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.
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 century 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. And 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 a 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 publish 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.
Every 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.