There are many street photographers that will only shoot in a candid fashion. They wish to be invisible, to be unseen, to only capture photographs that they observe without interacting with the people in the scene. Some people feel that this is the ONLY way street photography should be shot.
I don’t subscribe to that philosophy, however. I think street is far too broad of a genre to ever be pigeonholed like that. While I do love shooting candidly, street photography offers so many great opportunities to interact with and meet new people that I would find it restricting to only shoot in a candid fashion.
Working with students in my workshops I have found that it can be quite challenging for some people to approach a complete stranger on the street and ask to make a portrait of them. That is exactly what I would like to talk about in this post.
The first thing you should think about when you are considering asking someone to pose for a street portrait is that what you are really doing is paying them a compliment. You are really saying that there is something unique about that person, and that you are compelled to capture it. This is a beautiful thing, so there is no reason to be nervous. As a matter of fact, nervousness shows and will only serve to make the interaction more awkward. Be proud of your work, be proud of wanting to meet someone new, and be proud of wanting to create art by shooting a portrait of someone.
The other thing I always do when I teach street photography workshops is to have my students consider the following question:
“What is the worst thing that can happen?”
The worst, ultimately, is that the person says no. That’s fine, nobody ever died from being told no. Sure it can be soul crushing when that amazing person says no to you, but life goes on and you continue shooting.
Easing into it – Shoot street entertainers!
A great place to start shooting street portraits is to start by shooting street entertainers. These artists are used to being in the limelight and will not have a problem with it. One strong word of advice though:
When I am out shooting street I always have small denominations of currency in my bag, just for situations like this. Always remember that street entertainers are artists who are working for a living. We are artists, and we should be respectful of this fact. You will always get better portraits from street entertainers if you throw a small amount of change in their hat first.
Once you are comfortable shooting street entertainers, don’t forget to shoot a lot of frames. Move around, shoot from different angles. All too often people who are new to this (and nervous) fire off one or two quick, un-composed frames and then hurriedly move on. Take the time to compose a decent shot. Always shoot a lot in the field, then edit later when you are on the computer and select your favourite image. Here are 3 images from a series of probably 15 or 20 frames that I shot of this gentleman in Las Vegas:
Also, always grab a detail shot or two if it is appropriate, it can make for a nice diptych to present later. Here is a shot I grabbed of this gentleman playing guitar, then a close up of his hands afterwards:
This is where it can get harder for some people. You see that amazing person, you know they would look perfect in a portrait, and you just have to get the photo. Here are some things to consider:
Does it look like the person is open and receptive to being stopped for a few minutes? If the person is talking on their phone, probably not. If they are walking full speed with intention and purpose they are probably in a rush and not too likely to have the time to stop. Are they working and with customers? This is usually my first metric when I see somebody I’d love to make a portrait of: Do I think they have the time?
Once I have made the decision that they appear to have the time the next thing I try to find is a “hook”…. a reason to approach them and begin a conversation. It could be a hat they are wearing, a dog they are walking, a painting they are working on, etc. I’m looking for the icebreaker that I can use to start a conversation.
For this gentleman it was his bird:
While for this lady it was the art she was drawing:
Once you have initiated the conversation, don’t bring up your camera right away. You approached this person because they are a person, an individual… take the time to get to know them. This is the beauty of making street portraits: Your camera is your passport to meeting new people and making new friends.
If you decide after speaking with them for a few minutes to ask them if you can take a photograph of them, be sure to let them know that it will only take a minute or two. Be respectful of their time.
If they agree, it’s time to shoot. Don’t just nervously pull up your camera, snap a frame or two, and then quickly walk away. Do the job justice: Look around them for a clean background. Don’t be afraid to change your angle or composition. Compose the image properly and make a portrait of them that they would be proud to have! Again, shoot a lot, you can pick the winner later. Here are a couple of examples:
Finally, always offer to send the person a copy of the photograph via email. Be generous as they are doing you a favour.
What about when you can’t talk to them?
There are times where you don’t have the opportunity to have a lengthy discussion with somebody. Perhaps there is something physically separating you, perhaps you are in a noisy environment, perhaps there are others around the person.
In this case eye contact, lifting the camera up to indicate that you’d like to take a photo, and of course a good smile can go a long way. If they smile and nod their head back you are good to go. If not, so be it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. This process worked perfectly fine for this portrait, shot when I was in Amsterdam and this lady didn’t speak English (and I don’t speak Dutch):
Now, get out there!
You can practice the skills necessary for making street portraits all the time, even without your camera. The main skill you need is the ability to make conversations with strangers, and that can be done anywhere: Engage your waiters and waitresses in conversation. Have conversations with people waiting in line at the bank. Speak to the person walking their dog past your house. Being able to engage a complete stranger in conversation is like a muscle, it can be strengthened which will better prepare you for when you are out shooting on the street.
Finally: Don’t be afraid of rejection when you are out there… the reward when somebody says yes and you get to make the art you love to make is always worth the risk of hearing somebody say no. This image, from the top of the post, is one of my favourite street portraits I have made in quite some time. If I had never asked, I never would have made it!
Until next time,