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Are you interested in doing an urban portrait shoot, but you’re not sure where to start? An outdoor shoot in your local town or city is a great way to be more creative, think on your feet, and come away with some unique images that you can’t get from a shoot in a studio or your local park. However, If you’ve never done one before, you may be a little daunted. In this guide, I run you through my top tips for shooting better urban portraits.
Begin with the end in mind. Create a mood board of urban portraits using a free tool such as Pinterest. These could either be your images or inspirational images from other photographers. Keep these in mind as you plan your shoot, as this is the standard you’ll be aiming for.
Before you plan your shoot, get an idea of the type of urban landscapes in your area. What kind of images could you take here? How could the buildings and street scenes feature in your photographs as a point of interest or as a background texture?
Every town and city has its unique charms – from heritage buildings to seaside piers to abandoned shopping centers. Find what’s interesting about your area and use it.
You can find out more about what I look for when scouting locations in my previous dPS article, How to Choose Urban Landscapes for Portrait Photography.
The easiest way to find someone for a shoot is by asking family or friends. This way, the pressure is off, as you have someone familiar to work with that you can test your ideas on. Make sure you ask someone that is not too shy or self-conscious, though; after all, it will involve posing for photographs in a public location.
If you’re ready to test your urban portrait skills with a model, organize a TFP (time for print) shoot. These have been around since the pre-digital days, when photographers, models, and make-up artists would collaborate and give their time for free in exchange for physical prints of images taken during the shoot. These days, images from TFP shoots are usually digital files shared over the internet.
Finding people to work with should be relatively easy. Most cities have photographer and model groups on Facebook. Type the name of your area with the words model or photographer and see what comes up. If you have no luck, you can also ask in general photography groups if anyone knows of a TFP-style group you could join.
Once you’ve joined a local Facebook group, have a scan of the posts and see if it’s the kind of community you wish to work with. If you feel comfortable, it’s time to post your expression of interest.
Create a post introducing yourself and calling for expressions of interest in a TFP urban portrait shoot. Link to examples of your work and your Instagram.
Let people know specific details about the shoot. This includes the approximate location, proposed days and times, and the types of shots you’re looking to get. You can also link to or share images from your mood board on the post to set an expectation of the kind of shots you’ll take. If you use images on the mood board that are not yours, make sure you credit the photographer and explicitly state whose work it is.
Finally, ask people to comment on the post or send you a private message, expressing their interest. Also, ask them to link to their Instagram or portfolio.
After you’ve chosen whom you’d like to work with, organize the shoot. Agree on the day, time, and location. Prepare to negotiate regarding which day you can shoot, but not on the time. Always choose the time of day that you know will work best for photography. For me, that’s about an hour before dusk as this provides opportunities for natural light and after-dark images.
If the model is under 18, check that their parent or guardian is coming along and that they will be able to sign a model release form.
Ask your model what they’re planning to wear for the shoot. Quite often, they will ask for your advice or provide you with options. Explain that it would be ideal to have two or three different looks. Some people will prefer to have completely different outfits for the first and second half of the shoot (if there is somewhere to change). For others, it means bringing along some fun accessories like glasses, sunglasses, a hat or jacket.
If you’re arranging a shoot a week or two in advance, don’t forget to stay in touch with your model. Remind them a day or two before the shoot.
Think back to your location scouting. Have a list of 8-10 places where you’d like to shoot that are within walking distance of each other. Draw a map in your notebook and plan your route and the types of shots at each place. Typically, I only shoot in 6-8 locations, but I like having a couple of options up my sleeve in case some don’t work out.
Finally, don’t be afraid to throw your plan out the window if a better opportunity presents itself.
It’s tempting to take as much kit as you can carry on an urban portrait shoot. However, strike a happy medium between taking enough kit to give you options without having to hire a Sherpa to carry your gear.
I typically take two camera bodies (Fujifilm X-T3 and X-T2) with prime lenses, with a third lens in my bag. My lenses of choice are usually the Fujinon 16mm f1.4 for wide-angle and environmental portraits, and either the 35mm f1.4 or the 56mm f1.2 lenses for portrait work. With the APS-C crop factor, these work out to 24mm, 52.5mm, and 84mm equivalent lenses in full-frame terms.
Although I love zoom lenses for family portrait shoots, I only take fast prime lenses on urban portrait shoots.
Double-check all your camera settings when you pack your gear. Things I check are:
Make sure you turn up early – you won’t make a good impression if your talent is waiting for you and wondering if you are going to turn up or not. Get to know your model and their chaperone. Everyone can be a bit nervous at the start of a shoot, so have a good chat with them before you even think about pulling out a camera.
Remember, on these kinds of shoots, you don’t need quantity, you need quality. I aim to get a dozen images I’m really happy with. This means potentially shooting in a different way than you usually would. Take your time with directing the model and getting the composition right before taking the shot.
Make sure you get a variety of shots – close-ups, full length, looking to the camera, looking away. Also, remember to get some different looks by using any accessories the model has brought with them.
Directing talent is a skill you will need to learn – especially with younger up-and-coming models with limited experience. There’s no need to be worried if you have no experience doing this yourself. Get yourself the 67 PORTRAIT POSES (PRINTABLE) Guide from DPS to have on your phone (or print them), or have a stash of urban portrait images, ready to flick through to give your talent some ideas on how to pose.
As the day moves into night, keep a check on your ISO and make sure you have usable shutter speeds above 1/80th of a second. The most annoying mistake I’ve made on these shoots is looking at the back of the LCD screen, thinking that I’ve captured a sharp image, only to see that the image wasn’t as sharp as I thought on my computer screen later on.
Negative self-talk can affect us all. If you had an idea for an image, but it doesn’t work out on the shoot, move on and forget about it. Many images are still there for the taking.
For the first half of an urban portrait shoot, I rely on natural or ambient light. As darkness envelopes the urban landscape, I look to my own lighting options.
The first option I usually take is a speedlight flash that I can use on-camera, or trigger remotely. Typically, the light from these types of flashes can be harsh, so you may like to use a light modifier such as a mini softbox.
The second type of lighting that I use on my urban portrait shoots are small LED video lights. These are fantastic, and I love using them. Again, you can use one through a light modifier for a softer effect.
Safety should be your number one priority on a shoot like this. Identify any hazards before the shoot and brief your model. The last thing you want is someone getting hurt. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. If you get a bad vibe from an area, it’s best to move on.
Never leave any of your bags on the ground unattended. A few moments of inattention is all an opportunistic thief needs.
Always operate your shoots legally. Research if you need any permits to shoot in your city, look into public liability insurance, and have model releases signed before the shoot.
Keep the shoot between 60 and 90 minutes; you’ll be amazed at how fast this will go. It’s better to have it run shorter and end on a high than run it longer with everyone exhausted. For younger models, keep it to under 60 minutes.
I always try and get it right in-camera, with only minor edits made to images afterward. One decision you may have to make is how much you want to clean up the image in post. In the example below, there were a lot of cigarette butts on the ground. I decided to remove these in Photoshop to make a cleaner image.
Urban portrait shoots are a lot of fun and can stretch your creativity as a photographer. They help you to think on your feet and overcome challenges. If you’ve never done one before, there’s no need to feel daunted. Do your research and planning, and it will all fall into place.
If you have any questions or comments about planning an urban shoot, let us know below.