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Up for Discussion – Street Portraits

Today’s post is similar to last week, but I asked Richard Guest from The Future Is Papier Mâché to write one on Street Photography as well, but this time on Portraits.  Richard has been taking portraits of people on the streets for a couple of years, and I have been following along while he had been doing them.  I hope you enjoy Richard’s post.

Street Portraits

Since May 2012 I’ve been walking up to strangers and asking if I can take their portrait. It’s frightening, thrilling, rewarding and extremely addictive.

Nowadays we think of the street photographer as a flaneur, a wanderer, an observer, an artist roaming the metropolis, hunting for that decisive photographic moment. But in the early twentieth Lulucentury the term “street photographer” described someone who took portraits of strangers for money. Weegee (later famous for his crime reportage) began his career this way.

Throughout the twentieth, and twenty-first centuries other photographers (including Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, William Klein and Henri Cartier-Bresson), have taken non-candid shots of people in the street (thus blurring the line between commonly accepted idea of street photography and portraiture). Some contemporary street photographers claim portraiture does not belong in their fast-moving, candid world. So can a portrait also be a street photograph?

One of the things I love about taking portraits in the city is that you have very little time to set up, compose, light and take your shot. You have to work with your instincts. JamesAnd the time you are given is the time your subject has to spare. Sometimes this can be the length of time it takes to press the shutter release.

I only take photographs of people I consider stylish or interesting. If I’ve got my camera with me, I’m on the lookout for possible subjects. There are times I’ll stay rooted to Jack Hunta spot (interesting background), waiting for someone to come along, and others when I’ll see someone I absolutely have to photograph in the distance and end up chasing them around Central London.

When approaching a potential portraitee, I am polite and upfront about what I want to do. I usually have a general idea of what I want to say, but have been known to blurt out exclamations of delight at what someone is wearing. And most of the time people agree to have their picture taken.

I want people to present themselves as naturally as possible in front of the camera, so I rarely ask anyone to strike a pose. I take between two and six shots from different angles and distances (and with different settings). The advantages of doing this are I can play around with the composition; and people tend to relax the more shots I take, which leads to more natural-looking pictures.

When the shooting’s done, I hand the person a business card, tell them about my blog and request permission to Joshuapublish their portrait online, (if they refuse, I don’t try to change their mind and I don’t publish the shot – it’s enough that they stopped in the first place). One really nice bonus of taking street portraits is having a conversation with someone you don’t know. It’s as important a part of the process to me as taking the shots, and I’ve met some really great people as a result.

Wilko JohnsonEvery couple of days, I upload my shots, and edit the best ones in Photoshop, usually just tweaking vibrancy, fill-light, and contrast. I shoot in RAW – the level of detail can’t be beaten and even quite radical editing doesn’t affect the images’ integrity. I also shoot in colour, which gives me the option to convert to black and white if the subject demands it. In most cases, monochrome lends a portrait gravitas and soul, whereas colour shows off clothes and style to great effect.

My aim is to present as undistorted an image of my subject as possible. When I started out it was with a kit lens – an 18-70mm, which is perfectly fine if you don’t mind a bit of distortion and is great for taking full-length portraits with a nice amount of background. But my favoured lens is a 50mm (which on a non-full-frame DSLR is equivalent to a 75mm on an SLR). I would avoid using anything wider than a 35mm, unless you want to deliberately distort your images.

Taking the portraits has broadened and deepened my experience of London and of people in general. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has allowed me to take their picture, but particularly to George Skeggs, my first street portraitee – without him there would have been no beginning…

I hope you will all thank Richard for this wonderful post, and if you would like to see more images then please visit The Future Is Papier Mâché.  He did more images for you to look at and I will put them into a gallery for you, plus the ones above.

97 Comments
  1. nice post, love the photo’s … street photography is my main thing. Yours are in the style of the Humans of … series of websites popping up everywhere and look good it’s not easy to get people to look relaxed 😉 , well done

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks very much! Yes, I like your blog very much. I’ve not heard of Humans of…will have to check them out.

