How to shoot street portraits: tips from a pro

From how to approach a potential subject to lighting and composition, learn from portrait and lifestyle photographer Julian Love in this comprehensive guide to street portraiture.
A smiling florist in a pale green dress surrounded by colourful flowers.

Street portraiture is easily confused with street photography. The two styles have plenty in common: both involve taking photographs of strangers in a non-studio setting. But while street photography is candid, sometimes taken without the subject ever knowing they've been snapped, in street portraiture, as lifestyle and portrait photographer Julian Love explains, "the person you're photographing acknowledges the situation.

"You've talked to them, you might have even posed them," he continues. "It's more interactive – a collaboration, not just an observation." Julian recently took the Canon EOS RP on a journey through the streets of his home city of Bath, UK, capturing street portraits. Here, he shares his eight tips for taking standout shots.

A woman in a blue sleeveless dress and with sunglasses on her head leaning against a stone wall.

Emma was pictured waiting for a friend outside a restaurant. "If someone catches your eye because they look quite striking, they're usually aware of that, and often respond quite well to being photographed," says Julian. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 1/640 sec, f/2 and ISO100. © Julian Love

A smiling stall holder, wearing a scarf and a burgundy apron, standing behind his wares.

Ben on his stall at Bath Farmers' Market. "Maybe there's a shop or stall you've always thought looks cool, or a workshop you pass on your way to work. Drop in, or contact them on social media, to find out if they're happy to be photographed," says Julian. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/60 sec, f/2.8 and ISO160. © Julian Love

1. Identify a subject

"The word 'street' can be a bit misleading," says Julian, since your subject doesn't have to be walking down the street. "These are often the worst people to ask because they're in the process of going somewhere." Instead, Julian advises looking for people who aren't in a rush, who might be happy to spend five minutes with you. In particular, he recommends searching for potential subjects in places where people are typically waiting around – bus stops, taxi ranks or train stations.

"Shopkeepers are also great, as they're often in interesting environments," he adds. "Don't go on a Saturday morning when they're super busy though." When choosing a subject, think about how you could incorporate their environment into the image to tell a story about them. The brightly coloured flowers, for example, provide a perfect backdrop for Julian's image of florist Marcia Wood (pictured top), who moved to Bath from London with her husband, a tree surgeon, about four years ago. "She had a gregarious personality and was excited to be photographed," says Julian.

2. Start a conversation

Street portraiture depends on engaging with your subject, so the first thing to do is strike up a conversation. "I'll introduce myself as a photographer and explain why I want to take their picture," Julian says. "It might be because they're dressed in an interesting way, they have an interesting look or they're in an interesting location. Or just that the light is particularly nice." Some people may not see themselves in the same way as you do, so don't be afraid to offer a little encouragement to a potential subject by explaining what it is about them that you find so interesting as a photographer.

3. Simplify your composition

According to Julian, the art of composition is all about simplifying what's in the frame. And this is especially true, he says, "when you're out in the real world, in environments that you can't control." In public spaces, there can be a lot of visual clutter, bright colours or variation from light to dark. "You want to minimise those things for a slightly more graphic composition, and you want to get a good contrast between your subject and the background. You could look for a plain background; or it could be that they're bright and the background is dark, or vice versa; or it could be a colour contrast, maybe they're wearing green and the background is red. Try to make your subject stand out."

A woman with ginger hair in a denim dungaree dress standing in front of paintings hanging on a wood-panelled wall.

Rebecca standing in a gallery in front of her husband's artwork. "Try to position your subject so that the light falls on their face from one side, providing contrast and emphasising their features," says Julian. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/80 sec, f/2.8 and ISO100. © Julian Love

A grey-haired man in a dark brown jacket sitting behind a market stall selling antique bowls and vases.

You don't have to set off without a plan. Have a think about places or people to approach. "There's an antiques market in Bath every Saturday so I took a photograph of one of the stallholders. It was 9.30 am, before many people were around, and he was reclining in his deckchair." Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/640 sec, f/2.8 and ISO100. © Julian Love

4. Don't be afraid to direct

As Julian says, street portraiture is all about interaction, so don't be shy about asking your subject to move if necessary. "The light might be nicer if you shoot them in the shade, or it might make for a better photograph if you give them some tips on posing," says Julian. He found that the rear screen on the Canon EOS RP helped with this element of street portraiture. "You're engaging with the subject a bit more, and not hiding behind the camera," he says.

The Canon EOS RP's Face Detection and Tracking Autofocus function was also useful. "It's a great technology which, again, allows you to spend more time interacting with your subject and choosing your composition, without having to worry about the focus. Every picture has been perfectly focused on the person's face, even when they are relatively small in the frame."

5. Switch up lenses

For his recent street portraiture shoot, Julian photographed people both indoors and outdoors using three different lenses: the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM, the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM and the Canon RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM. "For the indoor portraits, I tended to use the 35mm or the 50mm and for the outdoor ones, the 50mm or the 85mm. My decision making is based on how much background I want to include. Indoors, you're closer to the subject because there's less space, and you want to show more of their natural environment, so the 35mm is useful. Outdoors, the background is busier, less controlled, so a long lens helps isolate the subject and make the portrait more about them."

The Canon EOS RP and Julian's choice of lenses are all lightweight, making them ideal for shooting portraits on the go without weighing you down. The EOS RP also comes equipped with Eye AF tracking, this Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology helps keep your subject's eyes in super sharp focus, ensuring pin-sharp image quality in your portraits.

6. Make the most of light

Julian uses only the available natural light in his street portraiture. "When I'm shooting indoors, in a shop, for example, I'll ask them to turn off the artificial lights. Premises are often lit by strip lights or spotlights which are very unflattering and hard to work with, so part of choosing a good location is looking for somewhere with large windows," he says.

"If you're shooting outdoors, shoot early or late in the day when the sun is low in the sky," he adds. "Often when they're starting out, photographers think you need beautiful sunshine to make nice photographs. For portraits, that's definitely not the case. On an overcast day, the clouds act as a giant softbox and diffused light is much more flattering."

A woman with short blonde hair, and wearing glasses and dark clothes, sitting on a stool outside a light stone building.

Goldsmith Tina Engell outside the workshop next to her shop. Tina, who is Danish, studied at Goldsmiths in London and moved to Bath 25 years ago. "I want the background to be legible, but I also want the person to stand out slightly," says Julian. "A wide aperture produces backgrounds that are soft but not completely blurred." Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lens at 1/640 sec, f/2 and ISO100. © Julian Love

A woman with long, curly dark brown hair sits at a shop counter next to a letterpress machine.

Athena Cauley-Yu has two original Heidelberg letterpress printers at her studio, where she creates beautiful hand-printed stationery. "Athena is very active on social media, so I thought she might be up for a portrait," says Julian. "I photographed her next to her letterpress machine – try to find interesting objects within environments that tell people a little bit about your subjects." Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens at 1/80 sec, f/2.2 and ISO320. © Julian Love

7. Capture natural moments

You're not chasing action shots or "decisive moments" in street portraiture, but it can help to build a narrative by showing your subject engaged in something that's relevant to them, for example, a printmaker next to a print machine. "Generally, the subject and the background aren't moving and I'm not having to respond very quickly to lots of changes so I'll tend to use Manual (M) mode," says Julian. "If you use Aperture Priority (Av) mode, every time you reframe the photo slightly, your exposure will change as the camera recalculates it. Often I've got something bright in the background or the foreground and I just want to hold the highlight."

8. Stay in touch

Julian usually carries about five small prints from his portfolio to show potential subjects, plus an instant printer so he can give them a picture straight away. "That way it feels like more of an exchange," he says. A portable printer such as the Canon Zoemini or Canon SELPHY Square QX10 would be ideal for this purpose. Often people will ask for a copy of the photo, maybe for their social media profile or to print out and display, so Julian also carries business cards. "That way you're not having to scribble down your email address 25 times a day," he adds.

Although he always seeks permission before taking street portraits, Julian only uses a model release form if he is taking photographs for a commercial assignment. "You don't need a model release for editorial purposes, where you're simply representing a person as they are, not associating them with a product, service or brand. I explain how the picture will be used and get their verbal agreement," he says.

What makes this genre challenging is exactly what makes it exciting: it's unpredictable. But, although there are many aspects outside of your control, with a bit of thought, practice and confidence, you can work creatively with the elements at your disposal – the subject, the composition, light and location – to produce beautiful and authentic street portraits.

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton

Related Products

  • Lenses for EOS R

    RF 85mm F1.2L USM

    The RF 85mm F1.2L USM offers uncompromising sharpness for portraits along with superb low-light performance and creative potential.
  • RF Lenses

    RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM

    A fast-aperture 35mm f/1.8 MACRO lens for wide-angle perspective, close focusing and Hybrid IS.
  • RF Lenses

    RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM

    A fast-aperture 35mm f/1.8 MACRO lens for wide-angle perspective, close focusing and Hybrid IS.
  • Mirrorless Cameras

    EOS RP

    A small, lightweight and intuitive full-frame mirrorless camera designed for travel and everyday photography.
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    RF 50mm F1.8 STM

    A compact, quiet and lightweight 50mm RF prime lens, with a wide f/1.8 aperture, perfect for harnessing your creative vision.
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