Can you make a street portrait in 30 seconds flat?

It’s easy to get lost in the eyes of Nicola Davison Reed’s eclectic street portrait subjects. And yet the subjects were strangers to Reed, and the images were made in just 30 seconds. We caught up with Davison Reed, who lives in Tuxford, England, to find out more about her personal project “30 Seconds of Street Portrait.”

Many photographers find it tough to approach strangers on the street. What’s your tack?

My strategy is clear the mind. It can be as tough as you make it or as simple and fun as you want it to be. I always say “Excuse me” first. I get them comfortable with the idea by showing them my street cards. Each one has a different street portrait on it, and I suppose it’s like my mobile portfolio. They then can put me in context visually—I become something they're interested in, something they have time for, or not. Usually if they stop to listen then their curiosity takes over and their generosity kicks in and we agree and make a portrait together. It’s the people who rush by when you say “Excuse me” that don’t want to be bothered and probably think you are collecting for something or want them to sign up for something. Having a camera on show in some way also gives people visual clues. With my street cards, my conversation, and my camera, they can map out if they deem these moments to be of interest to them or not.

© Nicola Davison Reed

Is there an approach you tried that wasn’t successful? 

What doesn’t work is hiding your camera or rushing or being tired. As soon as I have one or two or maybe a couple more street portraits, I’m done for the day. I don’t want to be out trawling the streets desperate for a catch. That reeks of paparazzi. Keep it artful and each encounter special. I fall a little bit in love with each people who has offered me their street portrait.

© Nicola Davison Reed

How do you target potential subjects? And where do you go to find them?

I select people by a combination of [my own] instincts, [their] style, [their] connection with me when they make eye contact, their gate, their coat, maybe their hat, their eyes, their pace, their presence on the street. I go to the towns and cities around my small town in the Midlands, U.K. It’s a small town where I live but central to many big cities, so there’s always a choice of where to go.

© Nicola Davison Reed

How much time do you spend with them?

I called it “30 Seconds of Street Portrait,” as that is the time that it takes. I think to engage someone in my purpose any longer than that I’ve blown it. After that, the picture making takes perhaps another 30 seconds. Then after that, the exchange and the connection could be anything from 30 seconds to 10 minutes.

© Nicola Davison Reed

Is there one stranger who stands out to you?

Muriel, the lady in the rain hat (top photo). I was actually making a street portrait of someone else. Muriel is different in the sense that it was the first time someone approached me in the street for a portrait. As I was shooting another lady, Muriel walked in between my camera and the subject. Muriel stopped and immediately was curious. She watched me make the photography and said, “Could you take my photograph?” So this was a change for me. We made the portrait together. After the photograph Muriel took her hand out of her pocket and it was bleeding. She had caught it on a zip or something. I had some tissue. I learned that Muriel has a blooding thinning illness. I walked her to her car, where her son-in-law was waiting. I learned that Muriel had just had her hair done (hence the rain hat) and she was off to watch the Nottingham Panther ice hockey team, as she is an avid supporter. [She] was kind, general, open, funny, warm, loving, strong, young at heart, and fun.

Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.