I love street photography. I love portraiture. You’d think that the best combination of those two genres would be my seventh heaven. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. You’d be wrong because I lack a very key skill needed to do street portraiture: I’m kind of a social wimp.
Sure, I can say hi to the local barista who is making my coffee. I can cha with people at work. I can go on photo shoots with people. I love doing that. But, wandering the street and asking people if I can take their picture? That’s terrifying. I have always been a fan of Humans of New York. It certainly helps that I love New York and that my family is from there, but what makes me a fan of his work is that he can approach complete strangers and start a conversation. (also, the organizational part of me wonders how he organizes his notes for each person with their photos, but this is not that kind of post.) How does he work up the nerve to talk to these people? Is he still scared to do this? What goes through his head?
Here are some thoughts to get you started.
Step 1: Photograph people who expect to be photographed
I was at the canal shoppes at The Venetian in Las Vegas and I happened across a singing group. The group had just finished up and was posing for pictures. This was a great place to start, because while they may be a group of strangers, they are asking to have their pictures taken.
This guy in the photo was on stilts. I could have easily taken his picture without his permission. He wouldn’t have cared. But I thought it would be nice to practice.
Step 2: Find performers
I had just left The Venetian and was proud of myself. I had taken a picture of a complete stranger. Sure, he was posing. Sure, he had basically begged be to photograph him, but I did it. I asked. I took the picture. It was great.
I walk out of the hotel and see a street performer. He wasn’t begging me to take his picture. At first, I wasn’t sure he even noticed me and I’m certain that he didn’t notice my camera. While I’m trying to work up the nerve I think to myself “He’s a performer. What’s the worst he can say?” While he was playing, I caught his attention and nodded to my camera. He nodded back in an affirmative.
Step 3: Just start asking people
I was vending at a street fair awhile ago in downtown San Jose and there was a person rolling cigars in front. I smoke cigars and I love to watch cigars being rolled, so I was mesmerized. As I was watching, I thought that it might make for some interesting pictures. I asked him (what did I have to lose) and not only did I get some great photographs, but he even posed at the end. Its one of the nicest portraits I’ve ever taken.
So, where does this leave us? The first thing I recommend is to start small. Start in controlled situations. Start where people are already there to have their picture taken and practice asking. Branch out from there and be a little more daring as you go. Find someone like a street performer who is not posing or asking for their picture to be taken, but who is most likely to say yes. Start small and expand from there.