Secret of a street portrait - Set and Wait

Have you ever heard the phrase "patience is a virtue"? I thought as much, in street photography patience is everything. But joining in on the waiting game can be tough, since nothing is more frustrating than sitting by idly, with teeth clenched and a twitchy index finger on the shutter button preparing for release.

FUJI Xpro1, 35mm, F8, 1/50s, ISO2000

Tedious repetition, constant failures and many missed opportunities have encouraged the development of a more methodical approach to improve the overall success rate and efficiency in our work. It is probably my engineering background swirling into the convoluted mix with the creative process which bought on this new game plan.

A lot of the interactions coming and going, while hunting for the elusive capture in any urban jungle, is heavily dependent on being in the right place at the right time (it helps to be lucky too). Bitter frustration sets in when I find myself at the wrong height, angle or simply on the opposite side of the street while fleeting moments pass. This has firmly cemented the desire to look deeper at what elements are present in my most emotional and intriguing street captures and how I went about setting them up. Pay attention, repeat and succeed.

Flicking through our print book it became apparent there were three key factors common in all my favourite captures (in order of importance),


Without people I have no content. Clothing, expressions and placement in the scene focus our attention to the stories we create around their personas, which without results in just another shot of a wall, door or cafe, lame and boring! 


The setting must match the content, in this case the setting refers to the background falling away from the scene. There is a fine line between a busy set and just a bunch of clutter. Focusing on the essentials and working on minimalistic principles works a treat. Avoid aiming at crowds and use quiet street seclusions, and do not forget large lens apertures for additional detail control.


Natural light can be your best friend or worst nightmare, flash on the streets is far too flat, unnecessarily complex and intimidating, so stay on the lookout for every potential under cover opportunity, or wait a few extra minutes for a moments relief of a little fluffy cloud to diffuse the suns scorching rays. Strong contrast light is not very flattering, unless a very talented makeup artist steps up, hence the more natural diffusion you can take advantage of, the better.  

Learning to control these three elements is key in repeatedly producing impact and intriguing street portraits. It may seem a little backwards but I like starting with the background; a stationary feature most, often a doorway, wall or empty alley. Unfortunately I cannot simply pack up a door to someones cafe, house or store, so this fixed feature becomes the foundations upon which we build the capture.

In parallel to choosing a set, the lighting is carefully considered, if there is harsh sun strike then I will log the location for later or another day altogether, we never shoot in direct sun as it most frequently causes squinting and enhances flaws, after all we are not in business to make people look bad.

Just like in landscape photography, when the sun is sitting close to or on the horizon the natural light is at its best and the most dramatic, keep this in mind when heading off on your next shoot.

When the pre-scout is done, the last of the three elements required for a memorable image is the content, without content, or a by passer by, in our case there is no shot. You can not make a street portrait without a person. I treat pedestrian traffic like an ongoing casting call, and will stand, sit or pace up and down until I find the perfect match. Patience is super important, and cannot be stressed enough: you cannot control who comes down the street, so unfortunately it comes down to who can wait the longest.

By following the three steps of finding a set, considering the light quality and waiting for a model, I started getting regular captures worth while adding to my portfolio and contributing to the pages of my print albums. That is not to say you should not always be ready to capture a spontaneous moment or character coming down the street, but by adding a little bit of structure to the capture process I have managed to reduce the need of the element of luck, but just incase a rabbits foot is still safely tucked away in my back pocket.

- Sven