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Taking my First Street Portraits

I’m a fan of using a wide-angle lens (my standard lens is a 19-35mm). My style has developed using this, so naturally my street portraits have followed suit. The down-side to using this sort of lens is that I am required to be very close to my subject – there is no where to hide and its near impossible to avoid interaction. Many other photographers get around this with the use of a zoom lens. Although a practical solution to the issue, I personally feel this approach opens a whole other can of worms. To get caught out shooting people from a distance is in my book even more likely to cause upset if you are spotted. It also misses out on the most liberating aspect of street photography – engaging directly with your subject.

I had tried to overcome this fear in the past without much success and in the end my breakthrough came quite by accident. However, since that has happened, I have found the experience to be truly liberating. It opened up a whole new and exciting avenue of photography to me.

On a sunny day in my local city-centre, patrolling the Harbourside on the look-out for interesting photo opportunities, I stumbled upon two girls relaxing in the sun with sketch pads in hand. I was sat nearby and their image was so compelling I eventually plucked up the courage to approach them and ask them if I could take their photograph.

Unbelievably they just said,“yes,” without any hesitation. This left me rather taken aback. I hadn’t thought that far ahead, being so concerned about asking them and so sure they’d say, “no.” I quickly fumbled with the camera, snapped a shot hurriedly and was then surprised to have them ask me if I would also take a photograph of them with their own camera. It turned out their little compact digital camera was dead, so instead I offered to email them a copy of my image. Email addresses were exchanged and a 5 minute conversation ensued.

My first street portrait

My first (rushed) street portrait

It had all been too easy – I walked away buzzing and looking for my next fix!

Emboldened by the experience, I got up with my camera and went for a walk and within moments found another subject. This time I prepared in advance, I estimated light, selected what I thought would be good exposure settings, analysed their position and the sun and decided what angle I wanted to shoot before I approached them. I openly walked towards them feeling apprehensive, camera in hand and visible but not pointed at them. “Sorry to disturb, but do you have any objection to me taking your photograph, just as you were before I disrupted you?” To my surprise I got an instant, “OK, sure, why not.”

So far this pattern has largely repeated itself. The few rejections (and there really have only been a handful) have all come from shyness. The selected target simply being uncomfortable with having their photo taken full stop. Most are actually incredibly flattered by the whole process. An experienced photographer singling them out is something most consider to be a compliment.

As I’ve found the whole experience to have been so rewarding and confidence boosting, I feel the need to share my thoughts and the lessons learned, so others can try it as well. Trust me, give it a go and your confidence in photography and even interaction with other people will see a marked improvement.