Every picture tells a story don’t it…
In that classic song, which you are unlikely to hear much today given it’s racist lyrics, the protagonist is painting a picture with words and telling his story through song.
In street portraiture, your subject is telling their story through your picture with their words.
The key is that the subject is telling their story with their words. That means you actually have to talk to people. And listen to what they are saying to you. At the very least you have to ask them if you can take their picture. That’s a difference from street photography. You can stop there. You can just take their picture, thank them and move on. But why? Why not go the extra step? Why not allow them to be the star for a moment?
Street portraiture has become a popular sub-genre of street photography in recent years. Certainly people have been doing posed street portraits for many years but the idea has really taken off with the creation of Humans of New York. Humans of New York is a site started by Brandon Stanton that is dedicated to showcasing the people of New York City. The subjects are clearly posed but what separates this type of street portraiture from what had been done in the past is the story that accompanies the photo. Stanton began to take the time to ask his subjects something about themselves and he includes these words along with the photos on the site. In some cases it is just a sentence or two. In others, it can be many paragraphs. Later in the interview segment of the chapter, you will get to meet a photographer who has synthesized the Humans of concept down to a single neighborhood in Calgary, Alberta.
You are probably getting the idea that street portraiture takes more courage than street photography. You would be correct. I really cannot tell you how you overcome your reservations except to say you just have to do it. Like Nike. You will get rejected. You may get a profane reply. You may get someone who flips you the middle finger. Be not deterred. Perseverance will pay off eventually.
Chances are when you ask someone on the street if you can take their picture, they are going to ask why you want to. Be prepared to have a bit of a conversation with them about why you find them interesting. What you find interesting about them can be your entrée to approach them: ‘Hi, I’m doing a street photography project and really like your sense of style/your sunglasses/your hat would you mind if I took your picture?’ It does not have to be more complex than that. It can be even simpler: ‘Hi, I really like that hat, may I take your picture?’ At this point they will likely say yes or no. If they say no, tell them thank you and move on. If they say yes, now you can start the conversation. You are also likely to be asked how you intend to use the photo. Be prepared to answer that question. And be honest. Explain that you are a street photographer. Perhaps you are working on a project to photograph the people of a certain area of the city that day. If so, tell them that. If it is something else, tell them that.
You are likely to encounter reluctance from a good many people who do not want a stranger putting their picture on the Internet. This is a normal, human reaction. We are suspicious by nature. Carry business cards with you. Hand them a business card. Show them some of the other portraits you have taken that day on the LCD of the camera. Show them some of your other street photography or portraiture on you cell phone. This is where carrying ‘mobile portfolios’ on your smartphone can pay off.
Creating a ‘mobile portfolio’ that you can carry on your cell phone is a good idea. It is a good idea for a couple reasons. First, you never know when you may run into someone in a social setting who may be a person who can help your photography career. Second, it is a good conversation starter when you are trying to convince someone to let you take their picture. You can show them some of the other, similar, photos you have taken and give them some comfort that you are not going to make them look bad or embarrass them.
The process of putting together a mobile portfolio is not all that difficult. There are many gallery and presentation apps available for both the iPhone and Android phones that will help you curate your collections. You do want to make a few considerations that are relevant to mobile presentation over traditional print or desktop display. The screens in higher quality cell phones today are Full HD, 1920×1080 pixel resolution and greater. An increasing number of phones are moving into Quad HD resolution (3840×2160). This means that pixel density is very high and these displays are very sharp. You will want to experiment with your phone but the likelihood is that you will want to sharpen a bit less for the intended output than for traditional print or desktop/laptop display.
A second consideration is the color palette of the phone display. While the higher end phones are, generally, quite good you will want to look for any biases in the display. Cooler is more typical than warmer. If your phone screen tends to be slightly cooler than your desktop monitor, you will need to warm the images up slightly for presentation on your phone. Take note, as well, of the saturation level of the phone screen. Phones, and tablets, have a tendency to be more saturated than the high quality desktop/laptop displays we use for editing. If yours is one of these, you will want to tone down color slightly on images that you intend to host on your phone or tablet. Some mobile devices have started to incorporate adjustments in the Settings menus that give you some measure of control over the color and contrast of the screen which allows you to tweak the presentation slightly to help optimize the viewing experience.
