One of the most popular and accessible forms of photography you can practice is street photography. In this article, you’ll learn about one of the key questions that get asked in this area of photography. That is when do you ask a person’s permission to take their photo? The answer to that question divides street portraits vs street photography.
Read on to find out about both areas of street photography, and how they relate to each other.
What is street photography?
This can be a difficult area of photography to define because street portraits can easily be mistaken for street photography.
It’s also true that it’s possible to practice street photography and still have permission from your subjects.
So what sets this area of photography apart?
Well, the simple answer is that street photos should be natural and not staged. So what does it take to get a good street photo?
The camera body you use here is important for street photography that occurs in low light situations, where you’ll want to use a higher ISO.
The choice between DSLRs or mirrorless cameras is a personal one. However, the smaller size of mirrorless cameras is an advantage.
You really want to keep to one lens, so you can keep things lightweight while you’re on the move. There is an understandable desire to use different focal lengths, though, so consider returning to the same location twice, and with different lenses.
So which is the ideal lens for street photography?
- 50mm – This is many street photographers’ lens of choice. That’s because it has a similar field of view to a person’s eye. That field of view is also wide enough to give your scene context, and you have a large enough aperture with a prime lens to photograph in low light. Keep in mind the crop factor for DSLR cameras that have a crop sensor, as it will change the effective focal distance of your 50mm lens.
- Wide-angle – Then there are those photographers who like to have even more stories in their scene and will look to use even wider lenses. That might even mean a wide-angle zoom lens. You’ll now be getting very close to the people you photograph, making it harder to avoid them noticing you.
- Telephoto – On the other end of the spectrum are those who prefer to photograph from a distance. This allows you to photograph the scene without the chance of people posing, as they’re much less likely to see you. On the other hand, you’ll compress the scene. If you don’t stand even further back, you won’t show very much context in your photo.
Street photography is the exploration of your urban environment, so it needs to happen in this setting. The photo might happen away from the street itself, for instance, in an indoor market, but this would still be considered street photography.
The best place to practice this will be a place that allows for plenty of moments of capture. With that in mind, locations like markets, train stations, or high streets would work.
Now you know the location for street photography, the next thing to think about is the subject. There are plenty of photos you can take from the location suggested above that aren’t street photos.
A photo that shows only fruit is more of a food detail photo than a street photo. That said, does every street photo need to include a person’s face? The answer to that is, no, it doesn’t. But there does need to be a narrative element to it.
A photo that just shows people’s feet can certainly still contain a story. However, in most cases, you’ll want to see a person going about their daily life, and that means including their face.
What is a street portrait?
A street portrait is one that shows the person’s face. It’s almost certainly posed, and it will be taken on the street. There is an authentic element to it. You’re not taking a model out with you, and you never know if the person you ask will give you permission to take their photo.
Once granted permission, you’ll be able to control many elements of the photo. You might be able to ask your subject to stand in front of an interesting background, turn their face towards a light source, or control their facial expression.
This type of photo, once again, will be taken with a good quality mirrorless or DSLR camera. The lens should be a prime lens with a large aperture to give you the choice of blurring the background. However, you don’t have to use bokeh when you can control where your subject stands.
The type of lens you could use would be the same ones portrait photographers use with a model. So a 50mm, 85mm, or 135mm prime lens is ideal.
You might even consider using off-camera flash to have further control over your photo – this is, after all, a posed photo now.
This will be a location where people congregate and go about their daily lives. It’s likely you’ll take a mixture of street portraits and street photos in the same location. With that in mind, refer to the advice given above for locations for street photography, since this is broadly the same for street portraits.
Now you’re looking for people who have personality in their appearance. Look for people who really tell the story of the place they are in. Do this through the clothes they’re wearing, the imperfections on their face, and the backgrounds you can find to place behind them.
One crucial aspect of this type of photo is gaining permission.
You’ll need to decide which types of personality are most likely to give you a positive response. You’ll also need to adapt the way you approach people, as different people may respond differently to varying ways you could break the ice. However you do this, always remain professional, and courteous. Perhaps bring a portfolio of your work and a business card with you to give yourself added weight.
It’s worth mentioning model releases when it comes to photographing people. While it’s true that in many countries you’re allowed to photograph people in public places, you can then only use those photos for editorial and personal use. There may come a time you wish to use your photos more commercially.
If that’s the case, then you’ll need a model release. Even if you don’t use the photos for commercial reasons, getting a model release is always good practice.
In the case of street portraits, this should be easier to do since you’ll already be in conversation with the person in question.
Street portraits vs street photography, time to decide.
Now you know your street portraits vs street photography.
Which form of photography do you prefer, both as a photographer and a viewer? How often do you ask people on the street for their permission before taking the photo?
Do you have a favorite set of equipment for either of these photography genres?
Here at digital photography school, we like hearing your opinions, so please share them in the comments.
Likewise, please share your photos that show street photography or street portraits in the comments section.
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- Street Portraits vs Street Photography: What is the Difference?
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES