Street Photography technique and psychology. Post number 3, Clean backgrounds, distracted subjects and the challenge of photographing children candidly.

For an explanation of this series and the the conventions used in these posts please see post number 1.

Post number 1. Introduction and Primary and secondary subjects.

Post number 2. My street photography kit.

Post number 4. Looking for interesting light — backlighting and silhouettes.



Boys flying kites, Main Ghat, Varanasi.



1/Background to this image.

Varanasi, somewhere near Main Ghat. Every night children assemble and fly their battered kites, arms poking skywards with fixed gazes. It was beginning to get a little dark, the sun was setting and light had softened. The sky was becoming less bright was now at point where I wouldn’t have to ‘fight’ the sun and everything was becoming more evenly lit. I might have to raise my overall exposure in order to see the boys faces, but this soft, even light would would mean that I could shoot from different directions and not have to worry about severe backlighting that would force me into creating silhouettes. Nor was it harsh front lighting that would have caused me to drop my exposure so as not to burn out the boys faces, which would have had the effect of making he background rather dull.

With this kind of light I was able to retain good detail more or less wherever I wanted it. This light was nice light, even though I was going to expose it and make the scene look a little brighter than it was in reality. I approached the boys and they  looked at me for a few moments, I just watched them without bringing my camera to my eye and within a few seconds they  got bored and went back to their kite flying. All they had seen from me was a general curiosity in what they were doing, nothing more than that. I wasn’t acting in a way to hold there interest.


2/Pre visualisation

The scene with the boys flying their kites allowed me to find a clean frame and clean, uncluttered frames are hard to come by, particlarly in India, where you can generally be assured of a busy background in most places you look. This scene however presented the possibility of a very clean background and you can often get this by simply shooting against the sky. Normally with a scene like this the problem is that you are on the same level as you subjects so you are forced to bring many other things into the frame which clutter the picture. In this instance however I knew I was going to benefit from the fact that these boys were on a concrete platform above me. This meant that I could shoot with my camera at a similar plane to these boys which I felt would be more pleasing camera angle than my having to get on my belly and shoot up. I wanted a shot that would put these boys in clear space (the sky) and also clear space in relation to each other (not overlapping). The interesting graphic shape of the broken bamboo parasol was a secondary element that I wanted in this image. I also wanted gesture from the boys — they had to be doing something interesting, ideally all looking up engaged with their kite flying in some way.


3/Technical considerations.

If shooting against a bright background where you wish to see peoples faces clearly you are generally going to end up with a ‘high-key’ image. That is to say an image that is dominated by light tones. You can see from the histogram that this image, this high-key image shows a histogram backed up on the white side. You will notice that there is a small space between the big shaft of light tones on the right but it is not hard up against the right had side of the histogram. That little gap shows that even though this is a  bright image, nothing is actually burnt out — all the detail has been captured by the camera. You will also notice that I am trailing off the blacks because they are not quite touching the left hand side of the histogram. These blacks, these most dark tones, I find are much easier to recover in post processing by just pulling the blacks back a little. I find if I have to pull your exposure up in post processing your overall image and skin tones will suffer.  Don’t fall into the trap that shooting in RAW mode is going to allow you to be sloppy with your exposures. To an extent it will, but it you have to pull your exposures around too much in post processing I guarantee you your  final image will not be as nice as if you had exposed it properly in the first place.


Histogram and exif information for this image.



Ok, lets look at this exif, this horrible exif, that had I realised I was going to be writing a blog post about this image two years later, I would probably have spared myself the embarrassment of explaining how badly I chose my settings. No, I would have chosen them more correctly at the time of shooing!

Here is an example of lazy, poor, wasteful settings on my part — why? This is because I allowed my ISO to rise unnecessarily high. I drove my ISO up high because my shutter speed was high and my shutter didnt need to be high! My shutter speed could have been significantly slower for what was happening in this scene. High shutters are required for freezing only if your subjects are big in your frame or, if they are not big in your frame, moving quickly. The subjects in this scene are neither big in the frame nor moving quickly and a so shutter speed of 125th of a second would have been more than fine. Many photographers will say that they shoot much lower shutters, I prefer to keep it moderately high to allow for scene changes.

Lets look at some very rough maths to explain this in more detail and sorry if is very obvious to experienced photographers. If I had used a shutter speed of 125th instead of 640th I would have reduced amount of light hitting my sensor by approximately 3 full stops of light. That is 125th — 250th– 500th. Each time you double that number it’s one full stop. (125th to 640th is actually closer to 3 1/3 stops but lets just round it up to the nearest stop for simplicity.)

