Street/Stranger Portrait Workshops in London
From time-to-time I run workshops in making portraits of strangers in London.
This is a genre of photography that has interested me for a long time and I think is a very rewarding one for many reasons. Not only can you practice your portrait technique and hopefully get some lovely photographs, but also you get to meet some really wonderful people.
The images in this post are taken by myself during the workshop I ran on the 9th February 2019. I will also try to include a small gallery of some images taken my the participants of these courses.
Street/Stranger Portraiture is not a genre that I think is particularly easy, because there is a lot to think about to get great portraits. There’s the technical side, then you have to pluck up the courage to ask someone if you can take their photo, you have to check the light is right and if the background is distracting and on and on. We will cover all these things and more in the Street/Stranger Portrait Workshop.
These workshops start by meeting for coffee and running over the notes that I have included in this blog post. We’ll discuss these and everyone will have a chance to ask questions. I also include a slideshow of photographs by fantastic street portrait photographers through history to the present day. We have found that this does inspire people to get out there and start making photos.
After the talk and Q&A we then head out to start making street/stranger portraits. I am aiming for each participant to have made 25 different portraits throughout the day (2 shooting sessions).
Our first shooting session will be approximately 1.5 hours and then we will break for lunch. After lunch we embark on another 1.5 hour shooting session in a different location just for a bit of variation. When we have finished shooting we then head to a pub where we will all do a show and tell of our images and I can offer some feedback if wished.
Today we will be making portrait photographs of strangers that we encounter and approach to ask for permission, whilst on two shooting sessions of 1.5 hours each.
I would like you to each make portraits of 25 different people/groups/couples during the day.
We really want to get to the point where we really don’t have to think about this part too much. We want to be able to concentrate on making great portraits and frankly there is enough to think about anyway!
Shooting in Aperture Priority mode with Auto ISO and use Exposure Compensation to get the perfect exposure. Select your desired aperture (lower f/number for shallow depth of field and higher f/number for greater depth of field, but no higher than f/11). Always take a test shot first and check for exposure and adjust if needed, once you are satisfied it’s perfect then shoot your portraits.
Auto ISO Options: If you use Auto ISO make sure to set your minimum shutter speed to something that will ensure you don’t get any camera shake or movement blur. I’d suggest something around the region of 1/125 second, spending a little on the focal length of lens that you are shooting with.
Shooting in Manual mode by selecting the desired ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed. Use your Exposure Level Indicator to achieve correct exposure. Always take a test shot first and check for exposure and adjust if needed, once you are satisfied it’s perfect then shoot your portraits.
I would always suggest Auto Focus if possible. Single Point AF is the way to go with this, use a small Auto Focus Point and move the point to the eye (nearest eye) and focus and shoot. If your camera has Face/Eye Detection Auto Focus then you can use this. The camera attempts to find the face (and possibly eye) and will focus. It’s not always perfectly reliable but do try to see how you get on. If not reliable then revert to single point.
Light Metering Modes
I would recommend spot or centre weighted light metering modes to meter from your portrait subject rather than the background. Do check exposures and use Exposure Compensation if needed.
Light is always important to the success of a photo of course, so it’s important to pay close attention to what light you have and what direction it is coming from!
Sometimes bright light can be too bright. Not only can it be too harsh and not pleasant for the outcome of the photograph, but it can also cause your subject to squint.
If the sun or light source is too bright, try asking your subject to stand/sit in the shade and the light will be much more even and pleasing.
You could also consider using backlight, with the stronger light behind your subject. With the correct exposure for your subject this can actually look really great and have the effect of lifting your subject from the background.
If the light is coming from the wrong direction for your subject’s position it can make the photograph unsuccessful. For example if the light source is too high it can cause unflattering shadows in the eyes. Generally speaking light that illuminates the face fairly directly looks good.
Indoors the light from a window can make for some fantastic portraits. I really like diffused or indirect light in this situation, not direct light streaming in through the window. This indirect light is very close to that of a softbox that we use in the studio for very soft light. You can also get a very similar effect outside with your subjects standing just inside a tunnel or bridge, as in the photographs below.
