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10 Tip Guide to Getting Started with Street Portraiture

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Read Time: 8 min

Have you ever walked down the street, passing strangers who catch your eye. I'm not just talking about checking out attractive members of the public! The ones that have something interesting about them, to the extent that it would be great to capture it film?

Well, street portraiture is the answer. It may be daunting at first, but the opportunity to capture the residents of a city, the people that give the place its energy and vibrancy, that make it tick, is an incredibly exciting one. Hopefully, these few tips will set you on your way to stepping out the door and going to capture the essence of your town through it's people.

Step 1 - Where?

First up, you need to think about where might be a good place to start working. To being with, I recommend working in a place that you know, somewhere you feel comfortable and safe. Pick an area of town that will be busy and have a good mix of people, if you just walk around your neighbourhood there may not be very many people around and you'll find it very hard work! It's probably best to head for a central area that has shops, offices and cafes. People will be going about their day and you'll have plenty of opportunities to approach them.

Photo by dgblitwin

Step 2 - Equipment

I find it best to keep it simple. There is an awful lot to think about when out on the street and approaching new subjects in uncertain surroundings. It's best to keep equipment basic and efficient. I'd recommend a simple DSLR body and a nice quick prime lens, like a 50mm. Having to carry gear is a hassle and burden. You don't want to be distracted by lens change options, flashguns and other baggage. With this simple setup, you'll be able to concentrate solely on the shot and making the best of the situation you are presented with.

Photo by drburtoni

Step 3 - You, the photographer

It's important that you approach the task with the right frame of mind. Without wanting to sound patronising, it's essential to go out with a positive mindset. If you head out the door thinking that no-one will want their photo taken, you'll come back empty handed. It's up to you to make the connection with your potential subjects in order to get the shots!

Be reassured by the fact that this isn't a technically demanding task. It's all about the combination of personalities and the desire to capture someone's story. If you do ever get rejected, don't take it personally. Some people just don't like having their photo taken, so try to keep motivated and if you're getting tired of rejections, take a break and try again later.

Photo by Azety

Step 4 - Approach

So once you're out and about, it's down to you to select your potential subjects. Without wanting to sound prejudice, try to approach people who appear 'interesting' or like they have a story in their history. How you start talking to people is up to you. Some like to make an entrance with a simple request, such as asking for the time, in order to build conversation. Whereas others will happily just approach people and ask if they'd mind having their picture taken.

It is essential that you ask permission, please don't start snooping around taking close up pictures of people in private! Be polite, personable, ask questions to your new friends, introduce yourself, explain what you're doing, what the photos will be used for and before you know it. Once you've breached the awkward gap and found a place of understanding, you'll be able to start shooting.

Photo by Nwardez 2

Step 5 - The Boring Bits

Now I know we've just about got to the bit where you start taking photos, but there are a couple of things I wanted to slip in before you actually get to use your camera!

There are two formalities to go over, one is paperwork. It's important that you get your subject to sign a model release form, stating that you have been granted permission to take the photo and that the person concerned allows you to use their image.

Model release form templates are available online, make sure you have a read through and set terms that you are happy with. It may seem a bit over the top, but it's in your best interests. It can also be very beneficial to ask for the subject's email address, so you can send them the shot. It's a small means of saying thank you and reassures the subject that you're serious.

It is also essential that you feel safe within each situation and with each subject. If at any point you feel that you've entered a situation or conversation that is unsafe, make your excuses and leave. In this context, there's no point in risking your own safety for the sake of one photograph.

Photo by Bestarns

Step 6 - Settings

It's important to get your camera settings right before you start shooting, as you just won't have time to shoot and then adjust. I'd recommend setting the aperture to somewhere around f4, which will give you enough depth-of-field to be focused across the contours of the face without including too much distracting background.

Have your shutter speed set to something about 1/125, as you'll want to freeze the subject. Anything lower and you may well start getting blurred shots. Bear in mind that your subject isn't a trained model and may well not be very good at keeping still!

Once you've got those settings sorted, adjust the ISO accordingly to make sure you've got enough light coming in. Don't be afraid to go up to ISO 800 if it means you have the depth of field and shutter speed that you want. I try to avoid using flash, as it can be quite intimidating for the subject and it hinders the natural street feel that you're trying to achieve.

Photo by SerialK

Step 7 - Work Fast & Keep Talking

Once you do finally get the chance to take some shots, it's important to work quickly and efficiently. You've got a few minutes at most. Don't rely on just taking a couple of shots and hoping one of them will do, keep snapping. Some people take up to 50 shots of a single subject in just a few moments.

Feel free to direct your subject, ask them to smile or look directly into the camera depending on the feel of the shot. This will not only improve your chances of getting the shot that you want, it will also put your subject at ease and make them feel more comfortable with having a camera in their face!

Photo by Jubilo

Step 8 - Style

As you are working, it's essential to bear in mind that you are doing more than just taking the photo of a stranger. Every individual has a story to tell. Behind every face is a history to be captured. So think carefully about the style in which you shoot each person in order to capture their expression and their story.

Some street portrait photographers like to get in really close, so close that it's uncomfortable, focusing right in on the features of the face. The alternative is to put your subject into context. Let them express themselves. Maybe they are on a break from work and have their uniform on. Maybe they've lived in that one town for their whole life and it would be good to include a unique monument that captures in that place they've known for so long.

Photo by Slimmer Jimmer

Step 9 - Consistency

As you move from subject to subject, it's important to consider a consistency through the collection of images that you are creating. The fact that you're only using available light within a small geographical area will hopefully add continuity through the images, but as a photographer, you could also have a specific style in mind. This could simply be that all the shots will be processed in black and white or that you ensured that the sun was lighting the right hand side of the subject's face.

Photo by Fabbio

Step 10 - Now it's your turn!

So there we have it, a quick run down of the preparation and execution tactics in order to tackle the exciting world of street portraiture. Now it's over to you, find some space in your busy schedule to grab your camera and head to town to capture the people that make it what it is.

It may seem like a daunting prospect at the start. As you step out and are given the opportunity to capture your first few subjects, you'll quickly grow in confidence and you'll find it becomes extremely enjoyable. On a photographic level, it's a challenge to work quickly in the surroundings you're given. On a human level, it's a great way to interact with those who you share your city with.

Photo by Pixelens
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