Tutorial: How to Shoot Portraits of Total Strangers

 Have you ever had the bizarre urge to walk up to a total stranger and say “can I take your picture?” ​Yeah? Then you’re in the right place.

You’re about to read over 3,000+ words on the art of creating street portraits, or what I like to call “the gentle art of photographing strangers.” My name is Michael Comeau. I’m a portrait photographer based in New York City. I’m also a textbook introvert. I spend more time alone than with other people. I suck at small talk. And I never, ever talk to strangers… unless I’m shooting ​their portrait. ​But you don’t have to be a social butterfly to shoot great street portraits. You just have to turn your camera on and your brain off.

In this in-depth guide to shooting street portraits, I’m going to cover:

  • The Humans of New York Connection
  • What a Street Portrait Actually Is
  • 4 Reasons Why YOU Should Shoot Street Portraits
  • Popular Misconceptions, Like the Idea That You Must Be Outgoing to Shoot Street Portraits
  • The 3 Main Challenges of Street Portraits
  • How You Can Shoot Your First Street Portrait
  • Tips for Setting Your Camera
  • What You Should Say to a Street Portrait Subject
  • How to Quickly Compose an Effective Portrait
  • Editing and Post-Processing

The Humans of New York Connection

Brandon Stanton didn’t invent the street portrait. They’ve been around for a long, long time, and were perhaps popularized by Diane Arbus. But Brandon’s Humans of New York project brought the street portrait into the public consciousness. I’ve thought long and hard about why Humans of New York has become perhaps the most-viewed series of portraits ever created. It comes down to one simple concept: human solidarity. We all have our struggles, and that means we’re all on the same team. Most social media is about looking cool, so it’s amazing to see stories of real live humans with real live human problems.

When Humans of New York features someone going through a divorce or suffering from a drug addiction, we can all relate because we all have our own big problems. And that’s what street portraits are all about – relating. You’re creating a real moment of solidarity with your fellow person when you make a connection with a stranger for a portrait. A street portrait is not just a picture. ​It’s a shared creative experience with a total stranger.

How often do you do anything with a stranger, let alone a creative act?

What Is a Street Portrait?

We have to start by asking the simple question “what is a portrait?”

Let’s to straight to the master Richard Avedon:

Richard Avedon said, “A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he is being photographed.” ​Therefore, a street portrait is, “A picture of a complete stranger who knows he is being photographed.” Many street photographers have co-opted the word portrait to describe candid pictures of people.

But the word portrait implies 2 things:

  1. A photographer is setting up the shot
  2. The subject ​consents to the portrait

This is a candid picture of a person:

And this is a street portrait:

What makes it a portrait? Because I approached the subject and got her consent.

3 Reasons You Should Take Street Portraits

​All photographers should take street portraits. I don’t care if you’re a wedding photographer, a landscape photographer, or a street photographer. If you can approach a complete stranger and shoot an effective portrait of them in less than a minute, you’re guaranteed to grow as an artist. Here’s why:

1) You’​ll sharpen your technique

You’ll be forced to work fast, so you’ll get used to quickly setting your camera and composing your shot

2) You’​ll get out of your comfort zone

The idea of approaching a complete stranger and asking to take their photograph makes a lot of photographers want to crap their pants. I’ve been shooting street portraits for 7 years, and I still get nervous!

3) You’​ll have a lot of interesting experiences

When you shoot street portraits, funny things happen… like the day a grown man called me Papito and kissed my hand.

The Papito Story

One day, I was strolling through the East Village in search of portrait subjects.​Funny, a subject round me.I was walking by Tompkins Square Park, and this guy stops me and yells, “PAPITO! TAKE MY PICTURE! TAKE MY PICTURE!”

According to the Urban Dictionary, Papito means, “hot man, daddy, latin way of telling a man that he is desirable.” Cool!

He puts his hands up, and I start shooting.

After I ​get 4 or 5 few frames, I ask him why he wanted to have his picture taken. “Papito, I am walking home from church and we gave the hungry people food and coffee!”

I reply, “Do you want me to send you a picture?”  “No no no, Papito! Thank you very much!”  He then grabs my hand, kisses it, and ​runs like hell down the block.

