Street Photography portraits: Ultimate guide

Are you looking to do street photography portraits? Portraits have been a staple of street photography for a long time. However it is not just about pointing your camera to someone and shooting. In this definitive guide you'll find out:

  • The 3 main kinds of portraits (and how to make them work)
  • The best camera settings
  • The one thing to watch out for that can ruin your photograph
  • What eye to focus on for that beauty shot
  • The simple way to make your subject pop after the fact
  • Where to put your subject for stunning light

In short, you will learn how to create compelling street portraiture. Let's dig right in.

What are street photography portraits?

Like the name implies, it is portraits made in the streets. So it is a mixture of classical portrait photography with the theater of the streets as a backdrop. Unlike classical studio portraiture, you don't control your environment to a large extent, so the kind of light and background that is right around the corner is often a surprise making the results both exciting an rewarding.

Do you ask for permission for portraits?

There are two kinds of street portraits: candid and posed. When you shoot someone in a unposed, candid manner, it usually falls under the banner of “street photography“. Like these two images:

Portraits of two men smoking in chinatown, New York
Candid style in New York

A tell tale sign of a candid is usually that there is no eye contact between the photographer and subject but that is not always 100% the case. This too is a candid photo:

portrait of a man in Penang, Malaysia
Candid style in Penang, Malaysia

Portrait street photography differs from “regular” street photography because it is usually understood that the person in the photo is posing, and they are posing because you asked if you could make a portrait of them. Just compare the image above with the one below:

street photography portrait in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Portrait, it's obviously posed

You can see there's some posing evolved, but more importantly there is eye contact and unlike the shot above there is no “surprise” in the eyes. The subject is aware of the photographer.

So, why ask for permission in the first place? For legal reasons (see below) and also for control. A hallmark of street portraiture is the total lack of control that you have compared to a studio setting, so asking for someone for their permission is one way you can have a certain degree of control, you can ask them to move a bit, or you can move around around them for the best shot.

If it is a candid shot, the way you arrive is the way you shoot, you can't change the background, the light, or change your angles. Like this image below:

street photography portrait of a man in Nicaragua
A split second and no control when it's candid portraiture

Eye contact, slight “surprise” look, and I had absolutely no control over it. The people in the back, if they had their heads up would ruin the shot because they would detract attention from my subject. Their body language as-is is perfect to complement the guy and his body language. I used these street photography presets.

There is a way to do portraits that keeps it candid and still have some control…it's with flash street photography. The flash takes care of dimming down the background, making it irrelevant and lights up the person's face. This makes it possible to shoot portraits without permission and still have control over your shot.

I am not a lawyer and this is not legal counsel. From research, for the USA, street photography is legal as long as it is made in a public space. But what about portraiture and without persmission? It is one thing to shoot a street scene and there's a small face in the image among st 5 others, but what if there's only one person and they are the focus of the image? And what if that image without consent?

This is where Nussenweig vs Dicorcia comes in. A photographer shot a jewish man walking down the streets in a moody light. In a very real sense, Nussenweig “made” the photo, there was no one other than himself in it. Once he found out he then sued the photographer… and lost.

The outcome? “Nussenzweig v. diCorcia is a decision by the New York Supreme Court in New York County, holding that a photographer could display, publish, and sell street photography without the consent of the subjects of those photographs.”

Other countries are different. I remember talking to a french photographer that shot candidly and had to go and ask the person if he/she was ok with the shot afterwards.

When I used to live in Korea (I live a nomadic with my wife and 2 kids) I wan't much of a street photographer there because of the “right to face” which was the opposite of the USA law, the person had the rights to their face and you could get sued for having them in your images. Same law applies to Japan as well.

Moreover you'll also want to be extra careful with Japan/Korea. Why? Because there is a serious plague of “photographers” who's passtime is shooting women's upskirts, so you'll have to be careful and not shoot portraits suspiciously or your actions will be seen in a negative light.

So make your research and figure out your country's rules. You might just be doing something illegal without knowing it.

