The power of the anonymous figure

Winter tree on Hampstead Heath

How many times when trying to take a photograph have you been frustrated by someone walking into the frame?  It has happened to all of us – the scene is set, the lighting is just right, you are about to press the button and pow! someone walks nonchalantly into the scene, completely oblivious of what you are doing and seemingly intent on hanging around for an interminable amount of time.  Eventually the light changes and that great photo is lost forever.

Well all is not lost – even if you are shooting a landscape don’t lose sight of the fact that someone in the frame can really enhance the photo – a person provides scale and if timed right can create a sense of mystery.  Who is the person?  What are they doing?  Where are they going?  That is the power of the anonymous figure – its ability to stimulate a response from the viewer.  In street photography you are often trying to get inside the people in the shot – their emotions, their story, their interaction with others.  This technique differs from this in that you are trying to impart a sense of mystery around the figures in the shot – often by using silhouetting or shooting from behind.



When using this approach you will want to concentrate on composition and on timing.  If the person is walking into or out of the picture then wait, don’t just press the shutter as you want them in the correct part of the frame so the photo looks balanced.  I tend to take the shot when their feet come together if they are walking away but there are no hard and fast rules in photography and you will have your own style. The only thing to remember is that you are using the person to enhance the scene not as the central focus of it so the scene needs to be good in its own right and you will have already addressed the balance of the composition, the quality of the light and the exposure.

When using an anonymous person in a photograph I tend to go for a slight under exposure of the image or expose for the background to throw them into silhouette.  In terms of their location that all depends on the photograph – it is tempting to always put the person or main subject in the centre but is often more powerful to put a figure like this to one side (possibly where the bottom third and side third of the photo intersect as in the photo below).

A lonely sunset

A lonely sunset

So next time someone blindly wanders into your beautiful photo don’t despair – it may be just what you need to liven things up!

A final tip – when taking a shot of a group of people you may want to try to make sure the people don’t overlap each other in the photograph.  It is easier said than done but can really make a difference to the final results.

The silent guardian

The silent guardian


All shots taken with a Fujifilm X-Pro1 and 14mm lens.  A review of the new X-T1 will be posted eventually…



About photoponica

A documentary style photographer - started with film now shooting digital with the Fuji X system.
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