Portrait Photography on the Street: Connecting with Strangers | Zun Lee | Skillshare

Portrait Photography on the Street: Connecting with Strangers

Zun Lee, Artist, Author

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5 Lessons (26m)
    • 1. Trailer

      2:51
    • 2. Telling Stories Through Street Portraits

      2:51
    • 3. Approaching Strangers to Take Their Portraits

      10:37
    • 4. Capturing the Most Compelling Portrait

      9:04
    • 5. Explore Photo Classes on Skillshare

      0:36
77 students are watching this class

About This Class

Get out on the street and capture its energy. In this 20-minute class, photographer Zun Lee explores Harlem in New York City and shares his secrets for capturing the essence of a place and its people. His techniques for getting your best shot make this a perfect, quick class to inspire both the novice photographer and the expert to get out and shoot. Will you capture your own neighborhood? Or explore a new one? This class is certain to help you see a place with new eyesand a new lens!

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What You'll Learn

  • Introduction. Taking portraits of strangers on the street is a type of close up photography that requires a sharp eye, smooth talking, and the ability to quickly connect with your subject on a personal level. Follow photographer Zun Lee as he takes to the streets of Harlem looking for captivating faces for his series of street portraits. He breaks down his philosophy on how to get a stranger to cooperate with you and create a photograph that shows their true self, even when they try to hide it. It’s about making a connection, he says, and then memorializing that in a picture that’s worth a thousand words.
  • Telling Stories Through Street Portraits. Zun begins by telling viewers a bit about his own past and how that experience has informed his work in a series entitled “Father Figure.” This deeply personal approach allows him to talk to strangers in a way that disarms their initial skepticism regarding him and his camera. Knowing the story you want to tell will help you identify subjects who align with that story. Zun cautions against simply going out and randomly photographing strangers. His approach involves not only who he wants to photograph, but also where and even the time of day. Considering such details will invariably lead to genuine portraits that tell a unique story.
  • Approaching Strangers to Take Their Portraits. Not everyone is willing to let someone they don’t know take their picture. Zun shares his techniques for dealing with an apprehensive subject, and also what to do when the energy just isn’t right. Out on the street, he shows you how to “go where the people are” and how to separate the performers from the authentic person underneath. He’ll also go over the types of cameras he uses that further serve to remove barriers between him and the people he wants to photograph. Some people require guidance, while others are great just being themselves. In this lesson, you’ll learn how to identify both, and also how to gently persuade you subject into giving you what you need to take a great photograph.
  • Capturing the Most Compelling Portrait. Unlike graduation photography or headshot photography, which may seem similar in form, street portraiture is about getting past the facade in favor of the genuine. Some subjects may try to put on a show for the camera rather than reveal their real personality, but Zun shares his tips on how to get them to relax enough that they feel comfortable simply being themselves. He also goes into detail on the type of photo he doesn’t want to capture and why. According to Zun, it’s about getting the subject into their own energy, not their act. When that moment comes, you don’t want to be messing with your camera settings, and Zun has a few tips on how to be ready when the time comes, because it is so often fleeting, and once gone, it is gone forever.

