I love taking street portraits. Whether the people you are photographing are posing or just going about their day-to-day life, humans are the most captivating, strange and interesting of subjects.
Most of my portraits taken out on the street are shot with the permission of the subject. That’s my style. I love looking for people who intrigue me. I often signal them with a smile and gesture of my camera, then watch for their reaction. But I also shoot unposed portraits and life on the street, whatever catches my eye.
I know from my workshops that a lot of people find photographing strangers difficult and even, sometimes, terrifying. What is important to remember though, is that most people like to be noticed. It’s a compliment to be seen and thought of as interesting. But if they don’t like it, then the worst that can happen is that you have to delete the photo. Simple. Plus the more you do this, the easier it gets.
Here are some tips for creating interesting and evocative street portraits:
#1 – Simplicity
“The one guiding idea was to strip away the visual noise of the street so that the people emerge in a different and hopefully more surprising way.” Eamonn Doyle
I am a lover of simplicity in my composition and when it comes to street portraits, simplicity really is your friend. One thing that ruins so many portraits is a busy, complicated background. A background that’s too busy will make your image look flat because your camera can’t capture the depth that your eye can. You have to create depth yourself with your composition. A busy background will swallow up your subject and distract your eye.
One of my favourite types of backgrounds for street portraits is something clean, colourful, and strong, like the image below. The line in the middle creates a really strong balancing element for the subject. The strength of the colours and line contrast nicely with this older man, who with that slight smile looks like he knows a thing or two about life.
#2 – Break the world down into elements
You can simplify the purpose of composition into the idea that you are simply breaking down the world into elements and organizing them in an interesting way.
I find it really helpful to look at composition with this in mind – that all you are doing is organizing the world’s elements. It helps because our eyes make things very complicated for us photographically as we see everything in 3D. Not only do we see and sense hundreds of thousands of pieces of visual information every minute from all around us, but our senses can pick up on things happening behind us as well.
To break this visual overload created by your eyes when you are bringing the world into your frame, start by breaking down what you see around you into elements – an interesting mural, strong lines on the road, beautiful shadows, etc. Then build your composition up from there. You only need one or two interesting elements to make a photo. Ones that work together and say something through their balance, shape, or placement.
This photo below is super simple. Very little going on, but I like it. What do you think makes it work? There are a couple of strong elements here that make it an interesting photo. Firstly it’s the hand holding the newspaper with a glimpse of the face reading. Then the man farther ahead walking.
Now these two men, combined with that strong line of the wall, makes it look to me like a conveyor belt. You know that it’s morning, partly because of the sun, and then the newspaper, that’s the kind of thing you do on the way to work right? So now you have a little story, perhaps about the repetitiveness and the monotony of the human experience?
I don’t always see a story in an image when I am shooting; often that comes after when I’m looking at my photos and sharing them. But what I do concentrate on is looking for interesting elements and figuring out how to place them together to make an interesting composition.
#3 – It’s all in the eyes
“The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter.” Marcus Tullius Cicero
When you are starting out taking photos of people it can be a scary experience. So much so that you often rush too much – perhaps in an effort to get it done as quickly as possible and to not offend or upset anyone. But the more you shoot street portraits, and the more effort you make to relax into the experience, the more you can work on revealing the deeper emotions of your subject.
When you take a more relaxed and patient approach you give people the space to unfold and reveal their thoughts and feelings through their bodies, faces and, most powerfully, their eyes. Eyes tell you how the subject is feeling, and often thinking.
This is where having a camera is an advantage. As humans we don’t usually look into someone’s eyes for long periods of time. It’s too powerful! It takes the interaction with that human to another level. If you have a camera between you and your subject though, it acts as a sort of safe barrier. So you can then spend time observing them, seeing what their face is doing, looking into their eyes, and seeing how they really feel.
#4 – Be patient humans do funny things
“You don’t have to enhance reality. There is nothing stranger than truth.” Annie Leibovitz
For me taking photos of people on the street is all about opening yourself up to, and noticing the comedy of being human, as Elliot Erwitt calls it.
