Street Portraits

Today’s article makes a for a nice continuum from my thoughts on Shutter Therapy. A browse through that article and previous ones (on robinwong.blogspot.com) will show that there is inevitably a portrait or two, usually of strangers. In this article, I share my thoughts on shooting street portraits and also share some of my favourite photographs.

Why shoot pictures of strangers on the street? The entire act is increasingly rife with risk after all – risk of confrontation and placing oneself in an uncomfortable position. I don’t exclusively shoot portraits of strangers, but these images do account for about 10% of my total Shutter Therapy output. Street photography is a subjective genre and has been subject to plenty of endless debate and discussion and we have yet to reach a consensus and have never properly defined it. As a result, the genre has spawned an almost ridiculous number of sub-genres and categories, with street portraits among them. I don’t recall what got me into the idea of shooting street portraits but I’m fairly certain it was the result of picking up a challenge from one of my readers who criticized* the lack of human elements in my, as he described it, cold and soul-less street photographs.  I picked up the gauntlet and decided that if I was going to shoot pictures of people, I’d like to get as close I possibly can. The first few attempts required me to brave and barrel my way through the feeling of anxiety, but the feeling of successfully executing the shot was  exhilarating. There was a thrill that I cannot accurately describe in words; a sense of accomplishment. Though these merely ordinary portraits of people were unlikely to to be my calling card to photographic fame, it was deeply satisfying and added an additional element of satisfaction to my weekly Shutter Therapy sessions. I derive more satisfaction in nailing one candid, organically occurring street portrait, than I do from shooting a hundred posed and controlled portrait of beautiful swimsuit-clad models by the beach (something a lot of photographers seem to prefer here in KL).

* It is feedback and critique like this, from my readers, that has helped me develop as a photographer over the years. (Some of it can be quite brutal, but it helps that I’m a thick-skinned typical Asian)

Unlike Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York fame or Bruce Gilden’s terror-spreading serialized projects, I have no specific purpose or final objective in mind when photographing strangers on the street. I am not trying to weave any sort global narrative, I shoot simply for the fun of it, and I enjoy shooting portraits. That’s reason enough to get me to return to the streets of KL week after week, and with no strings attached – allowing me the freedom to choose who I shoot and how I shoot them.

However, the bigger question here is not the underlying motivation but the execution – to put it plainly, how do you approach strangers? I choose my subjects carefully, and I don’t just attack random people’s private space. I don’t stop someone who is walking, or obstruct people or activities taking place on the street. Since the purpose here is to get close in an unoffending manner, I look for people who are standing around waiting for something or someone, or comfortably sitting down somewhere. I’m careful not to disrupt those who are working or avoid causing trouble or situations where my presence maybe unwelcome. This works best when the people you want to shoot are in a comfortable position, and body language cues and being able to read them are your best friend here. This is something that gets better with time and experience, along with the ability to anticipate and predict if the subject will agree to being photographed. I cannot repeat enough that if the person is busy, doing something important, doesn’t look happy, or obviously not in the mood to engage in a conversation with a stranger, give it a pass.

While a challenge drove me to start shooting close up portraits, I’ve kept at it because of the excitement and experience of interacting with someone who is completely alien to me. To say I am nervous, is an understatement but I have learned that a sincere little smile, and polite conversation can go a long way. Breaking the ice is not easy and it’s a slow process. I start by establishing my presence within the peripheral vision of the subject, and then make my way closer to them, slowly but surely. All along, I observe the subject’s response to me entering their comfort zone and eventually breaching their personal space. People will always react when you get so close, but if all the signals I read are positive, I ask if I can photograph them. 90% of the time, the answer is a solid YES.

Of course, I do engage in conversation before the request, but I keep it brief and quick. Sometimes, it’s just a universal nod to see if they’re ok with the photo being taken and no words are exchanged (hard to misinterpret a stranger, with camera in hand looking at you). In rare circumstances, I’ve had fairly long conversations which can be an experience in itself.

This doesn’t mean I don’t get rejected, it happens and is unavoidable. So what? Just smile politely, and move on. For every one rejection there are dozens of opportunities waiting elsewhere. The trick here is to stay positive and remain positive, not just mentally but physically as well. Your facial expression, and how you present yourself is key in getting a positive response. People’s initial reaction to you is largely based on your physical appearance and person, especially since you are a total stranger to them.

