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One of the things I enjoy most about travel photography is the way you get to meet interesting people in the street. Whether your style is to talk to people before asking to take their portrait, or you prefer a more candid approach, there are certain things you can do to help you create better street portraits. These are some the things that I’ve learned while traveling and making portraits of people. The ideas are not just for travelers though, they work just as well when making portraits of people in your own country.
1. Be friendly and approachable when you photograph people
One thing I've noticed in places like South America and India is foreigners walking around with a kind of “keep away from me” expression on their faces. This is probably a result of coming to terms with experiencing a new culture, combined with a fear of being ripped off in some way or targeted for a scam.
The problem with this kind of attitude is that it creates a wall between you and the local people. This isn’t going to help you make portraits. Nor is it going to help you enjoy your traveling experience.
You should take the opposite approach and be friendly and approachable. Smile at people. If you see somebody doing something interesting stop and ask them about it. People are generally approachable and friendly. They respond positively to a friendly attitude. Don't worry if you can't speak the local language. You may be surprised by how many people can speak at least a few words of English, and will try to talk to you. And if they don't, a few friendly gestures can go a long way.
Once you have talked to somebody for a while you can ask if you can make a portrait of them. Not everybody will say yes, and that’s okay – remember it’s about the experience, not just photography. Interacting with local people helps you have a more rewarding journey.
For example, we met this local man in a mosque in Delhi. He approached us and explained a little about some of the things that go on at the mosque. We asked him if we could make some portraits, and he agreed. Afterwards we gave him a small print made with a Fujifilm Instax Printer (these are great gadgets to carry around for this purpose) and he was happy with it. In the end everybody had a positive experience. We learned a little bit about life in the mosque, and hopefully he enjoyed it as well.
One thing that I found quite amusing in both India and China is that local people come up to you and ask if they can have their photo taken with you. This happened to me several times in China and in most of them, the person asking couldn't speak English. The first time that happened I didn't understand what the person wanted until a passerby who could speak English explained.
Of course, if you have been busy taking photos of local people then the only thing you can really say is yes. If you're in a country where this happends, take advantage of it. Afterwards, ask the person if you can make a portrait. I did that with this man (who we also met in Delhi). This portrait is the result.
2. Pick your portrait lens carefully
I prefer to use prime lenses for street and portrait photography. Quite often I will go out with just one camera and lens. I might keep a second camera and lens in my bag ready to swap over if I need to. My two favorite lenses for this are a 35mm normal lens (on an APS-C camera, equivalent to around 50mm on a full-frame camera) and a 14mm wide-angle (equivalent to around 21mm full-frame).
Use a normal lens (or a short telephoto if you prefer) when you want to blur the background by using a wide aperture. I made this portrait with my 35mm lens set to f2.8. The background is blurred and this focuses your attention on the man’s face.
Use a wide-angle lens if you want all the scene in sharp focus and you want to add include things that add context. I made the portrait below with my 14mm lens, deliberately framing the scene to include the pan the man was cooking food in and the Hindi script on the left. Unlike the portrait made with the 35mm lens, you get a really good sense of the man’s environment.
I prefer prime lenses, but that doesn't mean you have to use them. Feel free to use a zoom if that's what you prefer. The ability to change the focal length comes in very handy in some situations and you shouldn't shy away from using zooms because some photographers prefer primes. But avoid superzooms – the image quality is not as good and the longer focal lengths are not as useful for street photography as you might think.
3. Don’t shoot street portraits in the midday sun
If it's summer or you're in a hot country the midday sun has a harsh and unflattering quality that doesn't create good portraits. The best approach, if you are out and about at this time, is to either look for somebody who’s standing in the shade, or ask somebody who is in the sun to move to a shaded area. Another thing you can do is go out taking photos early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the sun is lower in the sky and the light is warmer and softer.
I made both portraits below on a sunny day. But the quality of the light from the sun didn't affect the portraits as both scenes were completely in the shade.
4. Find productive places to make street portraits
While we were in India there were three locations we visited that provided most of our portrait opportunities. They were the old part of Delhi, the blue buildings of Jodhpur and the flower and vegetable market in Jaipur. Each of these locations was visually interesting and we found plenty of friendly locals who enjoyed having their portraits taken.
Out of these locations the flower and vegetable market in Jaipur was my favorite. We went early in the morning to take advantage of the activity and the softer light. At first there was so much going on that I didn’t know what to photograph. But as I slowed down and watched the various activities photo opportunities presented themselves.
The man in this photo beckoned me over to make his portrait. I used my 14mm lens to include the context of his environment.
It also turns out that you can have your face shaved while visiting the market. Who knew? I didn’t, but it was a great little scene.
In China my favorite places to take portraits of people were in the old parts of Hangzhou and Beijing. In Spain I made lots of great street portraits (such as the ones below) in Cadiz during carnival. Being in the right place (and timing, when it comes to events like festivals) is a vital part of the process of making good street portraits.
5. Slow down
That story leads to my next tip – slow down. Some people like to rush from place to place, afraid that they are going to miss something. But I find it much more productive to slow down and enjoy the moment. There’s a lot of street activity in some countries. Crowded places like India and China are noisy, colorful and at times overwhelming. So it’s good to slow down and enjoy the experience, and not be in a hurry to move onto the next location in your itinerary.
Here’s a good example of how this works. We were wandering the narrow streets of the blue city of Jodhpur. I was photographing this scene…
…When a lady appeared at a doorway. I smiled at her and pointed at my camera to ask if I could take a photo. She smiled back and nodded. Here’s one of the next portraits I made.
Then she beckoned to me to come inside. The others in our group had wandered ahead of me, so I apologized to the lady then went off to find them. We went back to this street and she reappeared and invited us in. We are not sure whether it was her home or a building she was looking after, but inside I was able to make this portrait.
The lesson here is to slow down and go with the flow of events. The lady had friendly intentions, but if I had been in a hurry or unapproachable then I would have just passed her by and we would never have had this interesting experience.
6. Pay attention to the background in your street portraits
This is standard for any portrait but just because you’re in an exotic location doesn’t mean you can forget about the background. If somebody has agreed to have their portrait made but is standing in front of an uninteresting background, or the light is poor in that location, don’t be afraid to ask them to move.
For example, one of the reasons I like this portrait is because of the interesting colors and textures in the background. They are just as important as the man.
If you're taking candid portraits, where people are unaware that they're being photographed, then make sure that you are standing in a place with an interesting background. You have less control, but that's not an excuse for a poor background.
7. Think about the story you want to tell
Professional photographers tend to think in terms of story and there’s no reason why you can’t do this too. What is the story you want to tell about the people in your portraits? In a country like India it might be nothing more than the exotic appearance of the people you photograph. But you can think about other elements of story telling as well.
For example, in this photo, taken in the Jaipur market, I wanted to show the couple at work. I used my wide-angle lens to include the important elements that support this story – the vegetables they are selling and the scales.
As I took photos in the market I decided that I wanted to make a photo that showed some of the activity that happens there. This next photo is a good example – it shows somebody buying vegetables. I timed the photo to capture the specific moment that told the story.
8. Avoid making portraits of children
One of the problems I had in India was with the children, who tended to be very excitable and to respond to my presence by running up and insisting that I take their photo (one boy asked me to play cricket with him which was much more enjoyable). It reminded me of Bolivia where I had exactly the same problem.
This rarely resulted in good photos thanks to their tendency to crowd as close to the camera as they could get and pull faces. It might be interesting the first time it happens but you’ll soon get tired of it. My advice is to avoid kids and look for more productive street photography subjects.
Having said that, stay open to interesting candid photo opportunities with kids. I made this photo in a temple in Delhi.
9. Don't forget the detail shots
Taking street portraits is interesting and challenging. But don't forget that there are other things worth photographing. Spend some time taking some scene-setting photos and details. You can think of it in terms of story. Imagine that you are shooting a story for a magazine and set yourself a brief where the street portraits are the most important part of the story but you also need some supporting photos.
For example, here are a scene setting photo and a detail that I made in China.
They go well with street portraits like these.
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