11 Tips for Dynamic Portrait Photography in the City

Unpredictable and dynamic, street portrait photography is awesome

If you live in a city (or plan to travel to one), you have an energetic, dynamic backdrop for portrait photography as your playground. Urban portrait photography lets you capture environmental portraiture in a way that you can't do anywhere else.

There's nothing like being in the city to set a mood and give your portrait photography an atmosphere that you can't find anywhere else. And each city has its own flavor. Toronto, New York City (home of Adorama!), Chicago and San Fransisco—all older cities—have a certain look to them, while newer, southern cities like Atlanta, Phoenix and Miami offer a different quality of light and a different kind of architecture. Some cities have lots of “steel-and-glass” towers, others are more the brick-and-mortar look, while others have tanned, stucco walls that reflect light differently and offer different kinds of backgrounds. The great things about most cities, though, is that if you want to change the look, all you have to do is walk up the block, or find another neighborhood with its own, unique character.

No matter what city you call home (or your next travel destination), each offers a visually rich palette of light, color, motion and emotion that can enhance your portraits and infuse them with an energy that you simply can't capture in a studio, rural or suburban environment.


Also read: Portrait Lenses We've Fallen In Love With

Here are five tips for shooting dynamic portraits in the city. Note that they all have something to do with light!


Photo © ParkerDeen/iStockphoto

1. Be aware of the light. It can change by the simple act of crossing the street. In densely-packed areas with tall all-window buildings, you can expect wacky reflections on sunny days as the sun's rays bounce around. Work with them! Watch how the quality of light changes over the course of the day, and think about where and when light will be best. Avoid harsh mid-day overhead sunlight whenever possible because that will cause "possum eyes", and the bright sunlight might also cause your subject to squint. Mid-day is a good time to work under an awning, or in other kinds of open shade, or indoors. Or, just take a lunch break. My favorite light? Light overcast—it turns the sky into a huge, flattering softbox (see above shot for a typical result in that kind of ight)!

2. Bring your own light source. It can be as simple as a pop-up flash (use a modifier such as a Lumiquest Soft Screen, available from Adorama), a shoe-mounted strobe (again, bounce or shoot through a diffuser to soften the light) or, the best option, an off-camera, remote-controlled flash unit. You don't need to blast a scene with light, but you may need just enough lighting to fill in unwanted faces and to put some “pop” in your subject's eyes.

3. Don't use a tripod. Many municipalities require a permit for tripod photography, and using a tripod could be a police magnet and cause unecessary hassle. Yes, this goes against the common wisdom, but sometimes street smarts must rule the day. Use the highest ISO you can get away with quality-wise, supplement with flash, and don't forget image stabilization. (If you're a pro, of course, consult the appropriate department and get a permit so you can shoot with a tripod if you need to.)

4. Shoot at dusk. The lights of the city are going on, but there's plenty of deepening, blue skylight. Use a wide aperture to get cool specular highlights and colors in the background. Watch your white balance, and consider using diffused flash here. Fortunately, you don't have to invest in pricey cameras to get low-light friendly results. Inexpensive modern DSLRs available from Adorama such as the Nikon D3200 and Pentax K30 deliver outstanding quality at high ISO speeds in low light.

5. Shoot early in the morning or late in the afternoon to take advantage of the golden hour. Since the sun will be close to the horizon, you may get lucky and end up with rays of golden sunshine streaming down the east-west streets, tastefully touching walls of nearby buildings and emphasizing their texture. You can work with this.


Photo  © gioadventures/iStockphoto

Six Types of City Portrait Photos

Here are six types of city portraits you can try and to get you thinking about the possibilities:


Photo ©tunart/iStockphoto

The face in the crowd. Go with your subject into a busy area, focus on him or her, and shoot away as people walk by. Blur the other people while your model poses for you. This may take several attempts, and there's an element of luck and risk involved (someone might walk in front of your camera or peoples' positions in the photo might throw the composition off) but the successes will make it worthwhile. Remember the final shot in the opening sequence to the Mary Tyler Moore Show? That's a perfect source of inspiration for this kind of shot!


Photo © halbergman/iStockphoto

Interacting with Architecture: The architecture in any city will be varied and interesting. Choose elements of a building that offer interesting colors and lines that go with your subject's clothes or the attitude you want to convey. It could be a brick wall, a column, unusual shapes—anything with interesting line, form and/or color that will convey a different mood. By the way...that architecture can range from sparkling new construction to brownstones, run-down tenements, and abandoned buildings. Each conveys a feeling that you and your subject can work with.


Photo © Alina555/iStockphoto

Show The City's Power: Shoot from a low angle, include the tops of towers and skyscrapers to convey a sense of power. This is great if your subject is in the corporate world or wants to project an image of influence and business-world savvy.


Photo © Juanmonino/iStockphoto

Just A Hint of the City: Sometimes you just want a hint of the city—enough to show lines, colors and forms to add energy to your portrait. Use a longer lens and wide aperture to throw the background out of focus and separate the subject from the background. You should also use off-camera, diffused flash (again, just a hint to fill in the shadows) to make the eyes and facial details “pop”.


Photo © quavondo/iStockphoto

A Strong Sense of Place: Use a shorter lens and/or a smaller aperture to boost depth of field, revealing recognizable or generic areas. Be sure to include taxis, busses, distinctive buildings, people going about their business to give your environmental urban portraits a more localized feel. The above image looks like it could be in one of many possible neightborhoods in Manhattan and in fact, it is!


Photo © halbergman/iStockphoto

Up On The Roof: When the Drifters sang “Up On The Roof” they were talking about a world apart that exists in every city (but especially, it seems, in New York). As the Drifters sang, "on the roof it's peaceful as can be." Indeed, it can be an oasis of calm over the frenetic activity below. And depending on which roof you can get to, it can also offer spectacular views! If you can get access to a rooftop, you have a golden opportunity to work in a grand cityscape as the backdrop for your portraits. Try different times of day to see how the different quality of light transforms the city.

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