Street Portrait

When I do street portraits. I like to shoot close ups. 

I saw this man sitting on a bench at Jalan Masjid India. The first thing that came in mind was to decide if the subject was "worthy" to be photographed or not. I do not just attack randomly at anything and anyone on the street, you have got to be selective on your subject content, because only the subject content that managed to catch your attention, and attracted you in certain ways that will make an interesting photography subject. There was something rather inviting about the look in this man's eyes. I moved in closer, put the camera (E-5) on my face and snap a frame from quite a distance away, as a test/warning shot, to see what kind of reaction I would get. He saw me, and he noticed I was having a camera, already shooting him. He was still looking at me, and I put down the camera, looked back at him, offered the warmest smile I can come up with at that moment, and then nodded to him to acknowledge his presence. In that smile and nod, I sort of sent some telepathically embdeed message across telling him that 'I mean no harm, and I seek his permission to shoot his photograph". For some unexplained reasons, I was fairly certain that telepathy voodoo happened, and he got the message, because in return, he offered an equally, if not warmer smile, and nodded back, as if telling me that "hey, I am ok and you can take my photos!!". That was the cue and green light I needed, so I stepped in closer, standing about two meters away from where he was sitting. I composed him tightly, wanting just head and shoulders shot. I snapped a few clicks, chimped a little bit, and was satisfied with what I saw on screen. I smiled again to him, said "thanks", and he nodded. I walked away, happy with this shot you see above. 

What made this photograph work was the direct eye contact, and the apparent permission which was granted, knowing fully his photograph was being taken. He did not exactly pose or fake a smile for me. Instead, amazingly he looked surprisingly natural, and that friendliness he has shown to me as I approached him in the first place was well captured in his facial expression. The warm smile, the inviting looks in his eyes. The brief connection, no matter how small and how insignificant it may be for a passer by, there was indeed a connection, and that connection makes all the difference. If he has smiled a little wider, he would have appeared too forced. If he did not smile at all, it would seem he was uncomfortable having his photo taken. 

I also strongly believe that we have to watch the comfort zone of the street subjects. Getting in too close would have resulted in uncomfortable expression response, either shocked, or annoyed look in their faces. The worst that could happen would be someone giving you the "What the F***" kind of look, as if the fist would fly to your face next. Everyone has different comfort and safety zone, and it is not easy to recognize the varying comfortable working distances for each subject. However, if you get close enough to a lion's mouth, you might just get your head chewed off. So becareful !! 

Do you shoot street portraits? Do share your thoughts !


  1. Hello Robin, as a person who's traditionally shot landscapes and architecture, I find your posts inspirational and I do find myself carrying my camera around with me more as I walk about the city and pracitising the art of street photography. That said, I am still not all that comfortable with approaching strangers to shoot such composed photos. Thus far I've been able to get away with just taking quick snaps here and there and just generally shooting rather inconspicuously.

    As an aside, did you recently update or modify your blogging software? I generally read your posts through RSS but reently, I only see your blog post titles and not the content itself. Would it be possible to turn on full feed for the RSS readers? Cheers.

    1. Hello Greg Hao,
      Thanks for the kind compliments. I am still a learning photographer, so a lot of experimentations here and there, trying out different approaches.
      About the RSS feed, I shall look into it. I did not recall making any changes. Thanks for the feedback.

    2. Thanks Greg for raising the rss issue. I too now only see the title and not the contents on my rss reader.

  2. Good morning, Robin.
    I am trying my best not to use superlative words but your works and photography thoughts just hit me...and 'WOW! you are good.' When I walk the street to capture street portrait with theme like 'Face and Expression.' I am always looking for facial expression like shock, 'WTF', anger, confuse, 'punch you in face' or even scared but you gives me another side of it which I believe can bring relationship with the subject. Maybe I have hanged out with the different type of street photographer all these while which influenced my shots (at least I experience it) but your photography thoughts will surely give me a new mindset for my next 'candid portrait street photography.' You are right, Malaysia street bears a different culture as compared to the Western Street and your ways suit it nicely.
    With that being said, I am glad that I know you and hopeful I can shoot with you one day.
    Thank you for sharing, Robin.
    John Ari Ragai

