The Fine Art of Urban Street Photography and Colour Composition

I work completely intuitively, I do not have a concept, Harry Gruyaert

As a street photographer myself, I’m always working towards making fine art out of street motifs that rise and fall in the streets of Berlin.

I do look for subjects, colour schemes, compositions, but I don’t limit myself with an idea of a concept. That would be a self-imposed restriction that the streets don’t cater for.

I have days when I go out and promise myself to stick to black and white. A dull day in Berlin can be daunting when you feel happy and colourful.

Berliners always seem to gravitate to dark drabness when they dress. Black and white photography suits Berlin.

I saw this colourful panel against the back of a small grey building on Savigny Platz. The brightly painted figures make a nice backdrop for the right moment. I thought if I could hang out and wait till somebody came along, then took a moment to stop and observe it with their back to me, it would make a nice shot.

A few people passed. A man then passed by, looked at me, and I took the shot. Maybe there’s a touch of contrast happening between the turned figures in the wall illustration, and person staring at the camera lens.

Again, he’s wearing black clothing, he must be a Berliner.

Image by Author; Copyright, Sean P. Durham, Berlin Urban Street Photography, 2023

Image by Author

Time seems to stand still when you are scanning the street for an unusual moment to occur.

Standing on the curbstone with a camera in hand, eyes penetrating every red brick, colours, passing pedestrian, always ready to lift the camera, compose, frame, and click. Then, what you saw, is gone.

I look for colour compositions, sometimes they elude me, but if you look hard enough you’ll come across some good examples.

It was a short moment in time, and hopefully it’s been saved in the camera — I always look later, not now.

Street photography is street action, editing photos happens at the desk.

The photo below was taken on a rainy day. I decided to walk along a pathway that kept me close to the railway line. This meant that I’d encounter several bridges along the way.

Copyright; Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2023 — Under the Bridge
Image by Author

I had to adjust and test constantly. The light changed dramatically every few minutes.

The dim light under the bridge posed a few lighting problems. Though, within the problem lay an opportunity to get a few shots of light that filters along the street and splashes onto the backs or fronts of people. Natural light that is only coming from one side, is interesting and moody.

Several people strolled by, but when I saw this man dressed in dark clothing, skinny jeans and lovely crisp white shirt, I knew he’d complete the composition.

He’s preoccupied with his mobile phone, which adds a little tension to the photo of him passing a homeless person on a mattress. I purposely kept the homeless person’s face out of the shot.

I’d already spied out this frame. The two green pillars, the peach coloured blanket, and the big blue poster on the brick wall. I shifted my feet several times, then discovered a good position, looked up and saw the man walk under the bridge. I took one shot, ISO high at 1000, shutter 1/160th of a second, and F8 for good luck.

I’d pre-visualised how the dark clothes and white shirt would look against all that colour, it seems to work well. I like the shot.

I learned something about shooting in dim light, where the light chops and changes because of moving cloud cover.

It’s when I’ve finished with my own photos that I flick through the many books on photography that I have. I’d rather do that than watch TV.

There is so much that you can learn by poring over the photos of photographers that inspire you. You can see how they handled the colour, where the light was coming from, or whether the light conditions were difficult but they managed it anyway.

The more you look at other people’s work, the more you fill your mind with good ideas.

I’ll look up a photographer online and enjoy the images, study them, and enjoy the compositions of street and portrait photographers. They work with such skill, command colour, structural line, can make a pallid face look so attractive.

Photos of empty streets that seem to express the absence of human presence, the emptiness and yearning for something to fill the void that we all experience at times.

I study composition more than any other aspect of photography. Content in a photo makes all the difference between an ordinary photo, and something unique.

There are endless possibilities with composition — and that is where your style can develop. Composition is very personal, but it must make sense to the viewer. The whole thing is about balancing lines and angles, geometry, colour or black and white tones.

Copyright; Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2023
Image by Author

Composition at the moment of taking the picture is like balancing on a tight-rope. It’s a wobbly moment, and maybe we pull it off, and sometimes we fluff it.

Just keep going and those amazing moments will always rise up in front of you, you’ll have your camera in your hand, and you’ll know what to do.