If you have spent time exploring my older blog entries you will find that almost every week I will post some photographs from my shutter therapy sessions, which usually involved me and several friends shooting on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. From these street shots that I share, there would be a few portraits of strangers. In this blog entry, I shall share my thoughts on street portrait photography, and subsequently, my favourite photographs of these portraits.
Why Shoot Strangers on the Street?
I do not exclusively shoot just tight portraits of strangers, in general that only accounts for about 10% of my shots during my usual street hunting sessions. I think street photography is quite a subjective genre that has been debated endlessly yet never been properly defined and has spawned almost ridiculous amounts of sub-genres and categories. I am not quite sure when and why I was attracted to shooting street portraits. I think it was a dare, or a challenge by one of my earlier blog readers who criticized me on my cold, soul-less street photographs that were (at that time) void of human elements, or more accurately put, there were no people in my street shots. I have learned tonnes and improved myself from these constructive feedback and comments posted on my blog (some can be quite brutal, but it helps that I am a thick-skinned typical Asian). Taking up the challenge I braved myself to approach strangers and shoot them as close as I can possibly manage. The feeling that I had after successfully executed the shot was nothing short of breathtaking. There was a thrill that I cannot describe in words, the sense of accomplishment, though just mere ordinary portraits of people that may not get me anywhere far in photography, but it was enough to satisfy my weekly shutter therapy cravings. I get more satisfaction in shooting one perfectly executed street portrait shot, than a hundred posed, arranged beautiful bikini-clad models by the beach (that most other photographers seem to prefer doing here in KL).
I do not have a fixed purpose or final objective in shooting strangers on the street, unlike the popular works of Brandon Stanton in his Humans of New York, or undertaking serialized projects like Bruce Gilden in spreading terror on the streets. I shoot entirely just for the fun of it, and I enjoy shooting portraits. I think that is enough reason to justify me returning to the KL streets week after week. That way, I am not attached to any strings so I can do anything I want with my shots, and choose to shoot or not shoot anyone on the street.
How Do You Approach the Strangers?
I normally choose my subjects carefully, and I do not just attack random people. I generally would not stop someone who is walking, or obstruct whatever the people are already doing on the street. For such close up shots I look for people who are standing still waiting for something or someone, or comfortably sitting down somewhere. I will always be careful not to disrupt those who are working or cause trouble if my presence is not welcomed. It works best when the people you want to shoot is at a comfortable position, and it takes a lot of body language reading and anticipation on my part to understand or predict if the subject of choice will agree if I were to ask for a photograph to be taken. If the person is busy, or doing something important, or did not look happy, or was obviously not in the mood to engage in a conversation with a stranger, I will give it a pass.
I think what drove me to shoot close up portraits has something to do with the excitement that I get when I actually do have to interact with someone I am completely alien to. Nervous is an understatement but I have learned that a little sincere smile, and polite conversation can go a long way. Breaking the ice is not easy. I would establish my presence within the peripheral vision of the subject, before jumping straight in for the kill. I observe what is the response of the stranger with my inclusion within his comfort zone, breaching his personal space. People will react when you get so close, and with all the right signals I read, I then ask if I can take a photo. 90% of the time? A solid YES.
I do engage in conversations, but normally brief, and quick. Sometimes, it was just a nod if it was ok for the photo to be taken, and no words exchanged. In some rare circumstance I would have a long conversation.
Here is the thing, there are times I do get rejected. So what? Just smile politely, and move on. For every one rejection there are possibly dozens of opportunities waiting else where. Forget him or her, and focus on finding the next opportunity. The trick here is to stay positive and always be positive. Your facial expression, and how you present yourself is the key in getting the response that you want. People react to you the same way you treat them, especially if you are a total stranger to them.
Some famous photographers would point out that for such street portraits the character would exhibit better without them smiling. I disagree. We smile when we see each other, especially amongst friends and family. There is magic in human smile that even science cannot explain. Animals have other ways of greeting one another, but for us humans, our smile is so unique and universally accepted as a peaceful language. Why exclude something that is so exclusively human, when you are shooting humans?
What Are The Considerations in Shooting Street Portraits?
My General Set-up
I select my focusing point manually and place it to the nearest eye.
Adjusted F-number manually, normally close to wide open. F1.8 to F2.8, depending on situations
as low as possible, normally ISO200-400, varying in accordance to lighting
I use this as I judge on site how the exposure is through the electronic viewfinder or live view screen.
Medium Telephoto Lens
85mm-100mm (35mm format equivalent) would be ideal. Anything shorter than 50mm would produce ugly distortions when shooting tight, close up shots, and anything longer than 100mm is just too hard to work with, as you need to stand quite far away
Ok, I have successfully obtained the permission to shoot close up portraits, and I may not have too much time or too many attempts (you know, it would be awkward if you shoot like 25 shots of a person you have just met, so make every single shot count). Whatever that I choose to do, I always make sure my subject is comfortable while I was shooting. That means I do have to keep at least an arm's length away, and respect the boundaries of personal space. I do not just whack my camera to inches away from the subject's nose with a fisheye or ultra wide angle shot. Yes I acknowledge you get different perspective and different results, and that is the point, those are not the results that I seek. I am not after the grittiness or the "shock expression" too often portrayed in modern street photography. I always do my best in shooting the beauty and unique character that I see in the strangers I meet on the street.