      July 29, 2014
  2. Great group of portraits Leanne – love the natural poses, they work beautifully.

    July 29, 2014
  3. Awesome shots. I’m working on a series as well

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks very much. Look forward to seeing them, Luis.

      July 29, 2014
  4. These portraits have depth and resonant as strangers and yet not. Thanks for the introduction.

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks very much, Sally – that’s a lovely compliment.

      July 29, 2014
  5. I love the idea of street portraits and your photos are amazing!

    July 29, 2014
  6. A great gallery of heroes, villains and jokers.

    July 29, 2014
    • No villains, surely. Thanks very much! That’s a lovely compliment.

      July 29, 2014
      • There were one or two that frightened me 🙂

        July 29, 2014
  7. Splendid!

    July 29, 2014
  8. I find these absorbing and extraordinary. I really appreciated the historical background on street photography. The human experience. You can’t beat it. 🙂 Kudos, Richard!

    July 29, 2014
    • I’m really glad you like them, Elen. Yes, indeed! I totally agree. I like historical contexts – they are a nice way to frame arguments 🙂 Thanks!

      July 29, 2014
  9. Oh how I want to do this! I am trying to figure out a way to do this in Los Angeles without running into problems, such as people expecting to be paid, people being a bit aggressive — especially those who are on the street for economic or mental health reasons and those who fear being photographed due to privacy concerns. But this has got to be the most satisfying type of photography and I aim to get there. What a wonderful blog and post. Thank you.

    July 29, 2014
    • Yes, it’s daunting. You don’t know what you are going to get when you approach someone. All of those problems you describe have happened to me, but once or twice each maybe in two years, and mostly when I was starting out (and I came out of all of them unscathed). For the most part, the people I approach are great – they’re warm, friendly and creative. Give it a try – pick someone you really like the look of and go for it. Thanks so much for the lovely compliment!

      July 29, 2014
  10. Nice to read article Richard. Adding a bit more than I already knew 🙂
    It is funny to read your special about your brave street portraits ( which makes them so natural) on a site if a gifted photographer who likes to keep out people of her street shots :-)! Well I do love contrasts!

    July 29, 2014
    • 🙂 Yes, it’s funny that! Leanne’s fantastic isn’t she? Thanks very much, Chris. 🙂

      July 29, 2014
      • She is indeed, but I think she needs to stretch her comfort zone 🙂

        July 29, 2014
      • I do, I’ve started doing landscapes, LOL. I really stretched it last night, went to the coast for the milky way. 😉

        July 29, 2014
      • Yep, you do stretch lol. I love ur Milky Ways and I am so jealous you have that clear sky! I meant, people on streets in shots lol, lets see what happens!

        July 29, 2014
      • Haha, I know that is what you meant, but that is one thing I think I will leave to others. Thanks, did you see the one I put up on G+ and Facebook today? It had a lighthouse in it.

        July 29, 2014
      • yep, i saw it, really wonderful!

        July 29, 2014
      • thank you, I was pretty proud of that one.

        July 29, 2014
      • You should!

        July 29, 2014
      • 🙂

        July 29, 2014
  11. These are interesting to look at – each is unique.

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks very much, Colline. Yes, I really like individuals, but then nobody is really the same as anyone else.

      July 29, 2014
  12. Sensational. Your portraits say so much!

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks very much! I’m really glad you like them.

      July 29, 2014
  13. Richard, your portraits have a depth I have not seen often. All of your work really moved my Heart within, and as I gazed at each face, each told a story. I Love different, and to find people like these make my Heart Sing, encouraging me to be even more different than I already am!!! Your work fascinates me, so much so, I am now following you. Thank you for showing us your work. Love, Amy

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks very much, Amy. I’m so glad you like the shots – they are really a great bunch of people. Taking the portraits is a nice way of meeting and talking to people you wouldn’t normally run into. Thank you for the follow.

      July 29, 2014
      • I am very much into Nature right now, Richard. Perhaps one day I shall attempt this type of photography. I’m drawn to Mother in a huge way, and so I shall just follow my Heart. Love, Amy

        July 29, 2014
  14. Wonderful portraits. Leanne, thank you for introducing him to us.

