On: Street Portraits

Street Photography is a very popular subject for discussion in the photography industry. One minor part of the genre is street portraits, with specific people in focus, often with contact to the camera.

Sometimes it is possible to take a candid street portrait without a long conversation with the subject first. A questioning look, pointing at the camera and a thankful nod after taking the picture can sometimes be enough.

The old man owned a bike booth on a daily fleamarket in Amsterdam, Waterloopleinmarkt. He just laughed when I held up my camera.

This guy owns a corner shop in Stratford-upon-Avon. I managed to snap a photo of him before he saw me. But I wasn't very happy with it, so I gesticulated whether I could take another picture of him. Afterwards, we went inside his little shop and I got his email address.

However, a common step to improve one's portrait photography, posing and social skills is to ask strangers before taking photos of them and thus taking a good portrait of a stranger you've never met. These photos tend to be more posed and less candid compared to "secret" street portraits.

(Taken by my friend Anna during our trip to the UK. Check out her Instagram.)

In the beginning, talking to strangers and asking them to pose for a picture can be quite outside of your comfort zone. I started doing it, when I wanted to push myself and my photography and decided, that I needed a personal project to motivate myself. I started Project Ginger because I really like gingers and find them photogenic. And when I write that I started the project it actually means that I got the idea, I set myself a goal - and then days and weeks went by without me actually walking up to gingers on the street. I looked at them, I wondered whether I could take good photos of them, but then the situation and possibility had passed. Or I hadn't brought my camera. Or they looked like they were in a hurry. I was full of good excuses.

Emer was the first stranger that I ever asked. In fact, we met up later and had a real, proper photo shoot and we talked a lot and we got to know her interesting life story.

After the first couple of times that I walked up to a person on the street, it became easier and more fun. I learned that most people feel flattered, not annoyed, and that I'm basically the person in charge of the situation - not them, so I wouldn't need "to be afraid of them".

These are some other ginger strangers, that I have taken pictures of since:

What I Learned About Taking Street Portraits

  • Pick people that don't seem to be in a rush or on the phone. If they are in a group or with their family, it doesn't have to be a bad thing - I often found the whole bunch of them very excited about the fact that I wanted to take pictures of one of them.
  • If you decide for one type of people that you want to take pictures of, it might be easier for you to pull yourself together and just go for it instead of looking at all the people trying to decide which one you want to photograph. For me this type was gingers.
  • Of the people that I asked, 95% said yes to being photographed.
  • Think about why you want to take a picture of that specific person and mention it, e.g. the smile, the style, the hair in the sun, ... It makes you appear less creepy and more like a professional photographer that can tell what makes a good portrait.
  • I always had a little intro prepared that covered all the important stuff about why I want to take the picture. However, I have seen videos of people walking up to a person just saying "Hi, your smile looks great. Would you pose for a picture?" and that worked fine, too. I bet it depends on your personality and charisma which of the methods suits you best.
  • If people seem happy and looking like they are enjoying themselves - take your time. Talk to them, take different pictures, pose them, go to a different place. This was one of the challenges that I needed to work on, as I always felt intrusive and hurried away quickly. However, if they have the time people actually might find the idea of a little photo shoot intriguing and are actually quite open for it.

I found a blog post of German photographer Jannis Dirkson who spent 4 days in the German city Düsseldorf asking people and couples to have a little photo shoot right there on the spot. Have a look at the post and focus on, how relaxed and trusting his subjects look.

You can see the excitement in their eyes, doing something very extraordinary that happens very rarely (being asked for a photoshooting on your way to work for example).

Check out his YouTube channel as he films a lot of his street portrait flows.

This one is from one of his sessions in Amsterdam - he doesn't even let himself stop by the rain:

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