Street portrait photography is incredibly fun and rewarding, but it’s not always easy to capture a great image. You might struggle to find the right subjects and the right compositions – or you might feel uncomfortable photographing people as you pass them in the streets.
I love taking street portraits, and in this article, I share all of my favorite tips and techniques for beautiful results. I explain how to work with different backgrounds, how to capture interesting poses, and how to approach people so you can capture a quick shot. By the time you’re done, you’ll be ready to create interesting and evocative images of your very own.
So whether you’re a street portrait beginner or you simply want to level up your existing skills, read on!
What is a street portrait?
A street portrait shows the person’s face. It can be captured with permission, but it doesn’t have to be. And, of course, it’s taken on the street.
There is an authentic element to street portraiture. You’re not taking a model out with you, and if you do ask for permission, you never know whether the person you ask will agree to let you take their photo.
Of course, if you are granted permission, you’ll be able to control many elements of the shot. You might be able to ask your subject to stand in front of an interesting background, turn their face toward a light source, or control their facial expression.
But how do you create outstanding street portraits? Here are plenty of tips and techniques to help you out:
1. Keep your photos simple
When it comes to street portraits, simplicity is your friend. Aim for simple subjects, simple backgrounds, and simple compositions.
So before pressing the shutter button, carefully observe the scene. Are there unnecessary elements? Is the background simple enough to emphasize the subject? Does the entire shot feel balanced and uncluttered?
If you do notice unnecessary parts of a composition, try to remove them. Sometimes, this is as simple as moving a few steps to the right or the left. Other times, you may need to get close, move farther away, or get up high.
Pro tip: One of the quickest ways to ruin a street portrait is by including a busy, complex background. A busy background will make your image look flat, it will swallow up your subject, and it’ll distract the viewer’s eye. Personally, I love backgrounds that are clean, colorful, and strong, like this:
The line in the middle nicely balances the subject, plus the strength of the colors and line contrasts nicely with the older man.
2. Always carry your camera and lens
For the best street portraits, you should always have your camera with you. Don’t lug your whole photo bag or a tripod around like a tourist in your own town, of course; just have your camera body and one lens handy, even if you’re just heading out for a quick walk or to grab something from the grocery store. I can say from personal experience that it sucks walking the streets, seeing something awesome, and not having your camera with you!
Having a good but compact lens makes a huge impact, too! I like the 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 and the 85mm f/1.8, which are both small and relatively lightweight.
Additionally, the wide aperture on these lenses can isolate your subject nicely with a shallow depth of field effect.
3. Know your camera (and choose the right settings)
Knowing your camera, especially its basic operations, is vital to capturing candid street portraits. 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, it’s important to control your exposure and depth of field. With Aperture Priority mode, you can select an aperture for a nice depth of field effect, then you can keep an eye on your shutter speed and make overall settings adjustments as needed.
Now, Aperture Priority will allow you to take pictures quickly. The downside is that 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.
Therefore, it can also be a good idea to master your camera’s Manual mode. 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.
Whatever mode you use, be confident with it. Being able to use your camera without having to think allows you to engage more with your environment, which is particularly important when you’re making portraits.
4. Think about the light and shadows
Street portrait lighting matters! Even if you capture a great subject at a great moment, if the lighting doesn’t work, the entire shot will be ruined. I have a few tips to help you out:
First, avoid using the built-in flash on your camera. This is a common mistake made by beginners. For me, the built-in flash is only for quick shots of friends or family. If you want to capture a street portrait with great light, use natural light, not flash!
Second, try to avoid shooting under heavy sun. The reason is simple: hard light means hard shadows! Normally, when you take a portrait in the sun, it creates hard shadows under the eyes, which is (often) a bad look. (If you’re already out with your camera and the sun is beaming down from above, you can still capture street portraits – but you might consider asking your subject to move into the shade.)
Third, it’s not enough to shoot in good light. You also need to consider how the light and the shadows fall on the subject’s face. I like to take a test shot, and then review it on my LCD, paying careful attention to the highlights and the shadows.
5. Break the world into elements
Composition is a fundamental part of street portrait photography, but it’s often a sticking point for beginners. After all, how do you arrange the elements of a scene for that perfect amount of dynamism and balance?
My advice? Try to break down the world into elements. Then tell yourself that you’re simply organizing the world in an interesting way.
See, 3D eyes and brains make things unnecessarily complex, and – as I discussed in the previous tip – the best street portraits tend to be simple. So you need to see the world simply, too.
