Should Street Portraits Be Called Street Photography?

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Many people say street portraits don’t fall within the definition of street photography. They say only truly candid photographs can be considered street photos. The reality is there is no hard and fast rule about what  constitutes a street photograph.

Street photography styles are wide and varied. There are those that say all street photographs must have people in them; they must be made in public; they must be black and white… the list goes on and on. There are many street photographers and just as many opinions about the definition of street photography.

Frankly speaking, I think that street photography is 80% having the balls to go out in public and shoot strangers while only 20% is skill – Eric Kim

Singing in Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

While the definition of street photography varies from person to person, I think that making portraits of strangers is definitely one form of street photography. I agree with Eric Kim in the post linked above – street portraits are a subset, or sub-genre of street photography. There are also two types of street portrait – candid and posed.

Candid street portraits

Candid street portraits are probably the easiest to get started with. You go out into a public space and photograph someone you see that looks interesting to you. They don’t have to be anyone famous. There doesn’t have to be anything particularly special about them. They just have to be interesting… to you. If you find someone interesting, chances are so will someone else.

There are many reasons a person might be interesting – their hairstyle, their clothes, their size. There could be any number of things that attracts you to them. The main thing to remember is you should never make an image simply to ridicule people. There is a fine line between social commentary, humour and ridiculing or shaming someone. You should always endeavour to be respectful and never set out to make fun of your subject.

Once you’ve found the person you want to photograph, simply make the image. Don’t approach them or interact with them. Don’t ask for permission. Just raise your camera and make the photograph. If you happen to get caught, just smile and move on. Most of the time though, people won’t even notice you, never mind see you making their photograph.

Checking the phone at St Kilda, Melbourne

Posed portraits

The next step up from candid street portraits is the posed street portrait. This style of street photography gets even more debate than whether or not street portraits in general are a part of street photography. Many people believe as soon as you interact with your subject, you’ve lost the spontaneity of the situation and the photograph no longer falls within the definition of ‘street’. I do not subscribe to that way of thinking.

For me and for many others, posed street portraits are just as valid a form of street photography as anything else. You’re capturing someone you found on the streets that you thought was interesting. You’re capturing a sense of place, a location and a moment in time. It’s obviously not a totally random moment in time, but it is never the less still a slice of life on the street. To me, it’s just another sub-genre of street photography. One that I enjoy engaging in!

Asking a total stranger to pose for a photograph can give you a great sense of satisfaction.

How do I get started with street portraits?

The easiest way to get started is to simply go out and make candid portraits. As mentioned earlier, your subject doesn’t have to be anyone special or famous. Just find someone that interests you and make a photograph.

If you’re shy and don’t want to be seen, then you could use a longer telephoto lens, maybe even up to 200mm, although I think that would be a little too long personally. You should really try to get out of your comfort zone and use a shorter focal length. Get close and be a part of the story. Of course, not everyone can do that, so starting with a longer lens and working your way up to using shorter lenses is perfectly acceptable.

A rainy day in Montmartre, Paris

After you’ve made a few candid street portraits, the next step is approaching a stranger and asking to make their photograph. Too scary? Why not go with a friend? Your friend doesn’t even have to be a photographer, although it will be easier if they are. In fact, why not buddy up with someone who’s already comfortable approaching strangers and making their portraits? Go out with them for a photowalk and just watch what they do. Stand next to them while they talk to their subject and listen to how they do it. Watch the reactions of the stranger and you might be pleasantly surprised at how many people are happy to have their photograph made. People are usually quite okay and often even flattered when you approach them and ask to make their photograph. Most people will say yes and some will even get into the spirit of things and begin posing for you, or moving to a better location.

Occasionally you’ll get someone that says “no”. Sometimes you might even get someone that gets angry about being asked. I’ve asked many strangers to make their photograph and while I’ve certainly had those that have said no, I can only remember one person getting annoyed with me. No-one has ever threatened violence towards me. Far and away the most common reactions are surprise, joy and maybe bemusement.

What happens when someone agrees to be photographed?