    1. Hello John,
      Thanks for the kind words !!
      I do believe that there is no right and wrong when it comes to shooting, and it all depends on your own preferences and what you want to achieve in your photos. If you really like the shock and awe expression as spontaneous reaction to the camera, go for it. It may not be something I agree with, but if you like it, do not let other people tell you otherwise !! I am just sharing my thoughts here, and that is what makes photography so interesting: the variety and differences of approach each photographer does.
      Of course, it is very crucial to keep an open mind.

  3. Very complete, as many of your images.

  4. Can even see that he is smiling quite naturally. Nice shot. But then, all your shots are. :)

  5. Shock and Awe baby!!!! Flash in their faces hahahah. You know how i

    Seriously though, some may argue that a posed shot may or may not be street photography. But to each their own. Some prefer the candid and invincible and some not. Again to each their own.

    Your street portraits are indeed awesome!

    1. Hey Luke,
      Been reading what Jay Dickman wrote about street photography, from a professional photographer's point of view. Quite refreshing, because his perspectives on photography is not confined strictly to street alone, hes donw nature, landscape, travel, people, events, and even sports.

      Now here is another question, what makes you think that was "posed" shot? I can argue that it was perfectly natural. I did not even talk to him, or engage in conversation. The communication was done "telepathically", and he just looked at me, directly into my lens. Now, that was the tricky part: getting close, yet having a natural outcome. Imagine, if I did not have a camera, that would have been the same warm smile that I receive on my end.

    2. Yeah, going thru that article as we speak. Good thoughts on how to present your photos and how everything has to tie into a theme. I am rereading it as i am a little blurr at the moment.

      One could argue that any interaction between a street photographer and its subject is a no-no. And that a street photographer must be "invincible". There are rather grey lines between different genres of street photography. To me it really doesnt matter whether its candid, invincible or posed. As long as the photograph is good.

      To me, an interaction between lens and subject, whether "telephatically:" (LOL) or otherwise can sometimes can produce interesting outcomes. Whether if it is a friendly smile, a look of shock or that WTF look, it all presents an emotion of sorts. And as previously discussed, its all about the "emotion" in a photograph no?

    3. I believe in variety. One should not stick to strictly one method only. Photograph series would be more interesting if presented with different perspectives, including how the photographer approaches his subjects. Shooting from near and far, wide angle and tight close ups, natural unposed, and even posed, with direct eye contact, intimate portraits, all if planned carefully, can come together nicely to form the larger picture: a great photo-story. Its good to try and experiment, it is only unwise to stop and stay stagnant.

    4. Darn, hand itchy oledy, and its not even mid week yet arrghh

  6. hi sir.. a nice photography... keep up the work....(:

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  7. Robin,

    Your talent for capturing an inner human warmth in your portraits shines thru again. Love the B&W choice and square format.

    Is the lens the magical 50 ?

    1. Thanks Ben for the kind words !!
      Yes it was the ZD 50mm F2 macro, my favourite lens.

  8. Robin,

    This year is already shaping up to be a most extraordinary year for cameras -- so many pushing the performance threshold, and it's not even quite halfway thru, with a Photokina coming in the Fall. So far, from the OM-D on the M4/3 side (and we've yet to see Panny's rejoinder with a GH3) to the Nikon D800E up on the FF side ! So exciting. I am having so much fun in my evaluations, and thanks in no small part to your, personal and insightful reviews, but even more so -- your artistic output, I am leaning (perhaps on the verge) of going OM-D. But to me, the FOUNDATION, physical equipment-wise, is the glass . . . always the GLASS. A camera, whether an old classic (they all are now, really) box in which you put your chosen film, or our current bodies which in essence are the box and the "film" choices in one -- the camera is still there to capture the light drawn by the glass. I have serious level astronomical telescope gear also, and I am very particular and discriminating when it comes to any of my glass, telescope or camera wise (and two microscopes, one olympus one Z --both co.s as you know and Leitz started there !)

