Introduction to Street Portrait Photography

In my opinion, street photography is a significant craft, geared towards preserving human history and history of any given society. It helps us preserve once-in-a-lifetime moments and capture truly authentic imagery. As many of us start getting weary and tired by the polished, glossy magazine looks we encounter daily, random portraits photographed in streets preserve that originality a lot of us crave, once again reminding us of real subjects and objects around us. Street portraiture is a big chunk of street photography and documentary. Today, I want to concentrate on giving you some tips on street portraiture. I should also warn you that the pointers I give today may work better for female photographers, rather than for boys with cameras :)

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1) Brush up on your people skills

Photographing people close-up is a little different than photographing street architecture or doing documentary style street photography. While the main reasoning behind street photography itself is to get away from posed, artificial and repetitive, photographing random people provides a great opportunity to work with the raw beauty. But it is a challenging task for many of us – those people on the streets are not your paying clients, they do not know who you are and most of them do not wish to be photographed at all!

Here and there, you might sneak up and photograph someone unnoticed, which ultimately adds to the stealth mood of your shot and pulses a vibe of “in the moment”. But sometimes a nice portrait shot with the subject looking into your lens is just as mesmerizing. Just how do you get it?

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Below are some pointers to consider while approaching people on streets.

2) Strike up a conversation

Chances are, the presence of a photographer walking around with a camera will most likely be noticed by others around you. Draw a smile on your face and establish an eye contact with your potential subject. This might be a little hard to do, as not everyone is in favor of being randomly photographed. Be polite and let those who are not interested pass without photographing them. Those who are curious about what you are doing often won’t mind to have a quick chat. If you are far away from your subject, mimic a conversation by gesturing to your camera and wait for their approval. As soon as you notice the positive lenience, click away for a couple of seconds. Try not to hold them waiting for too long.

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3) Ask for permission

Parents get very protective of their kids. In order to avoid getting into an altercation with an angry parent, do not forget to get permission from them before photographing their children. This should be an absolute no-brainier. Bob wrote a great article called “reach out and touch“, where he talked about photographing children and then sending photos to their parents. If you see a great opportunity for an interesting photo that involves kids, ask for a permission from their parent and give them your contact information. Many parents will be grateful for beautiful pictures of their children, since they do not get to photograph them every day with professional equipment.

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Some people do not like it when they are photographed without their consent. I personally prefer to ask my subjects before I photograph them, but if I cannot do it for whatever reason (say when doing documentary style street photography), I will do my best to let my subject know afterwards. While I have never been asked to delete a captured photo from my camera, it sure does happen. The last thing you want is an angry person chasing after you.

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4) Show gratitude

Don’t shy away from complimenting and thanking the person who just agreed to be your subject. This is the least you can do. You can certainly walk away by thanking your subjects, but do give them an opportunity to see the photos you’ve taken by offering them your business card. Some people will actually contact you to get the photos. And if the subject loves their photo, they might contact you in the future for their photography needs. For similar reasons I always try to carry my business cards with me when photographing outside. In fact, some of my subjects eventually became my clients!

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5) Have the right equipment and travel light

You do not need to lug heavy equipment or carry a big full bag of photography knickknacks. One body and a prime lens like a 50mm and/or a 24mm should serve your purpose well. You are doing street photography, which is in the moment and may be very fast paced. Leave that tripod of yours at home – don’t let your extra, unnecessary equipment get in your way.

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In fact, in my experience, a smaller camera system has some serious advantages for street photography over DSLRs. Those new large sensor mirrorless cameras that we have been seeing during the last few years have excellent image quality and impressive autofocus systems (yes, I do love our Olympus OM-D E-M5 for that reason!). Smaller camera systems are less obtrusive than big and heavy DSLRs. They are easier and less painful to carry around, especially when taking long walks. They also do not have the same psychological effect on people as big cameras – most people are used to seeing small cameras that look like a tourist point and shoot, so they do not feel as intimidated. Lastly, some mirrorless cameras have a silent shutter mode, where you won’t even hear the shutter firing. Those could be great for documentary style photos / candids (again, don’t forget to ask for a permission when you can).

6) Know your gear and have the right settings

Before approaching people, it is essential to have the right settings in your camera. Remember that a moving subject is not going to wait for you to adjust your settings. For street portraiture, Aperture Priority mode is pretty much ideal for me. Nikon’s “Auto ISO” on newer DSLRs works really well, so I typically set my minimum ISO to 100, and I leave “min shutter speed” at “Auto”, which will leave it at the focal length of the lens (you can adjust this to be 2x or faster in the camera menu). I leave the rest of the settings at default values, since I shoot RAW and those settings generally do not matter. If the occasion calls for it, having a flash unit may be useful, but generally I would not bother using artificial light.

