Street portraits are a powerful way of capturing the stories of the city. It takes guts to stop a total stranger and ask to take their photo. We’ve been shooting lots of videos recently of how to shoot street portraits.
It’s great fun to get out and meet new people. It feels more like design research, urban anthropology or investigative journalism than photography. I am naturally a bit shy, so the exercise of approaching random strangers is a real adrenaline buzz.
Candid portraits versus posed portraits
The most recent street portraits video that we put on YouTube attracted some interesting comments and questions. The chief of which was “Where are the photos from the shoot?” So today, I’m sharing the results from the Asked Portrait style video. We were out shooting on Brick Lane in East London when I caught the eye of the proprietor of one of the shoe stores. I don’t normally shoot stall vendors and street performers because they’re so used to it. But something about Ahmed was captivating. I grabbed a candid shot as I walked by before we stopped to chat with him. Ironically, the candid shot is actually quite good.
It’s interesting to contrast the candid portrait to the posed portrait. In this case the candid shot has a bit more personality and emotion. This is common with a beginner anthropologist or storyteller. You can see in the video that I did my best to chat casually with the subject. But I could have done more to direct him. Once a subject starts smiling like a tourist posing then you’re in trouble. This type of smile with the mouth (not the eyes) is a mask that hides the real person and their real story.
Capturing something real in a street portrait
The posed portraits do capture a certain glimmer in the eyes that I like. You can still get some good shots by talking to the subject so that their eyes come back to life as they interact with you. You can do all sorts of things to shock them back into a real expression. The best is to make them laugh.
Don’t be afraid to coach your models. It’s ok to try and get them to stop smiling by asking them to do something such as “look down, then look up” or to make funny faces. Anything to change up the expression so you get to see the real them. One trick is to get them to jump up and down. This is a safe behaviour but it gets someone back totally into the moment.
Street portraits on burst mode
Don’t be afraid to spray and pray. What rescued this shoot was that I had lots of shots to choose from in processing. The more photos you take, the more chances that you will capture the exact moment that their expression changes and you see their life story in their eyes.
Shoot on burst mode and try to grab shots before the subject is ready or after they think you’ve finished. The best shots will be the ones where they have forgotten that you are taking the photo. If you shoot a lot of frames then you can pick the best one afterwards rather than regretting that the focus was out or the subject blinked.
This shoot was interesting because you can learn as much from what I did wrong as what I got right. But that’s the real joy of street photography. You can always be growing and improving.
You can see the video of us shooting on Brick Lane in the Street Portraits post.