Medium Telephoto Focal Length (90mm)
My favourite lens for tight street portraits is Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 (which offers me equivalent of 90mm in 35mm format). I normally stand about 2 meters of more away from my subject and yet I manage to get head and shoulder shots (or in extreme cases headshots, depending on how much space I can work with) of my subjects. The medium telephoto focal length provided me with a few crucial benefits: I can have a compressed background perspective, allowing me to compose more easily to avoid messy distractions, and ability to capture flattering profile of the subjects face with minimal distortion and perspective exaggeration. Using 50mm or wider (especially 35mm and 28mm) will distort the face to unnatural proportions, resulting in uncomfortable looking portraits. Having the F1.8 wide open aperture allows me to throw the background away into blur, taking advantage of the shallow depth of field to isolate the subject further.
This is not an easy part to play with, but must not be ignored when shooting any kind of portrait. The problem shooting on the street is that lighting can be unpredictable, and you have no control over it. (No I am not going to use flash, the poorly set-up flash normally create horrible harsh outcome on faces which is not something I am after in my street portraits). Working with available light is never easy, and honestly, not many people know this, but most of the portrait shots that did not make it into my final edit on this blog, was because of poor lighting. I generally favor lighting that adds depth and dimension to my portraits, hence side and directional lighting is good for me. I also try to avoid too flat or too even lighting conditions. I do not just observe how the light falls onto the face but also how the eyes look under the lighting conditions. All the catch-lights (sparkles in the eyes) in the shots am showing in this blog entry were natural. I normally do not direct my subjects or ask them to stand at certain places (I do in very rare occasion do this). I have this rule now when I shoot my street portraits, if the lighting is bad, just move on.
Focus, Focus, Focus
When reviewing my photographs, I will check for only one thing: focus. Exposure I am able to nail it even before shooting with all the "what you see is what you get" benefits of using a mirrorless system. It can be too easy to miss focus, as your subject may have accidentally moved by a few centimeters to the front in between the time you half-pressed the shutter button to lock focus, and fully pressed the shutter button to capture the shot. I have no doubt that the camera I am using has 100% accuracy when it comes to focus, my only concern is human error (my own part) or subject movement. It is good to always CHECK the shots. Chimping is ok, I am not against it (unlike some overzealous street photographers).
Some Facts About my Street Portrait Photography
1) Malaysians are comprised of mainly Malays, Chinese and Indians on KL streets. Indians are the friendliest and most approachable people, followed by Malay and Chinese. The Chinese people have distrust issues and would always question you on your intention of taking photographs of them.
2) I shot a number of non-Malaysians as my subjects. Many are foreign workers from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, or even from Saudi Arabia. Foreigners are generally very friendly.
3) The ratio of men to women in my shots are 10 to 1. It is definitely easier to shoot men on the streets. They do not worry about their hair or make up. Women are more self-conscious on their appearance for the camera and this is possibly the main reason they would reject their photographs to be taken.
4) Black and White works well for street portraits. They negate the distraction of colors and pull your attention right into their facial expressions and emotions shown in the images.
5) When I am serious about getting street portraits, I do not like shooting in a big group. I normally shoot with a group of 4 people or less. Ideally I prefer to shoot alone when I have specific shots I want to achieve but it is unwise to be alone on the streets in KL these days, it is not safe.
6) People always ask what are my secrets in getting the strangers in my photographs. My reply has been consistent: I have no special techniques. Many who have followed me on the streets can testify to this. I just walked up to them and shoot. I am not saying it is easily done, but I am keeping it relatively simple and straightforward. I think good photography need not to be complicated.
7) Does it matter what camera you use when you shoot on the street? (not just limited to street portraits). Not really. You are shooting under abundant source of light (unless you shoot at night), and any camera out there today can get the job done. Street photography is the exact place that you should leave gear obsession behind.
8) There are times I do come home with more portraits of cats than humans in a single photography outing. Trust me, those who have witnessed me in action can say this is not fiction. I love cats, what can I say? Shoot what you love, especially on the streets.
9) Malaysians are generally friendly bunch of people. I know this may not apply to people from other countries, as I have often been told. If you want to shoot street portraits, come to Malaysia! And when you are here please buy me a cup of coffee.
10) People react better to smaller cameras. I have used Olympus E-520 and E-5 (both DSLR sized cameras), as well as Sony A350 and Sony A57, and one most frequently asked question was "are you from the newspaper/media?". People are automatically more cautious and suspicious of your actions when they assume you are there with an agenda. This almost never happened when I used Micro Four Thirds system.
Do you have any questions about my Street Portrait Photography? Do not hesitate to leave a comment below!
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