I am not a portrait photographer, although I am fascinated by faces and I love taking pictures of people. But getting a good photo of someone can be challenging. For one thing, despite the popularity of “selfies”, many people still shy away from the camera. At the same time, I think we are all drawn to images of faces, including our own, as they can reveal a lot about us.
These two images are both portraits of strangers and are taken using natural light and my X100F, a 35-mm-equivalent fixed lens Fujifilm camera.
Man on the street
I took the photo of the man on the right during a Street Photography workshop with Eric Kim in Montreal this past November. The focus of the workshop was on approaching strangers for street portraits. I’m sure this man told me his name, but I was too cold to remember to record it. Anyway, he was kind enough to say yes.
I set the camera aperture to its widest – f2 – as the sun had just set and it was beginning to get dark. The light is diffused, with no bright highlights or deep shadows. Because I moved in so close, and used such a shallow depth of field, only his beard is in focus. Normally the eyes are considered the most important aspect of a portrait, however, I do like the way his eyes and hair are soft in this image, so let’s say I intended it that way. The iso setting was 800 to avoid underexposure, and I brightened the image later in Lightroom as well.
The image on the left is of Chester, a friendly gent who approached my partner and me at a coffee shop in Hampton a couple of weeks ago. He asked if he could take our picture. He explained that he was taking photos of people who visited that coffee shop, and he showed us the photo album he was creating. I said yes, on condition that I could take a photo of him. He laughed, then seemed a bit taken aback when I pulled my camera out of my purse. We had a good conversation as I moved about him taking pictures.
As we were indoors, I used a relatively high iso of 2500, and I chose an aperture of f4 as I wanted some depth of field. Yes, his eyes are sharp! Strong light is falling onto his face from a window to his right side, and another window, farther away, fills in some of the left side of his face. I liked the strong contrast, even though much of his face is in shadow. Later in Lightroom I darkened the background – a blackboard with writing on it – and also softened the shadows on his face.
Taking street portraits
I call these images “portraits” even though they are not the kind of portraits that would be created in a studio. For one thing, their eyes lack the catchlight – the bright point of light to make the eyes sparkle – that is present in most professional portraits. But what they are is authentic: I can see something of the personality of the person I talked with on that day.
So what I have learned is: if you want to take street portraits, you have to actually stop people and talk to them. “Photo bombing” with a long lens from across the street does not count! And, as Eric Kim says, you have to be prepared for people to say no. One of our assignments in Montreal was to get 10 people to say “no” to having their photo taken. I’m not sure whether my sincerity or my enthusiasm convinced them, but most people said yes – which made the assignment more difficult but the photographing more fun!
A bigger challenge for me is to take enough time to talk with people, ask them to move to a location with better lighting or background, or just “work the scene” a little more. Despite my best intentions, I end up taking photos in a hurry instead of focusing on getting the best image. I’m afraid they will get impatient and walk away, so I need to learn how to slow down and trust people. In other words, I need more practice.
So I am definitely planning to take more street portraits. I have discovered that – once I get over the fear of “no” – I really enjoy talking with strangers, and a few times I think I really made their day! Besides, I find their faces fascinating.