Guest Article – How to Avoid Taking Boring Street Portraits by Tim Russell

Article originally posted on Tim Russell Photography

I recently joined a street portraits group on Facebook, and without wanting to be overly critical of other photographers’ work, I’ve found a good 90% of the images posted extremely boring and unimaginative (when they actually hit the brief, which is rare). Pictures taken on long lenses with no engagement with the subject; the camera pointed randomly at the street, shooting normal looking people behaving normally with no real subject or point of interest; paparazzi/stalker-style shots as the photographer is scared to approach people; boring shots converted to B&W in the hope they’ll appear more interesting; the list goes on.

Street portraiture is probably my favourite type of photography – I’ve been published for it and have another whole website dedicated to it – and whilst I’m no expert or professional, I like to think I’m half decent at it at least. So here are my tips to avoid boring street portraits and to make more compelling and intimate images.

If you enjoy the article please take a look at New Bangkok Workshop for Beginner Street Photographers with Tim Russell


Get Closer

Probably the most famous piece of photography advice ever given is Robert Capa’s “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. Here was a man who was so determined to get ‘close enough’ that he actually took part in the Normandy landings, so if he can jump off a boat and take pictures whilst being shot at by the Nazis, you should have no fear getting up close to people on the street!

All too often I see photographers on my photo tours show up with long lenses and shoot people from a distance, and it’s pretty much always because they’re too shy to approach people. The problem with the images they take is that there’s no engagement or intimacy, there’s no story, and there’s no sense that the photographer is in any way involved with the subject, so the pictures look cold as a result. Most of my street portraits are taken with my trusty 24mm lens, which means I have to get pretty close.

I’m not suggesting you go all Bruce Gilden or Tatsuo Suzuki and get right up in people’s faces whether they like it or not (though you can if you have the confidence – and the running speed – to do so!); what I am suggesting is that you overcome your shyness and simply talk to people. If you see someone who looks interesting, politely ask them if you can take their photograph (or if there are language barriers, use gestures to indicate that you want to photograph them). They will either say yes (here in Thailand that’s a 99% probability), in which case you get your shots, or they will say no. And if they say no, you just move onto the next shot. It really is that simple. People love it when someone shows a flattering interest in them, and if they’re a little reticent or reluctant, just explain that you’re a street photographer and like shooting interesting-looking people. Give them a business card if you have one, or take their email address and promise to send them a shot. Works nearly every time.


The example above shows why you shouldn’t be shy. It was taken under a flyover in Bangkok’s Khlongtoey ‘slum’ district, and the subject maybe isn’t necessarily someone you or I would feel comfortable approaching, but it’s that intimidating look – the shaven head, the scowl, the tattoos – that make him such an interesting subject. As it was he was more than happy to sit for a few shots, and poses for me every time I see him to this day.


Look for Interesting People

It goes without saying that quirky, eccentric-looking people make for more interesting street portraits. Yes, everyone has a story, but from a photography point of view, visually striking people make for better portraits. There is a risk with eccentrics – especially when you’re shooting homeless people, buskers etc – that your pictures can appear exploitative, or freak show-y; so take the time to engage with your subject, chat to them, find out their story, make them feel comfortable with being photographed, and show them the pictures you’ve taken.

This guy is my favourite photography subject in the world. His name is Khun Lem and he lives in a tiny shack in Khlongtoey. At first glance he looks like someone you’d cross the street to avoid, but stop and chat to him and you discover he’s a very friendly guy who will happily give you a swig of whatever he’s drinking at the time. A good example of why you shouldn’t be intimidated by eccentrics and spent some time engaging with them before, during and after you shoot.

If you enjoy the article you may also like: Advice for Aspiring Photographers by Photographers


Look at the Eyes

One of my favourite photography Youtubers is travel photographer Mitchell Kanashkevich, aka mitchellkphotos. He makes short, sweet and very informative videos, and the video below is very possibly the best short photography advice video I’ve ever watched.



