Street photography is that strange place between people-watching and portraiture. It can be a way to connect with the world, or facilitate a type disconnected state of observation. Subjects can be brought into your camera as the real people they are, or simply captured as objects, ornaments in the landscape. Either way, street photography portraits can be an exciting way capture a sense of humanity on the streets of your own community.
It’s all good, except for one pet peeve that I’ll mention and then I’ll move on: taking photos of the homeless/destitute as candid portraiture is unsettling to me. For one, it’s been done to death. For another, these types of photos, especially when obviously taken from a “safe” distance, feel exploitative, where the subject is not looked INTO as much as looked AT. A photographer’s quick street capture of someone else’s despair is not automatically art, or edgy, or some type of profound statement. Rant over.
Approaching and talking to someone about their kids or pets, or what they’re wearing, or what they do in this life … and letting them know that you think they’re interesting enough for you to make initial contact and request a picture is something real. It’s something human and people respond to that. Everyone’s not going to be in the mood to have their photo taken at the time that you approach them. Offer to do it if you run into each other again. But when you are allowed in, and capture a real representation, a slice of someone’s life, it’s a privilege on all fronts; for the subject, the photographer, and the viewer.
Street Photography Portraits: Good Examples
I want to share the first few examples (off the top of my head just now) of some good street photography:
- Jason D. Little: A friend who makes beautiful and intriguing images of life on the streets of NYC. We did a little video about his favorite cameras, and another about street photography tips.
- Humans of New York (Brandon Stanton). I came across this at the book store and announced to my family that it was something I wouldn’t mind getting as a Holiday present. Stanton has gone on to expand on his street work.
- Orchard Beach (Wayne Lawrence). The photographer became a regular feature of the beach in the Bronx, made friends, took photos. Amazing work. Check out his instagram.
- Danny Santos II. I did an interview with Danny Santos II awhile back (see below), and you can learn more about his images and process at his website.
- Scott Strazzante. A truly gifted street photographer. But there’s more.
- Eric Kim. There’s a lot of stuff at this link. But Eric is a street photography artist and instructor that’s worthy of a few blog post reads.
Try Street Photography Portraits
Even if you’re a little intimidated by the idea, just know that it gets easier the more you do it. My tips:
Be friendly. Smile. Say, “Hi,” and ask them about their dog, or hat, or shoes, or whatever catches your eye. Ask if they wouldn’t mind a quick photo.
Get close. Yup, I’m saying it again. Make that connection. Anyone can use a telephoto from a distance and grab a shot that just looks like what it is, a disconnected tourist-style snapshot. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there’s a point to doing candid street photography, but it’s often uninteresting.
Give something in return. Definitely thank your subjects. Give them your card or take down their email address so that they can get a copy of your shot. Street photography should be a gift to everyone involved.
Interview with Danny Santos II
This was done a few years ago, so keep that in mind when referencing Danny’s gear.
What’s a good way to approach someone for a quick impromptu street photography portrait?
I think the best way is to really just be quick and honest about it. Just tell them that you’re doing this as a personal project (or whatever reasons you’re doing it) and that you won’t be taking much of their time. Quick and simple usually works.
Judging by your portrait work, you’re obviously making a great connection with your subjects. This has to happen very quickly sometimes, doesn’t it?
All of the portraits were taken really, really quickly. As soon as they said ‘yes’, I tell them to ‘look in the camera and don’t smile’ then I click away. I took advantage of the first few seconds where they still probably have this curious wonder about the whole thing. I guess having a little confidence or sincerity makes them feel comfortable about being photographed in public by a total stranger.
What’s your favorite gear for street photography?
I use a Nikon D300 with an 85mm f1.4 and a 20mm f2.8 lens. I like both lenses for different reasons. The latter for documenting street scenes and the former for capturing street portraits. I like to be able to switch between these lenses whenever I need to.
Has anyone ever gotten angry because you took their photo without asking first?
Not really. I guess I’ve developed certain strategies that helps me avoid these situations, like avoiding eye contact before and after the shot. Sometimes, when I do get eye contact, I smile and nod a thank you. Plus, I guess common sense and intuition helps a lot, too. Sometimes, if you don’t feel right about taking the shot, don’t sweat it. But then if you always feel like that, you may never be able to get any good shots. It’s always a challenge.
Do you ever use film? Have you always used digital?
I have always used digital, but I recognize and respect the beauty of using film. And someday, I would like to try out film and see what I come up with. That’s in my bucket list.
What type of post-processing do you do?
My usual workflow is: I adjust exposure in Lightroom (when needed), then I selectively adjust highlights and shadows in Photoshop. Other than this, I remove skin blemishes and apply sharpening (when needed). That’s pretty much it.
How many photos do you take of one person to get to that ONE shot you’ll use?
For the portraits, I take 3 quick shots at f1.4, and another 3 shots at f2.2… then I later decided during post on which to go for.
What is your advice to other photographers just starting out with street photography portraits?
Always keep experimenting with light, background, subject, everything, until you get the shots that you like. Then keep trying to get better and better shots. And never stop looking for inspiration. This makes you raise the bar for yourself so you will never get easily impressed with your own work.