Reinventing the Street Portrait with Kale Friesen in Chinatown Vancouver

Fujifilm X70 with EF-X20 flash. 1/4000th sec f/5.6 @ ISO 800 with fill flash

The most common question I get about street photography is how to get a good street portrait. First of all, what is a street portrait? For some, it’s approaching a complete stranger and asking them to pose for a picture on the spot. For others, it’s taking a portrait-like candid image of a stranger without permission. Still for others, a street portrait is a simply a portrait taken of someone outside on the street. I’m not dogmatic and can appreciate each approach, but sometimes I get bored. I get bored of taking portraits of strangers. I get bored of taking portraits of friends. Is there a way to merge the two? Can I take a street portrait that’s both predictable and random? With the help of local fashion photographer Kale Friesen, I decided to give it a try.

To be honest, I’ve been working on this layered style street portrait for years. I’m often with family or friends while reviewing a camera or lens, and I want to incorporate them into an image. A standard portrait is fine, but I get bored very quickly after the same old same old. Yes, I do want a certain level of control in my images, but I also want to incorporate spontaneity and randomness. Most street portraits focus on the subject only, often blurring out the background or adding slight hints of surrounding people who are not part of the main subject(s). For me, not only do I want to see the subject in relation to their environment, but I also want to see other people in the image, not just blurry blobs in the background. The solution? Merge the standard portrait with street photography and the candid portrait. Here’s how to do it in 5 easy steps:

Fujifilm X70 with EF-X20 flash. 1/4000th sec f/5.6 @ ISO 800 with fill flash

First, find a willing model for the portrait session. Think about what type of portrait you want to take and then make sure to match your subject to that style. Or if you have the subject first, think of how to match them to a style you think you can create. Be authentic to your style and to your subject.
Next, connect your subject with the environment. Will it be complementary or contrasting? Think about the relationship between the subject and the background, and then proceed to structure the image to exploit this relationship.
Now position the subject and the background in a way that the flow of pedestrian traffic can be captured in an interesting way. Will the flow of people be across the frame, towards, or even moving away? How close will the candid subjects be from your main subject? Will they be in focus or slightly blurry? Will you need to use fill-flash, or is there enough ambient light? While thinking of the technical aspects of the image, make sure your main subject is engaged. Keep talking with them and make sure they are as natural as possible, which also puts the surrounding people at ease. It won’t feel like they are interrupting a ‘real’ portrait session.
Start shooting. Kindly direct your subject, but making sure you keep the conversation going. Your model should feel at ease and relaxed. If people stop moving because they think they’re interrupting, tell them to keep moving because you’re still adjusting your settings. It’s best to shoot with your head up (not looking through the EVF) so you can see who’s entering into the frame, especially if you are shooting with a non-wide angle lens. Even then, it’s good to see people before they enter into the frame. 
Keep shooting. With high pedestrian traffic, you never know what you’re going to get. The combination between your main model and your candid pedestrian is constantly changing and the moment is spontaneous so don’t stop shooting until you feel either your subject is getting bored or tired, or when you’ve worn your location out (people stop entering into your frame).

Fujifilm X70 with EF-X20 flash. 1/4000th sec f/5.6 @ ISO 800 with fill flash

That’s pretty much it. Give it a try. It’s enjoyable working with someone you know, someone who’s willing to pose for you for an extended period of time, unlike most impromptu portraits with a complete stranger who may give you 30 seconds. It’s also great getting random strangers into your photos without having to shoot from the hip or from hiding in some dark corner. Yes, the candid portion of my image was reasonably easy since my ‘subjects’ walked into my frame; I didn’t have to go chasing after them. Kale and I had a great conversation while I was taking his picture, as if it wasn’t even a portrait session. We had a good laugh as some people tried their best to avoid walking into our frame. This entire session was only about 2 minutes and I was able to get 4-5 decent images.

For this mini project I used the new Fujifilm X70 and the EF-X20 flash, although you can pretty much use any camera. I prefer small and compact to attract the least amount of attention.  I also recommend a wide angle lens as you can have many elements as points of interest (main subject, background, candid pedestrians). This also allows you to be close to your subject to keep the session more casual and the conversation natural. So the next time you’re out with a friend and want to take more than a standard portrait, give this a try and let me know how it works out. Thanks for visiting and happy shooting.


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