From the Humans of New York to the discovered photographs of Vivian Maier it seems that more and more people are getting interested in Street Portraiture. Now, I've been known to do more than just a bit of this myself from time to time, and so I thought I'd share some advice I gave within a talk to Birmingham Metropolitan College students recently.
Why this person?
Ask yourself why is this person interesting to you and how the image may represent those qualities. This is of course a highly subjective question, as in many cases the extraordinary image can come from a relatively ordinary person. Some people want to capture the more extreme types in life - for me it is whether a story can be told. This invariably can mean some people inhabit the fringes of society's norms, but it isn't a prerequisite for a good street portrait.
What ever the reason why, the person chosen is your model of choice - for that moment at least. It can be bemusing as to why a stranger is requesting an image of you, so set a context as to why and quickly. Compliments go a long way , with a simple “ I just love that [ select feature] and just must have an image of you with it…” can help build rapport quickly. Establishing your artistic credentials quickly is also important factor as your model is elevated to art rather than just a photograph - “I’m doing a photography project about.... and you would make a perfect…”. Above all - don’t make it long winded and like a sales pitch . Do stress how quick, painless and fun it will be. Even though this whole process make take a mater of minutes, it is a collaborative process where you are making images together not taking something from someone. By asking to take an image you're immediately in a position of asking a favour from a stranger.
Getting the Image
OK, so you've got the go ahead and your model agrees for you to make a portrait of them. You need to think quickly and make sure you respond to your:
- Light - what is the direction of your available light – is it in their eyes, is it taking away details in their or are they in a dark shadow without sufficient light?
- Background - Keep it clear of clutter, distraction such as things appearing to pop out their heads.
Then, know quickly if you want to either isolate them from their background or for all of the image to be in perfect focus? To isolate the person (blur the background) the ‘f’ number (aperture) should be a low number, f2.8 is a good aperture to start with. You can get both types of image if you are not sure but work quickly but not in haste. Know your camera well so that camera settings are not noticeable by your model – it is a major turn off when a photographer spends most their time mumbling and fumbling in to their menus, as you lose the energy and goodwill you have built leading up to the images being taken.
As your rapport is building, try and direct them. It helps people relax and have more of a role in the process. In many cases people stiffen up or add rubbish false looking smiles, so don’t be afraid of saying “just look this way, no smiles…and relax….”
Look for the breaks in people’s behaviour where they are slightly off guard or have just smiled or distracted by their thoughts. It's these in between moments that make the best and most natural images.
However alluring the image maybe, it is not worth compromising your safety. If someone doesn't want to participate, then live to photograph another day and find someone who does.
I have only been involved in a couple of risky situations and thankfully they passed without major incident.
Images of Children
It is a sad indictment of our time that a photographer taking pictures of children is considered a risk to their safety. Many of icons of photography including Cartier- Bresson and William Klein have taken career defining shots of children at play, however that now seems like another world. I have taken images of children but only with the parent/guardian's permission. I also offer to send the images on along with presenting my card, as this shows a legitimacy and accountability as to why I am out with my camera.
Till next time