One of the most rewarding aspects of street photography is shooting portraits of strangers. In our article “Approaching Strangers on the Street – YOUR way” we talked about how to approach people on the street. Let’s assume you did just that. What’s next?
Before we go on with “what’s next” let me take you one step back. If possible, I try to have an idea for an image before I stop someone and ask permission to take their portrait. What I mean is that I try to find a background which complements my subject and doesn’t distract from it. I think about the exact placement of the person within the frame and of course I evaluate the light. Not only does this approach take away a lot of pressure, but it saves you and your subject time and facilitates a great image.
Once you have an idea about the image you want to capture, it is now your role to instruct your subject.
First, don’t rush! I repeat, don’t rush. It is a natural tendency for most people to feel obligated to shoot an image as quickly as possible. I guess we all feel that we somehow disrupted somebody’s routine, therefore we need to be quick. Think about it. You’ve made the effort to ask someone for their cooperation and now you are going to blow it because you feel you’re taking up their time!
Second, if you notice that your subject is unsure what to do or what it’s all about, explain briefly what you are trying to accomplish, for example: “I have this image in mind and your hat, hair, persona triggered my attention” or “I noticed this amazing light on the wall and I would love to place a human element in it – you are so photogenic.”
Third, take charge of the situation. Most people feel shy about giving instructions, but people usually like such decisive action. By being kind but firm, you show you know what you’re doing. You give your subjects confidence that they are in good, professional hands. The worst thing you can do is to look confused and unsure.
Hint: Sometimes things don’t work as I imagined, for example my subject is not as good as I thought or my background doesn’t fit. Don’t show disappointment! Try something else!
Fourth, don’t be afraid to give instructions repeatedly and position your subject as suited. I often say, “Please raise your chin” or “Could you please put away your bag” – remember, every detail counts. If your subject looks surprised at your request, explain why you are doing this.
Fifth, if your idea doesn’t work as planned don’t be afraid to change the plan and suggest a different location (of course it must be close by). I often say, “Listen, I have one more really great idea, would you mind one more image? I’m sure you will love it.” Most people say YES.
Let me give you some examples.
X100F, 1/400 at f/5.6
Recently I was shooting in Vancouver Yaletown and noticed an amazing patch of light. I liked the pattern on the wall but there was something missing. I thought how great it would be to place an interesting person against this pattern. I already knew where I would like a person to stand and which direction they should face.
I waited for about 20 minutes but most people passing by were in hurry (at least they appeared to be or were not what I was looking for). Then I noticed a woman with a flower in her hair. I immediately liked the idea. I stopped her and explained the situation. She agreed to have her portrait taken. I told her exactly where to stand and asked her to imagine she was waiting for a friend. As usual I waited for about 30 seconds before I started to shoot. Remember, I already knew the light, where to place my subject, how to frame my shot and roughly the technical parameters (all AUTO – double-checked – liked the settings – stay tuned for the post about my preferred camera settings).
X100F, 1/1000 at f/4.5
I was shooting in downtown Vancouver and found a visually appealing stage: strong shadows, beautiful late-afternoon light, a mosaic pavement (I already knew I wanted it to be black and white). I sat down and observed the stage. After a few minutes, I noticed that people working in a conference centre were walking between buildings in their black and white uniforms. What a match for the black and white mosaic on the ground! Having said that I knew that a subject had to be placed a certain way so there was enough separation between the person’s upper body and the background. The strong, dark doors provided me with just that.
As people in uniform were walking back and forth I took a few images. Then I noticed that one young man was interested in my activity and approached me. I immediately reacted before he even started. “What a great place you are working at.” He smiled. I continued, “Listen, I would love to take your photo against this stunning background. Would you mind?” He agreed. I placed him so the dark doors in the background would provide an adequate separation. Then I instructed him to hang out and not look into the camera. That’s when I captured this image.
X100F, 1/800 at f/5.6
This one was tough. I really liked the industrial background but I couldn’t find the right subject. I noticed a young woman smoking so I approached her and asked for permission to take a few images. She agreed and asked, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “Keep doing what you were doing and please try to ignore me.” I brought my camera, the X100F, to my eye and tried to find the best composition. I already knew I wanted to position myself quite low to capture just a few elements in the background. However, I encountered a problem. Despite my instructions, the girl was smiling and trying really, really hard to pose – she was no longer natural (you can’t hide it on camera).
I needed a break so I said, “Listen, I have one more idea in mind. Could you please stand there and pretend you are waiting for your friends – please forget about me.” She did just that. After about 20 seconds she was back looking natural without pretending. That’s when I captured this image.
I was quite low in relation to my subject for two reasons: (1) to simplify the composition (the background was very busy), and (2) to have good separation between the girl and the other elements (see point #1).
Let’s summarize. When you stop someone for a portrait:
Explain what you are doing briefly and precisely
Take command of the situation
Don’t be afraid to give specific instructions
Always thank them
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