Eight Quick Tips on How to Ask Strangers for Portraits

You may have missed opportunities for incredible street portraits because of fear of taking photos of strangers. I myself have imagined scenarios where my candid subjects yell at me or attack me. Luckily, in my six years taking photographs of strangers throughout New York City, and in small towns in the tri state area, that has never happened.

All the photographs included here are images I shot in the neighborhood I currently live, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. In my time living here, I’ve spent many hours on the boardwalk, beach, and streets, admiring the unique residents of the area. For a long time, I was too afraid to turn my camera towards the beachgoers, bench-sitters, elderly couples, chess players, and beautiful citizens of my neighborhood. I slowly learned (with some mistakes along the way) how to make the people of Brooklyn’s oceanside sanctuary more comfortable with having their photo taken. Here are eight tips to overcome this fear and become a better street photographer.

Tip 1: Be aware of your surroundings.

Use your common sense to know when it’s not a good time to take a photograph. That couple in a heated argument might make an interesting photo, but you might upset them more or get involved in something you don’t want to be a part of if you point your camera at them. A good rule is to ask yourself, “If I were in their shoes, would I want my photograph to be taken at this moment?”

While doing this, also be sure to look around for nice lighting, nice colors, and backgrounds that aren’t distracting.

Tip 2: Ask.

If you want to take a posed photo, just ask. You’d be surprised at how many people are happy and flattered to have their photograph taken. I recently was walking down the boardwalk and spotted two chess players that I wanted to take a photo of. I was afraid I would be intruding, so I decided to ask. They happily obliged and went on with what they were doing. That moment spurred two strangers that were nearby to also ask me to take their photo! Throughout my time as a street photographer, I have never expecteded to have strangers ask me to take their photos, but as any photographer will tell you, the gig is full of surprises. I ended up getting three great photos out of that one moment, just from getting the courage to ask for permission.

Also always remember there are chances that people are more afraid of you than you are of them.

Tip 3: If you prefer candid, just take the photo. If the person notices, explain yourself.

This might sound risky, but a part of getting good street photos is becoming brave enough to take chances for that excellent photo. Have a scripted line ready if someone confronts you about the photo you just took. “I’m a street photographer and I thought you looked interesting and wanted to take a photo,” is a good place to start. You can replace the word interesting with beautiful, cool, or photogenic, depending on who the subject is. If someone just catches your eye, smile. Always be friendly.

On top of all this, be sure that you always have good intentions when you take the photo.

Tip 4: Carry your business cards with your website and contact info.

If a person asks you what you’re doing, this will make you seem more “legit” and professional, which will make the subject more comfortable with having their photo taken. They might ask you for a copy of the image, or to check out the rest of your work. If they get your information they can contact you and access your website.

Of course, that means you should at least try to establish yourself in some way or another first.

Tip 5: If they get upset, delete the photo. If it’s film, promise not to use it.

At the end of the day, if the subject doesn’t want their photo taken, you must respect their wishes and delete the photo. Show them the photo through the review mode and show them that you deleted it. Assure them you would never use an image that they don’t want the world to see. This provides a mutual respect between the photographer and the subject, which works out well for all parties involved.

Tip 6: Be wary of taking photos of children.

Parents are, understandably so, protective of their children. You could make a parent very upset by taking a photo of their children, which could ignite a conflict. Don’t go to places with a camera where kids hang out, like parks or jungle gyms. You will most likely get yelled at, or arrested.

Tip 7: Offer to send the photo or a print.

If someone notices you took their photo and strikes up a friendly conversation, offer to send them a file or a print. The people on the street are your subjects, your creative muses, and your inspiration as a street photographer, so they should be treated as such. Offering a subject that stops to talk to you a print or digital image makes you look professional, and gives them the security and control over how they are depicted.

Tip 8: Choose equipment accordingly.

Mirrorless cameras are smaller, quieter, and look less threatening than big DSLRs. I have used both a DSLR and a mirrorless camera for street photography, and have learned that I get noticed less with the mirrorless camera. My preferred models are the Fujifilm X-T2 or the Fujifilm X100F. The X100F has a fixed 23mm f/2 lens that’s not interchangeable, which gives me the fun challenge of framing and composition for a perspective that remains stagnant. This helps me think more creatively and get in closer to the action.

I hope these tips help you improve your work as a street photographer, gain confidence, and learn how to work with the great theater of the streets to create more interesting photographs.

For more from Olivia, be sure to check out her website.