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Photography: How to shoot street portraits

Mark Parren Taylor, the photographer of our Hong Kong feature, explains how he took this shot of two ladies

Photography: How to shoot street portraits
Image: Mark Parren Taylor

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Shutter speed: 1/100
Aperture: f4
ISO: 180

Of my five lenses, a long telephoto and a mid-range zoom are work-shy. The other three, however, make up for this lazy pair, finding their way into my camera bag on a daily basis. For almost all shots, a 50mm f1.4 is my lens of choice — and I especially like it for portraits because, when the aperture’s fairly wide open, it gives a lovely gentle focus on the subject but it doesn’t crowd them.

Occasionally I reach for the 105mm f2.8, a pin-sharp macro that I originally bought for food but is superb for everything from landscapes to sport. It can really pull you close to the subject — and even their thoughts.

But for this portrait of the Punti ladies at Kat Hing Wai, a walled village in Hong Kong’s New Territories, I used the 16-35mm f4, because it would let me shoot in a tight space with only a few seconds available.

For a portrait of an individual, I mostly shoot at f1.8 – sometimes opening up to f1.6, at others stopping down to f2.2. When there are two or more people in the shot, though, a wide aperture might be tricky – because the field of focus is shallow and their eyes are unlikely to be in the same plane, and I don’t want to physically reposition the subjects – it’s at best annoying and at worst impossible and unnatural. To minimise the risk of one pair of eyes being out of focus, I set the aperture at f2.8 to f4 to allow myself a comfortable depth of field margin.

I want the subject to look comfortable, so I never start snapping immediately. I spend time watching and listening. It could be just a three-minute wait, but if I can see something special, ready to be coaxed out, I might hang around for half an hour or even longer.

I’ll quickly compose the shot, then reposition the camera a few inches lower towards my chest, being careful not to swivel or tilt the camera, so that most of my face is showing. And I’ll then start snapping, while talking, smiling, without hurry or any attention on the camera if I can help it. I don’t ask too many questions because the sitter might respond by talking or shrugging, which can create undesirable, sometimes comical, expressions.

I always aim to take a couple of dozen shots if I can. This means that even when I have discarded unwanted images — for example, if a person is blinking or talking, or showing an odd expression, I’ll still have a range from which to select the optimum shot, which is essential, especially when there are two or more personalities in the shot.

I’m careful not to antagonise my subject — the second a doubt appears to pass across their face, I’ll stop photographing. The two Punti ladies are no stranger to tourists taking a quick snap and disappearing — if you visit, please remember to give each HKD10 (around £1) for their time. I took about 20 images, by which time the lady on the right imitated the shutter with ‘Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow!’ That was when I knew my time was up.

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Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine

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