bangkok street portraits

How to take Street Portraits

Taking street portraits of random, everyday folks I meet during walks in any part of the world, is inspiring but can also certainly be a multi-level challenge. To be able to capture a series of unstaged, authentic portraits, I need to be prepared on a technical, emotional and creative level.

Let me explain.

Technically. Since I don’t possess Spiderman’s lightning speed and can switch setting and dial in optimal settings on the fly, I have to prep the camera before approaching my subject. Sneaky style, if you know what I mean. Often I’ll recognize someone I want to photograph, make a 180 degree turn so I can get all my stuff in order before he or she notices me and then turn back around again and start working the shot.

If you’re shooting with autofocus and auto ISO enabled, then all you’ll really need to decide on is depth of fied and how to compose the portrait. As long as the capture size in the camera’s preferences is set to a large enough size (JPEG or, even better, RAW), you should be provided with a big enough photo to allow for recomposing (by scaling up/cropping) in your preferred image editing software. All of the photos above were shot with an iPhone 7+ using Apple’s standard camera app. All of them have been cropped to bring forth what I felt was the best composition for each subject.

Emotionally. I try to be both humble and decisive when attempting to photograph interesting people – or, people in interesting situations – that I come across during a street walk. Above all, I always smile just before conjuring up my camera and looking ever-so unassuming as I ask to take a photo of them. The real trick is to startle folks a little and hope they feel charmed and flattered by the very thought that someone actually wants to take a photograph them. Hopefully, I’ll get the shot before they start analyzing the situation too much. If I can only get a subject to freeze physically (and intellectually) for just a few seconds, I’ll usually be able to capture a few frames. Subjects who are standing still are much, much easier to shoot than getting those on the move to stop in their tracks and let some stranger point a camera at them. I also find reading the mood to be a key variable. Statistically, about 70% of everyone I ask agrees to let me take their portrait. Especially if the camera I’m using is small and discreet. Like a cellphone…

I’ve just ordered the new iPhone Xs Max and though it comes with a bigger screen, the phones physical size isn’t bigger than my current, two year old iPhone. What has gotten much bigger, though, is the camera sensor. Apple’s camera team has increased the sensor size by a whopping 30%. In addition to all the benefits a larger sensor provides, like better lowlight sensitivity, better color rendering and wider dynamic range – thanks in part to larger pixels (Apple opted for larger pixels of higher quality instead of increasing the amount of pixels) – the new iPhone models have vastly improved optical image stabilization. To me, the latter is really interesting. See, if the camera sensor can move to counter-balance a hand’s shake, the shutter speed can be lowered without introducing blur in the photo or having to increase the ISO level – which inevitably adds noise to the portrait. Sure, I can always reduce noise during the editing process, but the cleaner the image is when captured, the more leeway I have to make adjustments after the fact. In short, shit in, shit out.

Creatively. Taking street portraits can at times be pretty stressful. Even if I’ve seduced the subject into letting me take his or her portrait and my camera’s ready to go, at best, I still have only but a few seconds to compose and make sure there’s not too much going on in the background or on either side of the subject. Unless of course it’s my objective to contextualize the portrait using the surroundings. As with the female motorcycle taxi driver pictured above (center).

Like many other photographers I’ve talked about this with, taking street portraits is a heck of a lot easier in Asia than most other places. Especially in the US and Europe where urbanites tend to be so abnormally self-concious about their “image”, they often freak out when I approach them for a street portrait. Where as in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos, folks are generally un-shy and happy as can be to pose. And they’re also easy to get smiling, which is isn’t a prerequisite, but after all, a smile does make for a nicer portrait.

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