The 3 Major Misconceptions About Street Portraits

1) They’re For Social Butterflies Only

The biggest myth about street portraits is t​hat they’re only for extroverted social butterflies. I​ don’t believe that. I’m a shy and quiet person. But I can also get out a few sentences and press the damn button on my camera. And that’s all ​you need to do.

2) People Will Hate You

You may also think you’re going to get negative reactions. I’ve shot hundreds of street portraits, and the worst thing I’ve had to deal with was a very stern no. I’ve never been yelled at, slapped, or otherwise harassed.

3) The Picture Has to Be Good!

I’ve shot my fair share of crappy street portraits. But that’s okay. As an introvert, street portraits are a way of getting out of my comfort zone. As long as I make the attempt, I consider the experience a success.

The 3 Challenges of Street Portraits

1) Talking to Strangers

If I can shoot street portraits, anyone can. I’m a wallflower at parties and I can easily go an entire day without talking to anyone. Asking a random person if you can shoot their portrait is not easy. But I’ll give you my personal formula for success in talking to strangers.

FACT: You don’t need to be a social butterfly to photograph strangers! #streetportraits

2) Nailing Camera Settings on the Fly

You don’t want to fiddle with your camera while you’re trying to connect with a stranger. But you’re going to learn some very simple tricks of the trade to nail your exposure in no time at all.

3) Getting a Good Picture Fast

95% of the time, you’re going to have a minute or less to shoot your street portrait. So you’ll have to move quickly. You can still get a great picture – you’ve just got to learn how to plan a shot BEFORE you approach someone.

How You Can Take Your First Street Portrait

Now we’re getting to the good stuff: how YOU can shoot street portraits without feeling like a total doofus.

You’re going to learn:

  1. The gear you need
  2. How to choose your first subject
  3. A quick and easy method for nailing your camera settings
  4. The easiest way to approach a stranger, and what you should say
  5. A dead-simple rule for composition that works every time
  6. How to choose and edit your shots

​Step 1: ​Get a Camera, Any Camera!

Do you have a working camera?

Yeah? Then you’re good to go! And it doesn’t matter whether you have an iPhone or a 100-megapixel Phase One. Many photographers think that people are intimidated by bigger cameras, but it’s not necessarily the case. First, if you’ve got a big camera and lens, a lot of people will automatically assume you’re a serious photographer. That can be a good thing. And second, potential subjects pay more attention to what you say and your body language than anything else.

Plus, many larger cameras, particularly film cameras, are real conversation starters. If you’re walking around with a Pentax 67, people will actually start talking to you! If you have a working camera, then you have all you need to shoot a great portrait.

What lens is right for you?

We’ve established that your camera doesn’t matter much. But your lens choice matters, because it affects the framing and feel of a picture. Wider lenses are great for portraits that show the environment.

Here’s a shot taken at 35mm:

Normal lenses, which I regard as anything around 50mm, are a little tighter and work great for medium shots:

Or even close-ups if you like the feel, like I do:

A longer lens, like my Sony FE 90mm macro, is great for tight headshots with a more traditional feel

If you’re not sure of what to start with, go with a lens around 50mm. ​Get a wider lens if you want more environmental-type shots, or a longer lens if you want tight headshots without perspective distortion caused by being too close to the subject. Or, just get a zoom lens if you want flexibility.

Step 2: Find Your First Street Portrait Subject

Who Not to Approach

You now have your gear sorted out, you’ve got to find a subject. I’ll start by telling you who not to approach. My personal rules are simple.

  1. I avoid people that are eating
  2. I don’t approach people that look upset
  3. I never bother people that are in a hurry
  4. I don’t photograph pretty girls just because they’re pretty

Who to Approach

Beyond that, it’s anything goes. If I find someone interesting and I think they’ll say yes, then I’m game.

How do I know someone will say yes? Facial expressions and body language can tell you a lot, and over time, you develop a sixth sense for it. And if your approach is right (which we’ll go over), people are far more likely to say yes to a street portrait. If you just want to get your first street portrait over with, go to an event where people expect – and want – to be photographed.

For example, you could go to a fashion event, a Comic Con, or a demonstration. ​Or… just find someone with a cool hat.

