Street Portraiture – the 100 Strangers Project, Part II

27 September 2015

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This post is for photographers interested in reading about the process of taking street portraits, and how to get the best possible results in-camera and using Photoshop. I’m going to review some of my own images and point out things that went wrong and how they could be fixed. You’ll be able to apply those learnings to your own photos as well. If you have any questions about any of the content in this post, please leave a comment below and I’ll respond as soon as I can.

For an overview of my experiences relating to the project in general, have a read of Part I too!

Lightroom/Photoshop are your friends

I come from a graphic design background, so post-processing is a big part of my workflow and I’m not ashamed of that. Street work is often not about having the time to get everything right straight away, so if you’re not confident enough in your in-camera skills, why not use Lightroom, or in extreme cases Photoshop to help you achieve your vision? As long as you learn from your mistakes and strive not to make them again, I don’t see an issue with that.

A black and white conversion and selective sharpening make this shot of Ellie stand out.

A black and white conversion and selective sharpening make this shot of Ellie stand out.

They say it’s not about the gear, but sometimes it is

When I started the project I was using a Canon 400D (the original Canon Rebel for US readers) and had two lenses available: a Canon 50mm f/1.8 and a Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8. These lenses are better than the kit lens that came with the camera, but even so, the low light performance of the 400D was atrocious. At ISO400, noise started to creep in, and ISO800 was the absolute maximum ISO speed I dared use without ruining the image quality completely. The LCD screen was also very small, so often I couldn’t see if an image was sharp enough until I got home and realised it wasn’t (did I mention that the autofocus wasn’t very good either?). Of course it didn’t help that I was inexperienced; with my current skills I could get much better shots straight out of the camera than at the time, but I still use Lightroom to add my creative touch to images that aren’t strictly documentary.

#14 -- Laura

Laura, shot with the Canon 400D / Rebel

Lightroom or Photoshop?

Simply put: it depends on what you want to achieve. When I started out I only had Photoshop, so that’s what I used. I got a copy of Lightroom 5 when I purchased a new camera, but didn’t start using it properly until last year. I was so used to Photoshop that I was confused by Lightroom’s interface. However, now I use it for 80% of my editing, and only open Photoshop if the photo needs advanced work. If you don’t plan to do things like skin retouching, extending/otherwise hacking backgrounds or removing unwanted artefacts from your portrait then you will be fine with Lightroom only.

Mistake 1: Bad light

This is the number one mistake you can make. And the one that’s hardest, if not impossible, to fix in the editing phase, so you need to try and nail this in camera. For flattering portraits, especially for older subjects with less perfect skin, soft, diffused light is recommended. You want to make sure you’re not in direct sunlight, or using a popup flash, because those light sources are hard and not diffused.

There are many things I could write here about light and all the things you need to know and consider, but there are already thousands of articles on the web about that so I won’t reinvent the wheel. Google is your friend! A fellow photographer, Arnab Ghosal, also wrote some detailed tips on good light for stranger portraits recently, so have a read if you haven’t yet.

What I will say is: practise seeing good light. Even when you don’t have your camera, try to notice when someone’s face is lit in a flattering way, either outdoors or indoors, keeping in mind everything you know about what good light should be. Go out during different times of the day and notice how the quality of sunlight changes and how this affects the way people’s faces are illuminated. Eventually it’ll come naturally to you and you’ll be obsessed with spotting nice light, even when you should be focusing on other things… *cough*

A reflector helps greatly to lighten shadows in your subject’s eyes, and I use one often. It also helps add catchlights to avoid ‘dead eyes’ which can kill an otherwise good portrait – watch out for those! Have either your subject or a friend hold the reflector below and slightly to the side of their face, just outside the frame.


Colin holds a gold reflector to my subject’s face as I photograph her

Bad light example: the unedited shot

The below image of Donna is straight out of camera (SOOC) and you can see that the light is pretty bad. The light is coming from above the subject and slightly from the front, creating shadows under her eyebrows and darkening her eyes too much.

A reflector would have helped a lot here. The image is also underexposed. I was on aperture priority at f/3.5 and the camera decided to set the shutter speed at 1/500, which I should have modified in manual mode; I could have easily got away with 1/125 and got a much better exposure. So if you’re not sure what settings to use or what mode to start with, start out in aperture priority at your chosen aperture, see if the camera can get a good exposure that way, and if not then switch to manual mode and adjust your shutter speed. You can also stay in aperture priority and adjust your exposure compensation if you prefer, but I tend not to use that setting unless there is something that’s throwing my camera’s metering way off, and that’s a whole other topic/blog post in itself, so I won’t talk about it now.

SOOC shot of Donna

SOOC shot of Donna

Fixing it in Lightroom

We need to do three things to fix the above shot:

I also like to play with vibrance, contrast and saturation adjustments on a case by case basis to make the image pop. This is the original edit I did, in 2013:

2013 edit

2013 Photoshop edit

And here’s a new edit:

2015 Lightroom edit

2015 Lightroom edit

As you can see, my editing skills have also improved… it isn’t necessary to open Photoshop to fix this image as best we can. In Lightroom, I upped the exposure, adjusted the tone curve to bring up the midtones (i.e. the exposure of Donna’s skin) and used the adjustment brush to selectively increase exposure in her eye socket region. A bit of tweaking of the white balance was also necessary to get my desired look.

Despite the finished image looking much better than the SOOC shot, it’s still not well lit and there’s nothing I can do to change that. This is one of those that you have to realise, learn from, and move on. I don’t think I ever made this mistake to this extent again.

Mistake 2: Wrong composition

Composition is another important aspect of a good portrait. We need to ensure we fill the frame with the right elements in the right places. What ‘right’ is can be a little subjective, but there are some rules of thumb you can safely rely on if you’re not sure how to compose your shot.

First, there’s the rule of thirds. This guideline says that an image should be imagined as being divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. This is generally visually pleasing. I like to compose so that my subject’s eye line is on the upper horizontal line, or on one of the vertical dividing lines.

Imogen's eyes are on the upper dividing line horizontally, and her right eye is also on the intersection of the upper horizontal line and the left vertical line.

Imogen’s eyes are on the upper dividing line horizontally, and her right eye is also on the intersection of the upper horizontal line and the left vertical line.

Then there’s the idea of ‘leading lines’ – if there are any in your background they should lead towards your subject and the inside of your frame. This works especially well when you have an otherwise centered subject in your frame.

The leading lines of this alleyway's buildings all lead the eye to Harriet's face.

The leading lines of this Soho alleyway’s buildings all lead the viewer’s eye to Harriet’s face.

Wrong composition example

One of the limitations of my old Canon 400D was that the only properly sharp autofocus point it had was the one in the centre of the frame. Therefore I often ended up composing shots with an eye in the middle so I could make sure it was sharp when focused on. I did that for the below portrait as well, but didn’t consider the rest of the composition properly.

Cropping can sort out some of that (to make the rule of thirds work, for example), but I didn’t consider that Grace’s eyes were leading the viewer outside the frame, with a big empty background area on the right that isn’t relevant at all.

Too much irrelevant background behind Grace here.

Too much irrelevant background behind Grace here.

In this case, I should have either directed Grace to face the camera and look into the lens so her eyes don’t lead outside the frame; or focused on her eye and then recomposed the shot to have more of the background visible on the left side, shifting her face to the right. The shot is otherwise exposed well and a reflector ensured the eyes aren’t too dark, so all I needed to do in post-processing was a slight contrast boost and adding some extra vibrance to bring out Grace’s red hair. I cropped it to comply with the rule of thirds better, and remove the empty area on the right.

