Attacking Strangers

I shoot on the streets at least once a week, sometimes more, if I have the time for shutter therapy. Everytime I am on the streets, I will shoot at anything that caught my attention, the stray cat, the homeless man, the abandoned car, the weird architecture of an old building, an empty bottle or even a surreal art painting on a weathered wall. One consistent photography subject that I never overlooked, and always aimed whenever I am street shooting would be portraits of strangers. I find much thrill and excitement when I point my lens toward someone completely alien to me, yet there is the sense of that person being on the street that compelled me to go near, and take the shot. 

All images were taken with Sony Alpha A350 and 50mm F1.8 DT Lens

I think the beauty of shooting random street strangers lies in the variety of character and facial expressions that the strangers have to offer. I like very distinctive look on my subjects that I choose, may it be that old, weathered face, or a face full of facial hair and a long beard, or a young kid with a bright, over-sized cap. Beyond the physical appeal, I think it is extremely crucial to work on getting the right expression from the subjects as well. A smile too wide and forced, with the overly abused "peace" sign just do not usually work for me. I like my strangers to remain in their original position, and looked at me, as if I was another street person, and probably exchange a brief greeting, or even just plain smiles. I want my audience to look into my photographs of the strangers, as if you are being there on the street looking into the eyes of those strangers that I have come across, and smiling at them, as you look at their smiles. Therefore, it is very important for the portrait shots to look at their most natural state as possible, something "believable", not orchestrated, not posed, and not directed. Let them be themselves, that is the beauty that you want to capture and show in your photographs !!

I found long lenses work the best in this kind of shooting. Anything 50mm or longer. I find anything wider, such as the classical 35mm or even 28mm to be restrictive, and can work against you for shooting street portraits. Firstly, wider lenses have freaking ugly distortions of all kinds (barrel and perspective) that can destroy the balance and proportions of the body and face figures of your portraits. Secondly, seeing too much of the background is not something that will work all the time. Environmental portrait is fine, but I prefer to go in really close up with my subjects, and let their character take over the photograph. Let their smile be the main attention, and let their warmth fill the frame. Cut out all the unnecessary crap in the background, which unfortunately wider angle lenses cannot do. Thirdly, wider lenses provide you with too little comfortable working distance. Always, always respect personal space, and do not be intrusive. I would say, the closest you can get to a person would be 1.5 meters away (this varies from one person to another). For "impactful" shots when using wide angle lens, you gotta step in even closer, perhaps 1 meter or less, and that is the part where you get the "annoyed" and "WHAT THE F***" look on your stranger's faces. If you want to preserve that natural facial expression, then respect the personal space. 

My favourite lenses are Olympus 50mm F2 macro (translates to 100mm equivalent focal length) and now, the Sony 50mm F1.8 lens (equivalent to 75mm, which works just fine for me). They are both long enough to be free of any ugly distortions, and has adequate compression effect on the subjects and their background, creating very flattering street portraits. Going in close, I can accomplish enough shallow depth of field to blur the background away, minimizing clutter and distractions. Yet having such medium tele-photo length, I do not have to go ridiculously close, for a tight headshot, I can get away a decently close frame at 1.5 meter away. My subjects are never feeling threatened or intimidated. You can clearly see that in the photographs. 

What is the kick out of shooting strangers on the streets? They are REAL. The photography subjects, were present on the streets, even before you decided them to become your camera victims. Being REAL has many qualities that make photographs stand out: their unique characters, their genuine facial expression and the human connection between one person to another, all those being captured and reproduced in photographs, can be something amazing. If you love people, surely you will love photographing people. 


  1. this 50mm seems to be very very goog (and cheap too). I love the backgrounds colors of this session.

    1. Thanks Ugo !! For a budget lens it is doing really well.

  2. Hello Robin,
    Thank you for sharing those 'real' street candid images and your generous sharing of thoughts worth a bigger 'THANK YOU'. I can not bear it any longer, I HAVE to hit the street this coming saturday. Your blog really tickling my photographer mind. I am I too much? I think I am addicted to take stranger's photo and I love to meet new people in the process. Though I am hitting the street twice a month but your blog filled the rest of the week. Thank you, Robin.
    May you have a great evening.
    John Ragai

  3. Very well put, Robin. Indeed one has to love to people in order to automatically "connect" with them, and get permission to take their photograph, and capture that genuine expression, posture or gesture. You do have a knack for excellent portraits, I find. I liked the boy with father (?) -- the first shot -- and the first flute player. The last one is also good: you can almost see what and how he thinks, taxing you a bit, and also the type of person he is (typical merchant, but nice, I feel). Very nice shots.

    Hey, show us some portraits of those lovely Malaysian beauties of the opposite sex as well? :-)

  4. Hi Robin,

    I recently discovered your blog and am really impressed. Love you articles, and your images are superb. I'm inspired by your street photography and would like to get into that myself too. I just wonder how you approach your subjects. What do you tell them, and how do you ask them to have their pictures taken? I'm assuming you're not asking for a 'model release', so you have to be careful what you do with the images? It's okay to post them, but could you publish a book of your street photographs for example? Sorry, too many questions. Hope you'll answer them, since I'm really interested in trying some street photography myself. Thanks, and keep it up!


  5. Hello Rene,
    Thanks for your kind compliments. I believe I have answered your questions in my blog entries throughout a year or two ago. It is not as simple as answering them in a few sentences.
    Perhaps if you may read my articles here:

    and dig around more, since I religiously blog about street photography almost every week.

  6. Thanks Robin, I read the entries and will dig around more. Very interesting reading, I'm a fan.

  7. Hi Robin ,The people smiling in your photos have made me smile after a hectic day at work,so thanks!Tony :)

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