Home»Guides» Part 2: Street Photography & Urban Portraits Q&A
Part 2: Street Photography & Urban Portraits Q&A
Note: Over the last several years I have received numerous questions and comments about the “Least of These” urban portrait series. I do the best I can to personally respond to each person who contacts me; however it’s difficult to provide thorough answers via email. This page is a summary of most commonly asked questions that I have received since I started the series. Be sure to check out my complete guide: Part 1: Capturing High Impact Urban Portraits on the Street. The guide covers quite a bit of ground and is a great primer for jumping into street photography. -Steve
Why do you photograph homeless people? Don’t you have better things to do with your time as a photographer?
The idea of capturing urban portraits began in 2006 as a way of prodding myself into trying something different. I was getting into a rut and I needed to be pushed outside my comfort zone. What better way than to photograph perfect strangers on the street? As I immersed myself in the project, I found that I really enjoyed walking the streets and meeting people in need. Although it has been quite a while since I started the project, I still hit the street each year and make contact with homeless individuals.
What is urban portrait photography? Is it different than street photography?
I have always been interested in street photography. I love the (sometimes) dark, gritty nature of urban images; however I never felt comfortable photographing people from the hip or at long distances. There are quite a few street photographers who endorse this strategy. I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with this approach, but it doesn’t work for me. I need to feel a connection with the people in my images. I want to know who they are and where they came from. I think that this connection is the key difference between urban portrait photography and classic street photography. In urban portrait photography, the goal is to build a relationship with each person before the camera comes out (at least in the way I approach it). I don’t photograph anyone who doesn’t want to participate. In contrast, street photography is much more passive where almost anything goes (it seems).
So you ask for permission before you you start taking photographs?
I always get permission from each person I photograph. I have also started asking them to sign model releases. The only exception is if I photograph someone who can’t be identified. For example, on occassion I may photograph a homeless person who is sleeping under a blanket or in a cardboard box. In situations like this, I might take several photographs without asking for permission.
Getting a person living on the street to sign a model release can be extremely challenging. Developing a rapport with each person before the camera comes out is critical. They need to feel that they can trust you. You can’t take shortcuts if you want to be granted access into their world. I created a model release that is very small and easy to store in a pocket of a camera bag. Feel free to download and modify my form for your own use (MS Word | PDF).
Why are you getting signed model releases if you have their verbal permission?
Sometime down the line I would like to publish a collection of stories and images from this series. I am totally up front about this with each person I contact. I leave it up to them if they want to participate and speak to me. I estimate one third of the people I contact walk away without giving me permission to photograph them. Urban portrait photography is work – there’s no doubt about it. There are days when I hit the street and come back empty handed. It’s hard to let some of these folks walk away, but I want it to be on their terms.
Getting permission is more than just asking if you can snap a few photographs. It’s the starting point for building a mini relationship with each person you are working with. Anyone with a camera can walk up to a homeless person and take a photograph. Just as in regular portrait photography, I want to capture the best images of the person as possible. Spending 20-30 minutes building a rapport with a homeless person can be tedious, but the payoff is in much better images. I try to put each person at ease and help them to feel comfortable with me before I pull my camera out. I think this is what makes urban portrait photography different from general street photography.
Do you prefer working alone or with other photographers?
Despite the risk, I prefer to work alone (going against the advice of my guide). I feel rushed when someone is tagging along. It’s much more difficult to make meaningful connections when you have people hanging around in the background. Occasionally I bring someone with me to shoot video, but for the most part I prefer to work alone.
Is it safe to work alone?
Yes and no. I have had people grab my arm, curse me out, yell and scream, follow me, and square off challenging me to fight them. No one has robbed or physically assaulted me (yet). Each time I’ve run into problems, I have been able to diffuse the situation and get away without being hurt. I think you have to be very comfortable with being on the street and contacting people before you try working alone. It’s also important to choose the areas you work in very carefully. There are some places that are just too dangerous to be in alone with expensive camera gear. I recommend taking someone with you if you are just getting started.
