Street Portraits on a Nothing-Happening Street Photo Day

What is is about street portraits? They can be a great way to create photos in public when we’re not finding street documentary moments that are catching our eye. Especially if you see some interesting characters and faces. I define a portrait as one where the subject is aware of the camera and is connecting with the photographer, with or without eye contact in the photograph.

A gentleman who complied with my request to pose for my camera while walking through Denver. I’m not a big fan of telling people to smile, feeling it’s like having them put on a mask, so I tell them to just be themselves.

Posing is key–for me, a street portrait is not a candid photograph.

It may seem a challenge when we are out and about, but I truly believe people feel special for being asked to be photographed. They know we could have approached someone else–they made the cut and were chosen. There’s a special-ness they feel, which is why it’s not easy to get a “no” when you set out to ask people in the street to make their portrait.

I’ve often said to students, “Go out and shoot street portraits and stop when you’ve gotten ten ‘no’ responses. You’ll be out all day, because you can’t get ten people to say ‘no’”

I usually start with a line, “I like your look. Can I make your portrait?” That line right there is complimentary and with it, I can approach men or women and I don’t sound like I’m trying to flirt with anyone. I’m an artist looking to make art.

When I have a Rolleiflex in my hand, it’s even easier. The camera is unique enough that people will approach me for portraits. That’s possible with many older cameras–Leicas, Rolleiflexes, Speed Graphics, etc. If it’s unusual and looks unique, it will get you a “yes”.

With a Rolleiflex and Patti Smith’s book for the after-shoot beer, every street photography day is guaranteed to be good.
This portrait was made after a screening of Finding Vivian Maier, which showed at the Boulder Theater at the Boulder International Film Festival on February 16, 2014. Knowing Maier used a Rolleiflex, I brought mine to the screening and made this afterwards out on the Pearl Street Mall.
I thought this gentleman walking through a flea market was wearing a shoulder lasso. I asked him for a photo, then realized it was electrical cords. He said no then gave a second look to my Rolleiflex and said ok.
This trio was kicking around a soccer ball by the lake in my town. I saw a portrait in them, was holding the Rolleiflex, and just had to ask. They chose the pose and the grins.

I also find that the camera I am holding will dictate what I will shoot. If I have the Rolleiflex, I will make portraits. If I have the Leica or Nikon DSLR, I will shoot street photographs. The camera really is the deciding factor into what photos we make. I don’t make candid photos with a 4×5 camera. I do all day long with a DSLR.

Choose your camera wisely. And know you can always create portraits when the streets aren’t delivering the storytelling photos you’re looking for.

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Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

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