Photographing People: The Art of Travel “Street” Photography and Portraiture

By Scott Dicken

Photographing People: The Art of Travel “Street” Photography and Portraiture

Let me set the scene: imagine you’re in your hometown and you’re on your way to meet a friend for a spot of brunch. You’re walking past a famous landmark on your way to the restaurant when a coach pulls up and out jump a gaggle of foreign tourists (a common scene in London). You imagine they’ll all immediately turn their attention to the famous landmark right behind you, but instead outcome the cameras and with no word or warning you’re suddenly the focal point for twenty zoom lens’ all jockeying for the best angle of you in your ‘Sunday best’. Sounds weird, disconcerting and frankly pretty rude, right? Then why is it that street photography, particularly photographing local residents, seems so acceptable to travelers when we’re overseas? Sure, we all want to capture the essence of wherever we’re traveling, but where lies the boundary of acceptable social decorum and when do we unwittingly (or not) cross it?
My raising this question, and seeking a set of guidelines for photographing people, in part stems from personal experience. My wife and I were on our honeymoon and we happened to spend some time in Shanghai. Wandering down the Bund (essentially a promenade along the riverfront) we found ourselves with a tail. Following closely behind us were two young women armed with cameras and fairly significant zoom lens’. They were, at least to their mind, ‘inconspicuously’ following us taking photos (well, it was really my wife they were photographing, but in my head I like to be the center of attention and with red hair I imagine I had an ‘exotic’ demeanor worthy of their attention). What made this particular incident stand out was that each time we turned around to face them they would pull their cameras away and pretend like nothing had happened. Rather than come and talk to us (having been ‘caught’) they thought it more appropriate to pretend like they worked for a seemingly incompetent private investigatory service that only hires giggling teenagers.
So, what could they have done better and what could we do better as travelers that want to photograph people going about their everyday business? And, beyond the sensitivities involved, what could they have done to get the best possible photos of their ‘subjects’ i.e. us? Let’s be honest, photos of my backside or me turning around with an angry look on my face, whilst entertaining, are highly unlikely to be winning a Pulitzer anytime soon.

Cultural, Social and Legal Sensitivity
Know what’s legally acceptable.
I’m going to start with the worst-case scenario (as a typically pessimistic Londoner) and consider the consequences of the law. In general, I subscribe to the general rule that people can be photographed in public without consent unless they can reasonably expect a degree of privacy (although you should seek advice on any country specific legislation – and of course aggressive photography of an individual could be deemed as harassment). Now of course, if you’re planning to use the photography for commercial purposes then a whole different set of rules might apply and at that point you’ll probably want to seek out some reliable legal advice. The other thing to consider is the location in which you’re photographing a person and what kind of person they are: certain locations have restrictions such as government facilities, courts and museums as do people such as law enforcement officials.

Know what’s culturally acceptable.
Not everything is as simple as right or wrong, and if you’re traveling to far-flung places then you’ll also want to consider the cultural acceptability of photographing people (after all, you don’t want to offend your hosts). In some cultures photographing people can be seen as taboo, in some taking a photo of someone is thought to steal their soul. In some parts of Asia, taking a photo of three people is thought to mean that one of them will soon die. In some religions, it is unacceptable to take photos of worshippers. In some cultures, photographing feet is frowned upon, and in others photographing unaccompanied women is objectionable. The list could go on and on, so if in doubt, then I suggest you ask what is acceptable.

