Ten Tips

10 Tips on Shooting Street Portraits with Permission

Stranger #47
Stranger #44
Stranger #7

Shooting street portraits of strangers is a very daunting task. Often when you see a stranger you want to photograph, you find yourself between a rock and a hard place: you can't seem to ask them for their photo, yet you know you just have to. Here are a few tips that may help you get over that hill. It won't make it easy, but it may give you the push to start creating your own set of portraits of strangers.

1. Get used to the fear... coz it won't go away

There's no magic formula to get rid of the fear. In fact, there's a big chance that it will never go away. But that shouldn't stop you from doing what you want to do. Don't try to get rid it. Instead, try to shoot in spite of it.

When I was doing my strangers project, I was scared shitless most of the time. In fact, the fear I felt when I shot my 7th stranger was exactly the same when I shot my 100th stranger. Yup, my hands were shaking in both instances, and in most other instances between them. But I guarantee you; the struggle to shoot through the fear will all be worth it as you start acquiring one keeper shot after another. Then you'll want to shoot more.

2. Keep it simple

"Is it ok if I take your picture?" Short, sweet, and direct to the point. Don't start with a long explanation of what you want to do and why you're doing it... this has the potential to intimidate your subject. If they're curious, they'll ask "what for?" Otherwise , they'll just say yes or no. This saves time and effort for both you and the subject.

3. Be honest

When they do ask "what for?" sincerity will take you a long way. No need to come up with bogus scripted excuses. The last thing you want from the subject is a tinge of doubt or apprehension. Just tell them exactly what you're doing: whether you're working on a personal project, or just practicing your photography skills. Just be totally honest about the whole thing. You'd be surprised how many people would be supportive of you.

4. Expect rejections... but stay positive

They come in different shapes and sizes. Some people would be shy and polite when they say 'no.' Sometimes, they would even smile and say 'thank you.' But others are just downright nasty... as if you were some outcast to society. There's no denying that this kind of rejection will stick, but only for a short while. Before you know it, you'll be back in your feet looking for your next keeper. You need to accept the fact that rejection is an inevitable part of this whole process. But the exhilarating feeling of getting a series of keepers will more than make up for all the rejections you will get.

5. Hand out a card

This isn't absolutely necessary, but it sure helps. Bring a business card along that states your name, contact details, and the website address where you intend to post the portraits. This gives the subject a sense of security that their photo is not being taken by a shady character with malicious intent.

I always bring Moo cards that has my contact details and a sample photo at the back. It's professionally printed, and it looks cool. One of the best things about shooting street portraits is getting positive feedback from the subjects after they saw your site.

These are some quick tips on how to approach strangers. But getting a stranger to say 'yes' is only half the battle. Getting a good portrait, and series of good portraits, is the next challenge.

6. Avoid the snapshot smile

You know... the smile that you've smiled a thousand times whenever you're in front of the camera. It's almost always the automatic reaction. You may want to avoid this because more often than not, the snapshot smile looks contrived. You can either ask them not to smile... or if you really want that smile, make them laugh and capture the moment. The point is to capture the subject in their natural state. It makes for a better portrait.

7. Always be aware of the light

As you walk in the streets looking for a subject to photograph, always be aware of where the light is coming from. This way, when you encounter a subject, you know exactly how to quickly position him to get the best light. I've made the mistake of disregarding the light so many times because I was too excited that the subject said 'yes', I ended up with a portrait that should have been better.

8. Stay consistent

If you're creating a series of street portraits, the set will be more interesting and meaningful if there's a unifying factor amongst them. It can be as simple as consistent framing, background or lighting, or as profound as having a general human theme. It has to work as a series, rather than just having good individual keepers put together.

9. Establish eye contact

Rarely does a street portrait work when the subject is not looking at the camera. The viewer needs to feel an instant connection with the subject, and the most effective way is when the viewer feels like the subject is looking intently at him.

10. Have fun

Most important of all :)

Please don't forget to visit my blog at http://www.dannyst.com and my facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/dannyst.photography

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14 responses

  • Marco Bertagni

    Marco Bertagni said (28 Jun 2011):

    Nice history Danny. I will follow some advices even if most of times I use advice n. 9 or keep myself far with a 300 mm. Some of the last pictures loaded in JPG have been shot without asking but just with eye contact. What do you think about them?