The problematic future

Up until recent times, photos weren't linked. If someone was in the states, and showed you a candid portrait of someone in Japan, there was no way to track that person down. That is no longer the case. With everything connected, all you need to do is drop the image into a search engine (Yandex and others have that feature, Google chooses not to turn that feature on) and that will show you the person's other images, facebook and more. With just a portrait, you can track down anyone.

It's like that “people” feature in Lightroom, you can find anyone in your catalog by their face, now imagine if that could go online and search everythign about that person and you see the privacy issue.

This will be something problematic for the future. With random people taking pictures of you this means that anyone can find you from your face, and that potentially allow them to find other details about you like where you have been (from other pictures). What will happen? Who knows, but I am pretty confident that if rules are not put in place to stop facial search, lots of barriers will be put on street photography.

What makes great street portraits?

A great portrait is made up of great composition, great technical execution and emotional appeal. In other words what makes a great street photograph also makes a great portrait: the eye-heart-mind. Plus the portrait has the extra dimension of revelation: You want to be revealing about that person through the image.

street photography portrait in Hong Kong
Shot in Hong Kong

If you look at the image above there's a whole lot of information disclosed about that woman even if neither you or I know her. There's the chairman Mao portrait in the back, there's the Buddha statue near her arms, her work environment isn't particularly neat, etc.

So it's not just asking someone if you can make a portrait of them, it's foremost making a great photograph that also discloses information about someone (and potentially the photographer too).

The 3 basic portrait types

portrait types
Bust, close-up (crop), extreme close-up

There are multiple types of street portraits, for the sake of simplicity, I categorize them as 3:

The Close-up

This is most likely what people have in mind when they hear “street portraiture”. For this type of shot you will need at least a 50mm lens and get in close. In this type of shot the whole photograph is about…the person's face. Pretty eyes are a given, but the most important part is for the person to have a charismatic face because it's the main factor that will hold the photograph.

What makes this shot simple is the fact that, since the person's faces covers most of the picture it is extremely easy to do, there is very little background to detract from the portrait itself.

The Environmental portrait

For this type of shot it's not so much about the person's face, it's more about the person in relationship to their surroundings. This is essentially two portraits in one: The portrait of the person and the portrait of the location. For this type of shot you will want to be aware of what information you include or exclude in your background because not only can the background destroy your eye travel, it can also reveal or hide things about your subject.

environmental portrait of a Haenyo in Jeju
Environmental portrait

Everything in between

One one end you have the closeup portrait and at the other end you have environmental portraits.In the middle there's a whole range of portraits you can make and they gradually get closer and further from your subject. They all have a name like bust shot (portrait up to the bust), etc but for the sake of simplicity, a portrait is either a closeup, an environmental portrait, or an in-between.

The main thing to remember is the more you move away from the face, the more attentive you have to be about your backgrounds and what they reveal or conceal about your subject

What camera and lens do you need for street portraiture?

What gear you need really depends on what you want to do and your style of portraits. For example if you want to do flash portraiture, you will need a flash. Do you want to have really close portraits with blurry backgrounds or more environmental portraits?

color street photography portrait in Jeju, Korea
Color street portrait in Korea

Without getting too technical, depending on what kind of portraits you want to do, you will need specific gear and lenses:

Gear Bokeh portraits (blurry backgrounds) Environmental portraits
Cameramu43 minimumSmall sensor is fine
LensEqual or above 50mm (Telephoto)Below 35mm (Wide angle)
Aperturef/1.8 and aboveIrrelevant

One important factor too when choosing your gear is how close can you get? This portrait of my son  was surprisingly done with a 28mm, but the camera could go in REALLY close. This is important to know if you want to “fill the frame” with the person's face.

I personally don't care much about a random stranger's portrait with the background blurred so I use a small sensor camera with a 28mm. It's about what you want to do!