Transcripts

1. Trailer: I'm Chun Lee. I'm a documentary and street photographer from Toronto, Canada. I'm here to do some street photography in New York City. A lot of people ask me, so why street photography and what draws me to photographing strangers on the street? For me, it's not really about shooting strangers, but for me it's about connecting to people that I somehow feel a sense of familiarity towards. Street photography wasn't really something that I consciously thought of pursuing. I didn't read a book about street photography and then decided to go, "Let me do that." I started photographing about five years ago, and really not with the intention of doing street. I didn't really know that job existed. I just started photographing people on the street and found it interesting. The project that I've been working on is called Father Figure. It deals with visuals around black fathers, stereotypes around father absence, specifically in African descent communities. My personal connection to that is that I found out relatively recently that I had an African-American father who left my mother very early on. So, it was partly dealing with that history and dealing with my ambivalent feelings towards father absence. Also, finding a way to narrate my story through the eyes of others. So, that documentary is now almost complete and that will be a book that's being released September 19th, at the Brownstep Network Center in New York. So, I mean, right now, we're in the heart of Harlem, on 125th and Frederick Douglas and that's like a home away from home. That's important for me when I shoot it, to be in a place that's familiar. Others are drawn to faraway places. They travel the world and they search for these exotic locations and are drawn to that. For me it's more a sense of, I want to shoot what's familiar to me and what I remember from when I was younger. When I'm in a certain spot or when I travel to a certain location, the day before I had decide what it is that I want to do whether it's particular just portraits or random squeeze themes. I adjust my approach to that and I think it's important for anyone to decide what they want to shoot beforehand and not just sit around when they go out and just shoot whatever comes to mind. Maybe others find it easy to do that way. For me it's easier to say make a decision, here's what I'm going to do for that day and that informs where I'm going to go, what time of day and what kinds of equipment I'm going to use. It's very addictive to be able to get strangers cooperate, make a picture in cooperation with you. Basically, that's how I fell into it. Just a desire to connect to people on the street and then memorializing my experience through pictures. 2. Telling Stories Through Street Portraits: I'm Tom Lee. I'm a documentary and street photographer from Toronto, Canada, and I'm here to do some street photography in New York City. A lot of people ask me so why is street photography and what draws me to photographing strangers on the street. For me it's not really about shooting strangers, but for me it's about connecting to people that I somehow feel a sense of familiarity towards. Street photography wasn't really something that I consciously thought of pursuing. I didn't read a book about street photography and then decided let me do that. I started photographing about five years ago and really not with the intention of doing street. I didn't really know that genre existed. I just started photographing people on the street and found it interesting. A project that I've been working is called Father Figure. It deals with visuals around black fathers, stereotypes around father absence specifically in African descent communities and my personal connection to that is that I found out relatively recently that I had an African-American father who left my mother very early on and so was partly dealing with that history and dealing with my ambivalent feelings towards father absence and also finding a way to marry my story through the eyes of others. So, that documentary is now almost complete and there will be a book that's being released September 19th at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York. So, I mean, right now we're in the heart of Harlem on 125th and that's like a home away from home. That's important for me when I shoot as to being a place that's familiar. Others are drawn to far away places. They travel the world and they search for exotic locations and so they're drawn to that. For me, it's more a sense of I want to show what's familiar to me and what I remember from when I was younger. When I'm in a certain spot or when I travel to a certain location, the day before, I decide what it is that I want to do, whether it's particular just portraits or random street themes. I just my approach to that and I think it's important for anyone to decide what they want to shoot beforehand and not just randomly go out and just shoot whatever comes to mind. Maybe, others find it easy to do that way. For me, it's easy to say make a decision like here's what I'm going to do for that day and that informs where I'm going to go, what time of day and what kinds of equipment I'm going to use. It's very addictive to be able to get a strangers cooperate, make a picture of him in cooperation with you. Basically, that's how I fell into it, just a desire to connect to people on the street and then memorializing my experience through pictures. 