5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations

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I live in London and it’s a pretty big city with an array of location choices when it comes to portrait photography. There are beautiful parks, many are vast and rolling, dotted around the city; you almost feel like the country is never more than an hour away. There are canals and rivers with boats and ships within easy reach. There are hilltops offering astounding views of the rising skyline and various parts of the city. And of course, there’s architecture that’s so impressive weaving itself across the city, the fabric of London life with a culturally diverse population traversing the criss-cross of alleys and roads. It’s a fast and busy place.

Some of my couples prefer such busy locations that remind them of the hustle and bustle of the place or of icons and landmarks that they love. Here are 5 tips for you on how to photograph a portrait while walking through a busy city. Embrace the buzz of activity, the age-old structures and new glass skyscrapers that loom over you as you go about your daily business of life, work, and play.

#1 Scout out the location and look for pockets of photo spots

5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations

Communicate with your portrait clients and give them some location ideas and options from which they can choose. Get them involved in the process as this helps them get excited, look forward to the photoshoot and own it too!

This is also a good opportunity to discuss outfits, as clothing is really important to the overall look and feel of the images. For this photoshoot, we had an area in mind, but with two very different locations in terms of ambiance and style.

Originally the couple wanted an old ruined church which has stunning walls and old architecture and some greenery. This also gave a really cozy country feel, soft light, and almost enchanting ambiance. However, they had already decided on their outfits and had bought them specifically. I felt that these outfits would work better in a fun city walk photoshoot rather than the old church ruins.

5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations

Match the location to the subjects

Just a stone’s throw away was the Leadenhall Market. It is built-up, old, colorful, busy and with a very city-feel, yet smart too. I suggested to them this would be the perfect location and after thinking about it they agreed. The forecast was also rainy and the market is a covered area so that was a good option for shelter.

The main idea was to walk the streets in this part of town and find pockets of photo spots that appealed to them. I know the area well as I shoot quite a few weddings in the city, so I was able to lead them to areas where I thought there were interesting spots to make portraits.

It’s a nice experience walking the streets, being part of the everyday goings-on, the mundane and the special alike.

5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations

We were also specifically on the lookout for British icons and landmarks as the couple was visiting from America. So we asked Waterstones, a British book retailer if we could take some pictures inside. They agreed. This leads me on nicely to my next tip…

#2 Incorporate icons and landmarks

We chose boutique shops and food stops that were traditional and well-known in the area and used their shop windows as backdrops. Incidentally, the guy’s name is Tom and we passed this quaint Bar called Old Tom’s Bar – just a perfect location for him.

It’s important that you know a little about what your couple likes so you keep your eyes peeled for anything that appeals to them. In this case, Tom is English and he likes his beer so we stopped by the Tavern for a drink!

5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations

5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations

Get permission

There are places where it would be wise for you to ask permission first before going in for some photos. Usually, the shopkeepers are helpful and allow you to do so if you are quiet, non-disruptive and quick. However, others refuse and that is perfectly fine – don’t take it personally.

In the market, there was a lady shining shoes. She had a traditional shoe-shine set-up which would have been perfect for some photos, but she refused consent so we didn’t push. Other places are public and open and you can take snaps, just like any tourist would, to your heart’s content. The spot on the left is one such place. The photo on the right was taken from across the road, a fair distance to the building as permission is needed if you go too close!

5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations

#3 Leverage the busy-ness

There is just no getting away from people on crowded, busy streets. Often, it’s a waiting and asking game. You either wait for people to walk past and clear your space, or you ask them to move away. Again, politely and with great gratitude, if they happily oblige.

You can leverage this busy-ness by incorporating motion into your images such as this one below. It could take several attempts to get it right as this can be a very difficult setup with no planning ahead or anticipation of what is to come.

Of course, if things don’t go to plan in shots such as this, there is always Photoshop!

5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations

Adding motion with a long exposure and blurred moving objects can add a sense of the hustle and bustle of the city to your images.

#4 Do something fun and quirky

Keep the photoshoot lighthearted and fun by finding some unusual spots and asking your couple to do some quirky things if they are open to that. Like this image below standing in between the huge exhaust installations with the BEL-AIR sign in the background pretending to get blown away! Don’t forget to capture some safe, normal shots too like the one below it, just in case.

5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations

5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations

We found this old chapel with sculptures (below) and thought it would be funny if they copied the poses of the sculptures as another quirky shot. This turned out to be one of their favorite spots from the day too.

The photoshoot is more than just taking pictures, it is an experience as well, so aim to make it easy and fun.

5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations

#5 End on a high note

As you are shooting, don’t forget to include “indicators” in your conversations as to how far you are into your photoshoot, what other plans you may have in terms of location or shots such as individuals, action, walking away, etc. Tell them how far along you are into your plan, if you are are already nearing the end of the shoot, whether this is this your last location and your last shots, and when it’s a wrap.

Couples appreciate knowing where the markers are in the photoshoot. Some people just cannot handle more than half an hour so markers and indicators help them through it. Others like long photoshoots that could well run beyond the agreed duration and you need to keep tabs on your time so these markers work well for you too. As much as possible though, do not look at your watch!!!

Lastly, end on a high note with lots of laughter if possible. If you achieve this, it greatly helps in reinforcing good photoshoot memories so that there will be a “next time” for another photoshoot with you! Your couple will look back at this day and remember good vibes, not so much the other trying parts like the weather, how cold it was, the hassle of waiting for people to get out of the way, and so forth. When you show your couples their image gallery, end with happy photos too! And that’s a wrap!!

5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations

5 Tips for Doing Portrait Photography in Busy Locations

I hope you enjoyed this little article and do share any tips you may have which have not been covered above!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Lily Sawyer is a wedding and portrait photographer based in London. Her absolute favourite past time is going on "mummy" dates with her kids and husband. Other than that, as a homebody, she is content curled up on the sofa, hot chocolate in hand, watching films with her family whenever she has a free weekend. Check out her work on www.lilysawyer.com Follow her on her fave social media platform Instagram.

  • Kenneth Karirú Muchiri

    Thank you. This is an informative piece. I have gleaned a few ideas.

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