    I must say that the Olympus glass has long impressed me (along with my other favorite makes (huge surprise coming, Robin) Zeiss and Leica) !
    I await 75 1.8 and the new 60 macro. So far I have been able to see in personal operation my friend's EP3 with the new 45 1.8, the magical 50 (your have) and the 12. I have yet to be able to use a major requirement for me: a 7-14 either O or P. My question to you now as a person who's work I respect, along with your technical lens choices, is just between the 45 and the 50. My EP3 friend and I have both reached the conclusion, after much shooting and evaluating, that time and again we simply cannot get around the bottom line, that although the new 45 is a beautiful, sharp and wonderful lens on its own, that despite its size and AF advantages it simply does not possess the "next level" of inexplicable magical imaging of the 50 !!!

    Again, I am anticipating, and being always positively, and openly minded, that the combo of both the 75 (which Oly says will be the highest performing M4/3lens ever !) and 60 might possibly exceed the 50 (it covers both areas now, as we know). But so far, the 50 is in that rare category that one of my Japanese friends (a lover of the 50 also) calls "a lens of God".

    So, after my loooong intro: Might I and the "we" that is your ever-growing readership, get your current overview and thoughts on the Lens terrain now and just about to happen.

    1. Hello Ben,

      I strongly agree with you there, GLASS is VERY important, and Olympus, being the fore-runner in medical optical equipments, is surely no slouch when producing high precision and superb quality lenses. Zuiko lenses have always been highly regarded, and you were right when you talked about the 50mm F2, my favourite lens.

      Nonetheless, you mentioned that you would be using a lens on your (coming)OM-D. If you were considering micro 4/3 (not just OM-D, any of the PEN cameras as well), it is best to use the micro 4/3 dedicated lenses. I am not discouraging the use of the 4/3 DSLR lenses, but you must be aware that the AF is extremely slow, so slow that at times I would describe it as unusable !! The hunting and struggling will surely miss a lot of photography opportunities, and this will be a big turn off. As you know, I am using the 50mm F2 on DSLR E-5, hence I can get away with very high hit rate.

      I have received hints that the 60mm F2.8 macro for micro 4/3, to be announced soon, might even surpass the capabilities of the original 4/3 50mm F2. Lets not be too optimistic, but it would be great and exciting to see what happens.

      Thanks again for your constant support and kind comments.

  9. Robin,

    Ah, the synchronicity of the universe -- immediately upon completing my post above to you, I clicked on DPREVIEW to discover that they had just posted the official Olympus announcement of the 75 1.8, with description and pricing !!

    1. Now I wish Olympus would give me a call soon !!

    2. Robin,

      Considering all the favorable worldwide attention that your exceptional reviews, comments, and PICTURES have drawn for the OM-D, lenses, and Olympus cams in general--
      they'd be absolutely CRAAAZY not to !!!!!!

      Your words are heartening about the coming 60 ! Hopefully, we won't have to wait too long.
      Depending on whether I get an OM-D sooner than later, I could always opt for the free adapter and the 50 along with the (as you advised me earlier and now, Panny 7-14) for the time being until the 60 and/or 75 becomes actually available (judging by the OM-D that could be problematic) and then, if necessary "trade up" to the 60.

      That 60 though really interests me. I love hearing "might even surpass . . ." -- and it should, after all time moves on and tech (lens tech included) is and SHOULD be improving !!!

  10. A very good photo shoot in a gray-scale mode. Sir want to shoot like a pro, but I don't a camera that has a superb quality shoot. I'm just focusing my blogging first to buy a new camera. If you are interested, you can visit my blogs: The TNT Promos, ABS-CBN Mobile Promos and All Network Promos.