The Beginner’s Guide To Shooting Street Portraits (Part 2)

“Taking a picture is very technical, but 99.9% is spent on this connection that allows me to reach someone”. Platon.

Welcome back to the second instalment of The Beginner’s Guide To Shooting Street Portraits. Last week we defined what street portraits are, looked at how you should approach a subject and the best ways to handle rejection. This week we’re going to take your knowledge a step further. We will cover ways you can make your subject feel relaxed, and also what settings you should be using when taking a street portrait. Of course, we want you to get hands-on practice, so expect us to send you away at the end with a little challenge to focus on.

View Part 1 here.

Making Your Subjects Comfortable

As Platon said, 99.9% of what makes a good portrait is the connection between the photographer and the subject. Unlike Platon, however, street portrait photographers do not have much time to build that same level of rapport. We have to act quickly and make the subject feel comfortable in our company. Failure to do so leads to a forced looking portrait – which is no good to anybody.

How do you get someone to relax?

First, you yourself must feel relaxed. If you’re tense and nervous, this will only project on to your subject. I understand there is a lot to think about. What you will say, the angst of speaking to a stranger (millennial problems) etc. But you need to own it and go in confidently. So, take a few deep breaths if you need to, get your house in order before making your approach.

Once they have agreed to have you take their portrait, it’s time for the dialogue. Don’t waste time talking about the weather or if they binge watch shows on Netflix (of course they do). Get to know them – make it about them. Ask what brings them to the city, what they do for work or even how they feel about having their photo taken. Try to connect to their feelings – here is an example of a conversation I had with a subject.

Subject – “I’m working on my first studio album. It’s fun but I’m also very nervous”.

Dan – “I imagine it’s an exciting feeling knowing people will hear your music, but daunting as you hope that people like it, right?”.

Subject – “Exactly!”.

A very simple example of building rapport. All I’m doing is paraphrasing back to them what they have said to me. The impact of this, however, is that it makes them feel understood – they trust I genuinely care about what they are saying. When someone trusts you, they are more at ease and by the time you take the shot, they should feel fully relaxed.

After a few minutes of dialogue, this is what we got…


Allow Your Subjects to be Themselves

If you have ever been on an organised portrait shoot, you will see there’s always a lot of direction. Pose like this, pose like that do the hokey pokey and turnaround. We don’t want to do this when taking street portraits. Remember, these people are not models on assignment, they don’t want to be bossed around by a photographer and told to do awkward poses. However, they may ask the question “what should I do?”, to which I always answer “whatever you feel most comfortable doing”.

I found this subject in the heart of Soho, London – one of the busiest fast-paced areas in the English capital. Without a care for all the hustle and bustle rapidly moving past her, she just zoned in and read her book. It was as if she was in a room all alone, peaceful and zen-like. I told her I wanted to capture that. The communication was simple – just keep reading, keeping being you…

What Camera Settings Should You Use?

It’s extremely important to know your cameras’ settings when taking street portraits. Normal people don’t want to be hanging around whilst you find the perfect exposure. With this in mind, I would suggest shooting in aperture priority mode. You get control of the depth of field and your camera will do the rest. In terms of your f stops, this comes down to how confident you are with focusing. We all love that dreamy bokeh, but if you’re shooting wide open you need to nail the focus to ensure your subject doesn’t come up soft. If you act quickly, stop down after each frame so you have more chance of a nice sharp image.

Top Tip – Find out if your camera has facial recognition mode. I use this on my Fuji XT2 and it helps to lock the focus in each and every time.

Street Portraits Challenge

It’s time to go out and get busy. This week your challenge is to go out and get two street portraits of two different people. Focus on your conversational skills, be comfortable with your settings and make some beautiful street portraiture. To spice things up, shoot one of your portraits with a wide open aperture.

Next week we will focus more on what makes an interesting street portrait and how to end the interaction with your subjects.

Have fun!

Dan Ginn is a UK based street photographer and writer. Learn more about him via his website and Instagram