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Well, It Keeps Me Off The Streets...

ePHOTOzine member Colin Allen (nellacphoto) has spent the last two years photographing people he's never met before and after hearing this, we wanted to find out more about his love of people photography which has just so happened to lead to the creation of a brilliant book.

| Portraits and People



Like so many of my fellow ePHOTOzine members, I consider myself to be a serious photographer, always looking for new ideas and always continuing to learn. But while I love all good photography, be it an Ansel Adams landscape or a 1960s David Bailey portrait, I came to realise some years ago that my first love is to photograph people. And that’s how I’ve spent all my photographic energy for a long time.

During the five years before the pandemic hit, I regularly attended tattoo conventions in London and the annual Venice Carnival. People who know my photos know my love of colour, and you won’t find anywhere better to capture colour than at these two events. People who adorn themselves in permanent, often beautiful body art are delighted to show it off and be photographed. Similarly, creative people who have spent months designing and hand-making the most colourful, intricate Carnival costumes go to Venice to be seen and to socialise.


Beautiful Portraits At Venice Carnival

On my first visit to Carnival, photographing these people seemed slightly unnerving. The costumes were beautiful, but they nearly always included a full-face mask adorned with paintwork and jewellery. Eyes would invariably be encircled with black face paint so no hint of skin could be seen through the mask’s eye sockets.

That meant that I had no idea who I was photographing. The beautiful young woman in the colourful costume might well be a much more mature woman or even a man!

But none of that mattered as I got into the spirit of the event. And when the characters could see by your camera(s) that you were serious about what you were doing, they would often gently raise a hand to stop the proceedings for a moment while they handed you a card featuring a photo of them in that costume and an email address. They were asking you to send the photos later, and I would always oblige.


Meeting Interesting People At Tattoo Shows

The tattoo shows are equally great places for photography. I have been to a dozen London shows now, but the first time I went I had no idea what to expect. I naively imagined a hall full of small, private tattoo booths and expected to have a word with each tattooist before entering to take some shots. It turned out to be nothing like that.

At Alexandra Palace in North London and Tobacco Dock in East London, there are 300 to 400 tables with tattoo artists from all over the world honing their skills. Their “victims” lie on the tables, reading, and listening to music, seemingly oblivious to the pain. On my first visit, I watched for a while as other photographers would walk up, take a couple of snaps and walk off. That’s not me. I have never had a refusal, but nonetheless, I always wait until I can catch the subject’s eye and then point to my camera and ask “OK?” I generally get a thumbs-up or a “Sure” back. And often from the tattooist too. There is a great atmosphere at these shows.


The Pandemic Arrived...

But, everything stopped when the pandemic arrived in March 2020. Even as the lockdown eased there was no sign of the shows or Carnival reappearing. Too many crowds in confined spaces. That said, I did visit my first tattoo show again a few weeks ago and I have just booked my tickets to Venice Carnival next February.

So, I wondered, what could I do as soon as we were let out on the streets again? The answer came from an unexpected source: my niece bought me a photographic guided walk around Shoreditch in East London, capturing the scenes using just mobile phones. It was great fun and I learnt a few things I could do with my phone’s camera that I hadn’t known about before. But, more importantly, I discovered Shoreditch and instantly fell in love with it.

I had never seen so much brilliant, colourful artwork on the walls, the buildings, the shopfront shutters. The shop owners had apparently given up cleaning it off as it would only reappear the next day in another guise.


Deobia and Lou

Shoreditch - A Photo Opportunity On Every Corner

I now make a trip to Shoreditch every week and am learning much more about the area. Another revelation, for example, is the commercial art now appearing everywhere. Big companies are paying for the most fabulous hand-painted adverts on the sides of two-storey buildings. Watches, drinks, perfumes … and then, two weeks later, I will go back to find them painted over in white, while three or four guys will be high up on hydraulic platforms with cans of spray paint, starting over again for a different client.

