Street portraits are a popular form of street photography but approaching total strangers can be daunting for the uninitiated. Photographer Jimmy Hickey shares his 4 step method for getting the better shots of the unusual people he meets and he makes some good points. Hit the jump to watch the video.
4 Step Plan For Taking Better Street Portraits
The video is a rambling account of Jimmy’s personal technique and it’s not presented as an iron-clad method to guarantee success when shooting street portraits of strangers. His personal method isn’t specific to street photography but he makes some good points that every photographer interested in street portraits can use.
1 – Idea
Jimmy suggests that when you see an interesting character and you want to photograph them you need to start with an idea. Some kind of inspiration or direction for the photo. He suggests thinking, “I want to photograph this person doing this…” and commit to that idea before taking time out that person’s day to photograph them.
I like this idea – too many photographers jump into scenarios before they even look at what’s happening. It’s smart to take a breath and ask yourself why you want to take the picture in the first place. Street Portraits have to do more than just record the way someone looks and envisioning your final shot is a good first step to creating a strong image.
But I also think it’s also important to be flexible and adapt to the situation as the portrait unfolds. If you’re shooting a guy with a long beard and your concept is to feature the beard, don’t overlook other aspects of that person that may become evident as you interact with him. My advice would be to go in with a plan but be prepared to change that plan as you learn more about the person you’re photographing.
2 – Approach
Going up to a complete stranger and asking to photograph them can be terrifying! But it’s a necessary step if you want to create street portraits that are more than passing snapshots. Jimmy recommends you simply walk up to the person and introduce yourself. Be friendly and confident but not too pushy. Tell the person why you’re interested in photographing them and how that photo is going to be used.
Jimmy’s suggests a basic script as a starting point:
Hi my name is Jim Hickey and I’m a photographer. I love taking street portraits of interesting people and you fit exactly what I like taking photos of. I really like that beard you have and you have what looks to be an awesome personality and I would love to talk with you and take your portrait for a few minutes.
Very few people that he approaches in this way turn him down. But when they do he’s respectful and wishes the person a great day.
I’m not usually a fan of canned material as every situation on the street requires a different touch. But Jimmy’s basic script makes some good points. It’s a great idea to introduce yourself and tell the person why you want to photograph them but you may need to ease into that for it to sound genuine. I usually lead with a compliment, “Man, I love that beard! How long have you been growing that thing?” And continue the conversation. The person can see my camera around my neck so when I get around to asking for the photo it seems natural. But that’s just me.
The fact is that there is nothing wrong with shooting street portraits and most people are going to be flattered that you find them interesting. So why do we hesitate? The way I see it is that people will generally not want their picture taken if they feel that you’re threatening in some way. Either they’re hiding something and don’t want their image recorded for legal reasons or they just don’t trust you. Everyone will have a different way of gaining that trust. Just remember that the person you’re shooting is a person and not a prop and act accordingly!
3 – Take The Street Portrait
At this point, the most important thing you can do is make your subject feel comfortable. Like you’ve been friends for years and you’re not a complete stranger that appeared out of nowhere and asked to take their portrait. Keep them at ease and have a conversation with them as you shoot several shots. Learning more about that person and finding the best angle at the same time.
Jimmy suggests you used the time when you’re talking to your subject to look for the little details that will make your street portraits shine. Do you want them smiling? Looking at the camera or off into the distance? Pay attention to the background and don’t be afraid to guide your subject in a way that matches your vision of the shot. It’s up to you as a photographer to portray this person in a whay that best represents them as a person.
I think a lot of photographers bail at this point. It’s so easy once the subject agrees to be photographed to snap one or two pics and say thank and be on your way. Jimmy’s advice is sound – use the time to learn a little bit more about the person. Let the photo develop as you’re talking to them and don’t treat the situation like a candid grab shot. You’ve been granted access to this person and you’ve likely got a few minutes before they get tired of you shooting them.
Carefully explore the shot with multiple views. If it’s not working keep shooting. There’s a reason why you asked to shoot this person in the first place so there’s nothing wrong with working the situation until you get the shot you’re after. Keep calm and carry on shooting!
4 – The Get-Away
Once you’ve got your shot don’t just walk away. This person just shared a part of themselves with you so take the time to give something back to them. Shake their hand and offer them your business card with your name, number and website address. And don’t be afraid to share the images you create with your subjects.
You’ll meet some interesting people while taking street portraits. It’s an amazing experience to go from not knowing someone at all and within 10 minutes establishing a kind of friendship as your create your image. It’s something that not many people get to experience and this experience should be cherished first. The photos will come as a result.
It’s easy to get down on videos like this (he says “conversate” 4 seperate times!) but Jimmy put himself out on a limb to share his method for shooting street portraits. Whether or not you like his work he makes a lot of intresting points that apply to all aspects of street photography.
I think street photographers often forget that we’re photographing real human beings with their own vibrant lives. It’s so easy to treat people as props in tricky compositions rather than acknowledging their importance in the world. Jimmy’s 4 steps for street portraits really emphasizes the importance of the subject and that alone is a good lesson to take away from the video.
What’s your take on Jimmy’s method for street portraits? How is it different from your shooting style? Post your ideas in the comments below and keep the conversation going!