Ask First, Photo Second.
This mainly comes down to personal preference. It’s probably worth noting that doing things this way may result in losing that candid street photo you’re really looking for. Instead, you’re likely to end up with ‘street portraiture’ – not necessarily a bad thing, but very different results. I guess the best advice I can give is to use some common sense. I’m also particularly careful when photographing young children. Quite often you’ll arrive in a remote village where children are playing; they’ll see your camera and eagerly run over to you asking for their photos to be taken. Whilst the children might be eager their parents might not be so keen. Even worse is if you’re just trying to take some inconspicuous and candid street photography of children. How would you feel if a stranger started taking pictures of your child at the playground? If in doubt, and wherever possible, seek permission of responsible adults before you start clicking!
Consider your choice of equipment from a social perspective.
Pretty much any lens can produce a good portrait or street photography shot under the right circumstances, so perhaps it’s actually more important to consider the comfort of the subject. Using a short focal length is going to mean that you have to be up close and personal (which, admittedly, can produce some great photos). Now I don’t know about you, but if I have a camera right up in my face then I don’t typically feel all that comfortable. If your subject is not comfortable then the photo is going to look forced. You might try backing it up and using a longer focal length when needed. The result will likely be a more natural shot and might also help you get more candid, relaxed photos. Alternatively, spend some time getting to know the person before photographing them.

Be Generous.
Don’t be that person that snaps away for thirty minutes and then just walks away! If the person has been generous enough to give you even the smallest amount of their time, then treat them as a person rather than an inanimate object. It goes without saying that you should thank them for their time and willingness to allow you to cram a lens in their face, but you could also offer to send them some prints (or even just an email with the JPEGS – assuming they have an email address and access to a computer). In some cases people might ask you for remuneration up front, so I like to carry small change.

Technical Tips
Equipment Choices
Street photography, by its very nature is supposed to be capturing everyday life at its most raw and candid. In terms of lens choice, it really all comes down to how confident you are because you can pretty much use any lens you want. A longer focal length will mean that you can be sneakier from afar. The closer you get (the shorter the focal length) the closer you’re going to have to be to the action. In some situations that might mean your subject might react to the camera. This could be either good or bad; it really depends on what results you’re looking for. One thing I would recommend is using a fixed (prime) lens i.e. one without zoom capabilities. This will mean you spend less time fidgeting with the zoom and rapidly get more accomplished at finding the best compositions.
Street portraits on the other hand are exactly what they sound like: posed portrait photography that happens to be taken in a public setting where the subject is well aware that the photo is about to be taken and has given consent for the photo to be taken. I would personally include staged events in the category e.g. tribal ‘shows’ where participants are adorned in tribal or national clothing but the set-up is predominantly for tourist-consumption (and you might even possibly pay a fee to watch). As the subject knows you’re taking the photo you can be a little braver with your lens choices and get ‘up close and personal’. I would recommend a short focal length (I personally use 35mm but a lot of people recommend 85mm) prime lens. Using a prime lens for street portraits generally increases the quality of your image and allows you to blur the background (bokeh) so that the focal point of the photo is the persons face (prime lens’ are particularly good for this purpose because they have wide aperture settings which means a tighter depth of field.
Get to Know Your Equipment

Now you have all of this sparkly new equipment it’s time to practice before you go. People don’t tend to hang about waiting for you to try and figure out where your ISO or white balance settings are located. Learn as much as feasibly possible about your camera and practice taking photos in different lights. The aim is to figure out how to work your camera at home rather than in the middle of a shoot. When in doubt, you could simply apply the old photo-journalism adage of “F8 and be there.”

Be Ready, it’s all About Timing

Evaluate the time of day and the weather conditions and have your camera settings ready in advance. Even simpler, make sure that the lens cap is off; you have no idea how many times I’ve tried to take a photo with the lens cap still on and then had to fluff around with the camera whilst missing the (now giggling at my lack of ability) person strolling off in to the distance.

Creating Context (or not)
Sometimes choosing the right background for ‘people pictures’ can make all of the difference, and other times the person’s face alone (with nothing in the background to distract our attention away from the subject) creates the most striking image. This decision all comes down to whether the context adds value to the picture you’re taking and creates a storyline that accompanies the person. If the person’s face alone tells the story, then it becomes even more important to ensure that the face is the pure and only focus. You could achieve this by using a low aperture and blurring the background, shooting against an ‘unfussy’ background, or filing the frame with the person’s face. For obvious reasons, if you go for the latter option you’ll either need to feel comfortable getting close to your subject or have a decently long focal length lens.
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