Hey, Stranger | Mastering the Street Portrait

The approach in shooting portraits for hire is fairly simple. Someone likes your work, they pay you to take their photo. Any flame of awkwardness or intimidation caused by the large lens/camera body combination usually burns out within the first ten minutes of the session as your subject relaxes and begins to trust your work process.

One of the more challenging photos to capture, however, is the “street portrait”.

When I was in New Zealand last winter, I was as mesmerized by the people I would see as I was by the beautiful sights. I found myself standing back, relying on my lens capability to try and capture these people in their natural settings, without the “posed” look.

The result? Amateur photographs that look like they came from a tourist’s iPhone.

What–did I disregard the power of my legs? Why couldn’t I get the courage to walk up to someone, explain that I think they’re unique and would love to take their photograph? I don’t really have trouble making conversation with strangers; I usually end up at the very least conversing with people I encounter in my everyday outings with a smile, but adding the camera to the mix is a whole different story.

When my boss first assigned me to capture photographs of the “atmosphere” of the premium seating sections, suites, and club level at the Target Center on Wolves game nights, one of the biggest mistakes I was initially making was standing too far away from people. These situations are further examples where I find it awkward to interrupt someone’s meal, social outing, or conversation to take their photo–epecially when I have an obnoxiously bright flash. But these photos are what the NBA was requesting. I couldn’t let them down; these experiences need to be documented.

Whether I’m working for hire or walking around with my camera looking for intriguing nouns to shoot as subject matter, my biggest faults result from my approach.

Mistakes I’ve made:

1. The “photograph and run” approach, resulting in a blurry sub par photo, with bad exposure because I only took one shot.

2. Fast, Rapid fires without checking my lighting/exposure in between shots, nothing really usable.

3. Tourist iPhone-looking photos (as aforesaid), because I’m afraid to get close enough.

4. Faking a close up with a long lens. The wrong areas of the photo end up in focus–ake intimacy at its finest. This also comes fits into the category of trying to hide my presence to the extent that I come off like a paparazzi. Usually, the eye contact is minimal or completely lacking, which is a nightmare because the eyes have the power to be the most captivating part of the photograph.


SLOW DOWN. If you’re in a rush, don’t bother to bring your camera out. The process of discovering and developing good work is a slow one.

Next, start with a SMILE. Every situation can be made warmer and less harsh if you smile and show the person you are not there to harm them or invade their space.

It’s important to practice shots in similar lighting before you get to the subject, so as not to waste their time when you do work up the courage to photograph them. Set your EXPOSURE before you approach them.

Finally, the most challenging, but often necessary step, is to MAKE CONVERSATION. Explain to the person you’re approaching that you are intrigued by them and would love to photograph them for a personal art project you’re working on. Asking permission is odd, but it’s courteous.

If you rush street photography and aren’t thoughtful in your approach, the result will be a collection of thoughtless, boring, or just plain awful photographs.

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