“You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.” Elliott Erwitt
#5 – Find a great background and wait
There is a tradition in street photography that you find an interesting location; a background, a road, or sign, and then you wait for someone or something to happen in front of it. It requires patience, which is a very good thing to develop. I’ve noticed that patience is something that beginners often lack. Possibly because we live in a world that is so used to immediate gratification that we expect good shots to come in abundance.
It rarely works like that. I therefore like this idea of finding something interesting out on the street – some elements, or a place that fascinates you, then waiting for something to happen. It’s a great way to train your eye, and perfect your timing. Plus, when you continually gaze at one place you become very familiar, very intimate with it. You’ll notice things that initially you didn’t see.
#6 – Use colour
“I paint because colour is a significant language to me.” Georgia O’Keeffe.
Colour is also a significant language for me and I have always preferred shooting colour over black and white. I love the feeling you can communicate with colour and I think it moves me as much as light. So for me it’s an integral part of my style.
Street photography is often dominated by black and white photography. Although what I am doing is often not strict street photography (however, Bruce Gilden, controversial street photographer extraordinaire, did say “If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it’s a street photograph.”).
Whether you use colour or black and white, do what excites you the most. The more excited you are by your subject and what you are creating, the more you’ll imbue your photos will feeling and depth.
Colours communicate different feelings and ideas (e.g., yellow is warm and happy, green is peaceful, red signals confidence and aliveness). I love to use them to contribute to the story that I am telling with my images.
#7 – Your camera is your licence to be curious
“I love that having a camera basically gives you a license to go up to anyone and ask them what they’re doing and why.” Andrew Hinderaker
Most people are perfectly happy to be photographed. That’s the key when you’re going out and about. My mantra when taking photos of strangers is – be confident (this comes with practice), friendly, curious, and ethical. In other words, I prefer to photograph people who are okay with the experience. I don’t generally photograph kids and the obviously vulnerable, etc. That’s my ethical line. For me photography is an exchange and I respect everyone whom I photograph.
Humans are built to want to connect with other humans, and photography is a powerful form of connection when you use it as such. When you are taking someone’s photo you are basically saying – I see you, you interest me. And for most people that’s a wonderful compliment.
For me the portrait above is about two things, the light and the couple smiling. The warmth of their smiles match the warmth of the light, as well as the lush, summery background of grass and trees. I took this photo by just smiling at the couple and gesturing with my camera. Of course the fact that it was a beautiful summer’s evening and we were in the park helped. People who are relaxing and enjoying themselves are, of course, easier subjects to approach.
#8 – The power of the gesture
The more closely you watch humans the more you see how they reveal themselves in so many ways. This was a photo I took for a project I was doing on people’s bellies. Each photo was totally different because the way that people presented their bellies and the gestures they made, showed so much about their personalities, what they felt about themselves, and their bodies.
Keep watch of people’s gestures. Along with the eyes, hands are very revealing of people’s feelings and thoughts (and apparently hands are easier to read than eyes if you want to tell if someone is lying).
#9 – The key to original, interesting photos is to be yourself
“I’m photographing myself out there. Not myself physically, but mentally. It’s my take on the world.” Bruce Gilden
A lot of people in workshops worry about how over-photographed the world seems now and will they ever have anything interesting or original to contribute? Hasn’t it all been done before? Well, this is the wrong way to think about it. Of course the world is very photographed now. Especially places that I visit, London, Paris, Venice, Istanbul, etc.
But the world isn’t a staid thing – it’s an ever-changing, ever moving, organism. Nothing stays the same. Having humans moving around the world makes the possibilities for original and interesting photos infinite.
More importantly though, photography is an expression of who you are. When you start out perhaps you’ll take photos like everyone else. But the more you do it, the more you’ll create something unique and original that’s a total expression of who you are – your passions, experience, style, and way of seeing the world. This creates the unique and interesting photographs that you are aiming for. It’s just like famous jazz musician Miles Davis says:
“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
I’d love to know what you think. What do you do to create interesting street portraits? Comment below, I’d love to hear your ideas!
Taking street portraits and exploring the street life of cities with your camera is an exhilarating experience. Learn how to conquer your fears of street photography and to create compelling compositions with Anthony’s popular street photography workshops in some of the most vibrant cities Europe.