How to Capture Street Portraits: In Their Face and In Their Space

 

Photographic genres seem to change all the time, and what was once called one thing is now called something else. This may be splitting hairs and I may be full of crap, but I think there’s a difference between capturing a portrait on the streets and photographing a street scene with people. I would call the first example a “street portrait” and the second example “street photography.”

When I shoot a street portrait I’m looking to convey personality. I want to see character, wrinkles, soul and depth. I want to see a life story expressed without the need for words. I want to see the human condition with all its flaws and foibles. I want to see “real.” This requires focus and focus demands closeness. Environmental context is not very important, the subject is what’s important. Conversely, street photography demands context, and the human subjects are often incidental. Street photography begs candidness, whereas a street portrait can be posed to a greater or lesser extent depending on the situation.

Senor Cigar 3 FINAL

I’ve been travelling the world and photographing its people; for the past four years I’ve been in Latin America from Mexico to Peru. I still have Bolivia, Chile and Argentina coming up before I finish the Latin American portion of my world adventure, and then I’ll be heading back to Asia. I am primarily a wildlife and nature photographer, but I do enjoy capturing street portraits and doing street photography. I’ve gained some insights while travelling, and I think these tips can be applied almost anywhere.

The first thing I learned is that it takes some cajones. You have to get close to take a portrait, and getting close automatically telegraphs your intentions. No stealth photography here. When you’re in a foreign country and don’t speak the native language it can often exacerbate the problem. For instance, I’ve been down south now for almost 5-years and my Spanish still really sucks. But there are tricks-of-the-trade, so not to worry.

WB IMG_6070

Okay, so the first order of business is to cinch up your big-boy pants, take a deep breath and do a personal gut-check (apologies to my female readers for these gender-specific terms.) If you are going to engage in this kind of photography you’re going to be In Their Face and In Their Space. There’s no way around it. Here are my tips:

Equipment. I find there are two ways to go here, and I do both almost equally. I will either shoot with my primary shooter, my  Canon EOS 5D Mark II full-frame camera with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens or Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM telephoto zoom lens, or I will use my backup shooter, a small Canon PowerShot G15 pocket camera. There are advantages and disadvantages to both as you can imagine.

Attitude. Positive is the operative word here. I’m an introvert by nature so I find this kind of photography to be personally challenging, but at the same time highly rewarding. Smile, be polite and show respect. This is doubly important in a foreign country. Remember your manners, ask, say please and thank you—because my Spanish sucks I smile a lot and use a lot of hand gestures. And strange as it may seem I am rarely refused. If I am I simply smile, say I’m sorry and thank you—Lo siento y muchas gracias.

Pose. Unlike street photography where the scenes are typically candid, street portraits are usually posed. I try to relax the subject as much as possible, and I’m always goofing around and laughing. I make fun of myself, slapping my forehead, rolling my eyes and acting like a complete idiot. Many would say this comes naturally to me, but I think that’s rather unkind. I will often include a bit of environmental context to add some flavor, but I’m totally focused on the subject. Especially the eyes.

Shooting. I shoot a bunch of shots quickly. I set my camera to aperture priority, I shoot with a single, center focus point (on the eyes), single shot autofocus, auto ISO and at a continuous 3 fps. I will bang out a lot of shots, jabbering the whole time, and my subjects get used to the commotion and relax quickly. Basically I’m shooting like I would in the studio, but I’m on the street with natural light and shooting handheld.

Money. Yes, I pay. Always if I’m asked and usually even if I’m not. These are not rich people I’m photographing, and $1 USD goes a long way in most countries. The people are appreciative and I’ve never been taken advantage of—I can always walk away if I don’t like the terms. I would feel pretty cheap refusing to pay even $1 USD when I’m sporting $6,000 USD worth of photo gear. I know photographers who absolutely refuse to pay, and all I can think is “cheap bastards.”

Danger. You have to be sensitive to the local culture, especially when photographing indigenous peoples. With indigenous peoples I always ask permission, to do otherwise can put you in physical danger. There have been cases of photographers being physically assaulted and even killed. Be aware, be sensitive and be careful. To do otherwise is rude, arrogant and dangerous. I’ve photographed indigenous peoples in many places, the H’mong hill tribes in Vietnam, the Maya in Chiapas, Mexico, the Maleku in central Costa Rica and the Inca in Peru. I’ve never had a problem.

Processing. When shooting street portraits I try not to over-process in post. I strive to keep it real, blemishes and all. Most often I prefer B&W for my street portraits and street photography, but when a good color opportunity comes along I’ll take full advantage of it. It has nothing to do with tradition or so-called purist photography, its just that I find color sometimes distracting and can potentially diminish the subject. At other times color can further enhance an already great shot. It’s a matter of personal choice.

