Making A Candid Street Portrait

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1/1000s @ f/4.5 ISO 100 @ 200mm

Photographing a candid street portrait isn’t as straight forward as one might think.  In my opinion there is a slight difference between street photography and street portraiture.  This is my opinion only, and you might share it or you might not.  Traditional street photography, to me, is capturing a candid street scene that usually includes a human subject.  However, even though there is a human subject (the point of interest), that subject is usually surrounded by an environmental context.  What differentiates a street portrait, again in my humble opinion, is that the human subject is the sole point of interest lacking the aforementioned environmental context.  Small point, but an important point I think.  Also, typically, a street portrait may appear to be posed, even though many times it isn’t.

Lets talk about the above photograph for just a minute or two.  This girl looks posed doesn’t she?  She absolutely was not.  She was part of a dance troupe, and stopped for just a brief second in her routine.  I just happened to be sitting on the curb right in front of her, hence the great eye contact and angle of the shot, I was shooting slightly upwards (I was kind of peeking up her nostrils, but not distractingly so).  It was fortuitous that she stopped directly in front me, and I quickly snapped off about three shots (my camera shoots at 3 fps when in continuous mode) in one second before she started moving again.  Sometimes you just get lucky.  And sometimes you help luck along.

The challenges included crappy lighting.  It was 10:44 a.m. in the morning and the sun was almost straight up.  The worst kind of portraiture lighting:  harsh, hard and contrasty.  Her sombrero saved her face, no harsh contrasty shadows to contend with.  But you can get a good sense of the lighting conditions by looking at her blouse and hat, if that light had fallen on her face it would have been a disaster.  I was fortunate in my choice of camera settings, because I wouldn’t have had time to change them before getting this shot.  Remember, I shot three frames in about 1-second.  I had my camera set in shutter priority mode (TV on Canon), at 1,000 of second to stop the dance action and my ISO was set on automatic. Shooting in such bright sun forced the ISO down to 100, and the fast shutter speed opened my aperture to f/4.5 (almost wide-open), providing both high-resolution and a pleasing depth of field (DOF).  My metering was evaluative and I was shooting in continuous mode with autofocus in Al Servo (continuous focusing).  When she stopped in front of me I zoomed to 200mm, composed, and fired a burst of three frames.  Helping luck along as mentioned before (good luck is often preparation meeting opportunity).

Okay, I got the shot captured as a CameraRAW file.  Now what?  Post processing decisions came next.  I uploaded my file to Adobe CameraRAW and started my evaluation.  I changed the white balance to better reflect the lighting conditions (daylight at 5500).  I increased the overall exposure to lighten her face a little (about +10).  I balanced the blacks and whites, and checked for blown highlights (I left the shadows alone, I wanted them subdued).  I decreased contrast by about -15 to soften the overall look (works great for portraits, but not so good for scenics).  Satisfied I uploaded my file to Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 (my photo editor of choice).  In Photoshop I cropped the image vertical (it was originally shot horizontal), I did no sharpening in post (I wanted the image soft), and I converted it to black & white.  Her costume was beautiful, but distracted from her lovely face (the focus point and point of interest were her eyes).  I toned down the highlights some more, and eventually did some burning on the hat and blouse, and slight dodging on her face (at about 15%).  I added a vignette and called it a day by saving high-resolution and and low-resolution (for web use) JPEG files.

See, shooting a candid street portrait isn’t as straight forward as you might think. Preparation is the key to success and helps lady luck along.  When the opportunity arrives it can be a mere nanosecond (I shot three frames in 1-second).  The difference between success and failure was preparation.  Was the shot perfect?  Not even close (remember the crappy lighting I alluded to earlier).  That’s where your post-processing abilities come into play, and where you can fully utilize your artistic vision to make the image your own.  I am happy with this shot.  She is was great subject, and her expression was perfect (and directed right at me).  I had some luck to be sure, but as we’ve learned luck can be helped along when need be.  This is why I call photography art, a snapshot wouldn’t have captured this moment.  It takes an artist to bring out the full potential of an image.  Fine photography doesn’t happen by accident, it comes about through experience, perseverance, hard work and artistic vision.  BTW these images were shot with my venerable Canon EOS 5D Mark II full-frame digital camera, and Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM telephoto zoom lens.

I hope that these behind the scenes looks at my work are useful.  Possibly “newbie” photographers can learn something helpful, and that others can find interest in the process of making a memorable photograph (a memory, a snapshot in time, forever preserved).  My artistic decisions and choices won’t be everyones, they are mine and mine alone.  That’s what makes each photograph unique in its own right, and special.  I think that it’s important to share the backstory once in awhile.  Until next time, adios from Huaraz, Peru.

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer and World Traveler

Huaraz, Peru


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