Composition and Critiquing: A Protest

Protests are some of the more challenging situations to photograph. Often times, the composition is rather flat and seem merely as a group of people being motionless. 

I will not try to discuss the politics of the situation because this isn't the place for it. I think that from a journalistic standpoint, it is one's duty to tell the story as has happened (in this case, the protest)  but also take into consideration the impact of the stories you tell, especially in the most sensitive sense.

My goal from this shoot was quite simple: 

To get photographs that were dynamic and shows a deep sense of emotion. Flags are always representative of support and the larger the flag and the more intense embracing of it, the greater the support and the emotion. For example, someone wrapping a flag around them or perhaps running with a large flag, held with both hands and in the air, we can be sure that there is deeper emotion than a similar situation where perhaps the person is simply holding the flag (controlling for facial expressions of course). 

Another aspect is the perspective one takes. Taking a photograph from a building or from a top to bottom perspective usually produces images that are flat, lifeless and lacking a feeling of empowerment. In order to really get a perspective that is strong and empowering, one has to go on their knees and try to capture a more downwards up perspective.

Lets take a look at the process as a whole:


The setting starts with a wide angle shot. The flag is an important contributor to the setting and the congregation in general. Of course, this shot alone doesn't get to where we want to be. I was a bit concerned at this point. Sometimes you just get a feeling that things aren't going according to plan. Nevertheless, I tell myself that it's just a matter of exploration. Try to understand and try to be bold in searching for subjects and composition - is what I tell myself. 


So we switch lenses to get more up close and personal. Closer to the action. 

"If your photos are not good enough, you're not close enough" - Robert Capa

Capa comes to mind again so the change in lens tries to get closer to the action. All speeches and the composition is still rather flat - but the story is important. 

Eventually, the protest begins and people start to walk. The evening light is something to work with. It makes for incredible shadows and possibly some silhouettes, although its still to early for Silhouettes. 


The change in lens again and this time, we're shooting against the light. I wanted to keep my aperture fairly small and a shutter speed that was somewhat good to capture motion. Since I am so close, it has to be at least 1/125s and I choose an aperture of F/9.5. The obvious compromise then is the ISO, which ends up being higher than I'd like. This first couple of shots don't tell a story. they could be of almost anything - a street fest, a congregation of people going on a talk. The taxi in the front is destroying the composition. It's not what we want here really. Moving on...

These next set of photographs are more like the composition that we're looking for, but they have their drawbacks too. Lets look at them. The first photograph has the emotions, except there are a bunch of other photographers that are spoiling my composition. In the second shot, our eyes come to rest on the woman in the red. She is great but the man on the right is distracting and the image doesn't have the intense emotion that we hoped for. 

The next photograph captures an excellent scene with a group of people casting incredible shadows on the road. Again on the right, there is a woman that is distracting us, and made to seem unusually wide thanks to the distortion on the 10mm wide angle lens. 

The next photograph gets there, we come to a point where compositionally, it is very well balanced and the shadows make for a very dramatic effect. All the same, it still lacks the emotions that we're looking for. 

The next set of photographs are dynamic. They tell a compelling story and are drawn towards characters. In the first set, I simply shot very wide and waited for the crowd to approach. The next step is where Capa came into being, simply waiting there and expecting to be surrounded by the crowd. It's a dangerous manoeuvre but not with this particular crowd. They were not nearly as numerous or charged up. Peaceful protests are always excellent places to get really close. The second photograph has something rather symmetrical about  it. It's compositionally compelling and the fact that our two main subjects (causing the split) look at one another as they approach, has a story to it in itself. It almost shields the composition and creates a kind of frame. Immediately after, I decided to follow these men and knew immediately that the light will help create excellent tones and shadows, but particularly as it shines through the flag. The resulting image is quite dynamic and one that I quite like. 

In this next section, we continue with our Capa philosophy and composition students of mine will identify immediately what I have done here. I basically picked a subject and ran with him (of course, openly questioning whether there was someone or something that will be better to focus on). I saw this man as someone rather passionate and decided to keep with him. In the first of the 6 photos in the set, we see him emerge from the crowd, sandwiched by two people. I find this rather interesting, but the composition is still quite busy. Holding a flag is rather exhausting so there is a swap of hand somewhere. All the same, we stick with him and and try to bring out the photograph where he is most dynamically represented and where he really brings out his emotions.

Once again, composition students of mine will notice a violation of the inwards bias rule that typically follows the rule of thirds. Of course, having the subject leaving the frame makes for a more compelling composition in this context. It represents something rather dynamic and we want that our subject is almost jumping right out of the computer screen. 

In the set above, I found another character that I decided to stick to and 3 shots was all it took. The first was the identification process - THAT GUY! The next steps are all now coming to a point where we are essentially looking to have excellent composition with our subject. 

The first and second photographs in the set are very blah! Only seconds later, we happen upon the third photograph. It really comes to show that good things come to those who wait, and often times, in photography and in life, an exceptional moment comes down to the trivialities. The fact that I had remained and waited for him to get closer and to pass was important and to me this final image is the most compelling of the entire set. It converges with the journalistic aspect as well as the underlying story but also comes together compositionally.

There are indeed many good photographs within the bad ones, but in the end, it comes down to the trivialities of consistent thought, positioning and patience.