Portraits of Strangers

As any street photographer will tell you people watching can be fascinating business.  It’s something many enjoy whether they ‘ve a camera in hand on not. Perhaps its has something to do with trying to guess someone’s story just from observing them that taps into our creativeness , or it be could real life is far more interesting than watching television, or even somehow by watching others it can help us to make sense of our own lives.

After a spell of shooting people who were usually unaware I felt I wanted to get in closer and shoot those interesting characters I had been watching from afar, capturing their faces in more detail and hopefully a touch of their spirit in my pictures.


‘Vexed’ M9 Summilux 35mm

Getting Closer

Using a Telephoto Lens – One obvious way to get closer without people knowing or without affecting a scene is just use a longer lens. Often I use a 90mm Summicron , probably not a lens most people would associate with street photography but I like the extra distance it gives me and that ability of getting closer without being noticed.  New York Street photographer Saul Leiter was very fond of using telephoto lenses and even used a 150mm lens for some of his Street work  .

The Candid Street Portrait  – This is using a standard focal length (usually 35mm or 50mm)  pointing a camera at someone point blank without asking their permission.  The candid method can produce some great photos if the person doesn’t notice you and can also provoke an interesting reaction if they do , usually one of disapproval. Personally I feel it can be intrusive, unsettling for the person and as recently pointed out to me by Stephen Cosh, it might end up ruining it for all street photographers –  if too many people complain about street togs sticking cameras in their faces , then street photography could end up becoming illegal.

Shooting Discreetly or From the Hip – This method works great and can produce some  wonderful close up shots, with very little chance of you being noticed . Sometimes seeing a person coming towards me I’ll pre/ zone focus which means choosing a point of focus that’s in their path and waiting for them to walk into it, whilst  trying my best not looking like I’m about to take their photo.  Shooting from the hip and walking around with the camera I generally set the aperture somewhere between ƒ5.6- ƒ8 to give a better chance of hitting my subject.

9613133216_e462ededce_c‘Girl in Juice Bar ‘  from the hip  – Summicron 50mm

Asking Permission – This has actually become my favored approach and the one I am going to talk mostly about. You might say that as soon as you’ve made that contact, the person has become aware that your taking a their picture so it totally changes the photo you’re going to get .

Now you’re dealing with that persons sense of how they want to be perceived its not a candid photo anymore, but to me that’s part of the challenge , developing a sense of how to make people feel at ease,  breaking down our natural social reserve.

I’ve found asking someone can often be most rewarding and I’ll often come away after meeting someone feeling really exhilarated from the experience, it’s difficult to put into words but I could say it’s like a good energy flow.

One of the most enjoyable things for me can be how happy the person is when they see the picture you made, something that none of the other close up methods I mentioned are likely to give you. Usually I’ll give a business card with my email and am always happy to mail them the picture.

Its possible you can ask for a portrait without even saying a word by just holding up the camera in a gesture as if pretending to make a shot and then you can generally gauge by the persons reaction whether or not it going to be cool.

It’s all down to your ability to catch the person in an honest and truthful way, making the person feel comfortable enough to let down their guard infront of a complete stranger and building a sense of trust between you . Its not something you can learn in a tutorial or from book but something that might either come naturally or can be developed by practice.

When I approach someone I know in my own mind that I am only trying to make a good photo and want them to be able to enjoy the photo too and I think people can sense if your intentions good.

8151910461_93f265f17b_c ‘Spencer’ M8 Summilux 35mm

Ready Set Go !

Sometimes you’re only going to get one shot so make sure you’re camera is set to go, there’s nothing worse than having to apologize because you got it wrong the first time . Usually I’ll have the camera set to Auto-exposure, which I can rely on to get me something about right and then if I have more time I’ll review and adjust manually to make sure I got it perfect.

What do I Say ?

There’s no set way of asking sometimes I can just walk over and engage in a conversation for a while before I even get round to asking for their picture,  other times  I’ll just come straight out and ask them, every situation is going to be  different .