Several famous photographers have stated that street portraits have more character  if the subjects weren’t smiling in such a familiar manner. I disagree. A smile is natural, pleasant and we all smile when we see each other, especially friends and family. There is magic in the human smile that helps build connections and bridges. Animals have other forms of greeting, but for humans, nothing is quite as universal as a smile. Why exclude something that is so exclusively human, when you are shooting humans?

Once I’ve successfully obtained permission to shoot these portrait, I don’t usually have time for too many attempts. It makes for an awkward setting if you’re standing around shooting something like 25+ photos of someone you just met, so its important to make each shot count. Whatever I choose to do, I always ensure my subject is comfortable. For starters, this means maintaining at least an arm’s length, and respecting their boundaries of personal space. I don’t just whip my camera inches away from their nose with a fisheye or ultra wide angle lens. While I acknowledge you get different perspectives and results that way, those methods and results are not for me. I’m not looking for the shock value or grittiness that is too often portrayed in modern street photography. I’m more concerned with capture the beauty and unique character, in my view, of each stranger I meet on the street.

Now that I’ve covered my approach and etiquette for street portraits, let’s look at my general camera setup for street portraits:

  • Single-AF: I select my focus point manually and place it over the subject’s nearest eye.
  • Aperture Priority: I adjust F-stops manually, normally wide open between f1.8 and f2.8.
  • ISO: As low as possible, normally ISO200-400
  • Exposure Compensation: I use this to make adjustments in real time as I look at the exposure through the electronic viewfinder or live view screen.
  • Medium Telephoto Lens. I find 85mm-100mm (35mm equivalent) to be ideal. Anything shorter than 50mm will produce unflattering distortion when shooting close-up and anything longer than 100mm defeats the purpose, as you need to stand  quite far away and it isn’t the same experience.

My favourite lens for tight street portraits is the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 (90mm in 35mm format). This allows me to stand about 2 meters away from my subject and get head and shoulder shots (or in extreme cases simply headshots if working space is limited). This focal length provides me with a few crucial benefits: It gives me a compressed background perspective, allowing me to avoid messy distractions, and to capture flattering profiles of the subjects face with minimal distortion and perspective exaggeration. The wide aperture of f1.8 allows me to take advantage of the shallow depth of field to isolate the subject further and to control the amount of bokeh I want.

To wrap up, here are some (hopefully interesting) facts about my street portraits:

  • Malaysia and the street of KL is comprised of mainly Malays, Chinese and Indians . In my experience, Indians tend to be the friendliest and most approachable people, followed by the Malay and Chinese.
  • I’ve shot a number of non-Malaysians as my subjects. Many are blue-collar foreign workers from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, or even from Saudi Arabia. I’ve found that foreigners are generally quite friendly.
  • The ratio of men to women in my shots is about 10:1. I’ve found it easier to shoot men on the streets. They tend be less self-conscious about their appearance, and don’t worry as much about their hair and makeup. This is possibly why women tend to turn down my request to photograph.
  • Black & White works well for street portraits. They help reduce any distraction due to color and help pull your attention back to their facial expressions.
  • When I am seriously inclined to shoot street portraits, I avoid big groups. While I generally shoot with a group of 4 people or less, I prefer to shoot alone when I have a specific shotlist in mind. Sadly, it’s unwise to be alone on the streets in KL these days and safety is a growing concern.
  • Unless you shoot at night, these images tend to be shoot with abundant ambient light. So your choice of camera should not matter too much. If anything, something as open-ended as street photography is the place to leave gear obsession behind.
  • That being said, I’ve found that people react better to smaller cameras. I have used an Olympus E-520 and E-5 (both DSLR sized cameras), as well as a Sony A350 and Sony A57, and the most frequently asked question was “are you from the media?”. People are automatically more cautious of you and suspect an an agenda when they see a d-SLR sized camera. This has almost never happened when I’ve used a Micro Four Thirds system.

I recommend you guys give this a try the next time you are out photographing in the city and for those of you who have, what have your experiences with approaching people been like, and are there any useful techniques that you found work quite well, whether dealing with people or the photography itself.

