When I first started to take photography more seriously, it was photographing people that I found the most fascinating. I had a camera, and a whole city that I could look to for inspiration. To this day, the fascinating variety of people in this city motivate me to go out and look for photos that feature them either in the social landscape or in portraiture.
I discovered the concept of the street portrait as part of my exploration of doing street photography, through Flickr groups like the amazing 100 Strangers Project. As I explored this project and started to make stranger portraits of my own, I became more aware of some of the keys to making this kind of picture that worked for me, and started to try an repeat these to help me with my confidence and approach.
Taking portraits of strangers on the street can be a rewarding experience that challenges and changes the way that you view the very place that you live in. These are some of the things that work and have worked for me, and that will hopefully help those of you who are thinking of exploring this interesting sub-genre of street and documentary photography.
A positive attitude is everything
Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York fame was recently in Sydney, talking about his project and how he got it started. During his presentation he said that attitude was everything when approaching someone on the street for a portrait. Stanton said that giving off a positive, friendly and confident energy was key. The people he was approaching were picking up, and almost feeding off of it. Once he realised that his initial demeanour could really have a strong first impression and set the tone for the interaction, he was able to connect more readily. He found that this was key to really putting his subjects at ease. I could not agree more with this. It is so important to approach people with a positive outlook, and be confident about what you are doing and why. People will sense that you are not a threat and be more open to listening to your quest and consider giving you their time for a portrait.
Find a good, simple background
When you are starting out with stranger portraits it helps to have all of the logistical parts of what you are doing organised so that you can really focus on the interaction and the person that you are photographing. For this reason I think it is very helpful to find a setting or background for your portrait before you start looking for a stranger. There is nothing worse than mustering up the courage to ask someone for a portrait, having them accept and then being disappointed that it didn’t quite work out because of a busy or distracting background that didn’t suit your portrait subject, or that you lost time you could have dedicated to shooting because you were struggling to place the person in the scene.
Simple coloured walls are a great way to begin because it is easier to match with a strangers clothes, hair colour or other feature. Finding a contrasting or complementary colour on a persons clothing for instance, is easier done when you have one colour to think about in the background. Although simplistic in approach and often repeated, it is a great way of building experience with street portraits. As you start to get more confident you can experiment with different backgrounds, textures, even geometric arrangements in your background. You can even go for eliminating the background completely and filling the frame with your subject. However to start with, keep it simple with this idea of matching a stranger to a simple background.
Find the right light
In a similar vein to the previous tip, you want to make sure that you can place your subject in reasonably flattering light for a portrait. When starting out, avoid harsh, contrasty light that you typically find in a setting exposed to full sun. A good tip is to look for open shade. This is a scenario where the shadow of something like a building is stopping any harsh sunlight from hitting your subject directly, but the light from the surrounds and the sky up above is still affecting the area. Place your subject in this shade, facing the open light of the sky and the light will wrap around them nicely and also create a decent catchlight in their eyes. It's a great platform for lighting a simple portrait.
Get your camera set
A good tip is to get your settings as close as you can to what you need to make a decent exposure. For a portrait you want to have a reasonably shallow depth of field but not so shallow that it starts to create a risk that you might mis-focus on the eyes of your subject. Start out with a more moderate aperture setting, a good fast shutter speed to minimise camera shake, and don’t get hung up on sacrificing these for the sake of a lower ISO. Modern cameras do a fantastic job at higher ISO settings so it is more important to control your shot and get everything that you need in focus and sharp for a nice clean portrait. Of course, if you really must go for that super shallow depth of field then make sure you have a few more conservative shots in the bag, and then by all means go for it!!
I recommend checking your settings by making a few test shots and adjusting as needed before you stop a stranger for a photo. With a 50mm lens, which is my preferred lens for street portraits, you can take a picture of your outstretched hand to gauge exposure, of both your hand and the background to get your settings close so you are ready to roll when its time to make portraits!
Talk to people about why you are doing this
It is not everyday that people get stopped in the street and are asked to have their portrait taken. Most people will be flattered that you chose them for your project, but you need to put them at ease by communicating why you are doing what you are doing. Your reasons for doing street portraiture will be your own, but know that learning to use your camera is just as good a reason as a more lofty and artistic goal. The trick, though, is to communicate this to your subject. Talk to them about the reasons why you are shooting so that they know you are genuine, serious and respectful and most people will be happy to participate and help you out.
Of course you can offer to provide a copy of the portrait over email, and these days it is not even necessary to exchange email addresses - you can simply ask for an instagram handle!! I can tell you though, that one of my most rewarding street portrait experiences was with an older gentleman who wanted me to print and post the photograph to his home!! As you get more experience and confident you will work out what is right for you. But be sure to know your goals, or be able to describe your motivations - be they to learn about your camera and photography or for a project, series, or theme you are exploring.
It’s not all about you
One of the most rewarding aspects of doing street portraits of strangers is finding out a little more about your fellow citizens. Make a point of finding out something about your subject. It could be as simple as what they have planned for the day, or as deep as the meaning of life and the universe - you just don’t know what you will discuss until you open that door and try and find a connection.
If you are like me and struggle to make small talk, this type of exercise will be daunting at first, but keep at it - look for something simple that you have in common and riff off of that. I always make a point of making a photograph after having even a brief conversation - I find that conversation opens the door to a connection and that this comes through in the portrait. Over time you will begin to recognise when you have made a connection and when you have not, and how this translates to the picture. You won't hit it off with everyone you meet - do not be discouraged, just be polite, make small talk, share the experience, give them a portrait and move on.
Don’t let NO get you down
You will be refused - this we know. That’s OK and part of the street portrait experience. You will learn that people who are rushing, stressed or distracted are likely not going to give you a yes. You will find that when you feel out of sorts or approach people awkwardly you will put them off guard and they might not want to participate in your portrait adventure. That is often how it goes.
However sometimes regardless of what you do, the answer will be a no. Don’t take it personally. There are a myriad of reasons why someone would decline your offer of a portrait and most of those have nothing to do with you, your appearance or demeanour. It is important to realise that getting a no is just part of the process of doing stranger street portraits.
People are being stopped on the street all the time for a whole host of reasons, and in a city people are used to this and often have an automatic no response. Just let it wash over you, take it in for the experience that it is, and keep going. Realise that the act of asking is just as powerful a medicine for your growth as a photographer as making the image! When you eventually get a yes, you will start your journey on this amazing ride that is street portraiture.
I hope that you find the tips above useful and encouraging enough for you to give this a try if you have not done so already. Aim to get to a point of having confidence to go out and shoot - once you have that confidence you can start getting creative with all aspects of your portraits of strangers on the street, and you will also find that you will enjoy the act of meeting people as much as you do taking their photograph.
If you have any questions about street portraits, please drop me a note in the comments below - As you all know, I am also on a learning path, and I would love to have a discussion here about your thoughts and experiences, as well as try my best to answer any questions you might have.