3. Approaching Strangers to Take Their Portraits: So today I decided, okay, I'm going to just approach people on street and see if they're willing to make a picture with me together and so that informs the equipment that I'm taking on the street with me today and hopefully we'll have some luck to do this today. Well, this two things that do. This my trusted compact so this is just a regular point-and-shoot that has a 28 millimeter equivalent lens on it which I use blindly. I developed a way to push the shutter just with one hand. If this scenes that I want to get to without disturbing too much of the energy or the people then I use that. This is a micro four thirds camera, in my early days I used to walk around with a big DSLR around my neck and then after two hours you get tired really fast and I find for speed purposes this is more than enough. This is smaller and unobtrusive and people don't really focus too much on you and it's easier to strike up a conversation, it's less intimidating. It's not in the way of you making a connection with somebody that you want to have a connection with. I want to approached this lady and see if she's conducive to taking a picture. So what happens is she doesn't give me a great vibe at the moment but what happens is usually when somebody says no, I respect that and move on but if she's still here maybe a couple moments later I try again and sometimes persistence helps. People just see that you're serious about wanting to take a picture and at some point, in most cases at least they tend to agree with what you want to do. So we'll see if it works. I don't want. No, but you're so beautiful. No. You don't want a picture taken? I said no. Okay, will you change your mind maybe in an hour. No?Okay, thanks a lot. So that didn't work, onto the next. Why don't we stay here for a while because it just got overcast and I'm going to at least try and get one picture against that wall and see what happens if these people in the vicinity and I'd just drag them over here. Excuse me, I'm a photographer doing a series on 121st street. Yeah. Do you mind taking your portrait against the wall? Okay, yeah. Okay, right, okay. If you can stand right in between here so you're between those two figures. Awesome, thank you so much. That's cool just like, no, this person Michael, I approached him because he has this really your a gracious personality and you can see it from his exterior and I really thought let me just pull him against the wall since he's such a big personality, he fits perfectly into this mural as one of the mural people that I see. My thinking is let me take a picture of him during various formats because I really wanted him in the context of the mural people. So I took one landscape format, one in portrait format. I also didn't want him to really pose too much so in this case I said, what just do you because some people may be needed to bring out a certain personality and I even tell them think a certain specific thought. In this case he already gave me what I wanted. So I just said look don't do too much because really in this sense I wanted to blend into the mural and not overshadow the mural or be too much in front because in this sense, him and the background together are important and I wanted to take a portrait that incorporates both. What happens on a really hot and humid day in New York especially is people just walk in the shadow so if you want to shoot people you have to go where the people are. So you don't see a lot of people walking on the sunny side you go where the shadow was and hope that's where the people are. The two settings on the camera that I consider myself most with, first of all have a camera mostly an aperture priority mode and when I walk on the sunny side of shooter I close the lens down. Use the low aperture and the shadow side I open that up again. The cameras that I used have great dynamic range so as long as I get it right, there's a very little that you need to change and as you moved around on this on the street you don't want to really fill too much with equipment. You want to focus on one or two settings that you adjust as you go and then just focus on the people. There might be something that's, this picture if you want is not really a straight portrait but I was drawn towards the fact that just people sitting in the bus stall and then there's actually people on the ad across the bus so that interplay with something that just drew me in for a second. So even though I said let's walk into the shadow I always keep an eye on the outside of a street just in case there's something going on that I might have missed. I'm going to see if i can approach these, well, we're doing a documentary on 125th Street and I'm a street photographer and I take pictures of people on the street, do you mind if I could take a picture? You don't want your picture taken? Because you're beautiful. Oh, he's shooting me. Okay, all right, no problem. No, we're just doing a little documentary and doing some street photography. All right. Can I ask you to look into the camera for a second? This is not the original two that I wanted in the frame so the person I wanted stepped out and said I don't want to be photographed so even if the initial energy is not good just hang around for a couple more minutes and see what develops. One of my mentors called finishing the shot, stay in one spot until you exhaust all the possibilities that present themselves, don't just walk away after taking one-shot. Can hang around, see how people respond to you and then see how people position themselves and there might always be another picture in the same situation that you didn't anticipate and just wait around for that to happen. So that sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't but again if you move on and you're not patient enough people never know. Can I take a picture of you? You are so beautiful. Yeah, okay, no problem. I mean I'm Tune, I'm a street photographer and what I do is I document people on 125th. I've been doing this for several years and I could give you my card so you can get in touch with me and get those pictures. Perfect. We just talked to a lovely lady just now, she had really funky jewelry on her neck and that's what drew me to her so luckily she was very conducive to actually having her picture taken. It works a lot when you're compliment people, when you see somebody just tell them what you like about them whether it's the hair, a piece of jewelry that they're wearing or their smile or just acknowledge what it is about them that you find attractive or anything that compels you to take a picture and usually people are flattered. It might be a no but in this case it was a yes and she was happy to have her picture taken so I'm not one to chimp a lot. So for me I'm I don't know if I got a shot or not so because by the time you chimp and look people move on and so I don't want to really lose the moments. When I say chimping it's after you take a shot looking at to your LCD screen on the back of your camera to see if you got the shot or not and that's something we instinctively do. We take a shot then we look at it to see if we got it. When you take one shot, take another one and then another one so just to make sure you have enough shots of the moment move to the left or right or back and forth. Like take a few steps and just change the angle slightly to see there's maybe a possibility for just slightly better shot. In the past what I use to do is I was so happy that somebody would engage me that it would take one shot and leave. Okay, thanks I got what I wanted and then now it's no. Now you got the person's attention and they're curious, they're interested and they allowed you to photograph them so take advantage take one shot and if they allow you take another one and take another one and tell them how are you going to work. Now I'm going to go closer, now I want you to stand this way and now wants you to turn that way, if the opportunity presents itself shoot as many frames of that person as you can from as many different angles. Just want to look in the camera like this, that's okay, no? That's perfect, that's beautiful. Head a little lower then that's it and then look straight, great that's perfect, wonderful, beautiful, thank you so much. What's your name, please? I'm Tune. Are you from Harlem or? You leave all your life? But she really was curious but suspicious, she was, what are you doing and I see you with this camera crew you're up to no good. I mean that's the vibe guys what are you doing and I figured let me strike up a conversation and not even talk about taking pictures and just see what happens and she got really animated when I talked to her about soft of the changes of Harlem and the gentrification and how she feels about it and then I snuck into question of so can I take your picture blah blah blah and she's of me? I'm shit, here we go. Just had to push a little harder because she was one of the more laid backs, shy, reserved types. As you become more experienced you have to figure out who are the people that you can push a little more to come out of their shell a little bit more and who are the people that like no, maybe not. Like if I push they'll get mad or it's not going to lend itself to a situation. With her I figured because she was curious that it could maybe get to a picture with her and at the same time you can probably tell it from the expression she has. She's relaxed but still questioning. So I thought okay I need to talk to her a little more and get her maybe to a point maybe where she relaxes a little bit more and I also thought her positioning was nice between the two pillars. She's posing a little more, she's getting more into it and I thought okay that's another possibility. So with her that's as far as I want to go, I din't want to say okay, another one, okay, I had enough and just move on from there. 4. Capturing the Most Compelling Portrait: [inaudible] What you're doing up here. Then I'm going to get in the middle and then I'm going to start doing something. Okay. Because that's what I'd do. Oh, Lord. Oh, Lord Jesus. Look at the eyes. The eyes is full of love. That's old school right there. Okay, now look in the camera for a second. Okay. With Karen, it's this situation where people just walk up to you because they see you with a camera, and then "Hey, you know what? What are you doing with it?" So, I usually don't engage in those interactions too much because if people really pushed themselves into your face, then that's something contrived or, to me, it's not very genuine. But with her, there was a possibility for some interaction which I thought, "Okay, if I can wait, I can bring that out in her." So, this was early on, which I'm, like, "Okay, this is not a good situation." I'll take a few more but I think there's no possibilities for what I want. Maybe others would have wanted something from her. Then I thought maybe if I can switch up the positioning or her location, so I put her into the phone booth hoping it might lower her energy a little bit and it did. Then she gave me something unexpected where she started playing with the phone. It still posed but it's more purposeful and it's not just like out in the street but there's something here and there's something about her face that makes her connect. After a while, with people like Karen, they get tired. There's moments, fractions of a second that you can use to extract more of candid, more intimate moment with her. She wasn't playing with the phone, it was just her but I had to wait for it. I was, like, "Okay, is it going to happen?" Maybe, maybe not, that's more Karen as a person, not Karen the performer, right? Again, it's more about gauging, "Can you get something out of it if you wait? Can you be effective