Street Portrait Photography

One may argue that street portrait photography isn’t purely street photography. Candid portraits may qualify in the documentary, but staged ones don’t fall in the category at all. My response is, I don’t mind how we classify the photography genres. So long as I enjoy making street portraits, I’ll continue to pursue it and share my notes for you to decide for yourself.

Alright, this post isn’t about whether or not street portraiture is street photography. It’s about how you can engage with strangers better and include them as an integral part of documenting public life.

As the title suggests, I’ll talk, in great length, about the whole process of making street portraits: before you go to the street, what you’d do in the street, how you’ll engage with people, your camera settings for the real action of photography, and finishing the workflow with subtle editing.

Bear with me, it’s going to be a long post. But it can’t substitute my street portrait photography book, because the book is more structured, with my personal experience, lots of behind the scene stories, and detailed notes in each of the topics with numerous sample pictures. Lastly, the English in a book would be better because it has gone through a couple of rounds of editing by expert editors! ?

Develop the art of people-watching

I love going to places where I can sit and people watch, take in the colors of their clothes, the wrinkles they have around their eyes when they smile, their body language when meeting one another, and sometimes I even eavesdrop on their conversations – wink!

Helen Edwards, Nothing Sexier Than Freedom

I’m a people-watcher. After I learned photography (myself), I started looking at every person from the point of view of making their portraits. Wish, my eyes had a camera. Anyways, in absence of that, I made camera my eyes.

I looked at each person in reference to the lights, composition, background, their actions, their dress, and whether they’re approachable for a portrait. Started noticing how lights provide depth and shape of objects. During the golden hours, I saw the kind of tone the light used to make on skin. If the light is falling on the person from behind, I saw the rim light on the shoulder and cheekbone of the person. I also noticed whether the person’s background is cleaner for a photograph. Even if I didn’t have a camera, I snapped the person with my eyes. This helped me build the art of seeing.

I kept memorizing and kept taking notes regarding the light shadows, location, etc, so that when I come to the place or similar time, how will I make the best use of my camera. These people-watching skills, capturing moments with eyes, and without a camera, helped build my street photography skills effectively.

Research before the action

When I’ve to visit a public location or a new city, I research a lot about the place. Read books. View YouTube videos. Browse other photographers’ portfolio who visited the same location. Learned about local legal issues. Understood whether people are friendly or not. These, apart from the other researches about travel, food, and other logistical issues.

Practice before you perform

When I’ve to shoot for a big occasion, I’d always practice at home in similar light conditions. Last year, I had to visit Goa for a conference. I knew I’ll get some time in the evening or early morning for photography. So, I saw the sunrise and sunset timings. I also calculated the time before sunrise when light is good enough to shoot in natural lights, even after raising the ISO and without compromising the noise in the picture. This helps me brush up on the basics and tune my camera settings for manual mode.

If I’ve to shoot humans in the streets, I’d practice in similar light conditions with my kid in the garden. I’ve said it umpteen times, my son is my biggest teacher. My favorite subject for photography!

Get companion before becoming champion

I don’t mind hiring a local guide who’ll help me navigate the city. In Vietnam, a scooter tour is very effective. The guide will take you to the points of interest on a scooter for 2-3 hours. This is a very cost-effective and time-saving mode to navigate the city. Find such inexpensive ways to get a guide, or your friend in the city, to help you navigate effectively.

Ok, so far, we’ve discussed how to reach, research, and navigate the city effectively. Let’s also understand how to engage with strangers and, based on the situation, go for posed or candid street photography.

Approaching a stranger

Being a people-watcher, I’ve developed a knack to understand a person’s body language. A lot comes from gut feeling and experience of spotting a friendly person in the street. But I’ve also got the reciprocated appreciation that I’m very friendly and they never felt like talking to a stranger.

Even if you’re in a foreign country and you don’t know their language, you can still exchange smiles and make a tacit request for a photo. Smile is a global language. It spreads positivity. It increased credibility. A positive body intent and a smile are all you need in your arsenal to engage with a stranger. Words, communication skills, portraits will be incidental.

Making posed street portraits

Look, seem, and behave like a photojournalist for an effective posed portrait of people you meet in the street. This makes people feel safe that you’re not approaching them with any creepy agenda. Be sincere. Your sincerity will reflect in the request for making the posed portrait of a stranger.

You’d look something unique in the person before asking for the portrait, right? Otherwise, you won’t ask everyone in the street for posing. Approach a person with below three top things in mind:

i. What made you notice the person: dress, hairstyle, his vehicle, he has some tool in hand, his professional demeanor.

ii. Appreciate the person genuinely for the uniqueness

iii. If asked for the purpose behind the photo, stay clear with your story. A true and genuine story.

Posing doesn’t mean you’re making them a model. They should look natural. Do whatever they were doing. Or at the max stand in front of a camera in a better light condition. Don’t aspire to make them a model. No.

A prime lens would do a great job of taking close street portraits. Selectively, you can increase the aperture or decrease it, depending on whether you want to keep the background in focus. I’ve used 50mm f1.8 mostly. A 200mm f2.8 telephoto lens has also done a great job of capturing street portraiture.

Why do I make posed street portraits?

If I strive for making candid photos only, I’d miss capturing the beauty, uniqueness, and diversity that the person possesses. A candid photo from a distance would miss those details. Can I afford not to include diverse humans in my asset’s library?

Secondly, I won’t get a chance to engage with the person if I keep composing from a distance. I won’t know about a person’s stories, cultural background, about the city, and many more such aspects if I make photos without talking to the person. Can I afford not to know the cultural diversity the person belongs to?

