The Craft of Street Portraiture

The fusion of light, shadow, line and perspective drives my seeing and photography. Most of my images include a human element but it is usually subtle and subservient to the overall image. 

I do, however, enjoy street portraiture a lot. If I decide to shoot people as my main subject, I want to get close. I want to get intimate and attentive. Somehow, most in-between images don’t appeal to me. 

The issue is that in order to achieve such an intimacy and closeness, I usually need to interact with my subject. I was never a fan of the undercover techniques used by some photographers. It is not that I am complaining or criticizing such an approach, but it is just not in tune with my character or personal comfort level.

In recent months, I have been taking more and more portraits and I really enjoy this experience. Since many of you have asked me about this, let me share with you a few thoughts about this fascinating process. 

Most people want to be photographed and if approached properly, they actually enjoy the experience.One of the biggest misconceptions in street portraiture is the notion that people hate to be approached and photographed. I found this to be a fallacy, at least here in North America. Of course, some people will say no but not because they find us, photographers, rude but they are genuinely busy, in a rush or simply too shy. If this happens you shouldn’t take it personally; don’t force them or take their photo anyway. 

Always introduce yourself and have your camera clearly visible.State your intentions and how you will use your images. Have your business card or contact info handy. The more information you provide, the more likely you will get their confidence. 

Observing your subject and having some visual ideas before you ask for permission will make this experience enjoyable and help you to produce much stronger imagery.One of the greatest mistakes is to ask someone on the street for their permission and then not know what to do with your camera. Take your time before you ask. Observe the light around the person, their gestures, behaviour, environment. Think whether you want the person to continue what they were doing or whether you want a different pose or a change of location. Knowing all of this early on will help you a lot.

Never start shooting right away. It is normal that when people are asked for a photo they will adjust their behaviour because they want to show their best side. I usually say to my subject, “Please keep doing what you were doing and ignore me.” I step away and wait a couple of minutes until the person gets bored. Then I start shooting.

Take your time once permission is granted.This is another huge mistake often made. I stop people who are on their break, waiting for a bus or a train or are on a leisurely walk so in this way you know the person has time. Don’t rush yourself and don’t feel guilty. Once permission is granted it is not your role to stop the process. Of course, you must observe your subject and see if they enjoy the interaction and act accordingly. If there are no apparent signs of fatigue take your time and use your creativity to the fullest. DON’T RUSH!!! 

Most importantly, explain what you are doing. Sometimes I need to change settings on my camera or even change a lens. Interact with your subject and explain what you’re doing, for example: “I love the light here and I need to adjust some settings to make sure your portrait is top-notch.” 

Once you’ve made contact with the person, ignore them and focus on crafting the background – the space around the person.We are often so excited about a character we meet on the street that we lose our heads and rush. There are many great potential subjects nowadays. What really differentiates a great image from a poor one is capturing the essence of the person and the background. 

Always thank the person and compliment them!

Of course, there are many more aspects of crafting great street portraiture, which I may share with you in upcoming posts. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to approach people. You will absolutely love it! I promise you. 

Here are some portraits taken on the streets of Vancouver, London, Paris, Berlin and San Francisco.      

2019 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “The Craft of Street Portraiture

    1. Dave,

      Currently I am shooting with the GFX50S paired with the GF45mm and GF110. Having said that, in the past I truly enjoyed working with the X100F (therefore the XF 23mm) X-Pro1/2, X-T1/2/3 paired with the XF 23mm F2 and the XF 56mm F1.2. In sum, any combo in any format with two prominent focal lengths 35mm and 85mm would do (in FF terms). The 35mm focal length is truly great to get close to the subject when the 85mm allows a truly beautiful rendering and close up.

      Thank you for visiting. Looking forward to our future interactions.

      All the best,

      Olaf

  1. Thanks for the great post! I have been living in Ecuador for the last year or so and my Spanish has not gotten to the point where I am comfortable talking with strangers on the street about taking their portrait. I’m working on it and will get there, meanwhile I still hit the streets everyday. Thanks again for sharing your process.

    1. It is great to hear from you Scott. Thank you for sharing your experience and for visiting. All the best,

      Olaf

  2. These are some great tips. You are 100% right in that most people enjoy the process and are flattered if you ask for their photo.

    In countries where I don’t speak the language, I hold up my camera with one hand and motion for them to hold still with the other. This is surprisingly effective. Instead of the person having to make a decision about whether or not be photographed, they usually just go with the flow and pose. I travel a lot in Asia and I have noticed that about 95% of the time when someone takes my photo they don’t ask, they just say “selfie” or “smile” and take it.

    1. Thank you Jeff for sharing your experience. I haven’t photographed much in Asia but it is coming 🙂

    1. Hello Doug,

      Yes, I can write about this issue in the future blog posts. Thank you for reading and commenting. We have to catch up soon.

      Warm Regards,

      Olaf

  3. Asking people for their photograph is incredibly hard for me, but I’ve made some progress. Next up: Don’t Rush. Excellent advice!

    This selection of street portraits is really great. I found myself smiling all the way through it.

    1. Thank you so much Bob for your kind comment.. I am so glad to hear you are making some progress. Will talk soon.

      Cheers,

      Olaf

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