Then there are the people of Shoreditch, so individual in their looks. They dress as colourfully and outrageously as they feel like, with hairstyles and jewellery complementing their clothes. There are no rules, and nothing is off-limits.

This is a people photographer’s dream – unique, stylish subjects in equally unique settings. A photo studio on every street and corner. I knew instantly that this would become a project for me. Photos of cool, interesting people. Photos of people I have never met before.

However, there is one fundamental difference between Shoreditch and Venice Carnival and the tattoo shows. The people at Carnival and the shows are there to be photographed, the ones walking along the streets of Shoreditch have no idea they are about to be. Assuming they agree to it, of course. And that’s the tricky bit - approaching complete strangers and asking if you can photograph them.

Let me give you some numbers: since I began the project up to the time of writing this, I have done 264 street shoots. I don’t know how many people I have actually approached but I would confidently say that over 80% said yes.

My tried-and-tested opening line goes something like this: “Hi, I’m doing a project on London street portraits of cool, interesting people, and you certainly fit the bill. Would you like to do a few shots?”



Depending on what they’re wearing, or the colour of their hair, I might add “colourful” to the list. When I get a rejection it’s often “Sorry, but I’m late for work” or “Oh no, I look awful in photos”. I never push it, just smile and thank them and off they go. But I do get annoyed with myself sometimes when I hesitate for a split second and they’ve walked past and the moment is gone. Why did I do that? You have to be quick and decisive to do what I do.

If someone has agreed to some photos you then need to decide quickly where to shoot. As I said before, in Shoreditch you are spoilt for choice. If I’m not standing by a colourful wall, there will always be one just 20 or 30 yards away. I’ll suggest we walk to it, which is a good moment for introductions. I always carry my street portrait cards with my email address and website on them. I usually hand the cards over at the end of the shoot and invite them to email me for the photos if they want.

And this is the bit that always fascinates me. Of the 264 shoots done so far, only 35% have asked for the shots. I’d have thought if I had just spent a good ten minutes posing for 20 or 30 shots with a photographer, I would probably want to see how they turned out.

But, then again, this is Shoreditch.

The shoots themselves can vary so much. My subjects will often ask, ‘What do I do? How should I pose?” Generally, I’ll say, “Don’t worry… let’s see what the light looks like… I’ll give you some guidance in a minute”. They will inevitably start by standing facing me, hands by their sides, quite rigid. After a couple of shots, I’ll suggest they angle their body a little and look over at me. Maybe a hand on a hip. And before you know it, they have relaxed into the shoot and really seem to enjoy posing.

Then, of course, there are the professional models - another bonus of Shoreditch. There are a lot of agencies and creative businesses around there. At the last count, I had photographed 16 models, many international. I generally have no idea until we’ve done a couple of shots and their experience shines out. They just know how to perform for the camera, often moving instinctively from one pose to another without any prompting from me. They are a joy to photograph, and they clearly do it out of the goodness of their hearts. I feel very lucky when it happens.


Hind and Millie

The moment that sticks in my mind the most, however, is the time I was in Cheshire Street, a road leading off Brick Lane, one of the main Shoreditch streets. A beautiful-looking blonde girl was walking toward me so I waved to flag her down. I saw she had earbuds in, like so many in Shoreditch do - they are generally listening to music. But as I started to tell her about my photo project I realised she was on the phone so I apologised and she went on her way.

And then the most amazing thing happened: she reached Brick Lane, about 50 yards away, and then stopped, turned around and came all the way back to where I was standing. In a German accent, she said, “Sorry, I felt mean. What did you ask me? Did you want to take photos of me? Sure. Take as many as you want”. So I did. And, again, it didn’t take me long to realise she was a model. She told me she was in London for some assignments. And, oh, did she move fast, changing poses so quickly I really struggled at times to keep up with her. And, for once, after what felt like a thousand shots, it was me who had to call a halt to the shoot. It was one of those magic moments and I got some great shots from it.