This means if I had shot at 125th, my ISO could then have reduced 3 full stops and that would be from 4000 — 2000 — 1000 for the same exposure. So, I could have shot exactly the same scene at 1000 ISO and this would have given me a significantly different result. The image would have been a cleaner image (less noisy), sharper, had better contrast and better colour rendition. I took this shot a couple of years ago and I was lazy about my ISO because my camera at the time, a Nikon D3s is a very clean at high ISO’s — I would now however consider this bad practice. Even thought its pretty clean its not going to be as clean as 1000 ISO and there is a huge difference between and image shot at 1000 and 4000 ISO, even on the high ISO monster that is the D3s. Shoot at the lowest ISO’s you can — its a good discipline that makes you think about being really in touch with your camera by making you consider your camera settings in all light conditions. When you then come to shoot in really low light you will be then so at ease with all these settings you will be much more fluid in choosing the correct ones.

Aperture. So, why an aperture of F11? This image is shot at F11 because I want I wanted image sharpness in the primary and secondary subjects, those being the boys and the broken parasol. The very far background in an image is always going to go to blur at anything but extremely high apertures, e.g. f22, when you focus relatively close to you, and that background is a long way away. You can achieve wanted and unwanted blur even at high apertures, it is not simply a property of shooting at low apertures  (shooting wide open). You just have to be aware of your distance to subject and the effect that has on your depth of field. The closer you focus, the more background blur you will achieve, the further away the more overall DOF you will have. I warn you now, this is not the first time I shall harp on about DOF and camera to subject distance, it will be a element of almost every post in one way or another.

This is why when you photograph down on the beach for example, even at pretty high apertures like F11, if you focus on something relatively close to you, the background will often end up being a pleasing blur — This is because its so far away, it is then not contained with in that smaller depth of field.

For example Focus on something, with a 35mm lens 3m away at f11 — look at the depth of field in this depth of field table. The total depth of field is only 15.2 m and because the far end of the DOF is not ‘infinity’ the far background will blur.

Subject distance 

3 m

Depth of field 

Near limit  1.65 m

Far limit  16.8 m

Total  15.2 m



So, to recap, settings for this image:

Shutter — 640th, faster than it needed to be, 125th or even lower would have sufficed.

Aperture — F11 to achieve sharpness in my primary and secondary subjects.

ISO — 4000, a consequence of shooting at a higher shutter than necessary.


 Tip — experiment with shooting relatively close to your subject  at high apertures and see how much sharpness you get in your subject and how dramatically that background will blur.  High apertures do not always mean no background blur. You just need to get a bit closer to your subject and make sure you have a background that is very distant.



A psychological element to this photograph is understanding something that might sound obvious. That is that it is a lot easier to photograph people candidly when they are engaged in doing something — in other words, when they are distracted. Here the distraction is is a pretty evident, the boys are busy flying their kites. Children in India, generally speaking, quite like being photographed. The big problem and I mean a really big problem is that they want to pose for every shot. Anyone who has shot in India will be probably be aware that the usual scenario is this.  The children see you and your camera, one of them asks for a photo, his friend joins him and before you know it you have 30 of them in front of you, eyes following your every move, jostling for position for photo after photo after photo. Sure, pictures of smiling children can be very endearing but thats not the kind of photography we are talking about here.

So, the basic psychology is that if you are going to photograph children, keep an eye out for children who are distracted. Either they are playing, working or  just being more interested in something other than you. It might sound like the most obvious thing in the world to take pictures of people when they are distracted but what happens in reality is we fight the situation, really trying to get those candid shots when those children, or indeed adults in some instances, are acutely aware of us and interested in our presence. I suggest ‚that in those instances we walk away and look for another scene, unless and this is important, we have a lot of time to wait it out. By staying and fighting that situation we make ourselves frustrated that we were unable to get the shot we wanted where  actually we should  have probably just understood that we were battling against human nature, banging our head against a brick wall. We were  trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole.

Ill give you two examples. I photographed in boys homes in Calcutta where the lads were almost impossible to shoot, jumping in front of my camera, egging each other on to try and get in every single shot. It almost became a game to them. Let me re-phrase that, it did most definitely become a game to them, and the game they were playing was ‘not letting the photographer get a single candid image’. I tried what would be my usual method, which would be to politely ignore them and wait. I would not shoot when they wanted to me to shoot, even though they were constantly asking me to shoot or jumping in front of my lens. I, on the other hand planned to bore them to death with my presence by not engaging with them and waiting for them to calm down. They remained resolute  however, acutely interested in my every movement and as soon as I tentatively brought that camera anywhere near my eyes, they went right back to  jumping in front of me all over again, kidding around, determined to be photographed. They were winning.

Luckily this was soon to change because miraculously as soon as they sat down together and watched tv or started flicking through comic books, ah, that was a different story. Not only could I shoot them candidly, I could get all kinds of shots, wide shots, go close and get tight shots, keep moving my position — it was like they were in a trance. They were more interested in something else than me. In reality I believe that groups of children are not really all that interested in you when you are shooting, you just happen to be a bit of sport for them until something more interesting comes along!

The second instance was a slum in Calcutta. It was completely impossible to candidly shoot here. It consisted of  one long narrow street and when we arrived, our guide and us two photographers we were like three enormous ‘sore thumbs’ walking down the road.

The nature of this particular slum meant it was really hard to blend in and disappear. There were no little lanes and alleys you could wander down out of site of the masses — it was pretty much one road. The consequence of this was that everyone knew we were there and every child could see what we were doing. We soon became a primary source of interest and were in everybody’s view no matter where we went. After a short while I think we must have been surrounded by 100 children, who as soon as I tried to take any form of candid picture, would alert the person I was trying to shoot ( always helpful)  and try and jump directly in front of the lens at every opportunity. Once more, not letting the photographer get a candid shot had become the game.

I think I got only one usable image from that visit. Some girls were skipping and I pre-focused on something on the same plane as them and then crouched down very quickly and fired off a few shots. The girls were distracted and this gave me about a 4 second window to get an image before they noticed me and started to pose and before I was mobbed my children again.  Another small example of the power of distraction.

For what its worth I do take picture of happy, smiling groups of children. I do this on a few different occasions. Sometimes when they ask me, when I feel they have  completely beaten me and Im not going to get any candids anyway, when their parents ask and sometimes when I feel like it. Mostly thought I will try and get my candids first and get the shots that the children want me to get afterwards. If you have a limited amount of time then I think its quicker to operate this way around. Once you have started taking the shots that the children want you to take, more and more can come along and it can be a long time before they get bored of you and allow you to shoot candidly. If however you have a lot of time you might be better off the other way round — shoot for the kids first and then go for your candids when they have lost interest in you.

Tip – be on the look out for already distracted subjects particularly when dealing with children.

Tip — when shooting children and you have limited time, politely ignore them and take your candid shots first. After that you can be more playful and shoot the shots they want.


5/Taking the Shot.

Once I had framed the shot with the clean background I wanted there wasn’t much more  to it really. I simply kept shooting as the children moved this way and that, looking for pleasing body shapes. I made small adjustments to my own physical position, moving from side to side to compensate for overlapping subjects as they moved. I reviewed my image and once I was happy with the composition, expressions and gesture I moved on to shoot from a completely different angle. I ended up taking a second shot I was also happy with, this time shooting with the parasol in the foreground, shooting the boys from behind which also allowed me to show the kite they were flying.

Tip — once you have taken a shot from one position, even if you are happy with your picture, before you go look at the other possible positions, you might find a stronger image.


6/Picture analysis.

Light – Soft, even, late afternoon light which in reality was a darker scene than appears here.

Composition – Lots of negative space by use of a clean background. Primary and secondary subjects.

Gesture –

The distraction and interest of the boys and what we imagine they are engaged in.

The unusual but graphic shape of the broken parasol.

The general nature of the clean background isolating our subjects.

The unusual angle this shot is taken at, allowed for my being on a platform lower than the boys not having to angle the camera upwards.

The boys looking in three different directions — a lucky accident.



7/What could I have done better

The ISO was way to high caused by poor shutter selection.

Boys feet are overlapping, if I had moved to the left slightly I would have eliminated this small problem.



Thanks for reading. If you have any comments about this post Id love to hear them. You can of course find me on Facebook for my latest work.

© Mark Carey and 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Carey and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



  1. Paul - excellent! I sometimes find that if I photograph a family for example it is often only the baby or small child who will see me. Can make for interesting image. sometimes if they have dog, the dog sees me but not often the adults...i love that..very good post..thank you

  2. Anurag - Distraction - what a wonderful tool. I find if I play with children....and then slowly leave them to their own devices....their natural behaviour comes to the fore. I like to belong to a group of people (in generally whatever scenario) and let them accept me as one of "them"....that trust very much aids my photography. Sure there is the obviousness of the camera....but distracting the subject with talk or actions away from the camera.....generally makes them forget about you and your purpose. Get close to the subjects and belong is what I've learnt. The technicalities of the camera are really secondary. A great noisey even blurry photograph with a story easily outshines a mediocre technically perfect image most if not all of the time. Beautifully written article. Re-enforces what I have come to know. Thank you.

  3. Margaret Swan - Hi Mark, I feel like you're talking directly to me here, I can practically hear your voice! I understand when I read it but in real life I need more practise... a lot more!

  4. Adam Riley - Another really great post Mark, I think your tips of "patience" and "distractions" are wonderful for both street photography, and reportsge wedding photography!

  5. Muthe - Again, really helpful and informative article from you. A lot of tips and things I learn from this article, I can't wait for another article :)

  6. Shounak Roy - i just have one point mark, dont you think you could have taken the ground just a little bit more below there feet!! would be more balanced i guess.

    • Mark - Fair point Shounak, Yes I think you are right, there could be more space below the boys feet.

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