree.
      ( Tastes are, of course, different..)

      “Ferrariman”: Asking him to turn his head would most probably have taken that expression off him!

      If his eyes are slightly different, why not show it? All faces are asymmetric – and this is not a studio portrait. (I didn’t at first notice.)
      ( Btw., at this distance, ~1.5m, the size difference would still be visible with his head turned the other way. And really, I think it’s just a slight squint.)

      #5: A moment earlier the woman would have been in the shade – and I think the light on her dress and the silhouette of her legs against the wall are important!
      Also, the tree is partly, and I think enough, camouflaged by the two heavy shadows over it.

      #7: I see it as a two in one photo. The triangle gives an interesting frame for his portrait, and the whole photo shows the environment.
      ( Yes, the pipe is there, and so has to be included somehow. Higher would have hid part of his face and lower would have cut his arm from his shoulder – so just under his chin seems right to me!)

      #8: I think the light grey triangular area nicely balances the sky – and so gives a stronger composition!

      Just my 2¢ , 🙂 .

      • Hey Kristian,
        of course, you’re wellcome. So, everybody has a different view, that’s fine. As i understood, the Portrait was staged. So i think, often the bigger eye is better in the front, if you decide to be involved. The expression could have been the same. Every one has different Eyes (i have extreme), so one rule of thumbs is turn the bigger one toward the camera.
        See the head of the woman with the smartphone? It is already in the shadows, a few cm earlier the women would have separated from the tree but her body would have remained in the sun.
        The triangle from the Portrait you’re right, Robin has integrated this in a good way. I just thought a tight Headshot would have been fine here, but still a matter of taste.
        I have cropped the Picture of the Sky at home (if a may, Robin?) and – in my opinion of course – the blue sky and the abstraction is more visible when having a tighter frame.
        But as always, criticizing pictures is by far easier than creating ones, and i am always enjoying Robins photos a lot.

        • And to clarify the reason i write my comments is not to correct the experienced photographer Robin, it is not.
          I’m writing this because when i started Photography lots of little hints and tips helped me so much. For example, turning the bigger eye towards the camera made me immediately easier and relaxed when taking photos of strangers. Before, i couldn’t really explain why one Portrait looked good and one was not so good looking.
          Or the rule less is more. If i can show this with an example, that is great. Or when talking about the very difficult part of timing (where Robin is a master), that is just a matter of milli-seconds, you can seen in the picture with the woman and the tree.
          Of course this is nitpicking at very fine photos.
          But if i can help someone with his photography a little when he/she is a beginner, I feel happy.

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Hi Ingo,
            Where would photography be if we all agreed…

            The woman: “..a few cm”, I see what you mean.
            But would her lower right leg then be so nicely parallel to edge of the shadow? Maybe.

            And consider the timing, that would need a precision of 1/50 – 1/100 s!
            EDIT: You just said that in your next comment. 🙂

            The last word rests, of course, with Robin … but he has already spoken with the photos.

            • Yes, he did. And in regard to the timing. I just thought, the big Olympus can take, what, 60 frames per second? So a precision of 1/50 till 1/100 is nicely covered (just joking). Of course, no-one would take street-photos with that high frame rate, or he would need days for selecting and editing the photos.

              • Robin Wong says:

                Just a couple of quick notes.

                I don’t generally shoot at high burst rates, even if I burst, I keep it low (maybe 5 frames per second). And Olympus cameras are responsive enough for me to get what I wanted when I press the shutter button immediately. Much like MT, I also have a tendency to “curate” my shots on the go, meaning I will delete off shots that I don’t want to keep on the spot while shooting. Shooting 60fps is not helping!

                I have specific “rules” which I personally set for my portrait of strangers series. I do not “stage” my shots. I am not saying that staging is wrong, or posing your subject is not permitted. Everyone is free to execute their own approach. I minimize initial interaction because I want that authentic, original, uninterrupted look that people give me when I point my camera at them. That to me is extremely fascinating because generally how people look at me is a reflection of how I look at them. It is just a response!

                I am not an expert in street photography, and I consider myself a learning portrait photographer. Nonetheless, we can all benefit from discussions and I am glad that we are all having this discussion in friendly tones. That is what separates us here from some “forums”.

      • Robin Wong says:

        Thanks Kristian for “butting in”! I always appreciate all sorts of perspective when it comes to people seeing my photographs. The fact that people care to view the images that I share and further discuss them here, I am privileged as a blogger and a photographer.

        You nailed #5 on the spot – if I have shot the image earlier, the woman would have been in deep shadow and the shot would not work, because the whole point of that image was to have the sunspot highlighting the woman!

        As for #7, it was the look that the man gave me which was my main emphasis. There were distractions as mentioned by Ingo, I agree, but if I jumped over the fence, his look may have changed as well. This was the same as you have elaborated in #3. I appreciate that you actually understand what I was doing, behind my portraits!

        It is OK for Ingo to have his own say. Let’s all agree to disagree!

    • Robin Wong says:

      Hi Ingo!
      I am replying to your first comment here. Apologies for my late response, as I have been super busy for the past 2 days. I finally had some time to sit down and respond to comments.
      Thanks so much for your input, and I appreciate your thoughts. And do not worry about being harsh, you were being polite and you justify your explanations with valid points and I respect that. I welcome constructive criticism, so please do not be afraid to speak up.

      You were right to observe that my composition is a little different than usual in this series, but I would not call it loose. I still pay as much effort and attention to every single photo before I press the shutter button. Nonetheless, if you prefer my usual “tighter” framing, I can also understand where you are coming from. I am now trying to have more “space” in my photos so my subjects can breathe better, and my images don’t look too compressed. I hope that makes sense.

      When I take portraits of strangers, the human portraits are unstaged. When the person saw me, I will hold up my camera and give a “nod”, quite a straightforward gesture of asking without saying any words “is it ok for me to shoot you?”. If the person gave me a nod back, then I will execute my shot on the spot. I minimize my interaction at this point, because I want to capture the initial look on how the person look at me, that natural response to me is extremely crucial. When I start to break the ice and talk to my subjects, the facial expression changes and everything is not the same anymore. I do get a different kind of portrait, but it is not what I am looking for. In this case, that natural expression was unposed.

      It may sound strange to you, but most of my photos are left uncropped, or with minimal crop, and I frame them when I was shooting them. You may not agree with the way I frame my shots, and that is alright, we all have our preferences. I will have to respectfully decline your suggestions to crop any of my images, to me, they were composed exactly as intended, from my photographer’s eye.

      • Hi Robin,
        thanks for your answer. When i talked about staging, i referred to your sentence “I immediately approached him and asked if he was OK having his portrait taken”. So there was less interaction than i thought.
        You approach towards street photography is right in my opinion, that’s the art behind street. Using the term cropping is so widespread nowadays i used it instead of, i don’t find the right word for it, zooming in or even better using a tele lens. That is what i meant as i understand you way of photography and i know you are not cropping. I was using the wrong term, sorry.
        What i like for example is that you are framing your fifth shot with a balcony and a fence, so this gives the picture a start and an end. Wide framing is nice. And of course, the pictures of people are all about expression, that is what you got in your photos.

  8. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Very nice!
    🙂
    You say you let your subjects find.you.
    Exactly!
    ( As T.O.P. very aptly says it in his latest blog: “.. a matter of chance and taste.”.)

    But I find favourites, #2, #3 (also for the nice shadow) and the last one.
    ( The last one also for its humour – the attitude and shape of the tree.)

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Kristian, and you were right about letting the subjects find you! I always say that we have to go out more and surely photography opportunities will happen! Just go out and shoot!

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