Lastly, engaging with the person is the best opportunity to know whether he has any objections if I add him to the frame. So, if I shot a staged one. I may ask the person to continue with the work and make a candid portrait too!

Making candid street portraits

Photograph the world as it is. Nothing’s more interesting than reality.

Mary Ellen Mark

For a candid street portrait, a wide-angle lens is preferred. Because you’d like to include more elements in the composition to narrate the story behind the candid picture, depending on what the person is doing, where is he heading towards, etc.

Decisive moments are one of the most sought-after candid street photographs. The concept is introduced to the photography community by Henry Cartier-Bresson. Think of the moment amongst the multiple frames in the sequence of action. The most critical instant when you freeze the motion is the decisive moment.

The juxtaposition of contrasting elements in a frame is another most popular street photography art. You need a great vision to be able to capture such photos. The best way is to fix one element and look for a contrasting one. Well, even I’m learning this technique. If you want to follow some of the recent days’ photographers, follow Vineet Vohra.

The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.”

Robert Doisneau

There’s a wide array of candid photographs possible. The streets are the best stage. As I keep saying, make the camera your eyes and shoot the best candid moments in the street!

Handling objections while including people in street photography

As much as you’re anxious to include a stranger in your photographs, those people are also concerned about getting featured in random photographs. They may dissent. Their objections would come in all shapes and forms. You can handle them well if you’re educated about those dissents and keep your responses handy.

They’ll get into a verbal spat

In case of such situations, de-escalate. Don’t waste your time in showering your legal knowledge and forcing your rights to take people’s pictures in a public place. Arguing will waste your time. If the person is with arms or very rude, the argument would soon take an ugly turn of violence.

They’ll ask you to delete their photos

Few moderately rude people may ask you upfront to delete the photo because they enjoy their private time even if they’re in a public place. I take such requests and oblige them by removing the photo. This gains me trust. I feel I’m doing a favor to my fellow street photographers by not giving chance to such strangers to raise their voices.

They’d generally be shy and would hide their faces

If a person, mostly females, doesn’t want to show up in the picture and is trying to avoid facing your camera, don’t chase them. It looks creepy. Let people enjoy their time in the streets rather than intimidating them in your presence with photography gears in hand.

They’ll ask you hundreds of questions

“Why do you need my picture?”

“Where will you use it?”

“Why do you want to take my photo, there are many others in the street!”

“Who are you?”

There would be many more such questions. Your clarity about why you need the picture and where you’ll use it would save you on almost all the occasions in case these questions are raised.

These are useful questions. If someone asks the question, it means they want to know more. They’re interested in your work also. So, it’s your job to educate them.

They may initially disagree, but then agree

I don’t believe in insisting on a person for portraits in the street. I’d ask, “can I make your portrait? I liked your headgear and would like to feature it in my portfolio and articles about the city.”

I’ve seen people saying no. Then I ask them general queries about the city, the culture, or the headgear that I had liked. They won’t mind a short interview or friendly banter. When I ask again, “Do you still mind if I take a photo?” Most likely they’d agree. The key idea here is to build a rapport and not just being greedy for the photographs.

A sincere approach and showcasing merit in your project would save you on all such occasions. I’ve faced such objections in 10% of my posed and candid street portraits. The number would look small in comparison to what I’ve got – portraits of thousands of humans. But if you don’t handle that 10% of the cases well, it will dampen your spirits to move further with including people in your street portraits.

Camera, lens and, setting for street portraits:

There’s a range of cameras and lenses to pick from – it’s a huge confusion among photographers about which camera and lens are good for what purpose. The best suggestion is to hit the ground running with whatever camera and lens you’ve got handy.

I’m a big advocate of budget photography. If you’re like me who loves to take photos on a DSLR, then you can start with entry-level DSLRs in Nikon or Canon. I used Nikon D3200 for an initial couple of years and am still proud of the portraits I shot with the camera.

A prime lens does a great job for portraits – grab a 35mm or 50mm f1.8. Both the lenses are available on budget and have amazing sharpness even in low light. The capability to control the depth and achieve shallow depth of field with a wide aperture of 1.8 is good leverage for portraits if you want to separate busy backgrounds from the people.

If I keep switching from sunlight to shadows and experience huge variance in light conditions, I prefer to go aperture mode and leave shutter speed to compensate for the exposure. For aperture priority mode, I’d set up in the range of f1.8 to f8. Depending on whether I need a shallow background or keep the background also in focus.

Editing street portrait photos:

God is in the details.”

I’ve always advocated subtle editing of street photos to exhibit enough details and follow a non-destructive editing workflow. Non-destructive editing enables you to go back to the original/ raw photograph because the pixels are not impacted.

Since I always shoot in manual mode and natural lights in streets are varying which makes it difficult to keep toggling settings for the right settings. This results in underexposed or overexposed images. So I’d, in 90% of my editing workflows, focus on getting the right exposure.

For portraits, additional editing would be required to sharpen the eyes, making catchlight prominent. I won’t retouch skin, because it’s not a commercial photo. The person should be looked natural in the picture.

In summary: A posed or candid street portrait photography needs skills of engaging with strangers and techniques of photography. Hit me up if you still feel unsatiated with the knowledge.

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Author Bio

Ranjan Photography

Ranjan is a self-taught photographer with expertise in Portrait Photography and has passion of street photography. He has authored street photography book which was bestselling on Amazon.