Faces: Making the Street Portrait

You really do have to be a little bit of an actor to be a good street portraitist. I was walking through the Mile High Flea Market in Denver this week and I brought a simple Nikon N80 with a 50mm f1.4. I set it for ISO 200 which is a stop overexposed for Ilford HP5+, a 400 speed film, and went to it. Found people in a variety of ways. For most I used the line, “Hi, I’m trying film in this old film camera, can I take your photo?” To which every single person said yes.

I did try it while getting gas before I drove to the market, and asked the older gent pumping gas next to me to take his photo. He said no, one of the rare times someone says no, but it was an odd place to have someone ask, for sure. He joked he’d break the camera, and I assured him he would not, but that was the only ‘no’ of the day.

Here’s one of a guy with two faces to photograph. I made this out the car window before entering the market.

Among the yes responses at the market, I met one guy with a very nice-looking cowboy hat that I complimented him on. I knew I wanted to approach him, but thought first I should go into his booth area and look over his items for sale. Out of courtesy. I didn’t see anything of interest, so asked if he had anything photographic, and he said no. Then I mentioned his hat and I had the lead in to my, “I’m trying out this old camera, can I take your photo?”

You can’t say, “Can I make your portrait?” That’s too high brow, and then they’re going to be wary–uh-oh, it’s not a simple snapshot, sounds like an ordeal.

Another woman who said yes was standing in her booth, wearing the largest and longest fake eyelashes I’ve ever seen. I walked past her then circled back, because she was standing next to a white van which the sun was hitting, which I knew if I approached her from the van side, it would make for a great amount of bounce light. The far side I was on first, the light would have been tough, so around I went. She said sure, and I made the photo.

Another guy I walked into his sales booth, didn’t see anything, asked him the ‘anything photographic’ line, and then asked if I could take his photo with my old film camera. He was counting his money so I said hold it up. He did. Fun shot. He had a laugh with me.

There was another guy, a bit of a tough guy, walking to his car when I got to mine, with his little dog. He looked a bit of a character with his outfit and tattoos and his tiny dog. I asked him if I could take a photo of him and his dog, and he said ok. I said pick up the dog and hold their faces together. He added the sledgehammer he had bought at the flea–totally his idea.

Most people in the world never get asked by a stranger if they can take their photo, make a portrait of them. So, when we ask, it’s flattering. You have to be quick. You can’t take too much of their time once you get the yes. You have to know what you want and make it.

But the world is there for us to approach, full of people to meet.

The camera gives us license to say hello. To ask for a photograph. To connect. It’s a wonderful tool for meeting people, it really is.

Try it. Go out to any town or city and approach people and quit after you get 10 people to say no. You’ll be out there all day, you can’t get ten people to say no.

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