Street Photography: Portraits

Street photography can be intimidating. You’re out on the street with a camera trying to capture interesting moments, but at the same time you’re trying to blend into the background and not look like a creep with a camera. After all, it would be disconcerting if you were taking a stroll downtown and saw someone trying to snap your picture without you knowing it.

I think the best way to get over this fear is to do street portraits. In street photography, you’re trying to capture moments without anyone noticing. With street portraits, you have to confront the issue of consent directly.

Getting up the nerve to do this can be difficult (Danny Santos has an awesome post on how to overcome your fear of approaching someone for their portrait). But once you do get up the nerve, you will get some pretty unique photographs.

Overcoming the fear

Step 1: Decide

This is an internal thing. Tell yourself you’re going to go out and take ten street portraits, then get in your car (or on the bus), go to where you want to capture portraits, and start asking people. Consider the wisdom of Yoda: “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Opt to do, and just do it.

Step 2: Believe

Part of overcoming your fear is knowing your mission and believing in it. The second you make the decision to take street portraits, you’re a photographer. Believe in your mission (to capture the faces of everyday people). This will be important when you start approaching people. I’ve discovered that when I believe in my mission, people are more apt to let me take their portrait.

Step 3: Pitch

Approach someone whose portrait you want to take. Look them in the eye, smile, and ask “Can I take your portrait?” Simple as that. Confidence is key here, but it shouldn’t be a problem if you believe in your mission. If they ask why, just tell them you’re a street photographer taking portraits as an art project. If they say no, smile, say thanks, and move on. Don’t take it personally.

Step 4: Shoot

Have your camera ready to go. As in, have your shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings ready to go. All you should have to do is focus (if you have a manual lens). Take two or three shots, thank your subject and move on.

Step 5: Practice

The more you go out and shoot, the more confident you will become in your photography. By the time I took the photo above, I had lost all fear of approaching people on the street. And you will too after you make a few initial approaches.

This stuff is addictive. Every time I go out to take street portraits, I wind up shooting an hour or two longer than I normally would because it’s a blast. I hope you find this guide useful. And if you’ve done any street portraits, leave me a comment with a link to the photo, and maybe a story behind the photo.

4 thoughts on “Street Photography: Portraits

  1. Spot on – I do street photography and portraits myself and I’d say practice is key…it will increase your ability, but arguably more importantly, confidence

    • Strongly agree. Confidence is the key in taking great street portraits, and building confidence will help your overall street photography as well. I try to do one or two street portraits before jumping into shooting scenes on the street.

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