How to Master Shooting Street Portraits

Laughing lady. NYC, 2016

If you are drawn to interesting people, faces, and subjects, I recommend you to shoot street portraits!

Lecture: How to Master Shooting Street Portraits

Download slides: How to Master Shooting Street Portraits PDF >

The definition of a “street portrait”

LAUGHING LADY by Eric Kim Contact Sheets from MASTERS
LAUGHING LADY by Eric Kim Contact Sheet

First of all, what is a street portrait?

Well to me, a street portrait is just a photograph/portrait of someone you meet on the streets (stranger). Generally it is focused on their face, but doesn’t need to be. A “portrait” just means a “likeness” of someone. For example, you can shoot a “full body portrait” of someone, and you can also shoot a closeup face portrait of someone.

eric kim street photography hanoi-0004960 laughing lady

Anyways, I’ve personally always been drawn and attracted to faces. I’m not quite sure why, but I find the human face probably one of the most interesting things. The human face comes in an infinite variety: no two faces are totally alike.

Contact sheet. Laughing lady Hanoi, 2017
Contact sheet. Laughing lady Hanoi, 2017

Also from an evolutionary perspective, I think we have evolved to be able to find other human faces interesting. Not only that, but individuals in the past who could best interpret the faces of others are the ones who thrived in social-group dynamics.

SF, 2016

Master street portrait photographers

Richard Avedon instructions on dodging and burning.
Richard Avedon instructions on dodging and burning.

I consider these photographers the best street portrait photographers in history:

  1. Diane Arbus
  2. Richard Avedon
  3. Bruce Gilden

What makes a great street portrait?

Richard Avedon shooting portraits for “In the American West”

To me, this is what I think makes a great street portrait:

  1. Textures in the face: I generally prefer to photograph older people, because they have more interesting wrinkles and textures in their face. I think aesthetically, rough textures are more interesting/beautiful to human beings.
  2. A difficult-to-interpret expression: The reason why the Mona Lisa is such a famous portrait painting is this: everyone has a different interpretation on what she is thinking. You can capture this by photographing people with a mysterious, or mischievous look.
  3. Proximity: I find closeup portraits of people shot on a wide angle lens (24mm, 28mm, 35mm) more interesting than portraits shot on a “normal” lens (50mm), or by telephoto lenses (85mm-200mm). Why? A wide angle lens shot of a subjects face closeup is more fascinating to look at, because it distorts the face of the subject. Of course if you want to create a “flattering” portrait of someone, you wouldn’t use a wide angle lens up close. However as a street photographer, I don’t think your job is to just make flattering photos of people. Your job is to create your own interpretation of the subject you are photographing. Therefore photograph your subject in a way which is interesting to you.

two ladies street portrait eric kim

Conquering the fear of asking a stranger to take a portrait of them

It is difficult and scary to approach a stranger and ask to take a portrait of them. Why? We have been socialized into thinking that it is “weird”, and that we should also be afraid of strangers (at least in America).

Woman with thick glasses and green hat. BART, 2015
Woman with thick glasses and green hat. BART, 2015

My suggestion is this: try the “10 no challenge”. The concept is to approach a bunch of strangers (who you think will say “no”) and ask them to take a portrait of them. You must keep asking strangers to make their portrait, until you get 10 people to say “no”. This is an example of “rejection exposure therapy”: you learn to conquer the fear or getting rejected, by increasing your exposure to it.

eric kim photography bart lady glasses contact sheet

In reality it is hard to get 10 people to to say no. Thus, this exercise will help you conquer the fear of rejection. Because in truth, when people actually do end up rejecting you, it’s not so bad! Most people who reject you are quite nice about it. And the more you get rejected, the less fearful you will be in the future of asking other strangers for their portrait!

How to shoot more interesting portraits of strangers

Mad men. NYC, 2018
Mad men. NYC, 2018

Generally my tips for photographing strangers include:

  1. Use a flash: A flash will help separate your subject from the background and give you better exposure/contrast in the face of your subject. Also using a flash for a portrait looks more “intense” and thus interesting.
  2. Talk to your subject while photographing them: It’s not rude to photograph people while you’re talking to them. Ask your subject open-ended questions about where they are from, what their life story is, how their day is going or what their life goals are. When people start talking, they will forget the camera. Thus they will “drop their guard”, and have more natural expressions. Click while talking to your subject, and experiment using your lcd screen while photographing them, in order to maintain eye contact with them while they’re talking.
  3. Shoot a lot: If possible, try to shoot at least 30-50 photos of a subject who says “yes” to being photographed. You never know what photograph will be best. Also the more you shoot, the more likely you are to make an interesting portrait of somebody. When I’m in the heat of shooting a portrait of someone, I have no idea which photo will be the best until I go home and look at my photos on my computer. Therefore remember this, the more you shoot, the more likely you are to make an interesting portrait of somebody.
  4. Don’t review your photos (chimp) while photographing your subject: Turn off the auto review function of your digital camera, so you don’t get interrupted while photographing your subject. The act of “chimping” is looking at your lcd screen to review your photos after every photo you shoot of your subject. The reason why this is bad is because it will disrupt your flow of shooting. Better to take a lot of photos upfront and then check for the best composition when you get home.
  5. Make your subject laugh! Life is too short to be boring. When talking to your subject, make them crack up. Make bad jokes, or tell them something personal about you. Remember that photographing your subject is a two-way street: the more you give to your subject, the more they will give in return.
  6. Practice for a a long time: To be honest, it took me nearly 4 years of practice in street photography before I was able to build up my confidence to photograph strangers up-close and personal. Don’t expect the fear of photographing strangers go away overnight. But the exciting this is this: conquering your fears of photographing strangers is a skill you can build and cultivate, like building a muscle. And also realize, no matter how experienced you are in street photography, you will always be a little scared or self-conscious when photographing strangers, and that is okay! Rather than letting your fear hold you back from photographing strangers, channel your fear to more actively photograph strangers. Whenever you see a stranger you want to photograph, but you feel nervous, tell yourself, “This feeling of fear is actually that of excitement! I’m not afraid of photographing this person, I’m very enthusiastic about it!”
eric kim street photography - the city of angels - black and white-4-street-portrait-hearts-tattoo-downtown-la
Hearts. Downtown LA, 2011. Street portrait with flash and permission.