Helsinki 2017

What is street portrait photography, how does it differ from traditional portraiture, and how can you do it?

The way I see it is that a traditional portrait photography usually takes place either in a studio or outdoors and it involves additional equipment to the camera such as lights, background, props, and makeup and wardrobe for the model. This means that portrait photography is usually a planned event because you need the model, possibly an assistant and all the equipments for the shoot.

Street portrait photography, on the other hand, takes place on the streets (you probably guessed this by now) and it’s usually an unplanned event because you come across with your models without prior planning or knowledge of what kind of characters await you. I guess street portraiture doesn’t require any studio gear other than the camera.

Of course, just like with traditional street photography, street portrait photography doesn’t have to actually take place on a street. To me, street photography is more of an attitude and a style of a photography. It’s not a strict rule limiting me to take photos only on the street. I can take street photos indoors, for example, in a shopping centre (a viable option especially in cold winter time) or at wedding.

Helsinki 2017

The story behind the photo above. I asked this friendly guy if I could make his portrait through the window. After reviewing the shots I had taken, I told him none of them were any good unfortunately. Only after I saw the photos on a bigger screen than the display of my camera, I realised they were good. Sorry Mister Through-the-Window that I told you the photos weren’t good – they are.

You can always argue whether street portrait photography is actually part of the street photography genre because you’re asking a permission to take a photograph of someone. Some people such as my friend Naser claim that true street photography has to be candid only.

How can you make street portraiture?

Just like with street photography, street portraiture requires you to roam the streets – or more like allows you to roam the streets – in order to find interesting people to ask to take a photo of. Why should you ask for their permission to take their photo instead of just taking a candid shot of them? Because with a permission, you have the mandate to spend more time with your model and try different angles and poses with them.

Helsinki 2017

The story behind the photo above. I had seen her and her gorgeous hair earlier at the outdoor flea market but the light was too dull for taking a photo due to the cloudy weather. I had already lost the sight of her, but when the sun came out behind the clouds for a short while, she happened to be close by. She (and her friend who was waiting for her) was so nice for bearing with me trying to get the shot just right.

You can ask them, for example, to take a certain pose or facial expression. You can ask them to move in front of an interesting background, and shoot from a certain angle. By having their permission to take photos of them, you have more time to make your vision come true.

Remember, if you don’t have a vision before starting to shoot your model, don’t panic. Your vision might become more clear as you work the scene. By taking photos you feed your inspiration as well. Inspiration doesn’t just arise from nothing – you have to work for it and help it come out of you.

There’s a really great article on finding inspiration written by Zack Arias, a professional photographer, who makes great portraits and street photos. (I’ll link to it at the bottom of this post.)

Modena 2017

The story behind the photo above. “Posso farti una foto?” “Si.” My great Italian language skills combined with this friendly Italian guy with his big tattoos gave me a chance to take a few photos of him. He actually spoke English too.

Asking permission to take someone’s photo is scary

I wrote earlier why you should ask a permission to take a photo of someone who looks interesting to you. I know it can be really daunting thing to do – it is for me quite often. I fear they will decline me and I’ll be embarrassed. I fear others around us will look at me and laugh at me. I fear I will not have a connection with my model or I will be too nervous to guide them for the right pose and location, after which they will become frustrated with me.

Sometimes when I see someone interesting I might end up not taking any photos of them because I fear asking their permission. This is the wrong way! Don’t let fear guide you in photography.

Helsinki 2017

The story behind the photo above. Her friend didn’t want to be photographed, which was fine. After I had taken some photos, she asked me if I could send them to her. I told her that it could take some time because I’m really slow at post processing my photos. She said she understands that because she’s a professional photographer herself, haha… She takes photos of children and likes it because their smile is not forced but so natural.

You can find general instructions online on how to overcome your fear of shooting street photography (see my Eric Kim link below my post), and these can also apply to making street portraiture. Here are some suggestions I have found useful in overcoming my fear of asking permission to take someone’s photo.

Practise asking permission by trying to get 10 people give you “no” for an answer. If you’re already prepared for them not wanting to have their photo taken, you won’t have anything to lose and there’s no need to feel embarrassed. I bet it will be hard for you to get all those 10 “no” answers because you only imagine people don’t want to have their picture taken.

Helsinki 2017

Tell your model why you want to take their picture. When you go ask someone’s permission, do it with a smile and tell them why you want to take their photo. For example, if they have a colourful hair you like, go tell them a compliment on that. Just be sincere instead of coming up with some false reason of taking their photo.

Explain why you’re taking their photo. Quite many times people I ask permission to take their photo, ask me what is the photo for. I give an honest answer that I’m a street photographer who likes to shoot urban scenes and people, and that I really like how they look. I also tell them that the photo is for myself only and that I’m not going to use it commercially. (Using someone’s photo commercially requires a written consent from them.)

Stockholm 2015

Be ready to handle a rejection. If the person declines your offer to make their portrait, accept it. I mean, you can try and persuade them a bit with the above mentioned “techniques”, but eventually you might have to yield. Do it with a smile, thank them and move on. It’s not the end of life. You’re still intact and unharmed.

Take your time with your model. Once you get a permission to take someone’s photo (trust me, this will happen), take your time with them. I mentioned earlier that it can take time to make your vision come true and your inspiration to kick in. Hence take your time directing your model, finding a great background, etc. If they get tired of it, they will tell you. So, don’t worry about it too much yourself.

Helsinki 2017

Note that you have to practise these things above. I know I’m still nervous about asking someone’s permissions but at times it comes very naturally. The biggest challenge for me is to guide my model. I’m always thinking I’m running out of time, which makes me hurry and nervous. So, it’s time for me to go practise more now.

Thanks for reading!

Links I referred to in my post:

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