In the clip, Mitchell talks about the visual ‘weight’ or importance that each element in the picture has, and how, as human beings, we give human faces – and the eyes in particular – more weight than anything else in a photograph. Essentially, if there’s a face in a picture, that’s what we go to first, and it’s the eyes that draw us in the most. Often we’re in such a rush to take a street portrait that we don’t take the time to look at the eyes and play around with eyelines, but they really do make or break a picture.  As Mitchell says, a subject looking directly at us adds an intimacy or even an intensity to an image:



…whilst a subject looking away from us and out of the shot adds a whole new storytelling dimension to a picture. In the shot below, why is the old man looking up? Has he seen something above him? Is it a look of despair? Is he looking at the station clock? His eyes totally transform the picture from a simple portrait into something different:



Use Context to Tell Stories

One of the great things about street portraits is that we are shooting people on their home turf, in their natural environment, living their regular lives, rather than in the sterile environment of the studio. So whilst the temptation is often to shoot just the face, sometimes it’s better to stand back (or zoom out), and apply some context. Faces themselves don’t tell the whole story, and it’s only when we show that person in their surroundings that the full story emerges, like this shot of a man in his shack in Khlongtoey:



And the guy below is pretty colourful and charismatic enough in himself, but by pulling back and showing that he’s sitting in a restaurant, the picture becomes even more interesting:



Look for Contradictions

We love the unexpected, and so photos that show people doing things they wouldn’t normally do, or in places they wouldn’t normally be, naturally stand out & appeal to us – it’s why photographers love those shots of policemen dancing with revellers at the Notting Hill Carnival, or why politicians like to be photographed playing football or having a drink in a pub. In Southeast Asia, monks are a popular subject here – seeing a monk using a mobile phone, smoking a cigarette or running for a bus is like catnip to street photographers, and so when I saw this charismatic monk in a woolly hat and shades, I simply had to take his picture. The train in the background, and the matching colours, make this one of my favourite pictures.



And in the shot below, there’s a nice contrast between the tough-looking shirtless tattooed guy and the tenderness he shows his sleeping daughter:



Such pictures aren’t easy to come by, can’t really be staged and require considerable luck and patience – make sure you’ve mastered your camera settings so you can get that shot when it comes up!


Use Light

Photography is, of course, all about light, and few things give me more satisfaction as a photographer than a beautifully lit image. The light can sometimes become a subject in itself, and can transform an otherwise unremarkable scene or subject into a thing of beauty. Sometimes you just happen to catch someone in a perfect patch of light and simply have to photograph them, such as the tattooed guy in Khlongtoey below who just happened to be sitting in a patch of sunlight outside his house:



And sometimes it’s the light itself that tells the story and guides you to the subject. The picture below is a prime example. I’d had a frustrating morning’s shooting and was, as usual on such an occasion, heading home whilst muttering about giving up altogether, when I spotted a narrow alleyway with a food stall in it, into which a shaft of sunlight was shining, as if beckoning me in and encouraging me not to give up and go home. This old guy just happened to be facing right into it, I got one of my favourite ever shots, and the day was saved!



Shoot a Series or Project

Thinking in terms of a project or series can help you focus and achieve some consistency and style in the pictures you take. You’re also more likely to get noticed and published if you can put your images together into a project – editors are more likely to work with you if you can create interesting and cohesive photo essays, ideally with some linking text. I was getting absolutely nowhere until I put together my Faces of Khlongtoey project, but have now been published several times as a result of that one project.

Also think about shooting at specific events – sporting events, protests, celebrations, anything. People are generally either more relaxed or less likely to notice you when they have something specific to focus on, and so they’re a great way to get lots of good portraits. The images below were taken during an afternoon of drinking and photographing at a cockfighting stables in the Bangkok slums with a couple of Russians. And it’s not often you say that.



Relax & Engage

Finally, and possibly most importantly, it’s very important that your subjects – and you – are relaxed when shooting takes place. We’re often tense when shooting people we’ve just met and tend to rush our shots as a result, but we need to take a deep breath, look around, establish the context, study the subject, and decide what pictures we want to make.

And often – particularly here in Asia – when you ask if you can take a person’s picture, they’ll adopt a rigid , serious pose, smile directly at you, or make the peace sign at you. These are fine if that’s the kind of image you want, but they don’t make for good street portraits. If this happens, signal to the subject that you’d rather they just carried on with whatever they were doing that made them so interesting to you in the first place, or indicate that you want them to look off-camera. If they’re still rigid, take a couple of shots and show them. They’ll instantly relax, and probably laugh, at which point you can fire off a few more spontaneous shots, and there are more likely to be winners.