If you haven’t tried this kind of photography before I would challenge you to give it a try. It takes some getting used to, especially for us introverts, but the rewards can be so great. Not only do you get some cool shots, but you meet some really interesting people along the way. I will never forget the people, and their stories, illustrated above: Juan Pablo was photographed in Antigua, Guatemala; I found Señor Cigar in Trinidad, Cuba and the little Inca dancing girl was recently photographed in Huaraz, Peru. Remember, you’re In Their Face and In Their Space.

Read Stephen’s previous post on How to Make Money Taking Pictures 

Get Stephen’s gear:

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM

Canon PowerShot G15 pocket camera

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30 Responses to How to Capture Street Portraits: In Their Face and In Their Space

  1. mm
    Andy Shields March 15, 2016 at 10:45 am #

    Well done Stephen! Great tips for sure. I have been working on being more outgoing and willing to approach strangers. Articles like yours help to push me in that direction.

    • Stephen Dennstedt March 15, 2016 at 10:52 am #

      Thank you for the positive comments Andy. It isn’t easy (especially for us introverts), but like I mentioned in the article it is highly rewarding. And you don’t have to be a world traveler like me, you can do this in your own hometown with great results. Good luck with your shooting.

  2. Joel R. Dennstedt March 15, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

    Excellent article, but then I am fortunate to actually watch this advice executed up close and personal. What I have observed while Steve is doing this is the nanosecond of time he has to capture the one revealing shot. After that, the subject freezes into a too self-conscious pose …. but for that brief flicker of a moment, they are naked to the camera … figuratively speaking. And to watch the final result appear in “print” is wonderful. A lot of people skills are required in order to make this happen … not to mention photographic skills. Makes for a great combination.

    • Stephen Dennstedt March 15, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

      Muchas gracias mi hermano. Didn’t know you were watching THAT close. 🙂

  3. Jim March 15, 2016 at 1:46 pm #

    Well said, Stephen,

    I’ll say again how much I enjoy reading about your journeys. Thank you for sharing your experiences and images. I’m about half way through all of your blogs back to 2011 and they’ve each been a great read.

    • Stephen Dennstedt March 15, 2016 at 3:23 pm #

      Thank you so much Jim. I hope you got my email awhile back relative to your blog posts. I liked them a lot, and I like where life seems to be taking you. Good luck amigo, and thank you for commenting.

      • Jim March 17, 2016 at 7:29 am #

        Stephen, I saw that someone from Peru had viewed my blogs so figured that had to be you, but did not receive your review. I figured you were just busy. I’ll go looking through my spam folder in case it landed their. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

        • Stephen Dennstedt March 29, 2016 at 5:53 pm #

          Jim, I will see if I have it in my email folder and re-send it if I do (it was a long commentary). Bottomline I enjoyed it very much.

  4. Bobbie March 15, 2016 at 2:10 pm #

    Thank you for a very focused (!) and helpful article. As a fellow “introvert”, I wonder how you manage to “jabber the whole time” — esp. in a language you haven’t fully mastered — while setting up the camera settings, etc? I would like to do more of this type of photography but can’t imagine doing all those things at the same time! Thanks for your insights.

    • Stephen Dennstedt March 15, 2016 at 3:38 pm #

      Thank you Bobbie. Your comment made me laugh out loud (or as the kids would text LOL). I try to have my camera set up ahead of time, so all I have to do is zoom & focus. I shared my typical settings in the article if you’re interested. Jabbering like an idiot comes naturally to me (even though I’m an introvert), and it gets some pretty funny responses sometimes. One phrase I learned and use a lot is gringo norte americano es estúpido (basically meaning I’m a stupid American). This usually cracks them up and relaxes things. Americans are often intimidating to other cultures, so I try to use deprecating humor whenever I can. I will often say uno momento (one moment) and start fiddling with my camera (even if I don’t have to) and that relaxes things too. I almost always let the folks look at my LCD screen when I’m finished and tell them thank you very much. I am definitely an introvert, but I also have a lot of the clown in me, and I don’t mind looking silly. I really encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and give it a try. Back in my corporate days when I had to do a lot of public speaking I would just step outside of myself (in my head) and pretend I was playing a role. I think a lot of actors do this too. Best of luck with your shooting Bobbie. Feel free to visit me at http://www.IndochinePhotography.me. Steve

  5. Susan March 15, 2016 at 2:19 pm #

    Great photos ,just enjoy looking at them !

  6. Doris Potter March 15, 2016 at 4:20 pm #

    Excellent tips and suggestions Steve. I especially like the respect you demonstrate for your subjects and the fact that you pay them.

