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Tips for Taking Street Portraits – Lessons Learned in India

On my trip to Rajasthan, India I packed my Canon 400D (Rebel XTi) with two lenses: my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS USM (for long and candid photos) and my Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II (for indoor portraits and low light photos) because I was aiming for portrait on the streets and specially head shots. Here are a few tips for taking street portraits, from my humble experience, and how to approach people before you take you shot.

#1 Always smile


You always want to let anyone who sees you with a camera know that you are a cheerful person and therefore they won’t mind being photographed by you. Even if they become angry because you asked, just smile and back off. You need to remember that being a photographer in the street is an image for all photographers in the public eyes.

#2 Avoid using the built-in flash on your camera

A common mistake that most beginners fall into is using the built in flash. For me this is meant only for quick shots of friends or family. But if you want to a portrait with great light, use natural daylight in the shade by making the subject face towards the light not the opposite.


#3 Don’t shoot in the sun

The reason is simple, hard light means hard shadows! Normally when you take a portrait for someone in the sun it creates hard shadows under the eyes, which is very bad for a portrait most of the time. Try to draw your subject to the nearest shady area available, or you can use a smooth board (or reflector) to make the light more even on the subject, that is if you dare to do all that with a stranger.


#4 Think about the light and shadows

It’s not enough just to take the shot in the shade during the day, away from the sun. You also need to consider how the light and the shadows are becoming on the subject’s face. You can do that by taking a test shot, then reviewing it on your camera screen by looking for the highlights and the shadows. If you don’t know how, practice it at home with your family or friends before going out to the streets.


#5 Don’t ask the person to smile

The good portrait comes first from the subject, then from you. So when you ask someone to smile, and they will, it won’t be a natural smile and sometimes it will bad for the shot. So don’t ask and they will reveal their true expression to the camera whether it’s a smile or sadness, sometimes you will be surprised.



#6 Use a large aperture for a blurry background

One of the key important things in portraiture is to focus on the eyes and blur the background, and sometimes part of the face. It will make a more dramatic and more attractive portrait to the viewer. And it also blur the background so it makes the viewer’s eye go only to the subject’s eye.


#7 Think about the background

What lies behind the subject is important, sometimes it’s good to have people in it and sometimes it’s better empty with no one. It really depends on how you intend to show your portrait.


Editor’s note: as I was searching Flickr for portrait images for the weekly inspiration collections (Portraits of menportraits of women, I kept finding Zuhair’s portraits stood out among the rest. So I approached him and asked him to share some tips with us and he was gracious enough to do so. I hope you enjoy his images as much I do. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, I feel Zuhair’s portraits do a great job of showing us his subjects’ souls. 



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Zuhair A. Al-Traifi
Zuhair A. Al-Traifi

is from Saudi Arabia, interested in portrait and street photography. He begun photography in February 2010 and after one year found himself in love with the portrait field. You can see more of his work on his blog and 500px.

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