If you use the simple and honest  ‘I am doing some kind of photo project ’ approach can often be the most successful, people are often willing to help . Perhaps there’s something interesting about the person you can point out , like they have a great beard or cool fashion style that could be part of a project or simply just I am doing this project which involves asking complete strangers for photos .

Keeping the conversation going , the more you build a rapport between you the more relaxed they’ll be and then you might be able to get them to help make a better photo by moving into a better light or background  .

Recalling the first time I made a street portrait I was so nervous ,

I saw this cool looking Rastafarian guy walking through Soho, and  before I knew what I was doing found myself following him down street. As I approached him I had butterflies in my stomach and I wasn’t even quite sure yet of what I was going to say to him .I think I said awkwardly something like

“Hello I’m a street photographer and I’m doing a project about people in London, would it be ok for me to take a picture of you ?”

His reply threw me a bit, he said in his strong Jamaican accent  “ Man… you to advanced for me “

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant but I just carried on chatting to him, being honest and explaining that he was actually the first person I’d ever asked .

I went on to tell him he looked a bit like the Reggae artist Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry which made him smile ,  it happened to be one of his favourite artists.

He then said “you’re ok man go on and take my photo “


‘Ras Ras’ M8 Summicron 50mm

The first time is always going to be the most frightening but with each person you ask its going become easier.  If you approach with a confident smile that’s going to be a big help and you always have to remember what’s the worst that can happen.

A Final Word

Of course its up to you how to approach Street portraiture and each situation can require a different method, you can only use your own judgment what’s going to work best . Sometimes its possible to use a more than one approach by discreetly getting a shot before asking as  you might get the feeling they’re probably not going to agree if you ask, so cover your bases rather than lose the shot.

If you’re interested in making street portraits and have been to nervous or shy to approach strangers I hope that reading this has helped a little and if you have any more thoughts on the subject , want to add any thought or share any of your own experiences or pictures on ‘The Leica Meet ‘ we’d be very happy to hear from you.

Collaboration: unlocking a fresh burst of creativity

Think about it for a moment. Collaboration is common in many artistic disciplines, for example; music, film, theatre.  And whilst there are examples of photographic collaboration (Hilla and Bernd Becher, Broomberg and Chanarin…etc) they are few and far between. Our image of the photographer is mostly of someone working alone.

Yet those of us who have attended workshops know from personal experience that we don’t only learn from the instructors. Some of the most valuable lessons come from interactions with other class members. How they see, how they shoot, how they talk about their work. How their images are so different, even though we are all in the same location.

We’ve witnessed this again recently on our two Leica Meets in London. We covered the same territory and even while walking and talking together chose to shoot differently. The images from those two days show a fascinating diversity and the atmosphere is one of a mutual appreciation for each others’ talents.

I’ve tried to take this one step further by actively collaborating on projects with other artists.  From visualising haiku poems through triple exposing film with photographers in other countries to visual conversations in which images are exchanged which seem to ‘go with’ one another.  The first resulted in a print on demand book. The second goes on Kickstarter in November. The third is still a work in progress. Every time I’ve benefitted from listening to the artistic sensibilities of my collaborators. Hopefully they have also gained from my input too.


Confluence: triple exposed film with Ramya Reddy and Shayne Lynn

As photographers we are constantly trying to control every variable; from aperture and shutter speed to ISO, not to mention framing, lens choice and of course those great demons, editing and post processing. Well, we’re talking a new experiment in creativity here, so how about we throw all that out the window? What if all those variables and any others you can think of, were the subject of discussions between you and another photographer?

The two of you are bound to disagree right? Yes. That’s exactly the point. Collaboration shakes up our routine approach to shooting. Being deeply involved in a project where you are constantly revisiting and shaping the creative outcome is very different than shooting on your own. Just like the great art movements of history, making art based on dialogue is exciting. The process itself is highly creative and engaging. It reflects a larger point of view. It uses our collective intelligence. We all gain.