Once someone has agreed to have their photograph made the best thing you can do is slow down and relax. Think about what you’re going to do. You don’t want to hold your subject up for too long, but don’t be afraid to take charge. After all, you have their permission to make a portrait, which means making something better than a snapshot. Think about how you’re going to show them; highlight the thing that first drew them to you. Take control and make it the best portrait you can in that location and with the equipment you have with you. Maybe even ask them to move slightly, perhaps to the opposite side of the street where the lighting is better, or just to turn and face the opposite direction they were walking. Find the best light and make the best image you can.

Taking a break in Melbourne, Australia

After you’ve made the image don’t forget to thank them. You could even offer them a business card with your contact details and invite them to email you so you can send a copy of the image if they want it. There are many places to get business cards, or contact cards made quite cheaply. You can even make them on your own printer with very little effort. If you don’t have a business, just put your name and an email address on the card. You could even create a special email address using Gmail, Yahoo! Mail or Microsoft’s Live Mail that you only give out to strangers. There are many ways to give them your contact details.

What equipment do I need?

You can make street portraits, either candid or posed, with any camera you have. That includes your smartphone too. You really don’t need anything special. The most important thing is to simply use what you have and get started.

There are pros and cons to all gear, so let’s take a quick look at some different camera types –

Smartphones

  • Advantages – the main advantage of using your smartphone is that it’s always with you. It’s easy to pull your phone out and use the built-in camera. There are also many Apps available for you to edit or enhance your photographs. The other advantage is that you can post the image almost immediately to social media.
  • Disadvantages – having your phone camera within easy reach is great, but it also means you have to get close. If you want to make a portrait of someone there’s generally no way to get around the fact they’re going to know you’re making their photograph. That’s not a problem if you’re doing posed portraits, but if you’re trying to be discreet you might want to consider a different camera. Smartphone cameras are generally not that great at night time either. Their sensor’s are quite small, so as soon as the light levels start to fall, the noise levels start to rise.

Digital SLR

  • Advantages – many people already own a digital SLR and an assortment of lenses. Just grab your camera and a lens and go. The sensors on modern dSLR cameras are very good in low light, which means you can shoot at dusk or night time and still make good, useable images. They’re also quick to lock initial focus and track focus of moving subjects. Of course, if you’re a little shy you can put a long telephoto lens on the camera and make candid portraits from a distance with little likelihood of ‘getting caught’.
  • Disadvantages – dSLR’s are quite big and can get a little heavy after a while. Particularly if you’re using a semi-professional or professional grade camera. Their lenses can also be large and heavy. Digital SLR cameras have a mechanical shutter and mirror which means they’re often quite loud when making an image. Certainly louder than mirrorless cameras.

Mirrorless

  • Advantages – Mirrorless systems cover quite a wide variety of cameras, including Micro Four Thirds, APSC, Full-Frame and 1” sensors. They’re made by numerous manufacturers and each has their own advantages and disadvantages. In general however, their advantages are their smaller size, lower weight and quietness. Some mirrorless cameras can be made completely silent, which is great for candid street photography. There are also good choices when it comes to the focal length of the lenses for these systems, unless you’re using something like the Fujifilm X100 / X100S / X100T which has a fixed focal length of 23mm (34mm full-frame equivalent).
  • Disadvantages – some mirrorless cameras have a relatively small sensor and are not as capable in low light as a dSLR. They are not ‘bad’ though and a little digital noise in a street photograph is not a bad thing. In fact, having some noise in a black and white street photograph adds to the character and grittiness of the image, rather than detracting from it.

If an image is so bad that you notice the noise, then it wasn’t a good image to start with – Rick Sammon

You can make street portraits in many different ways, using a variety of camera and lens combinations. There is no right or wrong way to go about it. Both candid and posed portraits are just as valid and neither should be considered better than the other.

Challenge

If you haven’t made any street portraits yet, then my challenge to you is to go out there and make some! Get out of your comfort zone. Maybe even approach a stranger and make a posed street portrait. It really is fun and somewhat exhilarating when you approach a complete stranger and strike up a conversation before making their photograph. Try it… you might even enjoy it; and don’t forget to share your results in the comments below!