Street Portraits / by Ian Clark

A little while ago I had some business cards made up and delivered. The intention was to use these to help with taking street portraits when I went to Spain (nothing like a challenge, eh?!). Needless to say, I didn’t end up taking any street portraits or giving out any cards during my trip. But I was determined to have a go and figured that maybe a trip to London might be the best way to dip my toes in these waters.

As I mentioned in my previous post, part of the process of managing my mental health has been going out alone with the camera and taking some photos. With this in mind I took myself off to the South Bank (my favourite part of London and one of my favourite places to potter around and chill out) to spend some time alone. After a bit of a difficult period trying to avoid people and keep myself to myself, I figured maybe giving myself a target of street portraits might help me to get interacting with people again and grow my confidence (interacting with people is a large part of my job).

Now, aside from my personal issues at present, I’m quite a shy person. I’m not great at approaching and talking to strangers. If I can avoid doing so I will (which is great when you want peace and quiet). So I was pretty nervous about doing this, but I also felt that if I can do it, I might be in a better place to return to work and get back into interacting and working with people.

After a short walk from London Bridge station to Tower Bridge I came across a couple that I figured might be good subjects for a portrait and they seemed like they might be happy to have their photo taken by a stranger. Fortunately they were lovely people and more than happy to oblige. Not only were they happy to have their photo taken, they also made me feel instantly at ease (I guess technically it should have been the other way around but still…). To the extent that I gained a lot of confidence from our brief interaction, and felt emboldened to approach more strangers on the street.

In the end, discounting friends, I managed to photograph five people as I wondered around the South Bank. All happy to have their photo taken. I felt increasingly confident with each portrait and by the fifth portrait I was beginning to really get into it. I kinda knew that London might be a good place to experiment with this kind of photography but nonetheless, capturing some street portraits felt like quite an achievement for me on a number of levels.

There are a few things that I took away from the experience that I thought I’d share in case anyone else out there is thinking of experimenting with taking portraits of strangers on the streets. These aren’t so much a “top tips”, more of a “things I reflected on during and after”.

Who not to approach – I made a decision early on not to approach people eating or wearing headphones. It felt like something of an intrusion on private space and I didn’t think it would be welcome (I did approach one woman drinking a glass of wine, but I spent a long time weighing it up before I did so). As someone who puts a premium on personal space, I had no wish whatsoever to be seen to be invading anyone’s space.

Aperture priority – keep your camera in aperture priority mode. Settle on the depth of field you wish to use in your portraits (obviously the wider the shallower, the smaller and the more your subject will be placed in context) and let the camera do the rest. As someone who has avoided shutter or aperture priority since learning full manual, I found switching to a mode where the camera shares the workload a massive help. You don’t want to be messing around with settings when you are taking photos of people on the street. You need to be relatively quick and unfussy.

Previsualisation – I found with some of my portraits that maybe I could have thought more about the composition before I took the shot. I think I was mainy nervous about taking up their time and generally tried to fire the shots off fairly quickly. As a result, some of the compositions are not quite right so I think I need to consider this a bit more when I next take street portraits.

Natural, posed or looking at the camera? - I also took a mixture of shots of the subject looking at the camera, away from the camera and natural. I didn’t really settle on which kind of look I prefer, but I think I maybe need to be clearer on this before I take the photo.

Business cards helped – When I approached each subject, I asked if I could take their photograph and produced a card with my details on it to make them feel at ease that this isn’t just a random person taking photos for no real reason. I also offered to send them a copy of the photo if they dropped me an email. I don’t think my shots were particularly great, but I figured the offer of sending them a copy might help.

Why are you doing this? – One person queried why I wanted to take their photo, which caught me out a little, but I explained that I was a photographer and it was my first attempt at taking portrait photos. Although that satisfied the subject, I guess I need to think this through a bit more. Why exactly am I taking their photo? What is the purpose?

There’s nothing to fear – as I said, I was really nervous beforehand, but I needn’t have been. London is a great place to try out this type of photography. People are generally pretty relaxed. It’s a city that has long got used to cameras being everywhere (in one way or another…). People generally seem open to such approaches. Some people will say no, but just put that aside and move on (easy for me to say when I was fortunate enough not to have been rejected on this occasion, but seriously, there are plenty of people happy to be the subject of your photo!).

Have you had a go at street portraits? How did you find it? What worked for you/what didn’t work? What would you do differently in future? And if you haven’t, what is it that’s making you nervous about trying it? I’d love to hear your thoughts!