You might break down the world into objects (e.g., roads, windows, doors, bricks, roofs, people, etc.). Or you might go even further and view the world in terms of geometry (e.g., squares, circles, rectangles, and so on). Either can work; the key is to pick a method and stick with it.
Then build your composition from there. Look for relationships among the different elements. Consider ways they can balance out one another across the frame. Remember: You only need one or two interesting elements to make a photo. If you can identify the right elements, and you can put them together in the right way, you’ll end up with a beautiful image.
6. Photograph character, not beauty
It may be tempting to look for beautiful or handsome people to photograph. And who could blame you? But you’ll create more interesting street portraits full of character if you find interesting people. This means people of both genders and all ages (except children, see the next point).
For example, I captured the photo below in the town of San Antonio de Areco in Argentina. This town is famous for its atmospheric bars and gauchos. While taking photos in one of the bars, somebody told me there was an elderly couple down the road who loved talking to people and having their photo taken. We went to check out the situation and found the couple sitting out on the street. We had an interesting conversation, and I made this portrait:
This also shows how you should be open to opportunities. If people are friendly and make suggestions like this, go with the flow and see where it takes you. Interesting things often happen that way!
7. Use a slow, contemplative approach
When you first start shooting street portraits, it can be a scary experience. You might find yourself rushing in an attempt to prevent tension between yourself and your subject.
But here’s the problem:
The best street photography requires contemplation. You need to take a proper look at your subject – especially their eyes, which tell you how the subject is feeling and even thinking.
So do what you can to relax into the experience. Go slow. If you need to, use your camera as a sort of shield between yourself and your subject; that way, you feel less tension, and you can spend time observing your subject’s face and understanding how they really feel.
If you’re just starting out, you can ease into this approach. First, simply look through your camera without firing the shutter. Then once you feel comfortable looking, take an image. Over time, you’ll gain confidence, and you’ll be able to see a subject and capture a photo in a single instant.
8. Observe and anticipate
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.
I prefer to find a location where I’m comfortable – that is, I’m not in anyone’s way and not in the hot sun. I like to make sure that I have a good angle to capture the action as it happens, too.
Knowing the location helps a lot. Being aware of the flow of life in any particular place will help you anticipate when and where 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.
You can also capture street portraits in your own neighborhood, where you’re 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 repeating elements.
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. There are already plenty of those on the internet!
9. Look for weird or humorous situations
Some of the best street portraits show the viewer something unexpected or even humorous. It’s one of the simplest ways to get started capturing meaningful street photos – plus, when you’re out shooting, it’ll give you some direction and keep you aware of your surroundings.
For instance, you might look for people making unusual gestures or expressions:
Or you might capture subjects that offer an interesting juxtaposition with background elements:
Note that your images don’t need to be eye-popping odd or laugh-out-loud funny. Just train yourself to notice interesting or confusing behavior – and as soon as it happens, raise the camera to your eye and take a photo. Some of the shots will work and others won’t. That’s okay! With practice, you’ll refine your style. In the meantime, have fun experimenting!
10. Find a great background and wait
There is a simple technique among serious street photographers:
You find an interesting location, such as a colorful background, an eye-catching display, or even a sign. Then you wait for someone to walk in front. If you pick an area with significant foot traffic, the right person will meander on through, and you’ll get your street portrait – one that combines a stunning background and an interesting subject.
Plus, when you continually gaze at one area for many long minutes, you become very familiar with it. You notice things that you didn’t initially see, and you start to understand what makes the location special. You may even decide to come back a second or third or tenth time – in different conditions, under different lighting, using different compositions.
Of course, this technique does require patience, which is a very good thing for a street shooter to develop (and something that beginners often lack). If you find yourself struggling to stay in one place for more than a few seconds, remind yourself that a good scene will appear; you just have to be ready when it does!
11. Make use of color
Some street portraitists prefer to shoot in black and white – but personally, I have always liked shooting in color. Color allows you to communicate different feelings, and you can use it to move the viewer, just the same as you can move them with light or interesting subjects.
So as you walk with your camera, look for color. Notice colorful backgrounds, notice the color of subjects’ clothing, notice the color of the shopping bags in their hands. And when you find pairs of colors that seem to work well together, take a photo!
You can also approach color street portraits in a more deliberate way. Colors communicate different feelings (e.g., yellow is warm and happy, green is peaceful, red signals confidence or anger). If you have a feeling in mind, you can find the right background colors – then you can wait (using the technique from the previous tip!) until the perfect subject walks through.
12. Don’t be afraid to ask strangers for a photo
Photographing people up close can be intimidating. But most people are happy to be photographed! That’s essential to remember when you’re going out and about with your camera.
It’s especially true if you ask permission first. Simply be confident and friendly. Say, politely, “Would you mind if I take your photo?” Sometimes, you can simply gesture to your camera, and you’ll get a nod or smile in return.
After all, humans are built to connect with other humans, and photography is a powerful form of connection. When you take someone’s photo, you are basically saying, “I see you! You matter.” And for most people, that’s a wonderful compliment.
But be ethical in your approach. Don’t photograph kids or the obviously vulnerable, and if someone doesn’t wish to be photographed, simply walk away. Photography is an exchange, and if you photograph someone, it should be with respect.
13. Have your settings ready
Before approaching a person to ask if you can take a photo, have your settings spot on and ready to go. You don’t want to spend time fiddling around with the dials and buttons on your camera; otherwise, your subject may become annoyed and you’ll lose the opportunity.
In other words, when they say “yes,” be ready to lift your arms, take a few shots, say thank you, and walk away. Easy.
Of course, you can always read the situation, and if they’re open to it, you might consider sticking around and capturing a few more shots. But it’s important to be ready just in case!
14. Always smile
This tip is quick but essential:
You always want to let anyone who sees you with a camera know that you are a cheerful person. That way, they won’t mind being photographed by you! And if they do mind – even if they become angry at your question – just smile and back off.
As a street photographer, you’re representing every other street shooter out there, so take care not to ruin our collective reputation!
15. Don’t ask your subject to smile
In my experience, a good portrait comes from the subject more than you.
And when you ask someone to smile, it won’t be natural. Instead, it’ll look forced, and it’ll be bad for the shot. At the very least, it won’t give you a sense of who that person is and what they’re like.
So don’t ask for a smile! Your subject will reveal their true expression for the camera, whether it’s a smile or sadness.
Sometimes, you might be surprised!
16. Pay attention to gestures
The more closely you watch humans, the more they reveal themselves through gestures. And it’s in that moment – when a gesture occurs and conveys something meaningful – that you can capture an interesting portrait.
Note that gestures simply refer to movements of the body. So a person can create powerful gestures with their hands, but also their eyes, their legs, their fingers, or even their feet.
When it comes to capturing gestures, you should pay careful attention to timing. A millisecond can be the difference between a stunning shot of an evocative gesture or a boring, flat shot with nothing at all – so practice hitting the shutter button at the exact right moment. (You might also consider using your camera’s continuous shooting mode, especially when starting out.)
I took the image below for a project on stomachs. Each photo from the project was totally different; the way that a person presented their stomach and the gestures they made conveyed so much about their personality and about how they feel about themselves.
17. 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 consistently. Pick locations you’re comfortable with and revisit them often. Get a feel for what happens there and how to photograph them. Go when the light and activity work for you.
Approach people and ask if you can take their portrait. Stay in the shadows and photograph without notice. Try it both ways, even if you find connecting with strangers uncomfortable. I used to be petrified, too. Working as a newspaper photographer, though, I had to push myself beyond my comfort zone. And that made me a better photographer.
18. Be yourself
When I lead workshops, I’m often confronted with concerns about originality. My students worry about how over-photographed the world seems. They worry they won’t have anything interesting to contribute and that it’s all been done before.
That’s the wrong way to think about street portrait photography.
Of course the world is heavily photographed, and it has been for years. But the world isn’t static. It’s an ever-changing, ever-moving organism. Nothing stays the same, so the possibilities for original and interesting photos are literally infinite.
Plus, while the world itself might be frequently photographed, individuals are not. Of how many street portraits have you been the subject? The answer is “not many,” right? My point is that, by finding individuals to photograph, you’re creating new and interesting photos.
More importantly, though, photography is an expression of who you are. You might start out by capturing unoriginal photos. But the more you fire that camera, the more you’ll create images that are a total expression of you: your passions, your experience, and your way of seeing the world. And that is enough to create the unique and interesting photographs you’re aiming for.
Street portrait photography: final words
Street portraits might seem difficult to create, but they’re not as tough as you might think. Hopefully, this article has helped you recognize how to get some beautiful results!
Now over to you:
What street portraits do you plan to take? Which of these tips do you plan to implement first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- 9 Tips for Creating Great Street Portraits
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES