Five Tips for Street Portraits

For several months now I’ve been so inspired by the work of street photographers, old and new. Legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerwitz, and my personal favorite, John Free. All these great photographers make the art of street photography look so simple, yet its mastery seems unattainable at times.

After watching countless YouTube videos, I decided to take to the streets of Rockford, Illinois and try something I’ve never done before: photograph strangers. I knew that photographing strangers while going unnoticed would probably be difficult since there wouldn’t be a crowd in downtown Rockford to blend in with, so I decided to be more direct and ask people for their portraits.

On the next sunny weekday afternoon, I drove downtown and parked my car on a side street near the riverwalk. I headed near a marina where I saw an old man towing fishing boats to and from the building. This guy had a great fisherman-look with tan, leathery skin and frayed clothing. I walked up to him with confidence and kindly asked for his portrait, and he flat out said “no.” I even tried to convince him by saying that I was just testing out an old film camera and no one would really see the images, but he was persistent. I was immediately discouraged and started second-guessing this expedition, but I pressed on.

I continued walking until I discovered a young man dancing to some music in Joe Marino Park. He was so focused on his moves and was really in the moment. I smiled and held up my camera, questioning whether it was okay, and he gave me a nod.

Leica M4 – Voigtlander 35mm

I kept my gear simple, with my Leica M4 with a 35mm Voigtlander f/1.4 with HP5 at box speed. Most of my metering was based on the sunny 16 rule, and I set my lens to the hyper-focal distance or zone focused for most of the action shots. I also lugged my Fuji x100f for digital photos, too.

I walked across the river, going west on State Street to the Luther Center Retirement Community to find a man sitting outside near the sidewalk. I was so fixated on his clothing and overall look. I kindly introduced myself and explained that I was working on a photography project and then asked to take his photograph. He nodded, and I snapped away. While taking his photograph, I asked for his name and we had short conversation. In a few minutes, I thanked him and moved on to find my next subject.

Leica M4 – Voigtlander 35mm

I quickly discovered that the more I asked people to photograph, the easier it became; I was very surprised how even the most eccentric- seeming people were willing to be photographed.

Leica M4 – Voigtlander 35mm

With all that being said, it’s still important to remain vigilant in any town. Most of the time when I was walking around I would gauge people and decide ahead of time if I was going to ask them for their portraits.

I happened to be crossing the street and this motorcyclist was waiting at the light. He had a badass look and asked for his picture. It wasn’t until after the photo did I realize the “Rare Breed” t-shirt. – “Fuji x100f

For several weeks during the summer, I spent my afternoons walking downtown photographing strangers with my Leica M4 and Fuji x100F. Occasionally I would run into people I had photographed before, and I gifted them with their photograph that I had printed.

After doing it a few times, I developed some strategies for initiating street portraits.

1. Decide how you’re going to ask for their photograph.

Most of the time I tell people that I’m working on a photography project, and when I ask for their portrait, they usually agree. If they ask why, I will tell them that I’m doing a project on the people who live and work in the area. It doesn’t hurt to smile and be friendly when asking.

Leica M4 – Voigtlander 35mm

2. Set the camera before you ask for their portrait.

Before I walk up to someone, my camera is on and ready to go. Whether I’m using film or digital, it’s prefocused, shutter is cocked, and aperture and shutter speed are preselected. This makes the encounter much quicker instead of fumbling with the camera before they change their mind. If I’m using the M4, I’ve already looked at the light and set my camera to the right exposure.

Fuji x100f

3. Talk to your subjects as you take their picture.

Leica M4 – Voigtlander 35mm

Ask what their name is, if they work in the area, and how their day is. When I try this technique, people produce different facial expressions that look more interesting than a casual smile. I also use the opportunity to direct them a little, tell them to look a certain direction or past my camera.

4. Know when to walk away.

This goes back to gauging people as you decide if you’re going to ask for their portrait. Sometimes I will encounter people who are homeless or seem to have a mental illness. Regardless of who they are, I treat them kindly, but in some cases, the conversations can be uncomfortable and it’s time to create distance.

5. Print your photographs.

I think this is the real reason why I like shooting portraits in the street: having the opportunity to give back to the person with a tangible item that they can keep.

When I first started this exposition, I simply did it because I love to have a camera in my hand, but there isn’t always something to photograph and landscapes can get boring. I think street portraits are a great way to step outside my comfort zone.

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