I was attracted to this guy (in Hanoi) by his pipe smoke, but when I asked him for a picture he hid the pipe down by his side and just smiled at me, so I asked him to keep smoking, which is how I got the ‘money shot’ here. If someone’s agreed to be shot, they won’t usually mind you directing them a little bit.

So to sum up, shooting street portraits is nothing to be scared of. Relax, be friendly, think about what you’re doing, find interesting people and stories, and think about eyes, context/background, and light. Remember that and your street portraits will go from boring to brilliant in no time at all.


New Bangkok Workshop for Beginner Street Photographers

Register Here

Bangkok, 12 October 2020: Bangkok-based photography enthusiasts who want to get started with street photography have the opportunity to join a new workshop next month and learn some basic methods and techniques. The workshop, Street Photography For Beginners, is organised by Tim Russell Photography and local tour operator Expique, and takes place on Saturday 7 November.

The workshop includes an introduction to street photography and its different styles, along with modules on equipment & settings, common street photography mistakes, photographing people, shot list ideas, processing and more. After the classroom session photographers will be sent on an assignment before returning to the workshop to process their images and submit them for critique. 

The course will be led by local amateur photographer Tim Russell, whose street photos have been widely published in the region and beyond. “I see a lot of amateur photographers trying to get started with street photography but not really understanding what it is” he told us. “There is more to it than just pointing your camera at the street, and so in this workshop we aim to go over a few basic approaches and techniques, and help attendees gain more confidence and move away from the ‘smiling street vendor’ school of street photography that is sadly ubiquitous here in Southeast Asia!”

The workshop takes place at a truly unique venue, The Market Experience at Bangkok’s colourful Pak Khlong flower market. The venue was opened by Expique in 2018 to host cooking and flower arrangement classes for tourists, and occupies a prime location on the market’s mezzanine level looking down on the colour and bustle below. 

“I can’t think of a better venue for a street photo workshop” says Tim. “We’re right in the middle of the city’s biggest flower market, and the surrounding streets are full of food stalls and shophouses, with the Chao Phraya river just behind us. It’s a paradise for street photographers so we hope our students will get some great images to share with us.”

The workshop takes place on Saturday 7 November from 09:00-16:00, at The Market Experience, Pak Khlong Market, Bangkok. The cost is 2000BHT and numbers are limited to six people. To find out more and register, visit


About Tim Russell Photography

Originally from the UK, Tim has been in Southeast Asia since 2003 and in Bangkok since 2012. He is a keen amateur street and travel photographer and his work has been featured in numerous publications including Asia Photo Review, Southeast Asia Globe, The Word, Bangkok 101 and more, as well as on his own websites, Tim Russell Photography and his project on the Bangkok slums, Faces of Khlongtoey


About Expique

Expique offers a range of innovative tours & experiences so you can truly experience the uniqueness of Bangkok and the local culture. These include Food Tours, Tuk Tuk Tours, Walking Tours, eScooter Tours, Team Building Events and more.

In addition, Expique operates its own workshop space in Pak Khlong Talad Flower Market from where it runs cooking classes and creative workshops. Find out more at


Advice for Aspiring Photographers by Photographers

Written by Hon Hoang

Over the years I’ve had the privilege of meeting and interviewing talented photographers from around the world. In these interviews, I would always ask questions that are a reflection the photographer and their work.

With few repeating questions from one interview to the next, there were usually two questions I would end the interview with:

“If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?” 


“Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?”

The first question being an attempt to incite any sense of nostalgia. An opportunity to reflect on the time they have spent taking photographs. A retrospective of how they started, where they have been, and where they are now.

The second question is an attempt to help aspiring photographers and a somewhat shameful attempt on my part to seek advice from photographers who’s work I admire.

I know how information can easily be lost in the heavy traffic flow of this super highway. From interviews I’ve done for Asia Photo Review and EnFlight.Design, please see the compiled answers for the two persistent questions. Hopefully these words help guide you to where you need to be, whether it’s where to begin or how to get back on course.

Interview: Hidden World – Yuriy Ogarkov

If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Get yourself a mentor. Go assist other photographers. Make connections with the students and professors while you are studying.