    • Stephen Dennstedt March 15, 2016 at 5:16 pm #

      Thank you Doris. The “paying-for-the-shot” philosophy is controversial, but I would feel horrible if I didn’t. Since retirement I’m not exactly rich, but I have a lot when compared to those I photograph. I’ve found in my travels that those with the least are the most generous. I’ve been invited to homes to share meals and join in celebrations by folks who have very little in the way of material things, and I’ve been “stiffed” (not paid) by relatively well-off expats for photographic services. Go figure. I am a firm believer in notion that you receive what you give. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  7. Jeff March 16, 2016 at 4:55 am #

    Does street photography need model release?

    • Stephen Dennstedt March 16, 2016 at 6:34 am #

      Excellent question Jeff, and the answer is it depends. I am not a lawyer, but it’s my understanding that anyone in the public domain is fair game (but it’s still important to mind one’s manners). However, when the image is going to be used for commercial purposes (product endorsements as an example) a model release is always asked for. I never submit photos of people to stock agencies for that reason, it’s too difficult. When shooting professional models, or even people in your own country, it simplifies things. But when you’re shooting outside of your native country, and the language is different, or the subjects are illiterate it’s almost impossible to get a model release filled out properly (one that will be acceptable in the USA, Canada or Europe). In summary, to take the picture in the street requires no model release, but to use it for financial gain does. Thank you for your question.

  8. Don Massenzio March 16, 2016 at 8:06 am #

    Beautiful photos and interesting article.

  9. Azwar March 16, 2016 at 9:28 am #

    Dear Mr. Dennstedt,

    Thank you for the article. I learned so much and you inspire me to try this street portrait photography.

    I’ve just recently started to develop an interest in photography. I don’t plan to go pro. I just take pictures for my own collection.

    Looking at your pictures, I think we will be honored to have you in Indonesia and take some street portraits. Please come to Indonesia. We have hundreds of tribes and cultures. It will be an interesting trip and I know you will create beautiful pictures.

  10. Stephen Dennstedt March 16, 2016 at 9:50 am #

    Thank you for your very nice comments Azwar. I will “definitely” be coming to Indonesia. I’ve been travelling in Latin America for 4-years, and still have to visit Bolivia, Chile and Argentina before completing this portion of my world adventure. Before returning to Asia I will have to go back to the Sates (for about a month) to visit family & friends (it will have been almost 5-years since I’ve been back home for a visit). Indonesia looks FANTASTIC, and I am so anxious to go there and meet its people and see the sights. When I was very young a man from Indonesia taught me how to make Indonesian “Fighting Kites” and we also used to go ocean fishing together. There is still so much of the world to see, and things to do, and I’m not getting any younger. I hope you will stick with your photography and continue to enjoy it. I would love to see some of your photographs, do you have a website? Also, feel free to visit my website at Indochine Photography at http://www.IndochinePhotography.me, and subscribe to my photography, travel and lifestyle blog at Expat Journal. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  11. Dennis Green March 16, 2016 at 10:23 am #

    Just read your article though Northrup photo group. When doing street portraits do I need a model release if its just for art, or do I need one as I would in editorial work? Great photos by the way I agree with you on the keeping it real.

    • Stephen Dennstedt March 16, 2016 at 11:50 am #

      Hi Dennis, Jeff had the same question in a comment above. It’s always been my understanding that when someone is in a public venue there can be no expectation of privacy (legally). I’m not a lawyer but this sounds right. But I always try to be unobtrusive and “polite” like I mentioned in the article. If you’re not using the image for commercial purposes (just for art) I see no need for a model release. If you want to submit photos of people to stock agencies you will absolutely need a model release. I never shoot people for commercial use, because it’s just a pain in the neck and not the kind of photography I like to do. Also, most of my photography is done abroad and it’s often hard to bridge the language and cultural gaps that exist. I also shoot mostly local and indigenous people. If I were doing commercial work, and using professional models, that would be different. A longwinded answer to your short question. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  12. Tim Vaclavek March 16, 2016 at 6:51 pm #

    Very interesting article Stephen, I don’t think I have the guts or what ever to try it, I think I’ll have to stick to the four legged critters.

    • Stephen Dennstedt March 16, 2016 at 7:22 pm #

      Hi Tim. You do mighty fine with those four legged critters my friend. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  13. John Moulds March 16, 2016 at 9:15 pm #

    Great article Stephen, I always learn something new from your writings, keep it up please, regards, John…

    • Stephen Dennstedt March 16, 2016 at 9:58 pm #

      Thank you John. As you know I am a big fan of your work. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

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