Three components constitute an interesting street portrait: (a) an intriguing subject, (b) adequate lighting, and, last but not least, (c) the right background. Background matters! One thing that wrecks a street portrait is a cluttered background which will swallow up the subject and distract the viewer’s eye. It will also make the image look flat because the camera can’t capture the depth that the two eyes can. Therefore the photographer has to create sufficient visual depth by means of composition and subject/background separation. Most times, the right background for a strong, compelling image can be produced by slightly changing your perspective or blurring out a background.
There are two different types of background for street portraits, (i) meaningful and (ii) "meaningless" backgrounds.
(i) The meaningful background:
If one wants to photograph the subject in her or his (cultural, natural or work) environment make sure the background is equally as impressive as the subject, is part of the story, and adds value to the image. This is called an environmental portrait; the aperture could be f/5.6 or even higher (up to f/11 and more, depending on circumstances). If there is sky in the image, one want's to make sure the horizon does not cut through the head of the subject. Choosing the right camera position creates sufficient visual separation between the subject and the background which is essential to draw the viewer's eye to the subject.
Examples (i) - Environmental Portraits with Meaningful Background:
(ii) The "Meaningless" Background:
If the street portrait is about an exciting subject, then one can try to fully eliminate the background, making it about the subject and her or his facial features. There are three ways to do this:
- (a) You blur the existing (cluttered) background by opening up to f/3.2 or even more (up to f/1.2 if you have a good lens) thus creating a nice, creamy bokeh.
- (b1) You direct and position your subject in front of a clean, colourful or uniform structure (e.g. a brickwall, a painted wall, a green or flowering shrub, a wooden fence, a roller shutter).
- (b2) You improvise and use any impromptu backdrop (e.g. an umbrella, a curtain, any large piece of clothing).
Examples (iia) - Blurred Background:
Examples (iib1) - Homogeneous Background:
Examples (iib2) - Impromptu Backdrops:
Background matters; an intriguing subject alone is not enough for an interesting street portrait. A piece of advice: find an interesting background and wait patiently for something to happen... Have fun!
High-res portrait photographs with full exif data, precise geotags and technical details in Matt Hahnewald's