I recently joined a street portraits group on Facebook, and without wanting to be overly critical of other photographers’ work, I’ve found a good 90% of the images posted extremely boring and unimaginative (when they actually hit the brief, which is rare). Pictures taken on long lenses with no engagement with the subject; the camera pointed randomly at the street, shooting normal looking people behaving normally with no real subject or point of interest; paparazzi/stalker-style shots as the photographer is scared to approach people; boring shots converted to B&W in the hope they’ll appear more interesting; the list goes on.
Street portraiture is probably my favourite type of photography – I’ve been published for it and have another whole website dedicated to it – and whilst I’m no expert or professional, I like to think I’m half decent at it at least. So here are my tips to avoid boring street portraits and to make more compelling and intimate images.
Probably the most famous piece of photography advice ever given is Robert Capa’s “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. Here was a man who was so determined to get ‘close enough’ that he actually took part in the Normandy landings, so if he can jump off a boat and take pictures whilst being shot at by the Nazis, you should have no fear getting up close to people on the street!
All too often I see photographers on my photo tours show up with long lenses and shoot people from a distance, and it’s pretty much always because they’re too shy to approach people. The problem with the images they take is that there’s no engagement or intimacy, there’s no story, and there’s no sense that the photographer is in any way involved with the subject, so the pictures look cold as a result. Most of my street portraits are taken with my trusty 24mm lens, which means I have to get pretty close.
I’m not suggesting you go all Bruce Gilden or Tatsuo Suzuki and get right up in people’s faces whether they like it or not (though you can if you have the confidence – and the running speed – to do so!); what I am suggesting is that you overcome your shyness and simply talk to people. If you see someone who looks interesting, politely ask them if you can take their photograph (or if there are language barriers, use gestures to indicate that you want to photograph them). They will either say yes (here in Thailand that’s a 99% probability), in which case you get your shots, or they will say no. And if they say no, you just move onto the next shot. It really is that simple. People love it when someone shows a flattering interest in them, and if they’re a little reticent or reluctant, just explain that you’re a street photographer and like shooting interesting-looking people. Give them a business card if you have one, or take their email address and promise to send them a shot. Works nearly every time.
The example above shows why you shouldn’t be shy. It was taken under a flyover in Bangkok’s Khlongtoey ‘slum’ district, and the subject maybe isn’t necessarily someone you or I would feel comfortable approaching, but it’s that intimidating look – the shaven head, the scowl, the tattoos – that make him such an interesting subject. As it was he was more than happy to sit for a few shots, and poses for me every time I see him to this day.
Look for Interesting People
It goes without saying that quirky, eccentric-looking people make for more interesting street portraits. Yes, everyone has a story, but from a photography point of view, visually striking people make for better portraits. There is a risk with eccentrics – especially when you’re shooting homeless people, buskers etc – that your pictures can appear exploitative, or freak show-y; so take the time to engage with your subject, chat to them, find out their story, make them feel comfortable with being photographed, and show them the pictures you’ve taken.
This guy is my favourite photography subject in the world. His name is Khun Lem and he lives in a tiny shack in Khlongtoey. At first glance he looks like someone you’d cross the street to avoid, but stop and chat to him and you discover he’s a very friendly guy who will happily give you a swig of whatever he’s drinking at the time. A good example of why you shouldn’t be intimidated by eccentrics and spent some time engaging with them before, during and after you shoot.
Look at the Eyes
One of my favourite photography Youtubers is travel photographer Mitchell Kanashkevich, aka mitchellkphotos. He makes short, sweet and very informative videos, and the video below is very possibly the best short photography advice video I’ve ever watched.
