Street Portraiture – Composition, Technique and Message

Composition and technique should reflect what you’re trying to communicate; it shouldn’t be the other way around but it’s taken me a little while, and a lot of trial and error, to both realise this and learn to prioritise what I’m trying to communicate first and then use composition and technique to achieve this.

I suspect that this is a common experience for those relatively new to using photography as a communicative or expressive medium (as I am). Photography does after all require a certain degree of technical capability even if modern cameras will largely do much of the thinking for you.

Composition

As I’ve previously stated I’m primarily interested in people, specifically the nature of people and their (our) humanity (see the post ‘What Kind of Photographer Am I?’ on the About Me page). I think you can do that with any kind of portrait (indeed you should be doing that), ranging from a pure environmental portrait all the way through to a studio made tight facial composition.

But for me personally, a lot of the interest I see in my subjects comes from their posture, gait and stance as it does anything else. Indeed, it is often this that I notice first when selecting subjects to try and shoot. There is so much personality on display in the way we move, the way we hold ourselves and in particular what we do with are hands, especially when simply standing or sitting for a photograph.

'Georgie' 50mm at f/2.8

'Georgie'

50mm at f/2.8

So my strong preference is to compose with more of the person in the frame than less and in particular to try and compose the image so that the subject’s hands are visible.

This is a balancing act though because I still want the image to clearly show the subjects facial expression and in particular their eyes (which as we all know are the windows to our soul). Our face is the thing that people most readily connect with and for many, the part of our body that we are most (self) conscious about. It is the part of the body that we use to look and the part of the body that is seen most readily and so it’s connection with scopophilia is deeply embedded in our psyche and this fascinates me. To look and be looked upon, to see the person in front of you, is an act of deep humanity since in doing so, you acknowledge the person. It can also denude our humanity if done in an unequal way, for example if done in a voyeuristic manner or in a situation where there is a significant imbalance in power.

Most of my portraits then, both street and formal, will be composed as three quarters length shots so that I can best balance showing the person’s posture and what they are doing with their arms and hands, with clearly illustrating their facial expression and their eyes. It is interesting that even if you cannot see the person’s legs, if you can see their arms and hands, you have enough information to know what their legs are doing, so for this reason, I balance the composition as three quarters.

That in turn requires the photograph is made in portrait rather than landscape; if you shoot a three quarters portrait in landscape, you end up with a lot of situational space around the person. This will work if what you want to show is the person in their environment or for example if they are sitting rather than stood, where the person’s form is taking up much less vertical space. But if they are stood then this changes the dynamic of the picture; it makes it less about the person and more about the person’s environment. This is a fine subject to explore but it’s a different subject.

Focal Length

'Milly' 85mm at f/1.8

'Milly'

85mm at f/1.8

While 85mm is more classically associated with portraiture, my preference so far is to use a 50mm lens for street portraits and reserve the 85mm for studio work. I have limited experience of doing studio shoots (and when I say ‘studio’ I mean inside with an off camera lighting set up), the images I’ve managed to make with my 85mm lens are very pleasing. The problem with using this length for street portraits is that it puts you too far away from the subject, especially if what you want is a full length or three quarters composition. That distance makes it hard to communicate especially if it’s noisy, which being outside it will be, certainly relative to a studio. And since my technique involves building initial rapport to gain consent and the continuing to build that rapport in order to elicit a more interesting response from the subject, the 50mm allows me to keep close enough to make this possible without needing to be so close that the perspectives start to break down and make the subject’s face look ugly.  

Aperture

Both my 50mm and 85mm lenses open all the way up to f/1.4, which can give fabulous isolation from the background, but the problem is that at the distance you’re shooting, even on a 50mm lens, at f/1.4 the depth of field is so narrow that the subject is only partially in focus. And if what you want to do is capture the person, then having half of them out of focus seems a bit pointless. It might look ‘dreamy’ but again that’s a different photograph. Apart from anything else, it’s too easy for the camera to miss the focus point if you’re using autofocus and very hard to focus precisely at f/1.4 if doing so manually.

On a 50mm lens I tend to stop down to f/2 or f/2.8 depending on the background or even stop down to f/5.6, if I’m under time pressure and think that the shot is too important to miss (and assuming I’ve got enough light).

Background

This goes hand in hand with aperture and composition but I’ve noticed that it makes a big difference to the overall result and it does also determine some of the other variables.

'Elaine' Waterloo Station, London

'Elaine'

Waterloo Station, London

Street portraits done with lots of activity in the background look messy and uncomfortable even when you’ve shot at a very large aperture and tried to isolate the subject from that activity. And when you’re using that approach, the risk is that the shot becomes more about the ‘dreamy bokeh’ than it does the subject, which I don’t think works well in portraiture.

My preference then is to find a complimentary or interesting background against which to frame the subject and to use enough depth of field to integrate the background without it overtaking the composition. This is hard to do because you’re then looking to combine two variables in the street; finding an interesting subject and finding an interesting background. What I’m finding is that I’m developing preferred locations, places where I know there are good backgrounds to use and where there will be plenty of interesting people. Berwick Street in London’s Soho is a great example of this.

Metering, ISO & Shutter Speed

'Tallulah' Spot metered shooting into the sun

'Tallulah'

Spot metered shooting into the sun

My preference would be to meter for the face using spot metering. The challenge with this is that the spot meter point in the view finder is slap bang in the centre, not where you would want to put the face for a traditional composition along the rule of thirds line.  I could use the focus and recompose method, but since I also use back button focus, this would mean focusing, then half pressing the shutter button to manage the exposure, then recomposing and then shooting. That’s a little too much for me to manage just now when I am still feeling a little under pressure when taking the shot. Over time I think I will gravitate towards that approach but for now, I rely on matrix metering and the cameras incredible sensor combined with PP to get the metering right. 

I set the shutter speed to about twice focal length and the ISO to vary according to every other variable. The A7rII and the A7s I had before it, will both happily go up to ISO 12,800 without issue so the ISO becomes a variable I don’t even think about anymore.