How To Create Drama In Street Photography

Happy New Year 2017 to all of you beautiful blog readers! I wish everything awesome flowing into your lives throughout 2017.

I have had quite a great head start to 2017, and on today's local paper, The Borneo Post, I was featured in an article about creative artists' resolutions for the 2017 year. Special thanks to the amazing Georgette Tan for the interview and featuring me.

It was a long weekend, and when I have some spare time to myself, you know the only thing I would do is to get out and shoot some photographs! My experimentation with the Panasonic Lumix LX100 continues, and this time I had a friend tagging along. Nick Wade (oops, forgot to take a portrait shot of Nick in action this time) was with me shooting on the morning of the New Year's Eve and I could not think of a better way to spend my time.

From what happened to be my last shutter therapy session of 2016, I came home with a few images that looked a little more dramatic than usual, and I thought why not compile the images and write a blog article about that?

If you look at the pool of street photographs (which has become a growingly common genre practiced widely everywhere now), the images that stood out usually have some drama in them. The drama can usually be the split second action of something happening, the creative play of merging visually stunning lines and perspectives or something completely unpredictable and random yet beautifully conceived in a photograph. To have that drama in a street photograph immediately elevated the status of that photograph from the otherwise, ordinary, uninteresting and cliche snapshots which have been done to death. There is no clear defining characteristics of these "dramatic traits" but each photographer can inject his or her own input.

In this blog entry I am sharing what I normally do, what I look for, and how I add drama to my street photography.


Jump 1

Jump 2

This tip must be credited to my friend Shaun Nykvist, because we both thought of this together in one of our shooting sessions together the last time he was here (must have been months ago! Shaun, please come back to KL). You see, street shooting requires patience and a lot of waiting for something to happen, but how do you know, and how can you successfully predict all the random moments and which one will be worth shooting?

When someone or something goes into a space, room or a shop, if you know that the person was making a delivery or taking something out, that person will come out soon. It could take just a few seconds or even minutes to wait, and this could just be the drama you need in the photograph! As seen in the photo of the man jumping off the side of the van, I knew he would come out somehow, and the jump was a bonus, and I was ready for this shot since I was anticipating for this to happen, and I managed to capture the jump in mid air, which was the exact drama that I was searching for,

Sometimes, you need to work the drama a little bit, not necessarily contaminating the shot, but just to get things moving. For example the cat getting down from the car roof. What I did was I went near and played with the cat a little bit, getting the cat to like me. As I knew that the cat would follow me, I walked away from the car, and the only way for the cat to come to me, was to jump down from the roof. Camera ready, shutter speed set to fast, and the cat leaped!


I am known to be able to shoot close up street portraits, but I do not just go to anyone and everyone and attacked them with my camera!

I am very picky when it comes to my portraits of strangers. I will only approach someone if I was sure I wanted the portrait of that particular person, and usually there was something interesting, unique or catchy about that choice. It can be the unusual hat he was wearing, or the facial hair, or a shirt with funky colors. These special characteristics will add drama and result in much more compelling street portraits, instead of just another image of a stranger. It is ok to be discriminatory and choosy when it comes to photography, you are the boss and you get to decide what and who you want to shoot freely. If there was nothing special about the subject of choice, then the final resulting outcome will just reflect the original choice.

Portrait of a Construction Worker

Bus Conductor

At a Storage Room


It is crucial to be alert to the surroundings and be observant on things that may look out of place, unusual or does not seem right. If there was something unique, strange or made you go "what the heck is this doing here?" then that is the drama you can include in your street photograph. If that something can be a joke, or a contradiction it can be an interesting subject. Then shoot that particular image in the particular way that it could enhance the feeling of "wrongness" or "out of place", usually using a wider perspective to show the environment framing the subject. 

Creepy Flower


Note On The Wall


The most interesting street photographs out there typically combine several subjects and layers in a single image, allowing the viewer to explore the frame think about the interaction between the subjects and the environment they were in, and each other. In another way, it is like finding pieces of jigsaw puzzle that fits together to form a larger picture. Some pieces can be combined together to form a good picture, some do not fit together and they will just result in often ordinary snapshots, a random image that anyone can just take with a smartphone. The real challenge is to look out for the compatible pieces and how to put them all together for that dramatic final overall picture. It is usually not an easy task. 

If you have a nice wide dominant blue background, and you have man dressed in a similar blue, smacking them together would create a simple drama that just works. If you have even more elements together and you can somehow arrange them in a cohesive, beautiful manner than you are taking the drama up to another level. Not just matching colors, but shapes, patterns, lines, creative play with light and shadow can create superb results too particularly on the streets. Appreciation on basic artistic elements and ability to recognize their presence, and act to form a meaningful image is the fundamental art of photography. 



Blue 2


If your shooting location is in the urban setting, such as large cities (like the one I am in, Kuala Lumpur), at peak hours, or in some places, all the time, you will find that there are just too many people around, walking everywhere, and the mess can be difficult to deal with. Isolating a subject for clean composition will be difficult with people coming and out of nowhere. The chaos can both be your enemy and your friend. 

In the midst of the chaotic nature of city life, the busy-ness of the streets can be an interesting playground. If you can just find something that immediately jumps out from the chaotic mess, or finding small order of things in the pile of human traffic, the image can be worthy of a dramatic concept. It is either you find something out of the ugly mess and turn into an interesting photograph, or you do not shoot it at all. Because if you do not have that something, all you can produce will just be messy, complicated and topic-less image. 

