3 tips for shooting great street photography portraits of strangers

The train pulls in to London Victoria and I make my way towards central London to shoot some street portraits. One of my first stops is to grab a coffee and check over my camera equipment and settings as this is fundamental when working at speed. The coffee helps to set me on my way and tends to waken me into the moment from the morning slumber. I walk out onto the streets of London and take a deep lung bursting breath….ahhh! It’s great to be alive in 2019.

A street portrait in my humble opinion is when a person is fully aware that they are having their picture taken by a photographer and not someone caught unknowingly as the subject. The two approaches are very different. The street portrait opens up many opportunities for both the amateur and the established photographer because the process helps you to grow in many ways.

It helps you to get to know your equipment and work at speed, it helps to get out of your comfort zone and engage with strangers giving you lots of confidence as a person and helps to see the backgrounds in which you are taking a portrait of the subject which will develop your compositional skills moving forward.

When I’m shooting street photography I tend to travel light with smaller cameras like my Olympus Pen F and 2 lenses, a 35mm and a 100mm. The 35mm lives on the camera for the most part and indeed it is the go-to lens I use to shoot street portraits, which means I am up close to the subject. I also work with a 50mm 1.4 Zeiss lens on a smaller Nikon DSLR which can blow out the background like on the tighter head shot on the first image in this blog. When considering a full-length portrait, meaning I am further away from the subject I tend to make decisions based on the location with which I am working and the character who I am shooting.

There is not enough time to be messing with different lenses as you work so make a choice of lens and go with it. It is best to move your feet rather than change lenses. Sometimes you are lucky to get 3 shots because plainly and simply people don’t have the time to be messing around with a stranger wanting their photograph.

When you’re on the streets and in the groove you seem to find a confidence that elevates your inner belief system, when you tap into this it is much easier to approach strangers and ask them if you can take their portrait. They will ask why but you need to win them over with your enthusiasm for the art of photography. Once you Identify who it is you want to photograph explain that you are just building your Instagram account and developing your photography skills. Tell them you will happily link them in as you are also trying to grow your followers.

When they agree to be photographed now is your moment and you need to grab it by working quickly. Be confident and tell them what you are looking for. Seek out a background fast, don’t make them have to walk too far as you will lose them to time. Scan a 360 degree and see what will work for you and then pose them by telling them exactly what you want. This is a few examples of how you can use communication with a person you have identified:

“I’m looking for a serious face with your body slightly twisted.

I’m looking for some movement in this shot so I want you to just walk towards the camera and I will snap away.

I’m looking for a full length shot so if you could just stand here and I will move further back from you“. [like this one at Victoria station].

Street Photography Portrait

When you have finished always say Thank you with a smile.

So, travel light, up your communication game and seek out backgrounds.

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