Portrait photography may be one of the most popular genres, but it can also be one of the most complicated. Thanks to the neverending trend of selfies and the commodity of smartphones, portraiture is now more popular than ever before. The process may actually seem quite simple: take a photo of someone, edit it, and upload it to your photography website. Easy, right? But in order to capture great portraits there needs to be a connection between photographer and subject, as well as between subject and photographer. Sounds complicated yet? Now imagine you need to build that connection with someone you met only a few minutes or seconds ago and might never see again.
To shine some light on the subject (both literally and figuratively) we talked to Tony Salvagio, a major talent of street portraiture. His skills landed him the opportunity to be the assistant photographer for a Hollywood photo shoot back in 2016 after he was selected as the winner of Wix and Vanity Fair’s contest. Here is the advice Tony gave on how to shoot street portraits:
Taking portraits of strangers on the street can be a beautiful rush of adrenaline and creative expression. The photos are usually less glamorous and more spontaneous and raw. You don’t get a lot of second chances to go back and ask, because in a snap the moment is gone. With that, you must be on constant alert for your connection to the outside world.
Have your camera settings (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) dialed in for whatever light you’re entering or exiting. This also means knowing the direction the sun is shining. By doing so, you’ll avoid having to fumble around for too long in front of your subject. The idea is to connect with your subject, not with your camera. Understand the limits of your camera, such as how many stops can you go over or under exposure, and try to travel light. Stick with one or two lenses you’re comfortable with. I usually like to use the 50mm and 35mm. However, sometimes I take a zoom lens if I’m uncertain what the day will look like.
Know what you’re looking for. Every portrait I’ve taken has had a certain connection to me. I’m attracted to people who are unashamedly themselves, who make me curious about their story. Maybe for you there’s a playfulness to them inside their tough exterior. Maybe they’re sitting in some beautiful light that illuminates something about their person. Or maybe there are unexplainable reasons why you want to take their portrait and you just need to do it because it feels right. Explore these thoughts, because your initial thoughts and gut instincts reflect the artistic voice inside of you – which is everything to street photographers.
Not everyone wants their portrait taken by a complete stranger. I’ve heard the word ‘NO’ a thousand times and every time it stings a little, but I move on. A good way to cure this fear of rejection is to plan a day knowing you’ll hear no’s but asking anyway. You’ll be surprised. When you finally hear that ‘yes’, be confident in your abilities because fear or worry of not capturing the perfect shot is like a stinky cologne. Your subjects will smell it and it will distract them from being free and open with you. If you’re confident, they will be too.
Knowing how to converse on the fly is tricky, but that’s one of the greatest gifts street photography offers you. You’ll have many opportunities to converse and open up to people you wouldn’t normally meet or have in your circles and learn a little bit about the humans that populate this world. You have to be open if you want them to be open with you. Introduce yourself, tell them what you do and why you chose them. Get the focus off the awkwardness of the situation. One thing I tell people in workshops is “a smile goes a long way.” If you’re taking candid photos, shoot first and converse with (or apologize to) them after. Be gracious, as you are taking something from them.
While you’re in the moment… breathe. Sometimes, with the adrenaline of the moment, your first reaction after taking one or two quick shots is to leave the person alone and not overstay your welcome. Don’t! Breathe. Put the camera back up to your eye, and focus on your viewfinder or rangefinder. Get the composition that frames the subject best. Look past your subject and make sure there’s nothing distracting behind them. Look for something that compliments what you’re trying to visually say (colors, shapes, angles, or interesting lighting). Don’t be afraid to get physically close to your subject if they are okay with it. Whatever you do, don’t leave until you feel you’ve got “it.”
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By Tony Salvagio
Professional photographer based in LA. See his work at www.tonysalvagio.com.