Planning and being intentional about your street photography portraits will affect the quality of your pictures. Have a clear idea of what you want to achieve. Think about what you need to do and where you need to be. Consider the time of day and how the light is. When will you most likely see a lot of people out and about?
The more purposeful you are about your street photography and what you want to achieve, the more you will build your own style.
Snapping or Anticipating
Grabbing the action as it happens requires a tight combination of skill and good luck. Anticipating potential action before it happens can often mean you get more consistently good photographs. Either approach is a matter of personal taste and style.
I prefer to find a location where I’m comfortable, not in anyone’s way and not in the hot sun. Somewhere that gives me a good angle to capture the action as it happens.
Having a good knowledge of the location helps a lot. Being aware of the flow of life in any particular place will help you anticipate when you might get the best photos.
Traveling often brings you to different and unfamiliar places. Learning to stop and observe before you photograph will give you a useful sense of the place.
In your own neighborhood, you should be more familiar with the pace of life and the feel of the streets. But it still doesn’t hurt to pause and pay attention. Look at what’s happening and see the patterns and repetitions.
Find a balance between planning and spontaneity. Be ready. Over-planning can kill the natural feel. You don’t want to be creating overly contrived street photos. We’ve all seen too many of them.
Set Your Camera Subconsciously
Knowing your camera, especially its basic operations, is vital to capturing the decisive moments. It takes frequent and focused practice. If you rarely use your camera it’s harder to work with it fluidly.
Choose settings you’re comfortable with. Aperture priority is often popular because with street portraits there’s likely to be some movement. In aperture priority mode you can set your shutter speed so it’s fast enough to avoid motion blur.
When making portraits in the streets you generally have no control over the lighting. You need to choose appropriate locations where the light is good when you can. If you see someone you want to photograph and the light isn’t good, you’ll need to make some creative choices.
Aperture priority or any of the auto modes may allow you to make pictures more quickly. The downside is you’re restricted to whatever exposure the camera chooses unless you use exposure compensation. But this can slow you down as you may not have compensation applied when you most need it.
Learning manual mode allows you to have tighter control of your exposures, and to know at a glance exactly what settings you’re working with. Yes, it takes more practice. But unless you practice you’ll never know the advantages you have when you’re in control. If you’re happy using an auto mode, stick with it and enjoy yourself.
Whatever mode you use, be confident with it. Being able to use your camera without having to focus on it allows you to participate more in your environment, which is particularly important when you’re making portraits.
To Connect or Not To Connect
I often like to connect and engage with the people I photograph in the streets. Whether you connect or not is a personal choice. But it can make a meaningful difference in the style of portraits you create.
This couple sells eggs at their stall at a local rural market not far from our house. I hadn’t been to this market before and found it fascinating. Out of the thousands of people there, I seemed to be the only Caucasian. It wasn’t a tourist spot, and the locals obviously didn’t encounter foreigners often.
My intention was to photograph them. I started by photographing their trays and bags of eggs. While doing so I paid attention to their comfort level. If they seemed awkward with my presence I wouldn’t have talked with them. But they were happy and relaxed, so I asked if I could make their portrait. They gave me a positive response.
In other circumstances, it’s best to just stand back and let life go on. Interrupting the flow can prevent you from getting natural images. I never hide my camera. I’m constantly looking to see whether the people I photograph are uncomfortable with my presence. Being in northern Thailand I find this approach is important. People here are generally very polite and I think it’s important to show respect.
Cultures and the nature of people vary from country to country. Even in the same country, the characteristics of people can be vastly different. For example, people in Bangkok tend to be less friendly and relaxed. Wherever you’re making street portraits, it’s important to have a feel for the location and the vibe of the people.
Sometimes it’s best to boldly get in people’s faces. In other locations with other people, this could land you in trouble. Read situations carefully and adjust the way you do things to suit.
If you choose to approach people and engage with them, be aware that your manner will influence them. Greeting someone with a smile and showing interest in them and what they’re doing usually brings a positive response. Even if they decline to have their portrait made, you can stills enjoy some conversation.
Being confident with your camera when you do engage with someone means you can give your attention to them and not so much to your camera.
Practice Your Method Consistently
Method is important. Find your groove and stick with it. If you try something only once, you’ll never master it. If you frequently change methods it will take a long time to build your skills and style.
Find the camera settings and lens you enjoy the most and use them. Pick locations you’re comfortable with and revisit them often. Get a feel for what happens there and how to photograph it. Go there when the light and activity are positive for you.
Connect or not. Try both ways, even if you’re uncomfortable to connect with strangers. I used to be petrified too. Working as a newspaper photographer I had to push myself beyond my comfort zone. And that made me a better photographer.
Repeating the same method of making street portraits will help you get a feel for your favorite way of working. Find your groove, but don’t get stuck in a rut. When you’re not enjoying it as much anymore it’s time to change before your creativity stagnates.
Choose your location and time of day you’re most likely to make some street portraits.
Visit this place five or ten times and make at least five portraits when you don’t engage with your subjects. Then do it again, only this time make at least five portraits when you do engage. You may be uncomfortable when you start. But if you persevere you may just find that you love the experience and make some great portraits.