I’m often asked about whether we should ask strangers if we can take their picture and, if so, is it really street photography? We usually refer to these pictures as street portraits – and they’re becoming very popular.
For me, a street portrait is a posed, rather than candid, portrait of a stranger on the street; typically, you’ll see someone who looks interesting and ask them if you can take their photo. And, if you’re new to this, you’ll probably be surprised by their reaction: 9 out of 10 say ‘yes’. So far, so good, but is this truly ’street photography’? It’s a matter for debate. I would place it into the margins of what we think of as being street photography – although it doesn’t come close to any mainstream definitions. But who cares about definitions? (that’s another controversial question!).
I had a recent encounter on the streets with a lovely chaps called George Skeggs – or ‘Soho George’ as he is better known. If you have spent any time in and around Soho, you will almost certainly have come across this wonderful chap, who is part of the fabric of Soho and has been for the past 60-plus years. George, who describes himself as “a heterosexual Cockney artist, Hogarthian rake who loves individuality and style, sleeps in front of a mirror, ex-gigolo, old man held together with polygrip & rubber bands“, is one of the last true Soho legends. And, as such, he is a target for street photographers as he goes about his daily life.
I bumped into George recently when we discussed the whole question of ‘permission’ – and, specifically, when it is best to ask for it. Because of Soho George’s distinctive style, he’s a constant target for street photographers, so I assumed he would have an interesting take on the subject. Like many people I encounter on the streets, George is happy to pose for a portrait – but he likes to be asked first. Fair enough – I would probably feel the same.
We generally think of street photography being as being a candid pursuit so asking permission seems to fly in the face of convention. But it’s great fun – and it’s highly addictive. So where do you start?
10 Tips for shooting street portraits
Have a plan. Before you start doing this set yourself some objectives. Maybe you could treat is as a project using a particular type of person – or a specific location. For some great inspiration, look at the ‘Humans of New York’ project by Brandon Stanton. Sometimes it’s helpful to decide on a common style for the portraits; for example, do you want to people to pose to your direction or will you just snap away while you’re chatting to them? Will the background be in or out of focus? Will it be an environmental portrait where the background plays a crucial role? Will the shots be close-up, half-length or full-length? Will they be looking to camera or off camera? If this is going to be a project, this consistency of style becomes super-important.
Choose the right subject. A great way to get started is to go for people who look good – who have made an effort. It could be fabulous clothes, great hair, an unusual hat, lots of tattoos – whatever it is, they’re likely to be proud of it. And that usually means they want to show it off and will happily pose for you. Please don’t ask homeless or vulnerable people for portraits; they’re having a tough enough time as it is and someone sticking an expensive camera in their face isn’t going to make their day any better.
Just go for it. When you’ve found that ideal subject, don’t hesitate – that initial moment of uncertainly will sap your confidence and could make you look shifty. When you see a likely subject, just go for it. A simple “can I take your picture?” usually does the trick.
Get your approach right. Make sure you approach people in a really relaxed manner and with a smile on your face. If you seem relaxed, they’ll relax; if you seem nervous and shifty, they’ll be starting to have doubts. Smiling is infectious and this initial warmth will go a long way to helping get a successful portrait. So just relax! As you’re approaching people, maybe raise your camera slightly so that your intentions are clear – don’t try to hide it as could make you look shifty; again, do this with a warm smile. Be confident and well-practised in your approach. Know what you’re going to say and how you’re going to introduce yourself. Work out a patter – a script – that works for you and be prepared to explain what you’re doing. And remember, a bit of flattery works wonders. Keep it short, snappy and confident – this isn’t the time for your life story. Finally, always approach people from the front or side rather than from the back, which could appear threatening.
Take rejection on the chin. Rejection is all part of the game – part of the fun, even. My ‘yes’ rate is around 90 percent but if people say no, that’s no problem and I just move on to the next one. It’s important to respect the rejection – a no is a no. Rejection can be hard to take at first but it really won’t be long before you start to brush negative encounters aside and move on. Some people just don’t want to have their picture taken by a stranger – it’s no problem – plenty do!
Think about the light. Scout around for great light. I see some street portraits which could have been terrific and had real potential but were let down because of poor light. Remember, you’re in control of the situation – you’re the art director of this little scene – so you need to be super-aware of where the good light is happening and be prepared to move your subject towards it. Some people use flash or carry a small collapsible white reflector in their bag – this can be great for directing some natural light into the face.
Take control. Remember that you’re in charge so don’t be afraid to direct people. When they’re posing for a picture, most folks are far more comfortable being directed – “look over there” or “drop your right arm down a bit” or “stand just next that pillar”. If your subjects are being told what to do, they’ll almost always feel less awkward and less self-conscious. It’s nearly always a welcome intervention.
Don’t rush it! Trying to get it all over with as quickly as possible will add to the nervousness – of you and possibly of your subject – and you’ll always be disappointed that you didn’t get the best possible outcome from the situation. I would generally take 3-4 minutes doing a street portrait and in that time I may take a dozen or so shots. Sometimes you’ll get the vibe that your subject is enjoying the experience and they’d be happy to spend longer . . . and this is brilliant. I’ve know photographers spend half an hour or more – just from that chance encounter in the street.
Be generous. I’ll often offer to send the subject a copy of the image which is a nice quid pro quo for their time and attention. You could also consider having an instant camera with you (I use a Fujifilm Instax); I t takes a few seconds to take that extra shot and most people love getting that little print in their hands.
Have some business cards made. This will not only make you feel more ‘authentic’ but it’s also a demonstration of your legitimacy as a photographer. I’ve known the humble little card to make the difference between acceptance and rejection.
What gear to use?
It doesn’t really matter what sort of camera you use – film, digital, full-frame, large format – even Polaroid. But do try be consistent and if your aiming to produce a body of work, use the same lens throughout the project – and ideally the same camera. Whilst for most of my regular street photography I would use a 35mm lens (in full-frame terms), for street portraits I’d be more inclined to use something like a 50mm or 85mm – and one with a fairly wide maximum aperture such as f/1.4 or f/1.2. Some people use flash but I much prefer to make the most of soft available light.
Whatever gear you use, the most important thing is that you’re completely familiar with it and confident using it. Once you start fumbling with settings or dithering about what to do, your subject will be starting to doubt your competence and will lose interest.
Enjoy the experience!
Once you get over the initial reticence or nerves, taking street portraits should be a spontaneous, joyful experience. It leads to some great encounters and interesting conversations – and you nearly always finish the shoot with a big smile on your face.
If you would like to see a video about how to shoot street portraits, please head over to my YouTube channel by clicking here.