I have learned a couple of crucial safety lessons over the last couple of years. The first is that I rarely approach groups. I try to find people who are alone. Groups of people can be extremely challenging to work around. For example, while contacting someone in a group, it is not unusual for another person to begin asking questions or chip away at you in a hostile way. At best, this is extremely distracting. At worst, it can become a major safety issue. It is difficult to keep an eye on what is going on behind you in a group setting while you have your face stuck behind a camera.
I also don’t carry a lot of cash and I only take the bare camera equipment necessary to shoot urban portraits. Dressing down can help you blend in and appear more natural in an urban setting.
Finally, I have started carrying cigarettes with me (though I don’t smoke). It is amazing how much value cigarettes have on the street. You make friends for life when you offer someone living on the street a smoke.
Are you shooting the photos with an external flash or ambient light? Do you take an external flash unit with you?
Currently I shoot all of my urban portraits with natural lighting. During the interview, I evaluate the lighting and background. As we talk, I slowly side-step until my “urban client” is facing the direction with the most flattering light. I also try to find the most appropriate background. Finding ideal lighting and compositions can be challenging.
I would love to pull out a huge reflector or portable lights for fill, but it’s just not practical. Even working with an on-camera flash is unreasonable. The main concern is that people living on the street won’t generally tolerate you shooting for more than a couple of minutes. The vast majority will only allow you to photograph them for just a minute or so. Popping a bunch of light in their face just complicates an already delicate situation. You also have to worry about flash recycle times, having fresh batteries and weird shadows. It just isn’t practical.
What camera settings do you typically select?
I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode so that I can control the depth of field. I pick an ISO and f-stop to match the available lighting. The ISO can range from 50 all the way up to 3200. Most often I hover right around f4.0 at 1/125th of a second with an ISO of 400. It just depends on what the weather is like and where I am working (i.e. in an alley, out in the open, etc.)
Can you describe your strategy for taking urban portraits?
I usually head to downtown Seattle early in the morning on weekend days (to avoid crowds). I prefer to arrive just as the sun is coming up. This allows me time to walk around and get familiar with the environment before it is fully light.
I always drop into locations that are near shelters or known homeless camps. I typically circle a 10-15 block area making contacts as I go. I usually work for 2-4 hours without taking any breaks. Contacts typically lasts 15-30 minutes.
I think your images are over processed. What’s the deal with that?
It seems that people either love or hate how I process my urban portraits. More than once I have run into a debate on a message board or forum discussing how I process my images (from all over the world!). I also get a regular stream of email from people asking questions. Some people are really complementary while others don’t care for the style. There is a distinctive “look” in each of my urban portraits. I prefer muted, dark, edgy urban images. I choose to apply this type of processing because I believe it suits the subject matter very well. I also like the style.
Going decades back, street photography has traditionally been shot with high contrast black and white film. This creates the dark, urban feel that most of us expect to see in street photography. I have chosen to vary this just a bit by allowing some of color to show through while still maintaining a high contrast, desaturated feel common in urban scenes. I totally get that not everyone is going to like it. That’s ok with me.
What programs do you use to process your urban portraits?
I manage my images and perform the initial processing edits in Lightroom. I then jump into Photoshop and fine tune the look I am going for using layer masks.
I created a set of Lightroom presets that I use as the starting point for processing my urban portraits. You can download the Lightroom presets here.
I love how you process your urban portraits! Do you mind sharing some of the techniques you use?
I created a short video outlining a few of the techniques I use. Send me an email if you would like more detailed information.
Download the model release I use here.
Watch the Companion Video
In this 14-minute video, I demonstrate some of the techniques I use to process my urban portraits in Photoshop.
About the “Least of These” Series
The “Least of These” series is an urban portrait project with the central theme based on Matthew 25:34-40. Each image uniquely captures a person who is homeless, destitute or precariously in need. My goal has always been to capture the best in each person I photograph. This series has been no exception. You can see more images from the series at Paxton Prints.
Matthew 25:34-40 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
About the Author
Steve Paxton lives with his wife and two children in the Seattle area. Steve has been a photographer for nearly 20 years. His experience ranges from wedding and portrait work to landscape photography.