Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Street Portraits - Part I

Photographing People Where And As They Are

We've all had portraits taken by a photographer - yearbook photos, family photos and engagement announcements, as well as official portraits for our businesses and social organizations. These photos are typically taken indoors, either in a studio or in a place where the photographer can control lighting conditions and have access to equipment that's not necessarily portable.

But portraits can be taken anywhere - in people's offices, in their homes, even out in the open. With an understanding of natural light, a decent camera, and a willingness to establish rapport with our subjects, we can capture impromptu portraits in public places.

a photo of Jazz Guitarist Robert Conton in New York
Jazz Guitarist Robert Conton in New York

I photographed jazz guitarist Robert Conton outside of a music store in New York City. Robert had just purchased this beautiful guitar and was playing gorgeous jazz chord progressions as I walked by. - Yes, it really is a good idea to keep your camera with you at all times.  

a photo of a jazz guitarists playing on the street in new york

I asked Robert if I could snap a couple of photos as he played, and he agreed graciously. [I wish that I had thought to capture a bit of video.]  I lowered the lens to the level of his hands and strings to avoid capturing my own reflection in the store window. The low angle gave the images an intimate look. It's as though Robert is playing his music for the viewer.

There are advantages to environmental portraiture that cannot be replicated in a studio setting. We can capture our subjects immediately, as they might not be available at a later time. Secondly, and we can use anything in public view to add context to the image.

I spotted this uniquely dressed young tourist and asked whether she would consider posing for a photo near the Tiffany's sign. I felt that the juxtaposition would accentuate the young lady's sense of fashion and style.  

a photo of a stylish young woman posing in front of tiffany's new york store
Fashion At Tiffany's

Concerned guardians dashed over to the rescue. The girl explained the situation to them in French. I asked again, this time in French, whether the young lady could pose for a photo by the sign. 

The young woman seemed puzzled and asked why I wanted to take her picture. I said that I liked her outfit and her hat. She smiled and agreed to pose. I made two quick exposures and sent the lady and her family off on their sightseeing adventures.

I spotted these workmen as they were taking an afternoon break. They appeared to be union men, electricians possibly, not the kind of guys who are asked to have their picture taken very often. 

I crossed the street, approached them and asked if they'd mind if I took a photo. To my surprise, they were relaxed and receptive to the idea. I asked them not to pose, but to stand as they had been standing before I approached them.

a photo of workmen on break in new york city
Workmen On Break - New York City

I waited for traffic to clear and dashed back across the street. I grabbed a quit shot and gave the guys a thumbs up. I crossed back over and showed them the image. They seemed to be impress and they asked for a URL where they could download the image.

I appreciate the image of the workmen. It captures a genuine blue collar essence, a portrait of men who work hard jobs with pride and a dedication to taking care of their families. You feel as though you could hang out with these fellows and have a fun conversation about the sports, politics, or life in general.

I doubt that I could have captured such a relaxed shot if I hadn't asked for permission in advance. I might have met with some resistance, or at least reluctance. As it turned out, everyone came away from the experience satisfied. Thanks again, guys!

The image that follows is one of my very favorite photographs. This shot was taken at one o'clock in the afternoon in harsh, brutal sunlight. Normally, this would be horrible lighting for portraiture. But notice the amazing glow on the woman's face. When I saw that light, I literally froze in my tracks. I knew that I had to get the shot.

a photo of an attractive young woman reading a book in the sunshine in new york
The Reader

Let's talk about the gorgeous light on young woman's face and upper torso. It's warm and soft, perfect for flattering a beautiful woman's features. The light source could not have been more simple. The pages of the book reflected sunlight upward and filled in areas that would have been dominated by shadow. This reflected light contributed so much to the look of the photograph, and it was free and freely available.

The young lady was suspicious when I approached her. I explained to her that I liked the way that the light was hitting her face. She seemed somewhat annoyed but she let me proceed. I grabbed a couple of shots, thanked her, and left promptly. I'm thankful that she agreed to be photographed, albeit reluctantly, because the result is absolutely magical.

Portraits can be taken anywhere. It's wise to avoid people who look tense, aggravated, or seem to be in a hurry, but in my experience, just about anyone else will be flattered to pose for a photo. I hope that if I see you on the street sometime, you'll let me take your picture. And you can take mine. We'll both walk away with some fun images and an experience to remember.

Light happens.  Be ready.  Shoot hard.

Copyright © 2012 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved


  1. When I first saw the photographs on the website, without commentary, I loved them for their vibrancy,and the sense of spontaneity in them, but seeing them again and reading about how you captured them is like returning to a favorite book and getting even more out or it than the first time.
    I think my favorite is The Reader. It reminds me of a Vermeer painting and of Edward Weston’s photograph of a lady by a window (I don’t know the title of that one) all at the same time. It IS… magical.
    It takes more that equipment to take stunning photos like these. It takes a sensitive eye, intelligence and intuition; all evident in your work.

    1. Thank you very much. I've never been compared to Weston before, so thanks for making me blush! All kidding aside, I appreciate the observation. There's a quality of light in 'The Reader' that is similar to some of Weston's work, but I hadn't noticed this until you mentioned it.

      Vermeer had an incredibly developed understanding of light, perhaps more so than any painter before him. Over the years I've learned a bit about what types of light work in various situations, and from time to time I'm able to match the light effectively with the subject. Luckily for me, it's a lot easier to capture light with a camera than with a paintbrush.