The last consideration is file size. Even with a Quad HD display, I find images at Full HD resolution still look crisp and clean on the phone. I have seen no reason, yet, to increase the size of images I am showing on my phone as a result of the higher resolution screen. Set the long-side dimension of your image to 1920 pixels and allow the short side to fall where it will based on the aspect ratio. You can leave the quality setting at the highest level, but dropping down a couple notches is not going to cause a visible difference in the image on screen and the file size will be smaller as a result. Given that storage on mobile devices is at a premium, keeping the file size smaller, at Full HD, is a positive.
When you transfer the images to your mobile device, keep different subject matter separate. Here is a screenshot of one of the gallery apps I use. You can see that different types of images are kept in different collections. This way, I can show just the images I need to a particular person. Someone who operates a gallery who I may meet at a reception does not have to wade through the commercial images I may show to a potential client I meet at a trade show. Someone who is interested only in black-and-white images does not have to look at color photos. There may be some overlap between the collections, depending on how you decide to curate your different portfolios, but everything within a particular collection fits with the subject matter of the collection.
Making your prospective subject comfortable is going to go a long way to getting them to agree to having you take their picture. A key to getting them comfortable is to look them in the eye. Don’t stare, don’t look menacing. But we always have more trust of someone we are speaking to when they make eye contact with us.
Once you have that done, and you have been in conversation with them, even if only for a minute or so, it becomes easier to go to the next level and get some tidbit of information about them that you can include as a caption with the photo. Perhaps ask them to tell you something that no one, or almost no one, else knows about them. If there is something about their clothing or personal style that got your attention, ask them about that. What you are doing is making them feel important and that you are not trying to just take advantage of them.
There are a few tricks to improve your street portraits. Shooting up at someone from below is not a flattering position. No one wants to look up someone’s nose. In addition, as they will need to look down a bit toward you, the downward tilt of their head may create an unappealing double-chin. Shoot from slightly above and have them look up. By look up, I mean raise their heads slightly, not just raise their eyes. Just raising the eyes will leave a large amount of white visible below the iris. Having them raise their heads slightly will keep the eye centered and balanced. If there is more than one person in the photo, try to make sure they are at different heights. You can have people bend their knees slightly if needed. Body and head position can also affect the quality of the photo. Turning their body slightly at an angle then having them turn their head back toward you is a more flattering pose and can help minimize a double chin. Use shallower depth of field to help isolate your subject from the background.
On days when you are going out to shoot only street portraits, you do not need to worry about being visible and can use equipment that may be larger but more helpful in the task of pulling the subject out of the background. Larger sensors and slightly longer lenses will help. A good focal length for portraits is in the 65mm to 135mm range. Using apertures as wide as the lens permits will put the focus on your subject and away from other things. That is not to say you cannot use shorter focal length lenses or smaller apertures, you will just have a different look and feel to the shots. Street portraiture is, in my opinion, a little more open in its rendering than street photography so you are free to express more of your vision for the art you are creating.
In cases where you are shooting someone who is at a much lower position than you, get down to their level. It will make them more comfortable and put you on an even plane with them rather than the more intimidating position of towering over them. This is also an instance where you want the person to look at the camera. It is not always the case that you need the person looking at the camera for a portrait but with street portraiture, you want your viewer to make a connection with these people like you did. You want the viewer to put themselves in your position. You do that with eye contact. Lastly, try to avoid the forced smile. Because it is forced and fake. You want these photos to be as authentic as possible. If you want to say something to make them genuinely laugh, that is different. Otherwise, just go for a natural expression.