Street Portrait Kit Choices

For those interested in Colin's weapons of choice while putting the book together, his kit list is as follows:

  • Nikon D5
  • Nikon Z6 II
  • Nikon D800 
  • Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 (this lens is so good for street portraits allowing me to zoom between head and shoulders, and full body shots and the DOF is wonderful)
  • Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 



Shoreditch Street Portraits - The Book

Shoreditch Street Portraits


I have been posting my Shoreditch photos on ePHOTOzine on a regular basis. Some of you will know my work and I have always been grateful for the votes, comments and awards I have received along the way.

A small group of ePz members - and they know who they are - have been very encouraging about my project. So much so that they kept suggesting a book would be a good idea. Very flattering, and indeed a wonderful thought. But could it really ever happen? I approached a couple of publishers, but to no avail - they must get swamped with requests all the time. But eventually, I started to believe in myself more and looked into the possibility of self-publishing.

I also found myself chatting to another photographer on Brick Lane one day, who joined in on one of my shoots. He told me after that he had self-published a couple of photo books of street portraits. We had a Zoom call the following week and he gave me some useful tips about the printing process.

Eventually, I found a suitable printer and the costs made sense. The hard part was choosing which shots to use and what to say about each photo. I’m lucky that my wife was once a journalist and book editor and was able to turn my words into proper English. She also cleverly improved my initial design to give it the extra bit of style it needed, and I am very pleased with the end result.

Being your own judge and editor is very difficult. At the time of deciding which images to use, I had done about 220 shoots. Planning how the book would look and restricting it to a certain number of pages with either one landscape or two portrait shots per page, allowing me 172 shots. And then having culled nearly 50 shoots, I now had to whittle the 10 to 30 good shots of each one down to just a single shot. I could easily have shown 2 or 3 photos of each subject, but that could never work. It’s an interesting exercise forcing yourself to choose just one photo from a number of shots you really like!


Where To Buy 'Shoreditch Street Portraits'

The book titled 'Shoreditch Street Portraits' is an A4 Landscape softback, printed on high-quality matt silk paper, and contains 120 pages with 172 portraits. It sells for £17 plus £3 P&P and is available from my website: Colin Allen Photography.


I am genuinely thrilled at the wonderful feedback I have received from people who have bought it so far. I hope you enjoyed the few photos I've shared in this article to give you a flavour.

It has been an absolute labour of love.



You can also see more of Colin's work on his Instagram accounts: 

  • @colinallenstreetportraits
  • @nellacolatvenicecarnival
  • @nellacoltattooproject
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saltireblue Avatar
saltireblue Plus
13 14.8k 92 Norway
12 Sep 2022 12:14PM
An excellent and interesting insight which complements the images in your pf perfectly, Colin. Congratulations on the book, and hope it is a success!
lifesnapper Avatar
12 Sep 2022 12:14PM
WOW! 😃👍
pablophotographer Avatar
pablophotographer 12 2.2k 451
12 Sep 2022 1:09PM

Quote:An excellent and interesting insight which complements the images in your pf perfectly, Colin. Congratulations on the book, and hope it is a success!

I agree
Jasper87 Avatar
Jasper87 Plus
13 3.5k 165 England
12 Sep 2022 1:26PM
Fascinating insight and very well written, Colin.
Robert51 Avatar
Robert51 15 14 147 United Kingdom
12 Sep 2022 1:53PM
Great to see you given a chance to tell your side of why you are so often seen chasing young women around Shoreditch Colin. Like a few others I have been lucky enough to follow you over the years on your projects above. Also the two new ones you appear to be taking up now.
I like to feel that we are friends connected by our love of people and the photography we all share. Good luck for the future and we will all be waiting to see the results..

ZenTony Avatar
ZenTony Plus
7 31 7 United Kingdom
12 Sep 2022 1:56PM
Such a great and well produced project Colin. The result is of course outstanding.
nellacphoto Avatar
12 Sep 2022 2:22PM
Wow! Some very nice comments.

Many thanks to you all



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