Create Great Street Photographs in SE Asia

Everyone loves to see what it’s like in other parts of the world. Many travelers and expats love Street Photography (SP), and I want to share a few ideas for those that want to show photographs of their trip with friends and family, or to improve their photography skills. No matter what your goal is in photography, Composition, Design and Lighting are always part of the equationThe principals of composition apply whether you’re using a smart camera, DSLR, or a mirrorless camera. Creating a photograph is not the same as just taking a picture, and this is true with travel photography or any kind of photography. There’s luck and there’s also a skill involved in gaining constant and repeated successes. Create Great Street Photographs is a skill that can improve with practice.

Composition Tips: Travel Photography

Included are photo tips to help travelers understand photographic composition. This article will help you no matter what country you’re traveling, or what camera you are using. This particular article contains photographs taken in Vietnam.  (Thomas Levine has been a professional photographer for over 40 years and loves to share his knowledge of photography. Join Thomas’s Facebook page to receive announcements of new articles & updates on his up and coming book on SE Asia).

Create Great Street Photographs in SE Asia

Street Photography: SE Asia

Create Great Street Photographs will illustrate a few simple composition elements, and how using them will help grab the viewer’s attention. Learn to define your subject. It’s also important to direct the viewer’s eye by using composition elements such as color, separation, and space.  Using these elements will go a long ways to helping you define your subject. With street photography, its important to take lot of pictures until the elements fall into place.

Space and Separation are both important, and understanding how to use these elements will go a long ways toward improving your photograph. Movement is prevalent with street photography, decide what you want to do with it. Freeze movement, or use it to create more interest with motion blur. Keep in mind that there’s often lag time between pressing the shutter button, and the time it takes for the camera to react and take s the picture. You can test this by checking your camera’s monitor after taking the first few pictures to see if you are achieving what works for you. A word of caution, use your monitor wisely, too often photographers will miss a good shot because they check the monitor too often.


The two images below help define Separation (by example). The first image has separation from others behind him. The man is separated from the lady behind him on his left side. If she was closer and more directly behind, she would destroy the separation between the two. There’s separation between him and what’s behind him in the way of line. Compare this to the image below this one. Too busy, no separation between the subject and the background (in this case the motorcycle. When photographing street scenes the photographer has very little control. Where you are (perspective) and the technical aspects of using your camera is about all the control there is.

Notice in the background on the right side, the lady on her bicycle. There’s separation between her and the man selling hats. If the lady with her bike on the right side was closer, the image of this man would lose some of its composition, he would become too crowed and it confuses the scene. I know this because I have shots of both, this is the only one that worked.

The photograph below illustrates a photograph what doesn’t work as well. Don’t be afraid to take these because sometimes you don’t know whether it works or not until you look at it later when you are editing.  Street photography is fluid, often moving all the time. If it was staged, you have control, but it often looks staged too unless you’re working with experienced models.

Create Great Street Photographs

There is no separation between the Vietnamese fruit vendor, and the motorbike in the background on the left. Two ways to deal with this situation. One is to blur out the background with a wider aperture (camera setting and telephoto lens), or photograph her a little earlier, depending on the background.

Create Great Streets Photographs

Any foreign country will create some difference for a photographer because of the cultural differences. It is relatively easy to capture good street photographs because it’s warmer in SE Asia, and there’s a lot going on in the open, on the streets and sidewalks. As a photographer, you have to search out what works. Is it busy enough, is there too much space or too little space, how’s the light, etc. etc.

Tourism is big in Vietnam and photographers often find interesting subjects that make great human interest travel photographs. It’s about finding the right mix of people, with locations that are not too busy while at the same time defining your subject. I find that the culture dictates what you want as your subject. You will see things in Asia you don’t ordinarily see in other parts of the world. Define your subject or the viewer will lose interest, and any story you want to relay, is lost because the photograph loses its impact.

Define Your Subject

A good photograph must have a subject, and the viewer needs to understand what the subject is. Your photograph should lead the viewers eye to that subject. It’s kind of like a movie. There’s the star (your subject) and then there’s supporting cast (everything around your subject. Here the star is in the center, and the supporting cast is all motorcycle, man walking and the tourist getting a ride.

