Sometimes, I just like to go out with my camera, a couple of lenses and walk through some of the streets in certain areas of the city where I live, Mexico City: the biggest city in the world! Funny thing is, I take four lenses and end up using only one: my trusty Canon 50mm f/1.8. Also, the cheapest lens I have (I highly recommend it). This lens is great for shooting portraits, not only for it being such a light-catcher when you open it up all the way, but also because it creates a beautiful bokeh, thus separating your subject from the background, pretty much blurring everything else.
So, here are 10 tips – going from the technical to the creative – on how to create a quick, 2-minute or so impromptu portrait session with strangers on the street:
- Be prepared: if you have the idea of going to shoot portraits, don’t have your wide-angle on the camera but be prepared with a good portrait lens, such as the aforementioned 50mm, ready for action.
- Open it up but hold it steady: open the lens to 1.8 and – leave the camera in Aperture priority so it takes care of the rest if you don’t want to worry about exposure times – and make sure you hold your hands next to your body so there’s no blurry picture for you to come back home to on your computer.
- Focusing on autofocus: if you believe you’ll have luck, have your camera on autofocus in order to make the shooting go by fast. If not, go for manual and make sure to focus on the eyes, the center of attention when shooting portraits. If not, there’s a chance that (especially with autofocus on) the lens will focus on your subject’s nose and well… the eyes and the rest will end up being out of focus.
- Who to pick: this one is pretty much up to you. Look for the kind of face that you’d be interested in hearing a story from. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the prettiest woman or an extremely handsome man that you’ll go for. Look for a face that interests you and you believe will speak to the camera.
- The approach: be courteous and civil. Don’t go for the person that looks as if they’re in a hurry because chances are you’ll get a negative answer. Someone sitting down in a bench by themselves is always a good choice. Or it could be a couple of people slowly ambling by that don’t look as if they’re right smack in the middle of an important conversation.
- What to say: “Hi, I’m out taking pictures and I love taking pictures of people who look interesting. Do you think it would be okay if I take two minutes of your time and take a couple of pictures?” I tend to say something like that (in Spanish) and things work out well.
- To pose or not to pose: if you get a positive answer to your picture-taking question, your stranger might ask you if you want them to pose. This, again, is up to you. Sometimes I feel that the person looking directly at the camera will give me something to work with. But there are some occasions in which I’ll tell them to carry on with what they were doing and then I’ll snap a few photos.
- Don’t take too much time: if a person let’s you take their picture on the street, that doesn’t mean that it’s ok for you to steal 5-20 minutes of their time, unless your gut instinct tells you that they’re REALLY into it. Besides, in two minutes you can usually get what you wanted. Also, do remember that it is supposed to be an impromptu session and not a long-winded, 15-pose shoot.
- Groups or solo acts: if you see a group of, let’s say, three people, and you only wanted to shoot one of them, no problem! Approach them and ask them if you could take some portrait shots of all of them. You never know if you end up getting the best pictures from the person you least expected them from!
- One last tip: I always ask people if it would be okay for me to get their email and name so I can email them the picture in both color and black and white (I go for b&w in my portrait shots). It’s not a big effort to mail them their pictures and not only can you make a new contact for your Facebook Page, for example, and maybe even get business coming your way (if you’re a professional), but you also share in the joy of letting someone have a nice picture of themselves in a day in which they were not expecting it. And for free!
I hope you muse over these tips that I’ve given you and see what suits your taste in picture taking of strangers on the street. Do remember to take under consideration the area in which you live and the kind of people you’ll approach. A person with 5 bodyguards might not be the most approachable or appropriate!
Take care and may you shoot sharp… unless you want blurry!
Sergio Mendoza Hochmann is a photographer who’s also a teacher of literature and communication skills, a signed songwriter and a jingle writer. Born in Chile, an Austrian-Mexican-blood mix, lived in 10 countries and has an Ecuadorian heart. He shoots everything, but specializes in cars, architecture and portraits.
Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/FotoHochmann