Remember that a ‘portrait’ does not just have to be a head shot either. It can be full body, half body, a headshot. It does not even have to contain or concentrate on the face. You may see a woman with extremely long fingernails and an elaborate manicure. You may want to concentrate on her hands and not even include her face or put her face out of focus. Similarly, on a man with a big handlebar moustache, you may want to just include his nose, the moustache and his lips. Let your creativity carry the moment and guide your efforts.
When you have the photo taken, show them on the LCD of your camera, if it is digital. Tell them that you will email them a copy if they’d like. They may be reluctant to give you their email address, but they have yours since you gave them a business card. Invite them to email you for a copy. Tell them when they will be able to see the picture online and where. You don’t need to tell them that it will be next Tuesday afternoon at 4:00 pm. Simply suggest that they can check out your website, or your Facebook Page, or your Instagram feed in a few days. Invite them to contact you if they do not see their photo there.
Street festivals and other open air gatherings where people are interacting are a great place to start out. People are more relaxed in these settings and having fun. They are more open to the idea of pictures because more people are taking pictures.
How do you remember what the people told you about themselves? That gets a bit trickier. Carrying a small notebook in your pocket and writing down their quotes will work. Alternatively, and this is my preferred method, I use an audio recording app on my smartphone and append their voice recording with the file number of the image in the camera. That way I can easily match up the two later on. Alternatively you can match the timestamp on the voice recording with the time stamp on the digital image – this does not work if you use film, of course – and since the recording was done just before or just after the photo, the two should be quite close in time. If you are taking a number of photos in quick succession, there might be a greater chance of a mix-up, but even then, the timestamps on both the photos and voice recordings will follow in sequence so matching them up should not be too difficult.
You have more time with street portraiture than you do with street photography. Your subject is cooperating with you. If you want to move the subject to a different location nearby, or to take advantage of different lighting, you can do this. Perhaps you want to pull the subject into a more shaded area for flatter light. Maybe you want to move to an area where the light is angling across their face in a particular way. There might be a certain backdrop you want to use in the picture. Tell your subject(s) what you are doing and why. Making them feel a part of the process will make them more comfortable. Remember, because you are engaging with your subject and getting their participation, this is a collaborative process.
Most importantly, when you are finished; whether you take one, two, three or however many pictures of the person, say thank you. Thank them for taking the time and if they give you you an email address, follow through and email the picture(s) to them.
Gerry David calls his photography a hobby, part-time job and a passion. Whatever it is, he likely couldn’t live without it. He got his first camera in 1982, a used Canon FTB. Aside from taking time to raise his family, he’s had a camera in his hands pretty much non-stop since. A self-confessed techno-geek, he loves the technology of the digital era, but still revels in getting that great shot, no matter what camera is used. See his project at Humans of Inglewood. (Ed: Gerry is also an exceptional guitar player and has gigged around Calgary for many years.)
This interview has been edited for clarity. Photos are used with permission. Click on the images for larger versions.
How long have you been doing Humans in Inglewood?
I’ve had the website for 2 years, but have only been able to capture images in one of those years. I will be travelling out of country again this year, so the 2014 HOI may be the only one ever done!
You were inspired by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York?
Absolutely! My daughter brought HONY to my attention two years ago. I wanted to do something ‘similar’, but different. I pored over the site and decided that, rather than document a city’s people over time, I would capture a neighbourhood event as a snapshot. Of course, I needed to find the right neighbourhood.
Why Inglewood? Why a single neighbourhood instead of an entire city? What is it about Inglewood that fascinates you? How do you connect to the neighbourhood?
As a part-time photographer with a family, my time is very limited. I tend to do my photography work as projects that I can get in and out of pretty quickly. If I choose the wrong project, it ends up dragging on, and never being complete. I wanted to keep the feel of HONY, but be able to do the project in under a week, including the website. For that reason, I focused on a neighbourhood and an event.
I chose Inglewood for two reasons. I know it – I’ve spent time there as a musician, and it is colourful and full of character, and characters. And that became the tagline.
