What is street portraiture ? To find an answer I turned to the almighty Google.
Surprisingly the term ‘street portraiture’ came up with pretty much nothing. There were a few results for ‘street portraits’ but nothing for ‘street portraiture’.
And the few results that showed up for street portraits did not tickle me in the slightest. Mostly boring ‘click-o-graphy’.
Well, well, well. I, therefore, claim this as my ‘territory’. And it is incumbent upon me to define what street portraiture is or could be.
But let me show you first what I consider to be street portraiture:
A possible definition of ‘street portraiture’
To come to a good definition, let’s take a look at the two terms ‘street’ and ‘portraiture’ separately first.
Some pundits consider that the word portrait implies one person and one person only to be the center of attention. And they have a point here. Because the very definition of portrait usually says that it is about one person.
However, consider the following: When I use terms such as: family portrait, group portrait, or portrait of couple you would not object to the usage of the word portrait, would you ? Even though several persons are involved.
Therefore, I take the liberty to (re-)appropriate and define the term portrait a bit wider. I’d say it still is a portrait even if there are two or more persons in the center of attention.
Maybe this stems from my over decade-long work as a wedding photographer whereby the majority of pictures I took were about couples.
So, now that we have the portrait part out of the way let’s turn out attention over to the second word in ‘street portraiture’ – namely ‘street’.
Street photography is certainly a well-defined domain of popular photography. And I feel I have nothing to add to define or re-define street photography.
Many well-known street photographers have made portraits of random people their main subject. Probably Bruce Gilden being the best-known street photographer whose body of work centers around people.
So I would define a portrait as a depiction of a person or of a group of persons.
If you want to know more about what street photography is you may want to explore a wide range of articles published by one of the leading authorities about Street Photography: Eric Kim.
My approach to street portraiture
Almost all street photographers use either a 35 mm lens or a 50 mm or an 85 mm lens to pursue their art. Few use standard zoom lensse with a range of 24/28 mm – 70/105 mm.
Using such lenses require the photographer to get pretty close to people. I’d say less than 2-3 meters. Of course, the photographer can be further away when taking the picture but then it would not be a portrait as there are to many other elements in the frame.
It is almost certain that the persons whose photo is being taken will notice the photographer. Therefore, it is a good idea to ask people if they are ‘OK’ being photographed.
And therein lay a few problems.
Asking for permission to take a photograph in advance will take out the spontaneity and the candid nature of the photograph. Asking for permission after the photo was taken is not really asking for permission, is it ?
Also, what do you do when you are in a foreign land and you do not speak the language of the local people ?
Or how about if you are a rather ‘shy’ person and do not feel comfortable interacting with random people. After all, it’s a jungle out there… or so they say.
Also, it can be time-consuming if your subject wants to engage in a conversation with you. You came to make photographs not to socialize. Socialising can distract the photographer from doing what he set out to do.
A different way to take portraits of people in the street without being noticed is: Try not to get noticed. And to some extent that works.
But again this will distract the photographer because he/she will need to put extra effort into not being noticed. Again, a distraction from the pursuit of making photographs.
So I take a completely different approach.
Street portraits with ultra-tele lenses
So what is my way ? I use ultra- super- tele lenses. Lenses with a focal length of at least 500 mm sometimes as long as 1200 mm.
Why does this work for me so well ?
For a couple of reasons:
Firstly, very few people will notice that they are being photographed. But more importantly, it makes my street portraits quite unique looking. And making unique pictures, rather than retaking photographs others have already taken is what Slow Photography is about.
Because I am so ‘stealthy’ I do not worry about being noticed. I can focus (pun intended) entirely on finding interesting subjects.
Some photographers who worked with very long tele-lenses will ask how can you be not noticed with a 500 mm ‘monster’ lens ?
The answer may surprise you. Firstly, I often use compact / pocket cameras with lenses with a very long zoom range. Such as my beloved Canon SHX 50. Which has a zoom range of 24 mm – 1200 mm.
Nobody notices a photographer with a small pocket camera. Try it out for yourself.
These days my favorite lens for street portraits is a TOKINA 500 mm / f8.0 mirror lens. Because it is a mirror lens its size is comparable to a modern 50 mm or 85 mm lens.
But it get’s better. If I want to get even closer I switch my SONY mirrorless camera from full-frame mode into APS-C mode and voila I have a focal length of almost 800 mm.
Am I a stealthy bastard? Perhaps, I am… But hey, whatever works… and nobody ever got hurt in the process of me photographing them.
You may object to my approach and that is fine. You do it your way – I do it my way.
And with that in mind, I leave you with a few more street portraits.