When the collaborative project is over we return enriched. Whether our original aim was to break through creative block or simply to challenge ourselves to do differently or to do better our own work gains from the exchange.

wavelength 3

Wavlength: combining analog and digital with Eileen McCarney Muldoon

But it isn’t all necessarily peace and light. Collaboration calls for a high level of trust. It can dissolve into discussions of authorship, recognition and copyright. If there is sufficient interest I can cover these off in another post. But for now, I’d be interested in hearing if any members of the Leica Meet group have tried collaborative projects and how it worked out? You can reply to this post or feel free to write up your own experiences as a separate post. Just send them into us here at The Leica Meet.


Over Confidence with the Leica M Monochrom

Shooting with the Leica M System takes practice. At first it’s not easy, but the more you use it, the easier it gets until after a while it’s just instinctive. You lift the camera to your eye, adjust the focus tab, overlap the two images in the viewfinder and press click. Or at least that is what you do if you shoot Aperture Priority all the time. If you don’t use AP, it’s a little more complicated, but being a street shooter, I need to capture my subjects very quickly and Aperture Priority is a must. It alleviates the need to set shutter speed leaving you with nothing but focusing to worry about… Unless you’re shooting with a Leica M Monochrom.

The Monochrom is a superb camera. It is black and white only, full frame and captures an uncanny amount of detail, so much detail that numerous people have stated it produces a sharper, more detailed shot than most black and white medium format cameras. I can’t back this up as I have no experience of MF cameras either digital or film. What I can say is that of all the 35mm cameras I have ever shot, both digital and film, nothing I’ve ever seen compares to the clarity, sharpness and tonal gradation that the Monochrom achieves. It is simply outstanding… Until it bites you in the ass!

I live in Scotland. Scotland, albeit a fantastic country full of haggis and whisky, is grey. We don’t get much sun here, so setting an M camera up for street shooting is easy. Here’s the drill…

  1. Fire it onto Aperture Priority
  2. Set slowest shutter speed to 1/60th of a second
  3. Set Max ISO to 5000 or 8000 depending on wether you are shooting day or night
  4. Get out on the street – you’re ready to go

This set up works great when the sun you do get in Scotland is forcing it’s way through layers of grey cloud. It never fails. Keep your lens wide open, click the button and let your camera sort out shutter speed and ISO and you have your photo. But last week I went to London for a day and took the camera… When I got home it bit me in the ass.

I took about 40 shots, got home and uploaded the shots from the card and all but a few were overexposed. Why? London was sunny! I was shooting wide open with the camera set up for grey Scottish light and the bright sunlight in London was just too much for the Monochrom. The (non-technical) reason for this is that the Monochrom has no Bayer filter and therefor lets in more light. Too much light hitting a sensor will burn out the blacks and cause overexposure. With a colour camera (one with a Bayer sensor), you can save nearly all overexposed shots by playing around with the colour channels in Photoshop, Aperture or Lightroom, but with the Monochrom you only have one channel – black.

The settings I should have used are…

  1. Fire it onto Aperture Priority
  2. Set slowest shutter speed to 1/125th of a second
  3. Set Max ISO to 2500

So there I was, sitting looking at 40 odd overexposed shots thinking what a waste and I started to delete them one by one, but then came across a few that had just enough black in them that I though I might be able to save some.

It’s testament to both the Leica M Monochrom and Leica lenses, that even in the harshest of sunlight and wide open with a shutter speed that is too slow, that they can capture and render such strong contrasts. It may be the main reason that Leica lenses are so damn good.

I opened up one of the shots in Silver Effex and started playing around with the contrast slider and hey presto, and totally by (happy) accident, came up with an image that looks like a deliberate hi-key shot. I played with a few more and managed to save 8 or 9 of the 40 i had taken. Lucky!


So the moral of this story is that when you use a manual camera, specifically a Leica M Monochrom, just remember the word “manual”. Don’t rely on settings you used in one location just to “automatically” work elsewhere. Photography is all about capturing light and if your camera is set up for a different type of light than the one your shooting in… it’ll bite you in the ass!