How to take a street portrait on the fly

Last week I talked about how sometimes you need to make yourself a little uncomfortable to be happy. And my discomfort, my putting myself out there, my stretching was taking some street portraits. Yup, asking STRANGERS if I could take their photo. Strangers. People I don't know. Have never met. On the fly. Right there.

It was part of my assignment for a class in street photography. And the point being, I need to get MORE comfortable with walking up to strangers and taking their photo. 

As an aside, LEGALLY, you can take a photograph of anyone out in public. Once they are walking around, they are fair game. ETHICALLY, if someone really doesn't want their photo taken, don't do it. This might seem silly but I think that photos taken against someone's will just won't have the right energy about them.

These are my shots - PLEASE keep in mind that it WAS Pretty much ZERO time for settings and composition. They aren't my BEST street photographs but they are the ones where I did ask strangers.

I was using my 50mm prime lens which means that I was in close. Right there. No zoom. My feet are my zoom. There'd be NO mistaking that I was taking a photograph, hence having to talk to them.

So how did I do it?

1. Pick your subject

This is my own choice, but I didn't take photos of anyone who was obviously homeless or in other dire straits. I feel like it's a bit of an underhand pitch to take such photos. And they've been done to death too. And there's that power imbalance that makes me a bit uncomfortable too. Maybe I'm overthinking it but it seems almost exploitive to walk up with my fancy camera from my nice, tidy life and start shooting someone who is down and out. 

Vancouver is gorgeous but being a port city with a mild climate it has the WORST drug addicted population in Canada. I'm not going to take advantage of that situation for my photography portfolio unless I was specificially creating a photo essay to advocate on their behalf.

2. Use your spidey sense

Okay, so I wasn't going to choose to photograph someone with obvious mental health issues or someone who appeared homeless or with apparent drug addiction issues. That being said, I was out and about on my own and I relied on my spidey sense about who to approach and whom to avoid. Be safe.

3. Introduce yourself

When I stopped to chat I DID say that I was taking a street photography course and that I was wondering if I could take their photo for my class assignment. You know, be polite. This was, of course, while I was trying not to hyperventilate. Amazing that they could understand me when I was talking at light speed. "I'mtakingaphotographycourseandIwonderifIcouldtakeyourphoto". Phew!

It CAN be a subtle negotiation. If they hesitate for a second or two, offer to email them the photos. Let them know that it won't be sold. Play the amateur part. Just be nice.

4. Be prepared

People are doing you a favour so have your camera ready to go. You know how it is when you are at the other end of the camera? "Wait, I just have to adjust this or change that". Pain in the ass. So decide ahead of time and be ready. 

5. What if they say no?

Be kind, thank them for their time and move on. But you know what, no one refused me! I was shocked because I certainly wouldn't let some stranger take my photo. How generous am I? Yup, not so much.

Notice the baby rat in his hands? These two OFFERED to have their photo taken. I have some baby rat close ups too.

So what do you think? Can I challenge you to take out your camera and get some street portraits this week? What, if anything, scares you about it? And if you HAVE done it, what was your experience like?

Photographers who Inspire - Vivian Maier

I've been thinking a lot lately about time. Time to live, time to create. Especially time to create. How to MAKE time to create. How to create in the little time that we do have. You know, because few of us have the luxury of spending all of our waking hours making art. 

There's a photographer who I find inspiring partly because of the quality of her work. Her street photography is stunning - so stunning that her portfolio can hold its own against other famous street photographers. (I've just started a class in street photography - planning to improve my own fledgling skills).

I find her especially inspiring because she did her work in the small moments, the in-between moments, the moments that you grab once you have taken care of your other responsiblities. Once everyone was fed and watered and cared for, that's when she picked up her camera.

Vivian Maier was a nanny. Without any formal training and with no recognition of her portfolio that lay undiscovered in a storage locker until 2007, Vivian Maier took over 100,000 negatives over 5 decades in New York and Chicago. 

Let's take a look at her work. Take note of where your eye goes as you look at this photograph. The bits of drama and life with the kids playing, the conversations in the windows, the women walking, the man observing the street.

Vivian Maier street photography

In 1949 Maier started with a Kodak Brownie that had no shutter speed, no focus control and no aperture dial. She purchased a Rolleiflex in 1952 and starting shooting photos in New York where she worked for a family in Southhampton.

Vivian Maier street photography

It's a challenge to take black and white photos, to take into account the range of greys.

Vivian Maier street photography

Vivian Maier street photography


In 1956 she moved to Chicago to work for the Gensburg family caring for their three boys. She remained close to them for the rest of her life. While in their employ she had her own private bathroom that she also used as a darkroom to develop her black and white film. 

Vivian Maier street photography

Vivian Maier street photography

Vivan Maier street photography

Never married, never had any children, and never really had any close friends. 

She was eccentric, strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual, and intensely private. She wore a floppy hat, a long dress, wool coat, and men’s shoes and walked with a powerful stride. With a camera around her neck whenever she left the house, she would obsessively take pictures, but never showed her photos to anyone. An unabashed and unapologetic original.

But she wasn't so private that she didn't take any self portraits.

Vivian Maier street photography

Vivan Maier street photography

By the early 1970's she worked for other families as the Gensburg boys had grown. No longer having a darkroom available nor the funds to pay for processing, she began to amass a huge collection of undeveloped film. Boxes and boxes. Think mini-storage amount of boxes.

By the 1990's she had fallen on hard times and stopped taking photos. Most of her possessions, including her photographic portfolio, ended up in storage. Remember, no one had any idea of the quality and the quantity of her photographs.

She became homeless for a time and the Gensburg family helped out by finding her a studio apartment. She fell on some ice in 2009 and passed away shortly thereafter.

But what about those boxes of undeveloped film and photographs? They were sold off in 2007 to pay for storage rent arrears. A real estate agent and history buff, John Maloof bought Maier's negatives and prints at auction while researching a Chicago neighbourhood. 

By now 90% of her work has been archived and catalogued. 

Think about it - all of this amazing work and no one knew. I mean, they knew that she took photographs. But they had no idea how talented she was and the portfolio that she had amassed. A portfolio amassed in those in-between moments. Not working as a photographer full time. Not professionally trained. Just finding some time here and there to take some photos of whatever captured her imagination.

What you do you create in your in-between moments?