Cool Hat Theory

​Cool Hat Theory says that people who wear interesting headgear love compliments. They spent a lot of time picking out their hats, so they want validation that they made the right choice. So if you see someone with a cool hat, there’s a very good chance they’ll say yes to you.

Everyone Else

If you’ve progressed from people at events to cool hat people, then you’re basically ready to shoot everyone else. All you need to do is turn off your brain and say hello. But first, let’s set your camera.

Step 3: Street Portraits Camera Settings

If You’re a Nervous Wreck or a Complete Beginner…

Just turn your camera to P mode, so you don’t have to think at all about your settings. And shoot RAW in case your exposure is off. If your camera has face detection autofocus, use that too. Hey, it’s not the fanciest or most ‘professional’ way of shooting a portrait, but who cares? If the idea of photographing a stranger makes you queasy, then just take camera settings out of the equation altogether.

How I Set My Camera

I always shoot street portraits in Aperture Priority. Why? Because I set my camera BEFORE I approach someone. In aperture priority, I can guestimate my settings to ensure I get the exposure I want.

I adjust my Aperture according to the depth of field I want, and I let the camera sort out the rest. ​On my 55mm Sony, I shoot my portraits anywhere from f/2 to f/8. ​On my 90mm Sony macro, I’ll be anywhere from f/4 to f/6.3. I don’t care about what my exact shutter speed is, ​but I want to be at 1/100s at a minimum to counteract subject movement.

If my shutter speed is too slow, I just bump my ISO up. Then, I’ll adjust exposure compensation as necessary. If a subject is lit from the front, I typically won’t apply any exposure compensation. Backlit subjects will typically be underexposed, so I will add as much as a full stop depending on the situation.

This is because your cameras meter will see all that bright backlight and make the entire picture darker — including your subject’s face. So you need to add exposure to offset your camera’s urge to make light things dark.

Know Your Camera!

It’s important to know your camera so you’ll know how much exposure compensation ​you need for different situations. For example, in any high-contrast situation, ​my Canon 5D needs ​way more exposure compensation than my Sony A7 II. So now you know how to set your camera.

It’s time to approach your street portrait subject.

Step 4: Approach Your Street Portrait Subject

The Approach

Asking a complete stranger if you can take their photo is a downright bizarre thing to do. So you have to project confidence and warmth. Let your camera hang by its strap so your hands are free. Showing your palms is a universal sign of friendliness and honesty, so don’t clench your fists or fold your arms. And ​walk slowly but deliberately so your subject can see you coming. Walking slowly and deliberately will also actually make you feel more confident. Science shows that pretending to be confident actually makes you more confident.

Try Not to Think!

When you spot a potential street portrait subject, approach them immediately. The longer you wait, the more likely you are to psych yourself out and lose the shot. If I don’t make an approach within 30 seconds, there’s a 95% chance I’ll abandon the situation. I’ve lost thousands of potentially great street portraits because I waited. Plus, you’ll come off as a stalker if you just​ keep looking at someone over and over without talking to them.

What to Say

​Maintain friendly body language with a strong posture. Keep your message simple.

Here’s what I say 90% of the time:

“Hi my name is Mike and I’m a portrait photographer from Brooklyn. I like your hat/tattoo/tie/gloves/dog/whatever. Can I take a picture of you?”

I NEVER compliment a person’s looks. I compliment their tastes. I do this for 2 simple reasons. First, I don’t want to seem like I’m hitting on them. Compliments can also make people feel self-conscious. You may think someone’s wild, unruly hair is perfect. They may think it’s an ugly mess, and that they should have worn a hat.

30% of the time, I get a no. It’s very frustrating, but I smile, say “thank you,” and move on my way.

​50% of the time, I get an instant yes.

​20% of the time, I’ll be asked something like “what is this for?” or “where is this picture going?”

That 20% wants to say yes. But they need confirmation that they’re not dealing with a crazy person.

Always tell the truth, which in my case is “I put them on my Instagram and my website.” I’ll usually get a yes then, but if I don’t, they get a smile, a thank you, and a wave goodbye. Don’t be rude because you’ll give photographers a bad name.