__________________

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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2017 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. I read your article with interest and agree with most of your comments and tips regarding this specialised genre of portraiture. I must say, however, after 5 years of shooting street strangers I have mastered the art of “the introduction” and the courage to approach anyone at almost anytime. I have asked strangers at their work if can shoot them during their lunch break, I approached strangers in deep conversation and in the middle of a meal in cafes, bars and restaurants with almost 100% success. I actively look for people who look ” unapproachable” and find that they usually are the nicest people (never judge a book by its cover) and most polite of all stranger types. But to me stranger shooting is about the interaction and connection you make with the stranger and without this you will end up with a less than worthy photo of who you saw when you made that initial eye contact. People are remarkably helpful, kind and unfortunately, quite detached form others around them and inherently like to be noticed, singled out form the crowd and appreciate the attention and complements that I always ensure i pass on within the first few sentences of my approach blurb. Their life stories can be absolutely gobsmacking, sad inspirational and It makes you realise that were all the same going through the same trials and tribulations that life throws at you. Many have thanked me for stopping them and making their portrait as they were having a bad day and our encounter just “made their day”. many walk away uplifted by the experience and often ask for their portrait to be emailed to them. I know have several stranger who I meet and talk with during my outings who I would call friends.

    The human condition is a strange and complex thing but I urge you to challenge yourself to approach that who don’t look approachable as you may be very pleasantly surprised by what you find , who you meet and the great portrait you can make when your really engaged with someone.

    IF anyone is interested in getting started there is a 2 great Flickr groups, 100 Strangers and the The Human Family project that will help you get there, or you can email me directly for help and advise. gtpete@msnn.com

  2. No clutter in the background, here (vs/ your other post). Better.
    Missing a theme, though, or stronger expressions, or a strong visual signature to make them stand out.
    You should make me want to get to know these people, understand their stories.

  3. Like thise portraits very much! I was in KL last Jan and walked around a lot, didn’t feel unsafe at all. Was not waving my camera when not needed though!

  4. Fantastic article! Shared on Facebook.

  5. So common and still so uncommon. Liked it!

  6. Hi Robin!

    I like this post, I found it educational!
    May I ask your opinion -as far as you can remember- how does the Olympus E-520 compare to the newer Olympus O MD – 10 in terms of sensor in real day to day. I know the ‘tech’ stuff, so what I’m asking is there a real very noticeable difference?

    Thanks for your time!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Coisas.
      E-520 was released in 2008, and E-M10 was released in 2014, so the 6 years gap is quite significant when it comes to image sensor development. E-520 is quite far behind in terms of resolution, using only 10MP sensor, and having a conventional Anti-Aliasing filter. High ISO noise control and dynamic range are also far behind. The cap of high ISO is at 1600, and usable ISO up to ISO400 only. While for E-M10 I can confidently shoot at ISO1600 and ISO3200 (for emergencies).

  7. I love to shoot people with interesting faces or those in interesting circumstances. I don’t want people to “pose”. I want to capture them in a “natural” state, unaware of me or my camera to avoid the any posing. I usually shoot tight on their faces. Shooting with long lenses such as the Fujifilm 100-400 wide open does the trick quite nicely for me.

    • Whether getting the portraits candid or posed, I don’t think there is right and wrong and it comes down to preference. I want to capture that human connection, the way the people look at me, that is important in my images!

    • Out of interest, what do you think is ‘unatural’ about someone who knows they are having their picture taken? Does the person cease to be real just becuase they are posing?

      • To me, that never was an issue because I wanted to capture that connection, the way the stranger look into my lens. The smile is definitely genuine, because human smile is the most universally human thing I can think of.

  8. Very nice, and a post that is encouraging to me personally as i’ve shot a few images that bear some similarity. I very much appreciate the observation about camera size as well. I’ve certainly found that carrying a D810 grabs a lot of attention to itself and is not at all discrete or unassuming.

  9. What beautiful people. People are beautiful. You showed it.

  10. Anil Bakshi says:

    Wonderfull theme, so we’ll described, shared. Liked all compositions. Good narrative. Thanks

  11. This is a very interesting read not least because most of my photography is focused on the sub-genre ‘street portraiture’, mostly because I don’t have much opporuntity to do other kinds of portraiture, much as I would love to.

    Among the comments you make that I found most interseting was that you don’t have a specific purpose in mind when shooting these portraits. It’s a conundrum I’ve also wrestled with, usually in the context of ‘who cares’; what is the point, why would anyone care about my work?