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Don’t be afraid. Experiment. See what speaks to your heart. You will go through the phases, where people will start to call you a “photographer” but you will have doubts about if you are ready to be called so. You will go through the phases where you will think that everything you do is worthless and you suck.

You will reach the point where your work will be valuable and it can even feed you. This is where you have to organize yourself and see photography not only as a hobby but something that is valuable for other people. The responsibility comes into play. You will have time where you will think, that you never going to make it, it is too hard and complicated. This is where you have to tell yourself: “Don’t be afraid. Follow your heart. Be honest with yourself. Have a plan”, and one day you will eventually get there, where you want to be. Everything is just a game.


Interview: Capture of the Human Condition – Brendan Hoffman

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

In the beginning, I wish I had picked one story and pursued it extensively on my own. Instead, I started many stories, assuming (naïvely) that if the idea was at all good, some magazine would put me on assignment to finish the project. If that didn’t happen, I would start another story. That’s just not how it works, and I ended up with the nubs of many stories but few that were complete. I also wish I had started studying Russian sooner. Speaking a foreign language is incredibly helpful.

Otherwise, if freelancing, get serious about understanding the business side of photography. Read contracts before signing them, negotiate always, and act like the small business owner you are. Demand respect as an equal, but always, always be a professional. Don’t whine or complain or make excuses or expect an editor to hold your hand. Network. Last but not least, make work that speaks for itself.


Interview: Traversing Tales – Ed Jones

North Korean soldiers leave their seats following a performance celebrating the 60th anniversary of “victory in the great Fatherland Liberation War” at the Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Indoor Stadium in Pyongyang, on July 28, 2013. / ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I’m absolutely not qualified to give advice to others because times change, photography is subjective, and I will always have lots to learn.

As for advice to my younger self, I might say: photography in journalism is just a medium that is used to tell stories and is often of the same if not of secondary importance to the ability to identify and understand those stories…so go and study something.


Interview: Society of Intrigue – Oleg Tolstoy

If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Ha, it’s hard to know where to start with this question. It’s a good question. The thing is, photography is just a medium, there are so many areas with it.

I would advise any up and coming photographers to let themselves experiment, really try out a lot of different styles and techniques until you find something that works best for you. Photography can be a very personal thing, and many photographers can feel lost until they find their style.

It can also be hard working alone so much as a photographer. The best decision I ever made was to move into a studio with 30 other creatives where I do my editing and administration work. I find that being around others often inspires me and it’s good to be working around others and to have that human interaction on a day-to-day basis. 

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Never give up, if you believe you are going to make it, you will. Although the catch is, once other people think you have made it, you might not think you have.  Generally, there is no end. There is no great achievement that will make you think you have done it, and made it. It’s all part of a cycle. It’s a lifestyle and a way of life.


Interview: Cities of Color and Sound – Gustavo Gomes

Whether they are new and aspiring or experienced, would you have any advice for other photographers?

Keep shooting, even if it’s very likely you won’t get a great set of images before one year on the streets. Photograph whenever you can. If things aren’t working on that day, stop for 20 minutes and get a beer or an ice cream. And don’t expect much from street photography. Probably you won’t make money or be famous by doing it. So, learn how to take pleasure just by walking the streets and enjoying the experience. When you stop worrying too much about the photos, great photos will come.


Interview: Humanity in Focus – Mahesh Balasubramanian

Would you have any advice for new and beginning photographers? What was some of the best advice you were given?

I suggest all my friends to believe in you and take pictures that stands out from the crowd. Read a lot about pictures from masters and understand what made them shoot in that way.

The best advice which I ever got is, “Take pictures from your heart and for yourself.“


Interview: Hunters in the Frame – Dotan Saguy

What is one of the best advice you’ve received?

I attended a Momenta Workshop about shooting photo stories for non-profits back in February where Craig Semetko was a guest speaker. He gave me the best advice I have ever received and I still use it everyday:

A successful street photograph needs to include three elements that can be summed-up in the acronym: D.I.E.

“D” stands for Design and includes aspects like composition, light, color palette, etc.

“I” stands for Information. It means that the information conveyed in the image should be clear: The viewer should be able to know instantly what the image is about.

“E” stands for Emotion. It can be an emotion depicted in the photograph, an emotion triggered by the photograph or both. To me it’s synonymous with the sense of a decisive moment.

What kind of advice would you want to give to beginning photographers?