    July 29, 2014
  15. Absolutely stunning moments of street portraiture. I really love the ones of Valerie and Lulu, such entirely different people, moods and characters but those particularly leapt out at me as capturing who they are as people. Wonderful work and I hope you will continue doing so for many more years!

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks so much, Caro. Yes, the shots of Valerie and Lulu were taken in the same week – there are times when the portraiture goes better – perhaps I’m more receptive. Thank you very much!

      July 29, 2014
  16. Love your philosophy regarding street photography and your photos reflect that.. Well done!!

    July 29, 2014
  17. Wonderful shots. I shoot street (mainly) and sometimes will ask people as you do of it’s appropriate. IN Australia there can be cultural issues around taking photographs of aboriginal people so I tend to ask them, and often they are more than happy,
    http://shazeyespy.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/more-from-my-first-street-day.html

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks very much. Yes, I checked out your blog – really nice shots!

      July 29, 2014
  18. Wow! I’m such an introvert that I can’t imagine walking up to strangers and starting a conversation; however, what a fabulous idea and challenge to broaden the art and social skills…I might just give it a try. Thank you. The photos are beautiful and the people interesting.

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks very much, Dee. Yes, it’s changed the way I think about the city for sure. Give it a try, but be warned it’s extremely addictive, ha ha.

      July 29, 2014
      • I can see how it would be.

        July 29, 2014
  19. I certainly enjoy portrait photos but unfortunately still being quite the amateur would be too timid to ask someone to post for me just in case I stuffed up the shot.
    I really like and admire what you have done. As another person has already mentioned the “Humans of” pages on FB are quite interesting. I follow Humans of New York and really enjoy the photos and snippets of information about each subject.

    July 29, 2014
    • Hi Suz, to be honest I stuff up a lot of my shots (that’s why I take up to six of each person) – what you see are the good ones. Sometimes it’s through nerves and other times because I’m not paying enough attention to backgrounds or movement. If I was you, I’d have a go…

      July 29, 2014
  20. Emma #

    Amazingly photos. I love the stories behind looks always so much.

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks so much, Emma! Glad you like them.

      July 29, 2014
  21. Reblogged this on Giai01's Blog and commented:
    xem

    July 29, 2014
  22. Personalities captured quite well!

    July 29, 2014
  23. great portraits!! And his method as well!!

    July 29, 2014
  24. thegentlemanfarmer #

    These photos just rock, in the case of Wilko Johnson, literally rock…

    Fantastic stuff!

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks very much, thegentlemanfarmer! Yes, Wilko was really nice – very patient when I mucked up the first couple of shots – a real gent.

      July 29, 2014
  25. A marvelous collection of beautiful character studies.

    Richard, you said you ask your subjects for permission, do you also ask them to sign a release? Without such a release it is not possible, as I understand the copyright rules, to use a photo in a book. Do you also publish your work in book form? I had to jump through hoops to include some product photos (cameras) in a book, and dread the thought of including portraits.

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks very much, Ludwig. That’s a great compliment. Yes, I ask permission, but don’t ask anyone to sign a release. It’s not so much copyright that is at issue as personality rights – if I was going to publish, I would approach my subjects again and make sure they were happy to be included. Yes, it’s a bit daunting isn’t it? But if I was the subject of a photograph I would want to have a certain amount of control, so I understand it.

      July 29, 2014
    • Perfect! Thank you both for this talk with me:). Lots of questions have been answered . How would you find your subjects again if you needed permission to use their portrait? Whoops just answered it. You have their email addresses. It’s nice that it is all quick and sweet no fumbling to sign permission slips. Thanks again for talking about your work. Carla thanks Leanne.:)

      August 13, 2014
  26. Love his images. I don’t have this talent, and am in awe of those who do.

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks so much! That’s a lovely compliment.