In the clip, Mitchell talks about the visual ‘weight’ or importance that each element in the picture has, and how, as human beings, we give human faces – and the eyes in particular – more weight than anything else in a photograph. Essentially, if there’s a face in a picture, that’s what we go to first, and it’s the eyes that draw us in the most. Often we’re in such a rush to take a street portrait that we don’t take the time to look at the eyes and play around with eyelines, but they really do make or break a picture. As Mitchell says, a subject looking directly at us adds an intimacy or even an intensity to an image:
…whilst a subject looking away from us and out of the shot adds a whole new storytelling dimension to a picture. In the shot below, why is the old man looking up? Has he seen something above him? Is it a look of despair? Is he looking at the station clock? His eyes totally transform the picture from a simple portrait into something different:
Use Context to Tell Stories
One of the great things about street portraits is that we are shooting people on their home turf, in their natural environment, living their regular lives, rather than in the sterile environment of the studio. So whilst the temptation is often to shoot just the face, sometimes it’s better to stand back (or zoom out), and apply some context. Faces themselves don’t tell the whole story, and it’s only when we show that person in their surroundings that the full story emerges, like this shot of a man in his shack in Khlongtoey:
And the guy below is pretty colourful and charismatic enough in himself, but by pulling back and showing that he’s sitting in a restaurant, the picture becomes even more interesting:
Look for Contradictions
We love the unexpected, and so photos that show people doing things they wouldn’t normally do, or in places they wouldn’t normally be, naturally stand out & appeal to us – it’s why photographers love those shots of policemen dancing with revellers at the Notting Hill Carnival, or why politicians like to be photographed playing football or having a drink in a pub. In Southeast Asia, monks are a popular subject here – seeing a monk using a mobile phone, smoking a cigarette or running for a bus is like catnip to street photographers, and so when I saw this charismatic monk in a woolly hat and shades, I simply had to take his picture. The train in the background, and the matching colours, make this one of my favourite pictures.
And in the shot below, there’s a nice contrast between the tough-looking shirtless tattooed guy and the tenderness he shows his sleeping daughter:
Such pictures aren’t easy to come by, can’t really be staged and require considerable luck and patience – make sure you’ve mastered your camera settings so you can get that shot when it comes up!
Photography is, of course, all about light, and few things give me more satisfaction as a photographer than a beautifully lit image. The light can sometimes become a subject in itself, and can transform an otherwise unremarkable scene or subject into a thing of beauty. Sometimes you just happen to catch someone in a perfect patch of light and simply have to photograph them, such as the tattooed guy in Khlongtoey below who just happened to be sitting in a patch of sunlight outside his house:
And sometimes it’s the light itself that tells the story and guides you to the subject. The picture below is a prime example. I’d had a frustrating morning’s shooting and was, as usual on such an occasion, heading home whilst muttering about giving up altogether, when I spotted a narrow alleyway with a food stall in it, into which a shaft of sunlight was shining, as if beckoning me in and encouraging me not to give up and go home. This old guy just happened to be facing right into it, I got one of my favourite ever shots, and the day was saved!
Shoot a Series or Project
Thinking in terms of a project or series can help you focus and achieve some consistency and style in the pictures you take. You’re also more likely to get noticed and published if you can put your images together into a project – editors are more likely to work with you if you can create interesting and cohesive photo essays, ideally with some linking text. I was getting absolutely nowhere until I put together my Faces of Khlongtoey project, but have now been published several times as a result of that one project.
Also think about shooting at specific events – sporting events, protests, celebrations, anything. People are generally either more relaxed or less likely to notice you when they have something specific to focus on, and so they’re a great way to get lots of good portraits. The images below were taken during an afternoon of drinking and photographing at a cockfighting stables in the Bangkok slums with a couple of Russians. And it’s not often you say that.
Relax & Engage
Finally, and possibly most importantly, it’s very important that your subjects – and you – are relaxed when shooting takes place. We’re often tense when shooting people we’ve just met and tend to rush our shots as a result, but we need to take a deep breath, look around, establish the context, study the subject, and decide what pictures we want to make.
And often – particularly here in Asia – when you ask if you can take a person’s picture, they’ll adopt a rigid , serious pose, smile directly at you, or make the peace sign at you. These are fine if that’s the kind of image you want, but they don’t make for good street portraits. If this happens, signal to the subject that you’d rather they just carried on with whatever they were doing that made them so interesting to you in the first place, or indicate that you want them to look off-camera. If they’re still rigid, take a couple of shots and show them. They’ll instantly relax, and probably laugh, at which point you can fire off a few more spontaneous shots, and there are more likely to be winners.
I was attracted to this guy (in Hanoi) by his pipe smoke, but when I asked him for a picture he hid the pipe down by his side and just smiled at me, so I asked him to keep smoking, which is how I got the ‘money shot’ here. If someone’s agreed to be shot, they won’t usually mind you directing them a little bit.
So to sum up, shooting street portraits is nothing to be scared of. Relax, be friendly, think about what you’re doing, find interesting people and stories, and think about eyes, context/background, and light. Remember that and your street portraits will go from boring to brilliant in no time at all.