Portraiture Settings

Just like for street photography settings, there are no one settings that will always 100% give you great results. Everything depends on the situation. But if you are a beginner, you just want the settings to start, right? I remember when I sold my camera, all the guy wanted to know was how to make those cool pictures with the blurry background. I was happy to oblige. So here are the settings you want to start street photography portraiture with if you are a beginner:

Setting Bokehlicious portraits (blurry backgrounds) Environmental portraits
Program modeAperture priorityAperture priority
Aperturef/1.8 and upf/5.6 and smaller
LensAs far as it can zoom in (telephoto)28mm or wider
ISO100 or lowest100 or lowest

If you are not a beginner, well, you probably have this down already. So let's get into…

Steet Photograpy portrait tips

Ok, now that we have a good idea of what we are looking for, it's time to hit the street and make some portraits! Here are tips to get you started right away…

Master your mindset

street phtoography portrait of a tattoes man

If you asking people for their portraits, nothing will get you a “no” faster than your lack of confidence. If you've ever seen the documentary about the Fyre festival, the guy who is responsible for the debacle got millions from investors just because he oozed confidence.

This speaks volumes about the effect of confidence has on others. Now, the Fyre festival guy was a crook, but you still need to build up confidence. It has to do with social dynamics: the more confident you appear, the more you will get your way.

If you are fearful, focus your fear on forever losing the image that you could be making rather than the person saying no. People are sometimes more motivated by the fear of loss rather than the pleasure of gain. Would you really want to let that amazing portrait pass you by and lose it forever? That fear of loss is very powerful and might be just what you need to get over that fear.

Moreover, coming up with a script is extremely useful in this case because it removes the worry of wondering how to ask for the portrait. You can get the one I use here. Asking yourself “What do I say?” can be stressful and break your stance as a photographer, so come up with a set script and master your mindset.

Scout the location while asking

That's the other great reason for having a script, you don't want to think about how you will ask for the portrait because while asking you want to look at the person and study their facial features, ask yourself what eye to focus on first, what the background will look like if you moved a bit, the light,etc.

It gives you a few seconds to check out the person and their location in order to come up with a shot. The most request you will probably get from any random person (assuming a super quick interaction) is probably 3. You can get about 3 different shots before you become a bother. So prepare the shot while asking for the portrait.

Get a sense of light

two photos showing soft light vs hard light on a street portraits of a woman
soft light vs hard light in portraiture

Nothing will break your portraits more than not having great light. So it is crucial to pay attention to it and it's qualities, it's directions. If your subject isn't in great light, be ready to ask if they want to move a bit. The biggest difference you want to be able to recognize on the spot is soft vs hard light.

Direct sunlight will light your subject harshly and will make for some pretty dramatic shadows.If you have an overcast sky, the opposite is true, your subject will be lit evenly in a beautiful light that fashion photographers pay thousands for. It's all about what is available while you are out and about, and if you can move your subject to be lit differently.

In the image above, my first shot was the one on the right, but I didn't like the light, so I went in an area with the shade and shot the image on the left. Plus I wanted her off of the street because of the following tip:

Pay attention to the background

The effect of the background on your subject

In my street photography article, I said to pay attention to your backgrounds, this is even more crucial as you get into envirnmental portraits. When you shoot just the face, there is little background matter to distract your eyes from your subject,but as you go wider and wider there are many things that can detract from it, so pay attention to how your background will affect your portraits. The shot above shows how I used the background to put focus on my subject.

Make your subject high key

high key street portrait

Sometimes you can't make the background your friend. In this case what you can do is keep your subject in the shade and shoot the background with +1 or +2 stops overexposed. This will make your image high key and remove the background in a sea of light. For this portrait the background was extremely busy with people coming in and out of the frame.

I couldn't blur the background either because my lens was at it's limits, so I simply heavily overexposed the image in order to have the background irrelevant.

Make sure the dominant eye is closest to the camera

For the following tip, I would have never picked it up as a street photographer, I only know it because I'm a professional shooter. This is a very subtle portrait trick that can make or break your image: The dominant eye.

Look at anyone you know and look at their eyes. There is always one that is bigger than the other. Well, not that they ARE bigger but the opening of one is bigger than the other because of the eyelids. That eye is the dominant eye and the other is the lazy eye. When shooting your portraits make sure the dominant eye is closest to the camera. Look at this portrait:

Portrait of a woman in Hanoi

This is actually exactly what not to do! Look at her right eyelid top vs the left one. Her lazy eye is closest to the camera and while it's a good portrait it's not ideal.

