Isn’t it always the way that the most daunting things in life are usually the most rewarding? It takes a certain amount of backbone to shoot street portraits. Whether it’s walking up to a total stranger and asking their permission, or taking a more candid, reportage style approach, many photographers get put off through lack of confidence.
It’s a great shame because there is no more fascinating photographic subject than people.
If you follow the Humans of New York project, you’ll know that every single person has a story to tell; sometimes uplifting, often heartbreaking, occasionally hilarious. The very best street portraits give us a glimpse at those stories in a single frame.
If you’ve always wanted to give it a go but have yet to summon up the courage, hopefully, the following tips will give you all the motivation you need.
The first time you approach a potential subject is going to be the hardest. It can sometimes feel like an insurmountable hurdle. But try and think about it from your potential subject’s point of view. He or she is going about their daily routine, possibly doing the same thing they have been for years and finding it all a little boring. Then, out of nowhere, someone has judged them interesting enough to want to take their picture. Chances are, you’ve just made that person’s day. At the very least, you’ve given them an anecdote to tell their friends.
He or she is going about their daily routine, possibly doing the same thing they have been for years and finding it all a little boring. Then, out of nowhere, someone has judged them interesting enough to want to take their picture. Chances are, you’ve just made that person’s day. At the very least, you’ve given them an anecdote to tell their friends.
So, what’s the best way to approach someone? Different photographer’s stand by different techniques. Some just come straight out and ask if they can take a picture. Others want to try and make a connection first in a more roundabout way, striking up a conversation or asking questions.
One psychological technique favored by many salesmen is to first ask for a small, unrelated favor, such as directions or whether they have the correct time. Studies have shown that once someone has done you one favor, they’re much more likely to say yes to another, bigger one. Don’t ask me why—people are complex!
In any approach, confidence is obviously vital, but enthusiasm is just as important. Enthusiasm is contagious. Be genuinely interested, listen carefully to what they’re saying and be respectful. Also, if you can make them laugh, or at least smile, you’ll find all their barriers will start to lower.
Where you find your subject (i.e. their environment) can sometimes tell you as much about them as what they look like.
Finding an impeccably groomed city trader striding around the financial district is to be expected. But finding him in a crowded flea market hints at a story. If the environment adds to the portrait, include as much of it as you need to enhance the photograph.
If you want your portrait to be all about the person, if they have an interesting face or you want to highlight the way they dress, try and find a background that won’t distract from them. A busy background can confuse the eye and take away from the impact you’re trying to make. If you need to, open up your aperture to throw the background out of focus and bring attention back to where it should be.
The eyes have it
The most important part of your portrait will always be the eyes. The eyes tell us everything; how the person is feeling, what they’re thinking, if they’re happy or anxious, and even if they would rather you stopped taking their picture.
Eye contact is incredibly powerful in real life. If you’re talking to someone and they maintain a natural, unwavering eye contact, there’s something primeval that makes you trust them and creates a connection. It’s the same with a portrait. You need that eye contact to make a successful shot.
If you photograph a subject who’s not looking directly back at you, the natural instinct is to follow their gaze to see what they’re looking at. You can sometimes use this to your advantage to draw the viewer’s eye towards an element of the picture you want them to focus on. For example, in this shot of a man carrying baskets full of rabbits, the eye line of the two children always brings us back to the cages.
On a technical note; as I’m sure you’ve noticed, people tend to blink. Try to take a quick burst of shots of your subject to ensure you capture at least some with their eyes open. Autofocus systems can also tend to hunt around, and taking more shots increases your chances of grabbing a pin sharp image.
The candid street portrait
If you’re looking for a way to ease yourself into this genre, shooting candid street portraits holds some definite advantages. You do away with the whole nail-biting business of asking permission and perhaps suffering a rejection. You capture people as they really are rather than the front they put up when a camera’s pointed at them.
But that’s not to say candid street photography is easy. If anything, it’s more difficult (or, at least, a different kind of difficult) and can be just as nerve-wracking.
Your timing has to be split second in order to capture the spontaneous moments that occur all around you. You need to know your equipment inside out in order to be able to frame a great composition and adjust settings as needed quickly.
Capturing great candid street pictures takes a great deal of practice and a lot of luck. Whatever your personal feelings are on the ethics of taking someone’s photo without permission, there are people who really don’t appreciate it.
It would be very unlikely you’d get into any serious trouble, but it’s worth using your street smarts and common sense. As a personal rule of thumb, if a certain person looks too mean for me to even consider asking permission to photograph them, there’s no way I’d try and sneak a shot.
Whatever type of street portraits you’re taking, the one thing you don’t usually have on your side is time. With candid shots, you’re constantly reacting to the world as it unfolds in front of you at its usual breakneck pace, and with the more posed approach, you’re still cutting into someone’s, probably busy, day.
You need to be able to work quickly, without fussing over settings or lens changes or tripping over bags. Keep your equipment as simple as possible—a single camera body and a zoom lens that covers all eventualities. I put a lot of trust in my Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L. It might not have the widest aperture in the world, but I’m happy to trade that for the versatility.
I generally shoot in Aperture Priority as well. So I only really need to think about the depth of field I want in a shot and let the camera’s far superior brain work out the rest of the details for me.
One area where you do need to stock up is memory cards. Make sure you have plenty of storage space with you, you’ll be taking a lot of images—especially if you’re heading out for a day of sneaky candid shooting. Throw in a couple of freshly charged batteries as well, just in case.
Like every area of photography, shooting street portraits has challenges all of its own. By far the most difficult thing to overcome is finding the courage to approach your subjects.
The good news is, if you’ve always felt too intimidated to attempt this genre of photography, you’re in esteemed company. Legendary names such as Diane Arbus and Elliott Erwitt have said they’ve used their cameras as both a kind of license to take photos and to act as a barrier between them and their subject. There’s still something mysterious about a camera that intrigues people—even more so these days when most photos are taken on phones.
All it takes is a little daring, a projected air of confidence, and you can capture some unique moments and great street portraits.