  • Maura Wolfson-Foster

    Maura Wolfson-Foster gave props (28 Jun 2011):


  • John Tanner

    John Tanner said (28 Jun 2011):

    You bet this gets my vote.
    Danny offers some good solid advice especially the part about being honest.
    It's easy to be honest and most often works to your advantage.

    I can't completly agree with you on the fear never going away but maybe it's a personel thing since we're all different.
    I will tell you however I once was most unwilling to approach strangers for any reason period let alone asking to shoot their photo.

    I was very fortunate in that I had a friend I use to shoot with who was born to be a "people person"
    She's the kind of person who could walk into a room full of strangers and in 10 minutes know everyones' name in the room and be holding conversations with them.
    My friend has a natural ability for putting people at ease and more importantly making them feel like they matter and had something of interest to say.

    With her it was never an act,she honestly cared and folks picked up on that and warmed up to her very quickly.
    The number 1 thing I learned from watching my friend was to always be yourself and never try to B.S.anyone into believing you're something you're not.

    It's very simple when you think about it.
    It's that old first impression lesson most of us learned at a very young age .......there is no 2nd chance to create a good first impression.
    People are going to form their opinion of you in less than a minute.

    In those first 60 seconds they will decide if they like you or not and one thing is certain.....
    Your likeability will vary from person to person because we all have different and unique personaliteis but one thing nobody likes is a bull shittin phoney.
    Always be who you are no matter what.

    A smile and a friendly but not over the top demeanor will take you a long way.
    If you don't believe that here's a little experiment you can try from the safety of your moving car.
    When your out and about and you see a stranger on the sidewalk or standing in their front yard make direct eye contact with that person.

    Just look directly at them for a short moment,don't smile or wave.
    But don't give them the ugly eye like you want to jump out of the car and fight either.
    Chances are excellent that your gaze will be returned with a somewhat defensive,semi confrontational posture.

    Now it's time.....
    Give a slight smile,a nod of your head and a wave then watch the instant change that happens.
    In most cases the defensive posturing and the idea of possible confrontation vanishes.
    Your small smile gets returned and the person nearly breaks an arm trying to return your wave before you get out of his/her eyesight.......try it you'll see I'm right.

    No I'm not an expert on humans and their behavior but the simple fact is most of us want to be liked,treated with respect and avoid negetive confrontation.
    Your mom was always right when she told you you'de catch far more flys with sugar than with shit !!!

    Danny's advice and tips are good examples to follow.
    Another reason why JPG is cool.....we can all learn and share our ideas and experiences.
    Thanks Danny

  • Photo Shack

    Photo Shack (Deleted) gave props (28 Jun 2011):

    Very good advice about a scary topic. Definitely worth the read!!!

  • Janos Nezo

    Janos Nezo gave props (30 Jun 2011):

    Very useful! Thanks.

  • Aaron Schwartz

    Aaron Schwartz gave props (30 Jun 2011):

    Excellent - got my vote.

  • Christian Yri

    Christian Yri gave props (6 Jul 2011):

    Good pointers Danny (and John). Like anything else that is a little daunting, practice certainly helps. Rejection may always remain a little scary but the more you try, the less frightening it becomes. I think, at the end of the day, most people will be flattered that someone is showing interest.

  • Debbie Smartt

    Debbie Smartt gave props (16 Jul 2011):

    I can do it!

  • Michele Wambaugh

    Michele Wambaugh (Deleted) said (8 May 2012):

    FAB portraits!

  • Urbano Desprini

    Urbano Desprini (Deleted) gave props (29 May 2012):

    Thanks !! my vote !!

  • Bailey Cooper

    Bailey Cooper said (1 Jun 2012):

    I think one thing to consider regarding this approach is the culture in which you are applying it. Singapore is culterally quite different than, oh say, New York, Chicago, or LA. Unless in a crowded area, I generally ask for permission. More times than not, I am greeted with a large helping of paranoia and, at times, aggression. I have even been confronted in a few stores and told that what I was doing was illegal. I think the rule of thumb may be, consider your subject's frame of reference.

  • JPG

    JPG   gave props (1 Feb 2015):

    Congrats for getting the Story of the Week!

  • John Linton

    John Linton gave props (6 Feb 2015):

    Hell YEAH! Rad!

  • John Linton

    John Linton gave props (6 Feb 2015):

    Congrats on making Story of the Week!

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