How to Shoot Better Street Portraits With Minimal Gear

One of the things many photographers find to be very challenging is shooting street portraits. There are a number of complications: sometimes a photographer doesn’t have the courage to ask someone for a portrait but they have the technical knowledge. But other times, it’s the opposite. Taking portraits of people on the street really isn’t that difficult to do though and once you understand the basics of human psychology you’ll see just how simple it can be.

How to Be Ready Beforehand

Sometimes people don’t have a whole lot of time to do a portrait but they’ll be what’s called “an agreeable stranger” for you. So to be courteous to someone, don’t take a whole lot of their time, just as much as is reasonable. To do this, you can use a few special tricks when it comes to metering:

  • Use aperture priority and spot metering. Then lock the exposure to their face and recompose.
  • Meter off of your hand beforehand and be sure to compensate a bit for the shadows in the scene.

This helps you immediately get a lot of the technical parts of image taking out of the way. Believe it or not, professional studio photographers will do the same thing when working with clients. They’ll use a dummy or an assistant to get this ready though.

Observe Body Language Before You Approach Someone

First off: ask someone for a portrait. ALWAYS ASK! But before you do this, be sure to observe their body language. If they’re clearly in a rush, then don’t bother them. But if they’re a tad more relaxed, you could wager your chances. Better yet, if someone is simply just hanging out on the street, you can also ask them there.

Sometimes you’ll get lucky if someone is in a rush and they’ll give you a moment. But otherwise, let them go.

To do this, you’ll need to put yourself in their shoes:

  • Let’s say you’re really late for work, how would you be moving when out of transportation? You’d be in a hurry, right?
  • What if someone just wants to enjoy the day: then they’re probably strolling, right? These folks will be more amicable to get their portraits taken on the street.

Again, it’s about respect and understanding.

At the same time though, someone is bound to a million times more intrigued if you’re packing one of these.

Don’t Make it Awkward: Just Be Friendly and Direct

“Excuse me. Hey sorry to bug you, but your hat looks really cool. Would you mind if I take your portrait? You can get it from me afterwards.”

“Thanks, my name is Chris by the way. What’s yours?” *extends for a hand shake*

Courtesy and acting as if it’s your job or it’s something you’re very serious about and want to do will come across very easily. Believe it or not most people are more afraid of you than you are of them, and as long as you can alleviate this fear, you’ll be fine. Besides, a lot of people also have no problems having their portraits taken–especially in the selfie generation.

Move to the Shade, or Backlight Someone

Ask them to move a bit away out of the street or sidewalk so that you two can collaborate on getting a better photo of them. Notice my specific wording there. When outside, you’re sometimes best off moving to a shade covered area or backlighting your subject. The reason for this has to do with the consistency of the exposure in the scene.

The Rules of Focal Lengths

This is a much smaller quibble overall but in general:

  • 35mm: Do a 3/4 or 1/2 portrait
  • 50mm: You can do a 1/4 portrait
  • 85mm: Get as close as you’d like
  • Longer than 85mm: same thing applies.

Use these quick tips and don’t sweat talking to people. They’re just people!

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.