I would encourage beginning photographers to hunt for scenes with emotion. A lot of street photography out there these days focuses only on composition, design, etc. But there’s not much happening in the frame and above all there’s no human emotion emanating from the scene.

The typical street shot we see everywhere is an urban background with someone walking across the frame. Emotion is the rarest element to find and the hardest element to capture so why not start there and learn to compose around it? Photography is about freezing time. It’s all about the moment. Everything else is secondary.

To become a better photographer, you first need to become a better hunter of moments.


Interview: In Pursuance of Light and Vocation

David Bowie by Sunny Bak

Would you have any advice for young artists pursuing their love and passion?

Just do what you love and never give up, just like my Dad said. Just never give up.


Interview: The Beautiful Mundane – Michele Palazzo

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Try to take pictures for yourself for your own pleasure, watch the masters, read, travel and focus on the images you want to create and maybe one day you will find a your style…I’m still looking for it.


Interview: In Light and – Gabi Ben Avraham

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I would advise a new photographer to look at other photographers’ works on the Web and try to build his own style, exercise a lot with the camera, find his own master and be open to critics.

I would advise myself not to shoot so much in the first years, to shoot less and think more although I believe it is a natural process every photographer has to go through.


Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Shoot with your own eyes, trust yourself, do not keep imitating other photographers, it’s killing your senses and your eyes.


Interview: Ever-Changing New – Ash Shinya Kawaoto

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

First of all, begin by deciding one city where you want to take photographs. It is then important to take a lot of photos of that city. Then, you need to always be prepared to point your camera at subjects that interest you as soon as they appear. The diverse things that happen in the street disappear in a moment. That is why it is important to always walk with your camera at the ready. I personally recommend taking photos with manual focus. This is because I believe that manual focus makes it easier to take photos instantaneously.


Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?This advice is for me not for others. I take pride in taking the idea that I am the best photographer in the world. Do not hesitate.

Interview: Roadmaps of Mythology – Vasantha Yogananthan

The Lakshmana Rekha Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2013

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Work very, very hard. I often hear about ‘talent’ but work is what will make you progress. You have to try, fail, try again, and keep pushing yourself. Study and look at the great masters but don’t end up browsing the internet looking at everything people are doing. Look at books, it is where you will learn the most about editing and sequencing. And photography is 80% about editing and sequencing. Try not to mimic the last fashion. Trends don’t last.


Interview: Captured Spirits – Dr. Dirk Schlottmann

If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I always thought about whether science, art and photography do not exclude or even hinder each other in my work. Nowadays these thoughts are meaningless and no longer relevant to me. You can photograph artfully and still be a good scientist. This is ultimately not a contradiction but a gift.

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Photography has a lot to do with technology (whoever is denying this has no idea…) but above all photography is passion and expression. What others think about your topic matter is of no importance. Do what you want.


Interview: Ocean View – Mijoo Kim

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

I always keep these sentences in mind. Photograph toward expressing your voice. Photograph things you are in love with. Keep up what you are doing and trust yourself.


Interview: Impermanence of Perception – Wen Hang Lin

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Do not give up easily. Being an artist is not easy especially when we have many obligations in life. You will not get to where you want to be overnight; however, if you work hard every day, you are one step closer. Run your artistic career as a business and learn every aspect of it. For example, you should know how to write a grant proposal or artist statement, file taxes, understand the copyright law. They are not exciting, but equally important to artists.


Interview: A Face in the Crowd – Pushkar Raj Sharma

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Do it for yourself. Do not run for fame and do not waste time on showcasing on social media. Dedicate more time shooting and less time showcasing it.

I am a working IT professional and have a family to support, I dedicate much less time than I should. I am blessed with a daughter of 6 months old. Most of my time goes into household stuff and family. I wish I started my street photography when I was single and much much younger in age.

Also earlier I fell into the trap of showcasing my work everyday on social media, it just ruins everything. I am not saying it’s not important. But what’s more important is to take new and good photos as frequently as you can.

Street Photography is all about failures. You fail 99% of the time.


Interview: Stagnation of Time – Colin Kopp

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Just enjoy it, especially if you’re still in school. Experiment as much as you can. Find a mentor and stay in touch. Don’t worry too much about taking amazing photographs. Just shoot! All of your photos can’t be winners.