Create Great Street Photographs

There is quite a bit going on in this photograph but the lady with the conical hat is clearly the subject. If the scene is too busy, the photograph wouldn’t work, but there’s separation between the people. The most interesting part of the photo is the lady with the bicycle. She is not only the most colorful and the closest to the camera  but the largest too.  Centering the subject works in this photograph, but good composition isn’t about centering, it’s about balance. Space is very important! Hanoi, Vietnam


Secrets to Great Street Photographs

Contrasts in color can help separation.  The lavender shirt she has on helps define her as the subject. Not only can color help separation, but the amount of the frame she occupies compared to the others in the frame helps too.

Let Your Subject Tell a Story

Street Photography with people, action can help with your subject tell a story. It informs the viewer about the culture and makes the photograph more interesting. What is your subject doing? Let the viewer think about this. Use a higher shutter speed if you need to freeze the action. Have your camera ready and if you think there’s motion, decide on the best shutter speed. Do you want to freeze the action with a faster shutter speed or show some blur. After you take a few photographs, make adjustments such as your perspective or your aperture or shutter speed. Often there are two or more types of photographs that can be obtained in the same scene. Try thinking ahead when you start out for the day, make adjustments as you go.

Create Great Street Photographs

Create Great Street Photographs by showing something that is new to the viewer. It’s great when the viewer begins to ask questions about a scene, especially when there is a difference in cultures for the viewer. In the photograph (above) this lady is involved in burning trash in front of her store in Hanoi, Vietnam. This is not unusual in Vietnam, but in many western cultures this practice is not permitted in the city. The more one travels, the more you notice the differences in cultures. Travel Photography is fun and it’s fun to show others too what you see around you.

People, Places or Things Can be Your Subject

My definition of Street Photography  can be anything that is close to street, shows the culture of the area, and is interesting or artistic. This includes not only what’s on the street, but the sidewalks and other areas adjacent to the street.

There are unlimited subjects when it comes to street photography.

Color Contrast

In the photograph below the colors caught my eye because of the red napkins.  They are part of the composition because of the colors and although its seen all through Asia, it might catch a foreign travelers eye. Red and Blue are opposites on the artist’s color wheel and because of this, the red becomes the subject as it’s automatically highlighted because the blue lies behind it as a contrasting background. Paying attention to details is also important and can take your photograph from just an ordinary image to a fine art image. The napkin on the ground adds a little interest (the high-resolution image would show the fallen napkin better). These red napkins were hung out to dry. Do you think that napkin on the ground will be on table tonight or back in the dirty laundry bag?

Secrets to Great Street Photographs

An Alley in the Ancient City, Hoi An.

Don’t forget to check out Back Alleys. A word of caution, it can be a little dangerous depending on how secluded, and beware of dogs! This was in Hoi An’s Ancient City. No dogs in this alley, but I’ve been chased out of some alleys before.

Space is Important

Practice using your patience, because not everything will fall into place unless you work at it. Patience is a virtue, especially with photography. If the scene is too busy, or if there isn’t enough space between people or vehicles, the photograph can lose its impact. People were walking in front of the store (photograph below), and I had to wait until they were all out-of-the-way, it was a busy street. Magically all the people, bicycles and motorcycles that were in the scene disappeared just as the man gives a warm embrace to the little boy. Looking for human interaction will improve your travel photography.  Hoi An Ancient City, Vietnam.

Create Great Street Photographs

This is an unusual image in that the subject is on the far right, and the viewer has to search for the subject. Centering the subject is not necessary, it depends on balance and composition. By having the man and little boy in this image, it adds emotion and this is what defines this image.

My tour guide has some fun on a bamboo swing at Mau Cave. The length of the swing is emphasized by showing a lot of space on top.

© Thomas Levine Photography

Thomas Levine is a fine arts and travel photographer as well as an educator. His background is varied and he’s spent years photographing advertising products for national publications including: architecture, products, people, food, fine art, nature, now travel. He is currently traveling in SE Asia and sells his photographs for wall prints as well as stock photography.

Thomas is currently working on a travel-coffee table book about three countries in SE Asia, featuring over 200 photographs from the past three years. In addition, he’s working to publish his travel stories and photographs in national magazines and travel sites. To see more of his work and bio

Author: TL

Editor & Chief, professional photographer who's passionate about fine arts, travel and food photography. Traveling in SE Asia currently. Thomas Levine Photography sells photo stock, products designed with his images, and educates others on how to take great photographs. Travel Food & Health is Tom's way of sharing the world. Geared for both travelers or arm chair travelers.

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