Monday, July 15, 2013


This last weekend I tried expanding my photography hobby by doing a little street portraiture--casual, extemporaneous photography of strangers in public settings.  This is not as simple as it may sound, and so far the results are amateurish, but I do believe I am learning from my early efforts.

There are a number of difficulties with street portraiture.  First, some people do not like to have their picture taken.  They may feel it is an invasion of their privacy, or they may feel that they are not photogenic.  Or they may have other reasons for not having a record of their appearance; in short, they do not know where that photo may wind up and who may see it.

Second, by definition, the setting is somewhat uncontrolled, so there may be background or foreground distractions.  Or the subject may not be posing for the shot, so their pose or expression may not be what I would be looking or hoping for.  Direction and quality of lighting can also be a problem

Third, in some cases I feel compelled to ask their permission for the shot.  Since these are strangers, my natural shyness can get in the way, and there have been many instances in which I have missed potential shots because I have been too bashful simply to go up and ask for their permission.  And where I have gotten permission, my lack of ease may have affected their comfort, altering--for the worse--the candor of the shot.

There are also some obvious advantages to street portraiture.  The setting can add interest and context, in effect, telling a story about the occasion or person.  Where the shot is taken without first asking permission, the person's expression can also convey a story or at least an emotion.  Also, despite my reserve, I do enjoy meeting people, and asking their permission can lead to some interesting (and positive) exchanges.

OK, so here are some early attempts at street photography over the past couple of days, most of which were taken at Bastille Days, a sort of street fair in downtown Milwaukee with a French flair.  First up were a few shots of individuals taken without first obtaining their permission.

Of course, there were thousands of people at the festival, so the first question was how to choose victims . . .er, subjects.  I found myself looking for people with what I considered to be interesting faces.  This guy had great dreadlocks that were complemented well by his hat.

I took this shot because the man was stationary and I could capture his face against a fairly neutral background.  One thing I have learned is that it is generally best to leave the lens aperture wide open to ensure a shallow depth of field so that the subject stands out from any distractions in the background.  In addition, this ensures a faster shutter speed, minimizing blur from either camera or subject movement.

This guy had his head down, counting his change.  Not the best of poses, a problem with fully candid shots.

I really should have tried to get this man's permission for a shot.  His suit was a fantastic hot pink, and his shirt and tie were equally stunning.  A full, face-on shot would have been ideal.  But he was in conversation with someone, and I just didn't have the confidence to interrupt.  Of course, he may have turned me down.

This woman was in the audience of some sort of kids' singing program (in French, of course) and was most likely shooting a video of her child (or grandchild?).  Not great, but I did like the candid nature of the shot.

This was another candid shot of a girl who was "helping" a mime to entertain the crowd.  Here she was watching the mime to follow her instructions.  This was taken at an aperture of f/4, as wide open as my lens would go.  That helped to reduce distractions, but I could have used an even shallower depth of field here, I think.

I was pretty happy with the above shot of an older guy, who had a lot to say, not just by his expression, but by his outfit and trappings.

This is a candid shot of an interesting shirtless guy walking through the festival with his bicycle.  He had an interested but somewhat distant expression, and it appeared that there was a lot going on inside.  We wound up following him for perhaps a couple hundred yards until I finally built up the courage to get his permission for a shot.

Interesting tattoos, and his shaved head added something also.

Here is another person whose permission I asked.  I liked that he was wearing all white, including a (nearly) white hat and white sunglasses, which contrasted nicely with his dark skin.  He was at one of the booths at the festival.  His sunglasses were nicely reflecting the scene, as shown in this close-up.

This young woman was soliciting support for an LGBT organization.  We didn't contribute but I "bargained" for her photograph in exchange for our listening to her message for a couple of minutes.

This guy was also kind enough to let me take his portrait, although he initially asked for a thousand dollar fee, as a joke.  The problem with this shot was that the camera was set at a narrower aperture of f/8, which created a lot of background clutter.

As we were leaving the festival, I asked this gentleman for his picture.  he seemed pleased.  I thought this shot worked well because he was positioned against a nondescript brick background and because I particularly liked the way his beard was being slightly backlit by the afternoon sun.

My regret with this, as well as some of the other portraits, was that this gentleman was wearing sunglasses.

This is the one portrait in this post not taken at Bastille Days.  I was doing some photography early Sunday morning in Walker's Point on Milwaukee's near south side and spotted this guy sitting in front of a tired building, smoking a cigarette.  I was building up courage to ask to take his picture, taking a couple of shots of the building, when he asked if he was in my way.  That gave me the entry I needed to ask to take his picture.  He said that he was honored.

It was apparent, from a walking stick and a little suitcase sitting beside him that he had had an interesting and pretty tough life.  Again, I wish I had gotten a shot of him without his sunglasses.

Finally, I returned to Bastille Days in the evening looking for a few more street portraits.  Here are a couple of shots of persons whose permission I sought.

This man was actually looking at another person who was taking his photo at the same time.  That was a lesson for me:  If I am explicitly getting the person's permission, then it is probably going to work a lot better if they are looking at my camera.  That's what his two companions were doing in the following shot.

The guy on the left asked me about photography and asked about getting a copy of the photos of him that I was taking, a reasonable request.  I gave him my card.  Here is another shot of him--a very expressive face--and great dreadlocks.

OK, some of the initial lessons I think I have learned are, first, I need to be willing to ask for permission and just be ready to get turned down.  I did get turned down by perhaps a third of those I asked, but so what?  Second, I need to try to take wider shots and include some context.  It's great to get close-ups to capture facial expressions, but that often misses a story that could be told by the setting or by what the subject is wearing or has with them.  Finally, a wide-open aperture is generally going to help the shot.

In the end, I was pretty happy by this first attempt, flawed as it was, and will be looking for other opportunities in the future.


1 comment:

  1. The old man in a hot pink suit really caught my attention. True men wear pink, indeed! Hahaha. You could definitely feel the confidence and the coolness of this man while wearing the suit. I’m sure he had captured a lot of hearts in the event. Who wouldn’t turn her head on this gentleman? He really looks gorgeous and impressive!
    Sheila Henderson @ Suit Yourself