#26 -- Grace

Edited shot of Grace

Mistake 3: Not making the most of colour and contrast

Colours are really important to get right (unless you’re working in black and white, of course). Our eyes can be easily drawn to colourful elements, which may help or not, depending where the colour is. If your subject has something vibrant about their person, that’s definitely what the viewer will notice first. But if there’s something vibrant in the background, then… your viewer will notice that, and not what they should be noticing – your subject! Aim to find a background that complements, but doesn’t distract from your subject.

The white background used here allows Jenny's vibrant blue hair to stand out with nothing competing with it for attention.

The off-white background used here allows Jenny’s vibrant blue hair to stand out with nothing competing with it for attention.

Another thing our eyes are drawn to is contrast. This can be a contrast of colours, or a contrast of darker and lighter tones, or even things like different shapes. When you shoot in RAW (you ARE shooting in RAW, right? If not, you should) your photos will come out looking a little flat and lacking contrast. That’s just how RAW works. This is why a touch of extra vibrance and contrast can really take your photos to the next level.

Have a look at your tone curve in Lightroom or Photoshop. By default it’ll be a straight line. I like to create more of an S-shape with it, which will darken the blacks a little and lighten the whites a little (or a lot – I do like high key images). This will pop much more when you compare it with the original. Try it for yourself!

This is especially useful when you have relatively flat light on your subject, coming from a cloudy sky for example, like in the below shot of Suzan. It’s exposed well enough and not a bad image, but it’s a little too flat for my taste.


SOOC shot of Suzan.

After some minor blemish removal and cropping, I originally edited this by adding more saturation and clarity. What the problem is with this edit is that it has a bit of a greenish cast in Suzan’s hair, and the whole image is a touch too warm for my liking, considering it was a colder, cloudy day.


2013 edit.

This shows why it’s important to review your editing as well as your SOOC images from time to time. I re-edited this photo recently and am much happier with the result.

I adjusted the tone curve to add contrast, and played with the blue channel curve to cool the overall image and make it more in line with my current slightly cinematic style. A slight vignette was also added to draw the eye in towards Suzan’s face more, and to remove the distracting white sky in the top right corner.


2015 edit.

What you can’t edit in Photoshop

I have covered some common problem areas when it comes to portraits, and hopefully have shown you how to salvage your image if you didn’t get it quite right in camera. There is one thing, though, that you absolutely must get right when you take the picture… the subject’s facial expression!

Notice that in all the portraits above, except Donna’s one where I noted the problem, the subjects are photographed from a flattering angle, with flattering expressions on their faces. This doesn’t have to be a smile – in fact, when people smile you often need to do extra coaching to ensure their faces are at their best angle, with their chin pushed forward and sometimes down.

I like to let people smile if they seem like smiley people, but otherwise I ask them not to – a forced smile is never desirable. You can get creative with directing people – usually the more specific you are, the better they feel, because most people don’t actually know what you want them to do and may feel awkward just standing there.

#89 -- Tamara

Tamara was upbeat and naturally smiley – you can see she smiles with her eyes too, not just her mouth. That’s a genuine smile!

98b -- Tramaine

Tramaine’s confident, sassy smile made for a portrait full of character.

Have you been inspired by what you’ve read here? Did you find the tips helpful? Do you have any questions about these topics? Please feel free to leave a comment or email me directly via the contact form. And as always, the 100 Strangers Flickr group is a wonderful place to pick up even more tips and chat to fellow street portrait photographers, so join up if you haven’t already!

6 responses to “Street Portraiture – the 100 Strangers Project, Part II”

  1. Ravindra says:

    Dear Madam,
    I read both parts of your article and liked them very much. Thanks for documenting and publishing your journey for the benefit of those who will follow. I took a few hints from them and will put them to use.
    In all your photos I notice that the background is nicely blurred. Is it in camera or in post processing. If it is in camera, what camera and especially what lens do you use?
    thanks once again.
    Sincerely yours,
    Ravindra Kathale

    • Hi Ravindra, thank you for your comments and I do hope the tips will prove useful for you 🙂
      I never blur anything in post-processing, I don’t think that would be authentic, so I make sure I use a prime lens with a wide aperture. I use either 50mm or 85mm, between f1.8 and 2.5 to achieve a smooth blur. It also matters how far your subject is from the background of course – for example, if you have someone close to a wall then the wall won’t be blurred well, but if you move them away from the wall then it’ll be blurrier even with the same aperture.

  2. torobala says:

    Hi, I just recently found your blog/website – it’s great! Congratulations. I was roaming the streets for a long time, but I never had a courage to talk to approach others to take photos, I was too shy to do that. Recently I started to work on more close-up street photography and started my 100 Strangers project.
    I have not used reflector before and tried to use the available light as much as possible. Also, this kind of photography is kind of a lonely work for me, and I never had others to go for a photoshoot with others. By myself it would be also difficult to carry the reflector with me. How did you start to use it? Did you get help from others?
    I would be also interested in a more practical side of shooting strangers: how do you approach them? What do you say? What questions do you ask to start a conversation? It is really tricky for me.
    As you mentioned that you had get used to taking photos of men. As a man I feel the same way with girls of my age or younger. How to act naturally and not looking like a creep…?! 🙂 It is pretty challenging…
    Once again, congrats and all the best in the future!

    • Hi Torobala! Thank you for the great feedback! 🙂 I’ll try answering the questions in order:
      – Using a reflector: I just decided the extra hassle of carrying it with me is worth the flexibility it provides in non-ideal lighting scenarios, plus it gives your subject something to do (hold it in front of them) if they are nervous, this can put them at ease a bit. It’s not actually so tricky to carry a reflector, mine is 80cm and folds up so I can put it in a backpack, and you can get even smaller ones that you can strap onto your arm like a friend of mine does! But you don’t need others with you to help with the reflector, it can be used alone.

      – Approaching people in general: I say hi, tell them that I’m a photographer and I noticed XYZ about them that made me want to take their portrait for a series I’m working on, would they be up for that? If I get a blank or doubtful look, I might add (to ensure they understand) that it’s totally free and I’d be happy to send them a copy via email if they like. Of course, you need to ensure you speak slowly and clearly, not rushing or sounding too excited or nervous, even if you are 🙂

      – Approaching young girls: I think as long as you don’t comment on their appearance in general, and instead say more specific things if you have to explain why you want to photograph them, you will be OK. But make sure the girls look over 18!
      Bad example: “I think you look beautiful, can I take your picture?”
      Good example: “Your style stood out to me, and I’d love to capture that in a portrait”.
      OK these are very contrasting and there is a middle ground, but hope you get my gist!
      Best of luck with your project as well, please feel free to share any new work here in a comment, I’d love to see!

  3. H Matthew Howarth says:

    Great piece – and love seeing the before/after images. Interesting to get your thoughts on the processing and see the changes. On Grace’s portrait, I’d note that I personally think you’re being a little harsh on your first version (the wider shot) there. I really like that one! I know there’s a lot of darker blurred turquoise to the right, but it’s nice how it echoes her eyes and gives a non-dsitracting anchor for her gaze out of frame. I know what you mean about a gaze out of frame – and sometimes it’s a big turn off for me too – but here I think it works nicely to add a little tension and drama, a little mystery… what is she looking at?, etc. I think the extra anchor of dark blur helps balance that. If there was one thing I’d have targetted, I’d have probably kept the composition/crop the same, but dealt with that slightly light square corner just to the lower right of her face, which feels a little angular and abrupt. Just my 2c!

    • Thank you for your feedback, Matt! I don’t mind the first version of Grace’s portrait either, it’s not that it’s bad per se, but I do think it’s a good example of what I could have done differently and possibly better! I remember that at the time, she said she would be interested in doing a proper shoot some day, so I thought I could make amends there, but then didn’t get in touch – what a shame!

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