An often overlooked aspect of street photography is creating street portraits. It is a wonderful way to connect with people, to learn about an area, to hear stories, and to create interesting photographs.
In addition, if you do any type of other portrait or headshot work, it’s a fantastic way to practice. All you have to do is go outside and find some subjects and you will quickly improve your ability to interact with people, your framing, your lighting, and your confidence with the camera.
So here are some tips to get involved in and to improve your street portraits.
#1. Practice Your Pitch
It can help to think ahead of time about what you will say to a person when you stop them. The more prepared you are and the more comfortable you look, the better reaction you will get from your subjects.
I typically say something simple like, ‘Hey do you mind if I take your portrait.’ I might follow up with, ‘I’m a photographer and doing a project on the area and people in it and thought you seemed interesting.’
It’s pretty simple, and the more you try the more natural it will feel.
#2. Just Ask
This tip may seem simple, but it’s important to talk about. It might feel nervous at first to ask people because you think they will turn you down or react negatively, but the truth is that most people say yes. And most people are flattered.
Once you realize this, street portraits become a lot more fun.
#3. Choosing a Focal Length
In my opinion, the best street photography lenses are 35mm and 50mm primes – not too wide and not too telephoto.
Those lenses are all I use, but I tend to stick to the 50mm for most street portraits. The lens has enough of a telephoto view to make the subject prominent (and it has the ability to get close to frame their face if needed) but it is also wide enough to capture the background to create context when needed. 50mm hits the sweet spot.
And while an 85mm focal length will be great for close-up street portraits and is a good choice, it will limit you when you want to capture more of the background.
#4. Think About the Background
When taking a street portrait, the first thing I will think about is the background and situation. Does the subject look good how they are or will you want to move them to have the correct background?
Do you want to get close and frame their face tight and forget any background, do you want to use a shallow depth of field to create separation, or is the background very interesting and do you want it as a prominent element?
All of these choices are valid and depend on the moment, but I’ll often try both. Sometimes I’ll start further back capturing more of the background, and then I’ll switch it up and get closer or try a shallower depth of field. It’s usually a good idea to give yourself options.
#5. Look for People with a Special Quality
Good street portraits capture a special quality to a person that’s tough to describe. It’s not a matter of how they dress or their look, it’s about their openness and emotion.
A portrait of an everyday person can be much stronger than a portrait of a flashy person if they will open up to you more in their picture.
The goal is to create a portrait with a natural and intimate feel, and over time you’ll start to gain a better sense of who might give that to you. But in the beginning, it’s about a lot of trial and error.
When I mention that special quality, it’s often about expressions and gestures. Find people who are expressive in their face, eyes, and body. That alone will carry a portrait.
#6. Start a Conversation and Ask Interesting Questions
For some, it’ll be clear that a quick portrait is all that’s wanted or necessary, but often striking up a conversation is the way to go to get your subject to be more comfortable.
Ask them lighthearted questions to make them comfortable, or ask them a deeper question. Ask them about their hobbies, what they like to do, how long they’ve lived in the neighborhood. Or ask them about what’s troubling them most. The direction of the questions will affect the emotions they give you in a portrait and over time you’ll get better at talking with your subjects.
#7. How to Make a Subject Look Comfortable and Natural
There’s the saying that capturing a good portrait is like walking on a tightrope. The end goal is to capture your subject with an engaging look to them. But sometimes when you’re pointing your camera at a person it can take them out of the moment (although other times your subject will be great no matter what you do).
For these situations, I try to talk to people and wait until the right moment to bring up my camera and take the shot. I usually do it quietly and fairly quickly, and then go back to the conversation. Or other times if they give a good emotion or pose, I’ll ask them to hold it while I take the photo.
The goal is just to watch your subject for the right moment and to figure out how to capture it when it does.
#8. Take Your Time
As I mentioned already, there will be a good portion of your street portraits that will be quick interactions. But when you have the chance, take your time.
If you’ve stopped someone, you owe it to them to take the best portrait possible.
It’s common if you are nervous to speed up because you don’t want to inconvenience your subjects. But instead of doing this, take a deep breath and slow your mind down. Think about how to get the best portrait of them and if you need to keep shooting, try a different angle, change your settings, or do something to make them look more comfortable, by all means, do what you need to do.
They’ll tell you if they need to go.
Creating street portraits is a joy to do. It allows us to connect with all types of wonderful and interesting people and to come back with great photographs at the same time. Now just go out and ask!
About the author: James Maher is a portrait and headshot photographer in New York and an avid Street Photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. He is offering his guides The Essentials of Street Photography and The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide, free to PetaPixel readers. You can find more of his work on his website.