Street Photography technique and psychology. Post number 4. Looking for interesting light — strong back-lighting and silhouettes.

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 3. Clean backgrounds.

Street photography technique.

People boarding ferries at Shyambazar pier, Kolkata.


1/Background to this image.

I had been wandering up and down the Kolkata Ghats and took a wander onto Shyambazar pier. This was one of many piers that services the ferries going up and down the Ganges in Kolkata. I liked this particular area because it benefited from lovely evening light and it had quite a lot of what I will call ‘structure’ about. By this I mean shapes and lines that I could use for my compositions and framing. I could see whilst squinting into the sun, that this late afternoon was becoming very low and directional, casting long shadows and so the potential for silhouettes was obvious. I wandered slowly around and around the pier while some people were waiting to board the next ferry. I squinted, crouched and looked through things. The direction of this light was acting like a very strong modelling lamp to so many objects and textures, providing dimension, highlight and shadow.


2/Pre visualisation

So, I had in mind that there would be some sort of silhouette but since I find silhouettes can be a little over sentimental when they are the main focus of the image, I wanted a little more. I had noticed obviously that the light I was working with would produce effective silhouettes but also noticed that it was falling on other surfaces in interesting ways and I was particularly taken with the the way it was falling on this concrete structure in the left of the frame. The structure was showing a lot of highlight and shadow giving it a powerful 3 dimensional feel. In the middle of it was a metal grille that was really catching the light, and below that there was a poster with a face on it. It was this ‘structure’ these strong shapes and also knowing that whatever be in that heavily backlit area of the frame would become ‘silhouetted’, that became the embryo of my pre visualised image.

So, what did I have that I liked in the frame — what components were there that were interesting me.  There was the isolated figure on the right of the frame — a man waiting for the boat. There was also a bollard for tethering the ferry to and other strong shapes that would silhouette, like some structural items sticking into the air.  I love lines in my photography because they can compartmentalise your frame and can sometimes make frames within frames. All these shapes were  helping to give this image interest but they did not really make a decent picture yet. It wasn’t enough– there was no ‘life’ to it.

So I started thinking well, it’s a ferry pier — a ferry is going to come along and when that happens this scene will come alive. I had concerns about how much other people entering the scene might kill my lovely light falling on this concrete structure and obscure the silhouettes that I already had. Ideally  what I needed was isolated characters to come into the scene because a crowd of people would just become a big mass of shapeless black and probably spoil the light I had.  Obviously the sensible thing to do was to  just watch and wait so I waited 5 minutes or so until the ferry came.

I knew this much –my pre-visualised image would contain the ferry, people getting off it, the character silhouetted in the background and this structure to my left which was interestingly lit and would also act as a framing device. Anything else was open to chance.

3/Technical considerations.

One thing I haven’t said about this light is that it was falling on the water and when light hits an expanse of water at a particular angle it reflects strongly  and can become incredibly intense. You find it hard to even look in that general direction. Its little bit like when you were a really naughty child you used to shine the sun into other children’s eyes with a little mirror or bit of reflective plastic. You all did that right? Ok, just me then.

I digress. So, this light was amplified by hitting the water, so it wasn’t any old backlit situation we had here —  it was very, very strong. I could only look in the general direction of the light for a second or so without the refection hurting my eyes. Im a little nervy about taking shots into this kind of light because I understand it may be possible to harm your sensor, but hey, I like to live life on the edge and so I took a risk.

Technically I feel like my settings were more ‘considered’ than previous shots I have shown you in this series of posts, those shots were taken about a year or so before this. For me  considered settings are where you are not being wasteful of your cameras ability to render the best image it can. Because higher end cameras have come on such a long way in terms of delivering clean images at higher ISO’s, there can be a tendancy to get a bit lazy and think that the high ISO shot will be fine so you dont need to bother adjusting your other settings. Although at say 800 ISO, a camera like mine  (  a Canon 5dmk3) is going to be very clean and absolutely usable, it is not however  not going to be as clean and resolve an image as well as shooting at 100 ISO. An image shot at 100 ISO is going to give you the very best colour, contrast, detail, lack of grain and importantly dynamic range. Higher ISO images conversely will give less contrast and detail because the more noise (graininess) you have in your image, the less detail and definition you will have in that image. You will not get that same ‘tack sharp’ look at high ISO’s.

How do I keep my ISO low? I do this by not choosing a faster shutter speed than I need nor a higher aperture than I need. Simple as that.

So, the setting chosen for this image were:

Shutter — 125th — sufficient to freeze someone walking across my frame, at a moderate pace as long as they are not too close to me.

Aperture — F8. As much depth of field as I need if I am focusing a couple of meters from me using my 35mm lens.

If the far background and immediate foreground go a little to blur this will probably be quite nice I feel. My lens will also be at around its sharpest point at F8.

ISO — this low iso will render the cleanest image and is kept low by my shutter and aperture not going any higher than they need to.

Street photography technique

Histogram for this image.



Not much psychology going on here but there was a little. Because this is a wide scene and more often than not people most people will ignore you if they do not see themselves as being an intrinsic part of your picture. They will feel this however if you put on what appears to be a big and point it directly at them. It would be clear from my body language, where I am looking and because I have a little lens, that nobody in particular is being featured. In these instances people pretty will much ignore you naturally I would suggest because nobody thinks they are being isolated in your picture.

When Im scoping out different angles to shoot I do wander close to people, taking different viwpoints to see what works what doesnt. Tying to work out also if someone in the scene could be a primary or secondary suubject. In this instance I would probably just get quite close to people but look beyond them. Looking beyond people is a powerful tool for making them think that they are not an important element in your image. If however you make even the smallest eye contact with them then they are often alerted to the fact that you intend for them to be in your picture and make them a little unsettled so dont make that eye contact — you will show your hand and that person may move or become someone that is constantly now keeping an eye on you!

Tip – If you are going to feature someone in your candid image and you dont want to alert or unsettle them, look beyond where they are standing, you can already prefocus on something that is the same distance as them from you — that way they will be sharp in your photograph.


5/Taking the Shot.

So, I find myself waiting for the ferry to arrive and when it did obviously a lot of people got off and on it. I looked at the people getting off en-masse and realised they were were very poorly lit and the boat had also stolen any light that might fall on them.  The best light was still coming across the pier. Even if you have your idea set on one thing, go and take a look at what else might present itself to you when the scene changes — sometimes you can be pleasantly surprised.

So, I go back to my original spot and start shooting as people walk down the pier to try and make the ferry before it leaves. I was really looking for and isolated figure because they would make the best silhouette or semi silhouette. There were a couple but their body shapes and gait was not all that interesting — the lady walking past was the one that I was most pleased with. This was one of those situations that was time critical — this was not and ongoing event, it would happen for a few minutes and then it would be over, the ferry would leave. Sometimes you will have shots like this, unique events happening for a pretty limited period of time. Unlike say in an area quite close to here where they are making holy idols out of clay and straw — this they would be doing more or less all day so you can just stick with scenes for much longer.


6/Picture analysis.

Light – Very strong backlighting creating dimension and opportunity for strong silhouettes.

Composition – Follows broadly a rule of thirds composition with elements at third points. Strong shapes being used to frame subjects. The man at the back is put deliberately in clear space. The image shows lines going in various directions that I think help the picture along — lines are always good.

Gesture – The interesting texture and dimensionality of the left hand structure, the man in the background is leaning in an interesting way, the woman’s hair and the fact that the light is quite unusual — its an almost blinding light if you look at if from a certain angle — this I would argue gives this image an unusual punchy quality that qualifies it for me to call it part of gesture.


7/What could I have done better?

Well, the image is fatally flawed by the lady not being in clear space. Her shape is ill defined because she has someone to her right who interrupts her body shape dramatically. Perhaps I could have moved to the right a little but I would have affected my frame in a way that I didn’t like. Really this was one of those situations where you just wish someone wasnt there because they are killing your image.

The solution as much as I hate this particular solution was probably to put the camera in a burst mode and shot severa frames per second as she passed. In doing this I would have a better opportunity to catch her in-between they guy on the right and the pole sticking up on the left. I never put the camera on burst mode — somehow I just cant bring myself to do it. If I want to take successful shots like this I should probably consider doing that but for now Im happy to just take my chances.

The key is to try and put these elements in clear space and I failed at doing this.

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. Damien Rogers - Your blogs are a great help to understanding photography and how to improve oneself. Please keep up the great work. A super photographer. Do you think you'll write a blog about the 35mm lens that you love so much?

    • Mark - Thanks Damien - that really means a lot to me. Im not sure if folk find these informative or not really..I think they may just be taken as my own mad ramblings! Glad you find it useful in some way.

    • Mark - Damien - sorry missed the second part of your comment. I am indeed going to write a blog post about these humble little 35's. Both the Canon and the Nikon variant are much overlooked lenses.

  2. Shounak Roy - I hope you are making this a book.......a big fat one!!

    • Mark - Ha Ha - thanks Shounak. It has crossed my mind ;)

  3. Damien Rogers - Nope far from ramblings Mark. Very interesting reads. Am only new to photography since I learnt it in college. So I love to read others experiences and opinions. Keep up the great work and I look forward to reading your blog on the 35mm. I hope to invest in one soon.

  4. Andrea Taurisano - Your articles are very pleasant to read and inspiring, Mark. Nicely balanced focus between the technical and the human sides of photography, in your analyses. Keep'em coming!

  5. Paul's Pictures - Don't worry about not being informative. Such insight and depth and intellectual honesty as I see here is very rare, especially amongst those who call themselves street photographers. One thought I had to clarify for myself: you said the image is fatally flawed with the lady and another person muddling that part of the frame. True indeed!! (sorry LOL) but if you had moved just say a foot or two to the right, do you think this would have worked? That strong light at the back would have been lessened or not? Thank you for the fascinating post!!

    • Mark - Hi Paul - In this split second yes moving to the right wouldnt have affected the light but would have improved the image but remember the lady was walking, reasonably quickly, through the frame so all I really needed do to was catch her a split second earlier. Thanks for your kind comments Paul.

  6. Name - Love this shot despite the flaw.

  7. Bess - Really enjoyed reading your post. Very inspiring and informative. Love the strong loghts and darks. Makes for a dramitic image. Thank you!

    • Mark - Thankyou Bess.

  8. Nis Daniel - Love your article, especially item no. 7 (What could I have done better), bring a lesson for me as beginner, thank you.....

    • Mark - Nis Daniel - I have shots that Im more or less happy with and could show these but then I wouldnt really have much to critique. Im glad you see the importance of examining what you could have done better. I think only by constantly thinking this way will we really take our photography to the next level. As you get better in your photography their is a temptation to start 'coasting' and I do it quite a lot. When I do - I can see that my laziness has affected the quality of my images - they become ok but essentially mediocre. Only when you really start 'working the scene' and paying attention to all the components of taking that picture do you get your really best shots I personally think. All my favourite shots have been taken when Im thinking really clearly and paying a lot of attention to what I need to do. Its a nice thought that we can just all get so good that even if we get sloppy we will still get great images but I don't think thats the case. Keep examining your work, identify small or large flaws, make lists of what you can do better and try and put that into practice next time you shoot.

  9. Tony - Thanks you for sharing your technical information, very informative.

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