Street Portraiture 101: Build Your Own Community

· 1.May.2017

I love street portraiture but I also love street photography. I know some photographers have hard fast rules about what constitutes a ‘pure’ street photo (unposed, discreet, natural) versus a street portrait (with permission, and possibly posed). I don’t like rules when it comes to photography, and I don’t stick to one way of doing things.

I enjoy approaching complete strangers and ask to take their portrait. I also enjoy taking discreet unposed images of strangers in public places. In fact, that’s sort of how I started with my street photography and portraiture. I would see someone interesting, and I would have this strong desire to take a discrete portrait. However, over time I also had another strong desire… I wanted to get to know these interesting people. Who are they, where are they going, why do they look so cool? My curiosity always gets the better of me and I started approaching people and started asking to take their portrait. The funny thing is, as you photograph in the same area week after week, month after month, year after year, you bump into the same interesting people over and over again. Now I always have subjects to shoot whenever I want. I never have to call anyone, I rarely have to ask to take their portraits, and I always have interesting subjects to photograph. Many times the pictures aren’t even posed, they’re so used to having me around taking pictures. Does that sound like something you want to have with your photography? Here’s my top 3 tips of how to consistently take great street portraits.

Taken with the GFX 50S with GF 63mmm f/2.8. Shot at 1/680th sec f/2.8 @ ISO 400

Tip #1: The best portrait photographers tend to be great with people. In fact, I would argue that a great portrait is the final result of getting to know someone and extending genuine friendship. This means you don’t take photographs every time you see them. This also means that you’re always generous with your time when they want to talk. If they want a copy of the image, don’t hesitate to give them one, or offer to print a copy. Sometimes I’ll spend an hour talking with someone, just because it seems like they need it. Other times, I won’t photograph them for months until I feel the time is right. Show genuine interest in people, and forget about taking their portrait. When the time is right, you’ll get the perfect image.

Taken with the GFX 50S and GF 63mm f/2.8. Shot at 1/170th sec f/2.8 @ ISO 3200

Tip #2: Have a route. I know it’s exciting to check out new places and meet new people. We all need to recharge by seeing new things. However, it’s also good to be part of a community, even if it’s one you create. I park my car in Strathcona in East Vancouver on the same block every time I start my route. I end up running into the same people all the time. I walk down the same streets through Chinatown, loop around Gastown, head towards the DTES (Downtown East Side) before heading back to my car. Along this route, I make sure I drop by and say hello to all those I know along my route. Shop owners, locals hanging out, dumpster divers, restaurant owners and staff, coffee shops; whoever I recognize, I make time to say hello and talk. My camera is a great conversation starter too. People always ask what you’re photographing, what camera you have around your neck, etc. After a while, you become embedded in the community. People always tell me that they thought I lived in the community. People are wiling to talk, open up, and eventually pose for a neighbour. Some days I walk along my route and I’ll talk with a dozen locals in Chinatown and the surrounding areas, but I won’t take a single portrait. That’s okay. I’m investing in my community and building stronger relationships with the locals.

Taken with the X-T20 and XF 50mm f/2 R WR. Shot at 1/320th sec f/2 @ ISO 800 (ACROS Ye filter)

Tip #3: Take your family and friends along with you. I love taking people along with me on my route. I don’t care who they are. I’ve taken my wife, I take my workshop students, I take my friends. I even took a local art gallery owner along and explained my philosophy, and he admitted he had never talked to anyone of my ‘neighbours’, even though he was physically in the community. Can you see why I do this now? It opens up many opportunities, not just photographic. I even met someone along my route who eventually introduced me to a local charity to conduct a street photography workshop with at-risk youth. I had a great time. Especially if you’re just starting out and don’t yet have the courage to approach people, figure out where the best locations are for taking portraits and practice. This will build your confidence and your skills in taking portraits in this environment. I’ve taken so many pictures of my wife (cover photograph) along my route, but it’s helped me become a better photographer. She’s helped me find my favourite spots along every block at every time of day and weather. This way, when I’m ready to take a portrait, I know exactly where to go and how to shoot. I also conduct most of my meetings with clients and fellow photographers in the same community. This helps me, the people I’m with (since I know everyone), and the community.

Taken with the GFX 50S and GF 63mm f/2.8. Shot at 1/200th sec f/5.6 @ ISO 800

If you keep doing this over time, you will become the local photographer. People will be accustomed to your presence. Those who use to be suspicious now ignore you and carry on their business. The locals who use to wonder what you’re doing are now coming up to you and asking how your day was. If someone needs a picture taken, they’ll know to come to you. Some of my favourite portraits are at the local shops that I hang out at. I see them not only as part of my community, but as collaborators. Many of them have made my Instagram feed, my YouTube videos, my blog, or here on FujiLove. They love seeing themselves published, and I love it when they proudly share the images I’ve taken with their family and friends. Try these tips and let me know how it works out. If you have your own tips on how to improve in street portraiture, comment down below. Thanks for visiting and happy shooting.

Taken with the GFX 50S and GF 63mm f/2.8. Shot at 1/450th sec f/5.6 @ ISO 800

About Author