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Most of all though, enjoy your time outside! Street photography gives us photographers a rare opportunity to live the lives of our subjects.

I was curious about what our readers on our Facebook page thought about street photography and decided to ask them what they make of it. According to them, street photography is seeing the mundane in a different perspective, capturing the unknown and showing the raw emotions. What do you think?

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Comments

  1. 1
    ) Emad
    July 9, 2013 at 11:12 pm

    Great tips Lola, thank you very much. i just got a x100s and i think it’s a perfect camera for street, i love it so much

  2. 2
    ) Faz
    July 10, 2013 at 2:16 am

    Very useful tips Lola. Much appreciated.
    Just would request you to, if you can, mention the exif along with camera model and lens used.
    The photographs are very beautiful. Would love to know the shutter speed aperture ISO etc.
    Cheers

    • July 10, 2013 at 2:37 am

      Faz, thank you for your feedback! All images should have their EXIF data embedded. Please use an EXIF viewer to view this info (we always provide it in images).

      • 10
        ) Faz
        July 10, 2013 at 8:52 am

        Sure Nasim. However a small suggestion if you could mention the shutter speed, aperture and ISO just below the photograph for a quick reference :-)
        just a suggestion :-)
        Cheers

  3. July 10, 2013 at 3:22 am

    good article with some great tips for getting started.
    if anyone is interested in doing a project that is centred around street portraiture, then definitely check out the 100 Strangers Group on Flickr. http://www.flickr.com/groups/100strangers/
    There many many amateurs and pro photogs doing this project and getting great results in all areas of their lives (not just good portraits). Quite life changing for many!
    The forum is very active and the administrators are very responsive and dedicated to helping all that participate.
    I’m now in my 3rd round of 100 strangers as it’s very addictive.
    You can see my work here: http://www.flickr.com./photos/gtpete

    cheers

  4. 5
    ) Love2Eat
    July 10, 2013 at 4:50 am

    Thanks Lola, most of my street photos end up being people portraits, still enjoyable though.
    I’ve been contemplating over the Olympus OM-D E-M5 for the past few months, just waiting to see what Sony has to show off if there is a replacement for NEX 7 before Xmas.

  5. 6
    ) John Adams
    July 10, 2013 at 7:13 am

    I purchased a Nikon Coolpix A recently to accompany my D700. The Coolpix A is small like a point and shoot and takes great pictures like a DSLR. Your article is helpful as I’ve been using the camera primarily for street photography. It’s a relaxing way to spend a day and can be done anywhere. Thanks for the helpful tips.

  6. 7
    ) Peter
    July 10, 2013 at 7:20 am

    If you want to explore this in greater depth, a good book on the rights and liabilities of making images is “Legal Handbook for Photographers” written by Bert P. Krages, Esq. An easy read.

    Another interesting problem comes from people uploading pictures of their kids on social media platforms while expecting to maintain privacy and non-commercial use of these now public images.

  7. July 10, 2013 at 7:46 am

    Nice tips, i did street photography when i went to combodia, it was my first try, found some people try to hide and some gave a smile back. But the thing i miss out was to ask permission as language prob and for smile i took it as permission, and when they hide, i did not try to target them again. http://sangesh.com.np/blog/2013/01/street-photography-on-the-street-of-phnom-penh-cambodia/

  8. 9
    ) André
    July 10, 2013 at 8:38 am

    Thank you Lola!

  9. 11
    ) Walter
    July 11, 2013 at 1:41 am

    Thanks Lola. The second image looks taken outside the company gardens in Cape Town, South Africa?

  10. 12
    ) abhay
    July 11, 2013 at 4:01 am

    thanks lola this article is very helpful

  11. July 31, 2013 at 6:09 am

    Nice read! I have enjoyed trying my hand at street photography but find it challenging as I am not very talkative. As far as what I like to capture, I like to get some form of emotion or gestures (pointing, clapping, air guitar ;-). Catching someone laughing is usually a great picture for me, too :-)

  12. 14
    ) M I K E
    August 3, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    friendly note on semantics:

    “street portraiture”
    is a subset, or category,
    within the greater category of
    “street photography”

    some street photographers do astounding work without venturing into portraits at all

    just so the uninitiated don’t walk away misunderstanding…

  13. October 5, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    I’m a street photographer in NYC. I absolutely love capturing moments that pass by so fast. I do carry business cards with me at all times. I’d love your opinion on my photos. My dream is to be a professional photographer one day. You can see my work at http://www.georginagomez.com. Thanks!

  14. 16
    ) oscar
    April 14, 2014 at 11:59 pm

    Great article! I have found that I love street portraiture and good tips like these are hard to find. Keep up the good work

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