    The answer I come up with is connected to a text I hold dear to me and my understanding of self and my experience of the world; indeed, ‘The Politics of Experience’, which is the name of this text, is also the name of my ongoing projcet (it won’t ever end). The idea that approaching a stranger in the street and asking to take their picture is indeed risky and fraught with politics is precisely why I do it. Human engagements like this should be entirely natual and celebrated but ‘the politics of experience’ makes that very difficult. This is why I do what i do; because it breaks down those politics.

    At the end of a day shooting street portraits I feel better about myself; I feel better as a person, I feel inspired to become a better person and, hopefully, I have inspired other to feel the same.

  12. You’ve used great lighting in so many of these shots–do you directly position the subject or is it more subtle and strategic (walking around to the best side of the subject. etc.)? You’ve got some stellar images here; book worthy for sure. Thanks for sharing your work.

  13. Michiel953 says:

    Interesting article Robin; thanks for sharing your thoughts and images. A few comments.
    * Landscape orientation mainly? Why?
    * Close-up yes, but not really frame-filling. In my “58 portraits” project (portraits all shot with a 58mm lens -Nikon 1.4G or Nokton SLII-) the distance usually turns out to be 60 cms… F4.0, no distortion. Careful, ambient, lighting, preferably darker backgrounds (or very white), face in side lighting.

  14. Beautiful imagery indeed and sound advice. Many thanks for sharing 😊

  15. Emanuele says:

    Hi Robin, how do you deal with the permission to publish/use the picture taken from the subjects of your street portraits?

    • Hi Emanuele, in Malaysia, in public places, we are allowed to take photographs of anyone, and use them for publications. Rules and regulations may vary at different countries but generally, as long as you are shooting at public spots, it should be perfectly fine and not against the law.

      • I know that you cannot publish such photos shot in Japan. I once found a list of all countries and their portraiture laws. Wished I could remember…

        • Emanuele says:

          Thank you Robin and Job. Indeed there are differences from country to country. To the best of my knowledge, here in Italy you have to ask the subject for permission to publish his/her portrait. If the picture is not a portrait of the specific person, so the subject is not the main point of the picture, then it is OK to publish without asking permission, especially if the subject is not “identified” in the image. For minors, the rules are more strict. In practice, these obligations do matter when money is involved, i.e. when selling the picture. In all other cases, like when pictures are freely published on social media or similar, I haven’t seen enforcement of the law. I’ve just noticed that Wikipedia has a “Personality rights” page describing, among other things, what the law says in many countries. Interesting read.

  16. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Robin, I love your photos – and I can’t abide sharp tongued people who think it’s entirely appropriate to “criticise” other people (or their work), in a nasty way. A critic is – or ought to be – someone whose knowledge base, experience and personal expertise qualifies them to offer constructive advice and comment, with a view to assisting another person to improve their work. If people can’t live by that standard, then they ought to refrain from comment. It takes far less muscles to smile than it does to frown!!

    • Thanks so much for the support and kind understanding! Like you, I agree that comments and feedback should be constructive and helpful to improve, and critics should not be nasty. If only more people believe in that

  17. It’d be better if you can add a new line between consecutive contents. The formatting looks especially bad when you have photos together without any blank space. Such juxtaposition makes the article look less well thought out. Also, there’s some inconsistency in adding new lines: some times you add a new line after a photo, sometimes the paragraph begins right after the photo. The inconsistency in formatting and lack of framing(either by blank space or literal black frames) is a step back from Ming’s photos. Not that the article or the photographs themselves are worse, but just the formatting looked very different and at times confused. Presentation is very important in this day and age and I hope a bit of graphical sense can help this article acquire a look that differentiates this site from other ill formatted and thought out blogs.

  18. Great images and a great post. A nice antidote to the “run and gun” and “in your face” practioners of street photography . Sometimes a little courtesy goes a long way.

    –Ken

  19. Personally I prefer either a 50mm or indeed a 35mm (35mm equiv) to enable some background particularly pertaining to any activity or environment that may add interest.

    • I love and do take a lot of environmental portraits as well using wider angle. However this particular post narrows down to tight portraits of strangers, something I have grown particularly fond of doing. Usually it is not just strictly tight shots but a mixture of photos showing a bit of everything, including the environment.

  20. good article

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  1. […] not sure what I’m talking about, it might be useful to refresh yourself on my article on “How I Approach my Street Portraits” in […]

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