Do not give up easily. It is important to know your shooting location well enough, and know what goes on when and where. Take your time to go through the mess, walk with the crowd, and after a while, once you are used the to often claustrophobic people traffic jam, your eyes will be open to more opportunities and you will start to see your images. For example, shooting in a local wet market in KL, often the first timers will be overwhelmed with the smell, the crazy amount of people in a limited space, the wetness of the floor and uncomfortable humidity. Once you have adjusted yourself, no longer bothered by the location itself, you then can start to shoot better images. Blend into the chaos and find order in the chaos. 

New TV Sets


Street Vendor


Yes, I love cats. They love me too. Those who have tagged along my shoots will know that cats are somehow drawn to me. 

I have used cats in my shots countless times. Ok, ok I am just writing this because I love cats and they do not necessarily add much drama but what the heck. Cats for life. 

It was a cloudy day, hence I could not do the creative play with shadow and light thing, which I have been wanting to do. And it was difficult to create good images because everything appeared flat and dull and uninteresting, lighting is one of the most important part of any photography. Not exactly the best time to capture images when I wanted to do more drama. 

Nevertheless, Nick and I braved on the morning. I found myself loving the Panasonic Lumix LX100 more and more now, and have less to complain when it comes to shooting operations. I have my own set of controls and setup that can be quite efficient to get the shots I wanted quickly. The focusing, and I have mentioned before, was good enough for usual street photography purposes and I do not find myself missing shots, and if I did it was entirely my own fault. 



Five Foot Way

Taxi Driver

I do hope that the tips of how to create drama may come in handy for your own street shooting. 

So there you go, my first blog entry for the year 2017. 

I do seriously wish I have more time to shoot and write here. Let's see if this can continue on. 

Here is me wishing all of us to have more shutter therapy sessions in 2017! 

End your Street Shooting with awesome coffee

Inspirations for my down time/rest stops

Last Selfie of 2016

Please support my blog by liking my Facebook Page here


  1. You're off to a great start. This article is certainly educational

  2. Great Article Robin, once again the tips are really useful, hope to be able to use them in everyday shots :)

    Happy new year wishing you a great year!

  3. Happy New Year,Robin!
    Beautiful blog entry - great photos!
    This time, my favorite is "Directions". I am still waiting for to open up the door from the elevator. :)

  4. Are these straight out-of-camera JPEGs from the LX100? Or edited RAW? There's a lot more local contrast and pop there than I'm used to seeing in Panny JPEGs.

    1. Hey Steve, nope, the images were shot in RAW and processed in Capture One

  5. Here's hoping for more of these lovely blog entries. I've enjoyed your writing and shooting for years now and each new essay is as delightful as the first. Please continue on into 2017 and beyond!

  6. You come from Cat City--of course, cats are drawn to you. Happy 2017! Good that you were interviewed and featured since you seem like "hometown man does well"-type.

    Occasionally, when I'm in San Francisco, I see something to photograph. Recently, there were around 15 trucks with concrete on the street where I was, for some construction project. That was a little interesting but I can never capture as you can. :-)

  7. Robin:my question is off topic, but I haven't found another way to contact you. In your review of the new Mk II, you indicated that a button could be programmed to perform Exp Comp while in Manual Mode and Auto ISO. I have tried this with no luck. The programmed button will work in Shutter or Aperture while in Auto ISO, but not in Manual, at least not for me. If you know of a way, would you please provide the details. Thanks, Richard

    1. Hi Richard,
      Congratulations on your purchase of the E-M1 Mark II.
      Here is how you can access exposure compensation in the full manual shooting mode:

      Menu --> Cogs --> B (Buttons/Dial/Lever) --> Dial Function --> Set as your preference on which dial you want your exposure compensation on
      Menu -

    2. Robin: thanks for your reply. On my camera doing what you did allows for EC to be used when in Auto ISO on S,A and P, but not M. Please note the requirement for Auto ISO. Being able to use EC when in full manual and Auto ISO is a very desirable feature for sports/action shooters. Most of the mid level and all the top end Nikon and Canon cameras have this feature. Hopefully, you can lobby HQ to implement it via a firmware change:). Thanks again, Richard

    3. Dear Richard,
      The exposure compensation CAN be used in Manual mode using Auto ISO, if you have followed the steps I have described above. When shooting in manual, You have to manually control shutter speed and aperture, meaning when you leave the ISO to auto, the Exposure Compensation controls the ISO. I have tested this myself, and verified that when you assigned one of the dials to control the exposure compensation, as you turn the dial (+/1 EV) the ISO changes. I am not sure what steps you missed to get the Exposure Compensation to work.

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  9. Hey Robin
    Congratulations on being featured in the Borneo Post and hope you had a Happy New Year, and wish you the best for 17 and further. Great article and thanks for the tip on street photography, need to get around to shooting some streets. Damn.. but the pictures made me nostalgic about KL and Malaysia :-(. I just visit your blog every time I miss KL. :-). Reading the write-up, with Kuching being mentioned.. now I miss the Sarawak laksa.. not nice..

    1. Hi Rahul,
      Do come back and visit Malaysia some time! Kuching is waiting for you always.

  10. Great post. Thanks for the useful tips!

  11. If you don’t agree with this you are more than welcome to try Google or Wikipedia.