​Step 5: Compose the Shot and Nail It

Compose: Head in a Clean Spot

Here’s a quick tip that works in almost any portrait situation: put the person’s head in a clean spot. (h/t Zack Arias for this one). Use elements in the background to form a frame around the subject’s head. This draws immediate attention to the face.

Here are 3 examples:

And if you’re shooting someone up against a blank wall, even better!

Hair Color Is Surprisingly Important

If someone has very light hair, try to photograph them in front of a dark background. Why?

This is why:

See how the woman’s hair just blended right in to the light part of the wall? This picture would be much stronger if her head was against the red wall. The contrast would pull your eyes to her face even faster, The opposite is also true: when you can, shoot subjects with dark hair against light backgrounds:

Horizontal vs. vertical & cropping options

Obviously, you should put your frames together in a way that makes you happy. I tend to shoot my street portraits in horizontal mode, and I avoid putting the ​eyes directly in the center of the frame. ​It’s better to shoot too lose than too tight, since you’ll have more flexibility to crop in post-processing. I am not crazy about the native 2:3 aspect ratio in my main camera, the Sony A7 II. So I often crop to 3×4, 4×5, and square aspect ratios.

I’ve even done a few at 6×7 to honor my favorite film camera, the Pentax 67.

Give Direction

If a person is naturally photogenic, don’t mess around. Just take what they’re giving you. But with most subjects, don’t be afraid to direct the shot. It shows you know what you’re doing, and you’ll often get a more relaxed and natural expression.

When I like what I see, I take 2-4 frames. But what if I don’t like what I see? I just accept that I’m not getting the picture I want, and take the same 2-4 frames.

Saying goodbye

After I get my frames, I say thank you and offer a handshake. I also offer a business card so they can contact me to get their photos. ​One guy actually called me 6 months after I took a picture of him and his girlfriend! I thought it was pretty cool that he remembered me:

Another option: if your camera has Wi-Fi, you can beam photos to your smartphone and send them right on the spot.

Wait… Do Humans of New York-Type Conversations Ever Happen?

I’m not afraid to chat with my subjects, but most of my street portrait interactions are very short. Sometimes I go from “hello” to “thank you” in less than 30 seconds. Once in a while, I end up in an extended conversation, which can be pretty cool. Sometimes, I regret not getting to know my subjects a little better.

UK-based Crash Taylor, creator of the ‘Streets of Nottingham’ street portrait project, does things a little differently. After he captures a street portrait, he asks his subjects to make a wish, which gives us a better idea of who his subjects are.

Click here for our interview with Crash.

​Step 6: Editing and Post-Processing Street Portraits

Choosing Pictures

There’s a popular notion that a portrait should say something about the subject, but I don’t necessarily buy into that. I operate on a more visceral level. I’m looking for charisma. If the subject’s expression makes me want to know more about them, then I consider it a successful portrait, and I will publish it.

Here are some of the expressions I’ve captured:

Keep your post-processing simple

Street portraits are about capturing natural expressions of real people. So keep your post processing simple.

What do you like best?

This simple black & white shot:

Or this overly effect, grainy mess:

How about this HDR-flavored mess?

Your opinion is your own… but I know where I stand…

Black and white vs. color

Choosing between black and white or color is entirely personal. I tend to go black and white unless color in the image serves the shot better. For example, I went with color here because I wanted to pick up the girl’s warm skin tones:

But it’s really more of a ‘feel’ thing. Some pictures just feel better in black and white, and some just feel better in college.

Wrapping It Up…

If you’ve made it this far… thank you! I’m going to end with 1 very simple messages for you.

Embrace the people you meet

When you shoot street portraits, you end up meeting some really wonderful… and really bizarre people. Embrace them, because you’d have never met them otherwise. And that’s what’s great about street portraits. You can make an instant connection with a total stranger, and create something special together. Never forget that. You’re not just taking a picture for yourself, but you’re also giving people recognition.

And that’s pretty damn cool.

Thanks for Reading!

I really hope you got something out of this article. I’ve tried my best to include everything I’ve learned from all the years I’ve spent shooting street portraits. If you’ve got a minute, drop a comment below and let me know what you think. And don’t forget to sign up for my FREE newsletter on my website!

See this post in its original format over at On Portraits.