I discovered Inglewood about 25 years ago when I moved to Calgary; a friend bought a home in the neighbourhood. I was in aw of the closeness to the core, but its uniqueness nonetheless. It did not get sucked into the homogeneity of a downtown core even though it was only 15 minutes walking distance away. And there was a heartbeat. A group of people that lived, loved and nurtured the neighbourhood. That’s hard to find in Calgary.
What do you look for? What piques your interest about someone to ask to take their picture?
I can say that I don’t know until I see it, but that would be a lie. I am looking for something different, unique, cute, or all of the above. A pretty girl is nice to photograph, but a pretty girl that is full of tattoos and has a pit bull on a leash is more interesting. And her 6’5″, 300 lb boyfriend with the huge moustache is even more interesting! While I’d like to say I don’t cater to what people want to see, that would be BS. I cater to what people want to see and I think I am reasonably mainstream. Kids are always good subject matter (with permission). People in costume. I always think of the old Coca-Cola song when I am shooting, “everybody’s beautiful, in their own way…”
Do you try to pose them, or just photograph them as is, doing what they’re doing?
Depends on the situation. I always ask permission and give them a business card to contact me if they decided not to have their picture posted. If they are working the event, I tend to try and get them in their “environment”. This is a bit of a sales pitch, as they are more likely to let me post if their business is highlighted as well as them. If they are just walking, or hanging about, I don’t pose, but I do move around to attempt to get some sort of decent lighting. The goal, after all, is to try to become a better photographer.
Did you have any initial hesitation in approaching people? If so, how did you do it?
Absolutely. While I am a very social being, I am mostly social with “my people.” Just approaching people on the street was very challenging. I overcame it by having two things – a story and a business card. The business card simply led to the website and had my HOI email address. Once you have your story and your card, you tend to be golden – ‘Hi, I’m Gerry, and I’m building a site called Humans in Inglewood. I like your hair, it’s a great colour. Here is my card. Can I take your picture and post it to the site? And if you are on Facebook, would you like me to tag you?’
Once that was established, it became a yes (98%), or a no (2%). The no’s were easy, thank you, move on. The yes then became a short and sweet conversation. ‘Would you like me to add a quote to your photo, etc?’
Why street portraiture rather than street photography?
I do some street photography, but I wouldn’t say I’m great at it. As a matter of fact, it makes me nervous. The most interesting subjects are sometimes a bit taboo. I want to take a picture of an interesting guy carrying around a backpack with ah uge beard. Is he homeless? Does he have mental health issues? So rather than worry about that, I just introduced myself to him and gave him the choice. I certainly don’t judge people who do street photography. I just don’t have it in me.
What are your ethical boundaries when it comes to your street shooting?
In the case of HOI, it all revolved around building a short term relationship and asking the question. Once we were passed that, I had no boundaries unless someone specifically gave me one (e.g., don’t include my child please).
In the case of street photography, I would probably add mental health as my #1 boundary. If I am taking a picture where a single person is in focus, and I feel that mental health issues are what creates the focus of the picture (e.g., homelessness, addiction) then I won’t take the picture. If I took a picture in a crowd, and there was a homeless guy who was part of the scene, that wouldn’t be a problem.
My personal rule is, if I am scared, or too uncomfortable, to ask, I probably won’t take the picture. Or, if I don’t feel like someone can give me informed consent due to state of mind, then I won’t take the picture. For me, I am not out photographing news. I want the people in the picture, as well as the picture, to tell the story. That involves a relationship, short and sweet, but a relationship nonetheless.
You’ve maintained all of the imagery in the collection in colour. Who colour when so much of what we see in street photography is in black and white?
In the case of HOI, the day and the event just felt better in colour. There was no drama to add. It’s a colourful neighbourhood with a bunch of colourful people. Colour is the operative word.
Sometimes you get a quote from the person, sometimes you add your own caption. What determines that?
The intro and approach.
If I am asking someone to let me take their picture for a reason, that usually becomes the caption. I like your outfit. I like your hair. Your dog is awesome.
If there is no reason, I will usually ask them if they want me to add something. Sometimes that gets interesting! This is not my wife. I miss my mom. Things like that.