with being patient?" But again, she didn't pose for it, that was a rough moment where in a second or two, it was over and she was back to her dancy self. So, I'm after connection and more intimacy, right? Where people give themselves more of a sense of "I want to share with you who I am." Back to the statement of know what you want to shoot and then wait for these moments to happen. When you think the picture denigrates the subject or it makes her look less respectable, then I tend to not use it. So, I'll take a look and see how it comes out but compositionally and visually, she could give me a lot. So, all right, thanks Karen. The next time again. I know, do your thing. One picture. One picture? Yes. Okay. All right. Just one. That's it? I'm sorry, just one, that's it. Okay, no problem. That's it. Thanks a lot. He wouldn't tell me his name and he was probably the least cooperative today. But he's a compelling subject, he got those stars and stripes, all glory glasses, got the tattoos all up in his face. So, he gives me a lot. Sometimes, even if I sense that these people are not cooperative, because there's something about them which I just have to get, that I just, like, "Okay, you know what? Maybe it's a no but at least I have to try because you know what? This is such a face." So, you giving me one shot, that's fine, but I'm going just take that one shot and just hope I get what I need.This is a bit cliche but it would be an example of a background that you could use, it's pretty monochromatic. Even if you find people that are not visually exciting like our first subject, Michael, was very out there and very gregarious but don't just go after the most exciting subjects that you find. Find somebody that's willing to cooperate and then place them against the background that makes them look exciting and anyone will look exciting against something like this. Okay, so here's another one. I'm a bit ambivalent about this but homeless people or people that are indigent, so I personally, I don't go forward usually unless there's a compelling reason for me to do it. But to each their own, personally, that's where I draw the line. So, I don't usually try to engage homeless people unless there's a compelling reason or story or there's a conversation that they strike up with me. There has to be a fair exchange of some sort so we talk about the fact that people basically give their picture to you. It's a gift when they allow you to be photographed so we want to really strike up a balance. Here's somebody I'm going to approach and see. Excuse me, sir. I'm a photographer that's taking pictures of people in 125th and I was wondering if I could take your picture? Great. Are you okay with that? Okay. No problem. Just right against here. Where did you get that hat? I need me one of these hats. Oh, I got this in California. Oh, not here? I just came from California. Can you get that here? Probably not. I'm sure not. Where abouts in Cali did you go? Turns out he's an actor from Los Angeles and he's here. So, I'm, like, "Hey, why not?" So, I hope he gets back in touch. So, in this case, it was just I saw the hat and I saw his blue [inaudible] and I saw the blue on top of the storefront. I thought that's more like a composition type thing where this blue upon blue and it makes for a nice frame like that. Then he was the one engaging me in conversation so I thought, "Let me just roll with it," and again, I was opening up myself and telling him why I was drawn to him. In this case, it was the straw hat then I'll use that as an opportunity to get more of who he is. Then after he opened up and told me who he is, he'll totally allow me to take more pictures. Thank you. Thank you. God bless you. Okay brother, God bless. All right. Take care. Thanks a lot. Marvin. Hey! What you're doing, man? I haven't seen you in ages. What's up with you? Oh, see. Marvin, I don't know what to say about Marvin. Actually, I didn't think I would get a picture from him because he's clowning around with you and he was spending all his energy explaining his workout routine. When he's clowning, it didn't make for a picture that I wanted. See, I tried to take a picture here and the sun was out and you get those raccoon eyes with dark circles and harsh shadows and it's, like, "Okay, let's wait till the sun's out, the sun's behind the clouds a little bit." By that time, he was a little bit more into his own energy and then it looks like he's more composed. Yes. If your subject is really energetic, and a lot of them will be, wait for them to calm down and then not only are they more cooperative when you tell them to go a certain place, they'll do it. So, just give it time. Even if you have a subject that's difficult, just let them do their thing, it pays off to wait. I wait for that moment of connection. Others might just go after certain other things so it's again part of figuring out what you want to shoot and then waiting for those moments. Some of the students might have other moments that they go after and, again, it's just wait for those moments to happen. But again, it's about figuring out who you are and then what moments you're after. Then this way, you're not just randomly shooting people but despite shooting different people, you'll always have a common thread in terms of what your work looks like. Because what'll happen over time as you develop your own style is that it doesn't matter who you shoot. It could be a person of whatever ethnicity, age, gender. But they all give you that consistent look because you're waiting for those moments that are you. Then that informs your style. Again, over time, you develop what that is and then you know how to get that regardless of who you shoot. 5. Explore Photo Classes on Skillshare: