Street-Shooting Portraits

I don’t have a studio. There are some available to me, but they are not conveniently located and the additional transportation and rental costs involved make using them an ‘by-specific-need-only’ proposition and not part of what I can normally offer. I am working on it though, thanks to great deals at Phottix and a spare space at home set stuff up in. Until then, the city is my studio.

So why not apply some of my favorite genre, street photography, to how I plan, compose, and photograph portraits?

Obviously, portraiture is to one degree or another staged. This means that you’ve already lost the primary element that defines street photography as a genre: it’s candid nature. Let’s focus on what elements that are common in the street genre can be used effectively in portraiture to give the images a street aesthetic.

Inclusion of the Environment

Generally in portraiture you do your best to isolate your subject from their surroundings, either by using a wide aperture or by eliminating the environment entirely using a backdrop or wall. In street photography the environment is crucial to the image and the actual subject isn’t an individual(s) alone, but the interaction between that individual(s) and the environment. Obviously it is portraiture, so you want to make the person you are photographing stand out and not get ‘lost’ in their surroundings. This can be accomplished simply by ensuring that they take a prominent position within the composition.

You can also accomplish this in more creative ways, such as mixing motion.

Minimal Direction

Yes, it’s portraiture so yes, it has to be staged at some level. Even so, you can still give your images a candid feel and maintain a level of spontaneity by giving your subject very simple direction. For example, position yourself at the bottom of an escalator and tell your subject “Go down the escalator. Don’t look at me.” There may be some initial awkwardness, but after a couple of attempts the “There’s a camera on me so I should act like there’s no camera on me” self-conciousness should give way and allow some more natural-looking images.

If you keep things faced-paced enough you can even get eye-contact images and maintain a somewhat casual, natural feel.

Keep an Eye Out for “Props”

No, I don’t mean find a graffiti-filled wall and pose your model against it trying to look “urban”. See the “Inclusion of the Environment” heading above. What I mean is, since portraiture gives you the opportunity to rearrange things and pose your subject as you see fit if you spot an object and are inspired to do something creative with it then do it, especially if it can be juxtaposed in some way with something your subject can do.

Selective Photo-chopping

Again, this is something that you would never do in straight street photography. If you have a paying client and can do something cool with what might ordinarily be an average or even a toss-away image, then do so. Experimentation is both fun and a learning experience and you won’t know what you might end up with unless you try.


Like with straight street photography, keep it light and mobile. Keeping a fast pace and using a minimum of gear not only works toward giving your images the street ‘feel’ but helps you avoid any authorities who may want to prevent you from shooting in certain locations for ‘security’ reasons or demanding to see a permit. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use remote lighting setups, though. Just think ‘portable’. I use a mini tripod (a Slik Mini-Pro III), a Phottix Strato II remote, and an old Nikon SB-28 with a large 9″ foldable diffuser) when I feel the need to move lighting away from my camera.

If you can think of any further ways to incorporate the street athstetic into portraiture, please leave them in the comments below so that they can be discussed. Thanks to Sina Behzadi for dealing with me & my camera and allowing me to use these images for the purposes of this article.

About Brian

Brian Q. Webb is a photography enthusiast from Los Angeles, California who spends most of his time in Taipei, Taiwan. He is especially interested in street photography as well as large format portraiture and pinhole photography. He also likes to shoot lifestyle portraiture and occasionally acts as an agent for foreign newspapers wanting event coverage in Taipei. He was also on the staff of deviantArt and is co-founder of PhotoMalaysia, the largest photography community in that country.