There’s some debate about exactly what street photography is, and this debate also spills over into the realm of street portraiture. Many people insist that all street photography must be undirected, and the photographer should simply capture the event as it unfolds. While it’s great to be an outside observer capturing interesting, absurd, surreal or even banal scenes, sometimes it’s good to get out of the observer mode and actively participate in the scene. One of the best examples of this is the famous William Klein photograph "Gun 1." The image portrays a young boy pointing a toy gun at the camera. While this street portrait looks menacing and off-the-cuff, Klein himself said he instructed the boy to point the gun at the camera and "look tough."
So what exactly makes a street portrait? A street portrait is usually more than simply taking a portrait of someone in the street. For example, photographing a model in the street by design isn’t a street portrait. A street portrait should retain the spontaneity of street photography while capturing the essence of the person or moment.
The key to getting a great street portrait is to get intimate with your subject, which requires getting relatively close. This allows you, and eventually, the viewer of the photograph, to feel a real connection with the subject. What separates a candid photo from a street portrait is the feeling of being there with the person rather than looking at them from afar.
In order to do street portraits, it’s great to find an interesting person or group of people, as street portraits can have more than one person. Now, interesting doesn’t necessarily mean the person has to be completely wacky or off-the-wall. Look for people who have a unique style, a captivating look or a story to tell. Oftentimes, a seemingly mundane person can be interesting in their "normalcy." There are no rules to what kind of people you should photograph.
Wandering the city streets or sitting in a coffee shop that has a window facing the street or at an outdoor café along a thoroughfare are all great ways of spotting fascinating or compelling people. The key to finding subjects is that you need to put yourself in a position where you’re likely to come across a wide variety of people. Luckily, I happen to live in Austin, Texas, which is a city well known for its diverse population.
Approaching strangers and asking if you can photograph them is really quite nerve-wracking. But you can’t let this be an obstacle, or you’ll never capture great intimate street portraits. One of the reasons why I got started with street photography was to overcome social anxiety and the fear of talking to strangers. I had to force myself to open up and talk to people in order to get a photo. Although I’ve photographed hundreds of street portraits, I still find myself hesitant, at times. It gets easier with time, but make no mistake, there’s always a little pang of lingering fear. I wish there was a simple solution to offer up to help get over the uneasy feeling that comes with approaching absolute strangers and asking them to do something for you, but the truth is, there’s nothing to it, but to simply do it.
It’s best to be straightforward. I walk right up to the person and strike up a polite conversation to develop a rapport with him or her. Start with small talk and learn more about who he or she is and what his or her personality is like. Talking with people and learning about them allows both photographer and subject to gain a level of comfort with each other. I don’t recommend walking up to a stranger and starting with personal questions, however—friendly banter is best.
When it comes to asking for a photograph, first and foremost, be honest. Explain to them exactly what your goal is. I typically start out by simply asking if they mind if I take their picture. With some people that’s all it takes. Others will ask what it’s for, and you can tell them that it’s a personal project, that you like to take photographs of people who you find interesting. You can tell them exactly what you found interesting about them. Don’t overthink what you plan on saying, and don’t make up a script; this will make you sound disingenuous and put people on edge.
Even if you’re nervous on the inside, on the outside it’s important to appear confident; this puts the subject at ease and increases your chances of getting a great image. If you’re honest with your subject, your subject will be honest with you, and your photographs will reflect that.
The root of most fears about approaching people for street portraits is the fear of rejection. Yes, sometimes people will decline. It happens. Don’t let it get you down or make you hesitant to ask the next person. Once you get started, you’ll be surprised to find that most people will say yes. I’ve only been turned down on a few occasions. As I mentioned, exuding confidence typically will get you positive responses from most people.
It’s a good idea to carry cards with your website and email address, as well. Many people like the idea of having a nice photo of themselves to post on their social-networking sites. If they make contact, I send over a low-res image with a request to list my name and email with the image if they use it on social-networking sites.
GEAR AND TECHNIQUES
Street portraiture can be done with just about any equipment, from a camera phone to a medium-format film camera, but most people prefer something in between. Many photographers have great success with the Fujifilm X-series and Olympus OM-D cameras. A nice thing about mirrorless cameras is that they’re small, and many have a retro look that helps put people at ease. DSLR cameras, especially larger professional ones, can be intimidating for the average person on the street. Many mirrorless cameras can also be adapted to use older rangefinder lenses, such as Zeiss, Leica and Voigtländer, to give the images a different look than you can get with contemporary lenses.
I use a combination of cameras, both digital rangefinders and DSLRs. I prefer using the rangefinder style of camera, as it just feels right to me. For digital rangefinders, I use the manual-focus Leica M9-P, which almost
forces me to slow down, be more precise and pay closer attention to everything in the frame. Using legacy lenses on mirrorless cameras can also give the same experience.
When photographing with a DSLR, I prefer the Nikon Df with a small prime lens. As with the mirrorless cameras, the vintage appearance doesn’t make the subject nervous, and since I’ve been using it, I’ve gotten nothing but positive responses from the people I’ve photographed. I find it’s best to use compact, unassuming DSLRs rather than larger professional cameras with the vertical grips.
I don’t recommend using telephoto lenses for street portraits. This gives the image a disconnected look and loses the sense that the photograph is a street portrait. Using a telephoto lens can often give your image the quality of a private detective surveillance photo, and sometimes photos like this can appear voyeuristic, which is often off-putting to the viewer. My personal recommendation of lenses for street portraits is in the range of 35mm to 50mm (24mm to 35mm for APS-C). I find that 35mm or equivalent is wide enough to get a good amount of background in the scene and allow the subject to fill the frame; 50mm is the standard focal length for full frame and is good for just about anything you come across. I prefer the 50mm for a lot of my work.
Some photographers are partial to using a wider-angle lens like 28mm or even wider. Using wide-angles can offer an interesting perspective on some subjects, but you have to get pretty close to your subject to make it work, and oftentimes this can be uncomfortable for the person being photographed.
One of the more important exposure settings in street portraiture is your aperture. Traditional portraiture typically uses wide apertures to blur the background and bring the focus on the subject only. In street portraiture, it’s important to look at the background before releasing the shutter to determine if it somehow relates to the image as a whole. Obviously, you can use a wide-open setting to completely melt away the background, but sometimes that can take the "street" element away from the portrait. Consider using a smaller aperture so the scene is as much a part of the subject as the person is. I find that an aperture of around ƒ/4 to ƒ/5.6 is ideal, as it allows the background to be soft enough to isolate the subject, but retains enough definition to be recognizable.
The most important thing is to get out there, try it and have fun. At the very least, you can meet some great new people and hear some interesting stories.
J. Dennis Thomas is a freelance photographer and an author based in Austin, Texas. Find him at www.NikonDFG.com. and @JDennisThomas on Twitter.