The background you use for your portrait can be very important and I really like to show my subjects in their surroundings.
You want things to balance your frame and for your photograph to look tidy, so always think about the composition of your image, including the background.
You could use colour play in your images, matching up colours of the background to your subjects clothes, or colours that contrast well etc.
You could find backgrounds that you think would look great in a portrait and then wait for a suitable subject to come along.
Remember to choose your aperture to control depth of field, depending on how much of the background you want in focus.
Some people ask me what is a portrait? Does it have to be a head and shoulders shot to be a portrait? Absolutely not! The composition of your portrait is up to you, it could be close in or it could be a full length portrait or perhaps even your subject could be relatively small within a larger frame.
I will show you a graphic which demonstrates some “rules” of how to frame a person. As with everything, you can break these rules and the image can still work, but it’s definitely worth bearing in mind when shooting. They are really just helping you understand how to frame a person and for it to look neat and tidy. The illustration mainly shows not to frame/crop your portrait at the joints of limbs, elbows, knees, ankles etc.
We usually call a full length portrait that shows the background an environmental portrait. It simply shows the environment that your subject is in and if this environment says something about your subject too, then that is particularly great. Think of a market stall holder posed with their stall.
How to choose your subjects
Choosing your subjects is important and maybe a theme can help. I did originally think I would choose the themes for you but I actually think it’s better if you choose the themes. You can discover what theme you might go with whilst shooting in the morning.
Colours, Older People, Younger People, Clothes/Fashion, Workers, Tourists etc etc.
Don’t steal someone else’s subject
If another participant on the course asks a subject, don’t then try to also photograph the subject. This can be very off putting for the photographer who asked and also more importantly it can make the subject feel uncomfortable too.
How to approach your subjects
This is pretty easy for today, you just find someone you think might make a good subject and you approach them and politely ask if you could make a portrait of them. The first thing they might ask you is, why? You have to be ready with a good answer and today is perfect because you are doing a photography portrait course and you need to photography 25 strangers in one day and that you’re hoping that they will be kind enough to let you do that. Of course if you develop a theme as mentioned above, you can also mention that in your approach, ie. I have to photograph 25 strangers in a day and my theme is people that are listening to music, for example.
Groups, Couples or Individuals
This is something to think about but it’s totally up to you whether you want to look for individuals to photograph, couples or even small groups. One thing I have noticed when photographing groups is that sometimes people have more confidence than they would do on their own, when they’re bouncing off each other maybe they try to project the image of themselves that they would like to project, rather than the real them. I actually quite like photographing individuals when you see a little of that shyness.
If you find a subject that you really want to make a portrait of as an individual but they are part of a couple or small group, why not ask to photograph the group and then, if it feels right you could ask if it’s okay to make some portraits of individuals also.
To Smile or not to Smile?
Sometimes if your subject is smiling it can make the photo seem more like a snapshot, we’re just used to seeing smiling faces in portrait snapshots and we do associate them with that. That said I think it can really depend on the subject whether that works or not, maybe a soft gentle smile can work really well whereas a big cheesy grin maybe not so much. If the smile doesn’t work for you, just take a few photos and then ask whether you could do a couple without the smile.
Get in touch
You might not have any business cards at this stage, but if you enjoy this genre you might consider getting some done through a company like Moo. They are a really great thing to give to your subjects and you can ask them to get in contact if they would like a copy of the photo. Today you could simply write down your name and email address and pass that on to them.
Don’t let a ‘No’ knock you back too much, you have to get your next ‘Yes’ and move forward. Trust me I do not find this very easy to do either, I need to get in the right headspace to make stranger portraits and a knock back really dents my confidence, but you must keep going and try to get that next portrait.
You will meet some lovely people today, I’m sure of it. You’ll probably have conversations with people you would not have done otherwise and that is a really wonderful thing.