Why did I shoot it like this, then? Because I was sitting in a tiny boat and if I moved to the other side while everyone was inside, it would probably capsize! I rather have the lazy eye in front than be wet, put my kids in danger and probably lose my camera!

Use the inverse square law

The inverse square law is a necessity if you want to do flash street photography. But if you just want to do street portraits, all you need to know is this: Light falls really quickly.

So if you can find an environment like under a bridge that is in the shadows and place your subject right in front of it, the subject's face will be illuminated and since shadows fall quickly, the background will be dark, making your subject naturally “pop”.

Can't use the inverse square law? Not all is lost, there is another way to do this…

Make your subject pop after the fact

There is an easy way to make your portraits pop in Lightroom if you just couldn't use the inverse square law. Simply go and open your portrait and edit it to taste. Afterwards simply darken your background and lighten your subject. This will immediately create contrast and make your subject pop.

In the photographs above, the one on the right pops less while the one on the left pops more. The background on the left has been darkened.

Pay attention to Body language

Yes that tree stump bothers the living snot out of me, but oh well

This is mainly for envirmental portraits. When you go for these, you will have to pay attention to the light on your subject, make sure that the background isn't distracting too much from the subject and also what information you are conveying to your viewer. A lot of this is done with the background (if you are in a boat for example, you are making the viewer assume the saubject is a fisherman) but one other way to convey information is in the body language. In the portrait above:

  • The guy putting his arm on his hip indicates pride
  • And the other arm on the woman indicates a sense of “this is mine”
  • She is accepting of that embrace, that tells you how much she likes the guy
  • Look at her grip on the guy's arm, it's BOTH hands and very tender. Heck, she LOVES the guy
  • Her belly is big, so she's pregnant. Huge information about them and their relationship
  • Their clothes and accessories reveal that they are more on the hippie side
  • The woman's gaze is slightly elevated. That indicates a sense of pride

There is body language in close-up portraits too, but these are limited to the angle of the head, the eye shape and the mouth area. It's a big more complicated for environmental portraits.

Use the juggler's secret

cinematic portrait
Street portrait cinematic style

In this article I talk about the juggler's secret. Basically you want to be inspired from eclectic sources. For portraits a given is of course the renaissance period (See this course's bonus “Renaissance secrets”). But you don't need to stop there either, how about movies?

Pay attention to how the directors frame their characters talking and you will have a lot of ideas for your portraits. Read the cinematic street photography guide for more.

For this image (same guy from the couple above) I wasn't even inspired from the movie Passion of the Christ but by the poster itself:

As the guy was doing something, his headband thing reminded me of the crown of thorns and the angle of his face reminded me of Jesus on the poster. I shot the portrait with that in mind.

The other portrait below is from a wedding job, but it illustrates why you want to be open to all sorts of inspiration. When I was a kid (before my house was completely destroyed by the Haitian earthquake of 2010) I remembered my grandfather had a silhouette cutout portrait made of him.

It's like a white piece of cardboard where someone cuts the shadow shape of someone. This random memory spurned right back while I was shooting a wedding, and I made this:

Boom a portrait a decade in the making. Use the juggler's secret and have eclectic input.

Make the most of everything (Especially the sun)

Bringing it all together

Once you are familiar with the different portrait types, and the difference between hard and soft light, you can then start to mix and matching getting closer or further, and vary the lighting. And remember to make the sun your friend, the 4 shots above are only a meter apart but you can see how playing around with the sun and shadows can have an effect on the portraits.

For the two right shots the guy was in the shades, I simply varied how close I was. For the shots on the right, I played around with the sun being in his back and hitting him on the side. All of the black and white portraits above shots have a different feel to them, but they are merely minutes apart and very close in terms of location.

If the sun is up and you can spot an area in the shadows, there's a lot of opportunities for the street photographer.

Conclusion

Nothing is more thrilling than making a killer portrait in the streets. There is no redo, and to some extent you can't control what environment or light you will get, making the whole experience incredibly rewarding. These portrait street photography tips will help you make the most out of any situation.

Also, since you are reading this you are into street photography, right? Then make sure to check out this street photography course. It's designed to be the only course you will ever need, for portraits and otherwise. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.

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