      July 29, 2014
  27. This is such an interesting read!
    ..and wonderful portraits.
    Thank you Richard and Leanne 🙂

    July 29, 2014
    • I’m really glad you enjoyed it – thanks very much, Robyn! 🙂

      July 30, 2014
      • Definitely 🙂 Thanks Richard.

        July 30, 2014
  28. I wish I was brave enough to do this!

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks very much – (it scares me too) maybe you should try it!

      July 30, 2014
  29. mj #

    I followed you here, Richard. I enjoyed reading about your method – nice!

    I imagine you walking upto a stranger and explaining your having followed her across the street (she would probably have seen you already, but might pretend a raised-eyebrow surprise!)
    Of course, you get a splendid pic, and she gets a warm fuzzy feeling for the rest of the evening (maybe longer) and all your blog visitors are treated to another spot of wizardry with the camera (no thanks to Photoshop).

    But here’s what I believe after being a regular at your blog – you have an unerring instinct about faces and what they tell. Your photographs are not all about style, color, stuff – to me, each face tells a story (that you too probably sensed as you trained your lens), and that is what keeps me hooked. 🙂

    Love this article whole-heartedly.

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks very much, MJ! You say such nice things! I’m really glad you liked the post. Thanks!

      July 30, 2014
  30. Nice to meet you Leanne, and thanks for the introduction Richard – I am now following.
    Lovely post, which portrays Richard as the gentleman he is 🙂

    July 29, 2014
    • Nice to meet you too Alison.
      Richard did a great job with the post. 🙂

      July 29, 2014
    • Aw, thanks so much, Alison! [insert blushing emoticon]

      July 30, 2014
  31. After my Freshly Pressed piece earlier this spring, about half a dozen people pointed me to Richard in the comments of my piece, and for good reason. I clicked over to his blog and was instantly amazed with the consistently amazing quality of his portraits.

    Richard, thank you so much for sharing this post with us. I love doing street photography, but have only taken a few street portraits. However, those photo sessions remain as my favorite times on the streets with my camera. Great post, great info, and great images.

    July 29, 2014
    • Thanks so much, Shane – lovely compliment coming from you! It was a pleasure to write – really glad you liked it. Like your portraits very much!

      July 30, 2014
  32. You’re not only very courageous but also blessed with the ability to put people at ease to agree to the shot in the first place and then to give themselves to the camera. That is a very special gift! Enjoyed the article.

    July 30, 2014
    • Thanks very much, Ellen! That’s so nice of you to say. It really does help that I like the people I photograph – I think they can sense it. Glad you enjoyed the article.

      July 30, 2014
  33. Stunning shots..

    July 30, 2014
  34. Love the street portraits. Artsy and real at the same time. Keep up the great work!

    July 30, 2014
  35. Reblogged this on ckponderings and commented:
    A great overview of street portraiture from a good friend! 🙂

    July 30, 2014
  36. Go Richard! Well written!

    July 30, 2014
  37. An excellent article. I’m a huge fan of Richard’s portraits and have always suspected that his personal, polite and open approach affords him the same from his subjects. Couple that with terrific artistic and technical skill and the result is a collection of really fine portraits.

    July 31, 2014
    • I’m blushing. Thanks so much, Elena! What a lovely compliment.

      August 1, 2014
  38. I always enjoy Richard’s work and thank you for sharing it again, Leanne! Street photography is always fascinating to me, but I especially like the up close and personal portraits of people found on the street…so many stories to tell. Great article!

    July 31, 2014
  39. HI Richard, your street portraits are wonderful. I have tried to do a few and it is still very intimidating, especially when I travel to countries where I don’t speak the language. I aspire to your level of proficiency. your post is very inspirational.

    August 3, 2014
  40. As you know I’m a big fan of your street photography. Great write up and thanks to Leanne for giving you this opportunity.

    August 7, 2014
  41. Rockstar!!!
    Some moments there, well-captured, unique, your passion for portraits is beyond compare and I’m enriched with our association. I often wonder what you’d have to say when I encounter a face on the streets. Thank you Richard. You’ll always be a mighty influence in my life and my works!!

    August 10, 2014

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