The Beginner’s Guide To Shooting Street Portraits (Part 1)

Taking a portrait of a complete stranger is extremely liberating. However, to do them successfully, street portraits take skill, confidence and good intuition.

I’m often asked about my process when it comes to photographing strangers. How do I approach someone? What if they say no? Should I shoot in manual mode? These are just a few of the questions I receive as people want to start their own journey in street portraiture. Determined to support you, I’m putting together a 3 part guide to help develop your approach to street portraits.

What You Will Learn

Over the course of this guide, I will show you how to:

  • Approach Your Subjects
  • Handle Rejection
  • Make Your Subject Feel Relaxed
  • Best Use Your Cameras’ Settings
  • Identify a Compelling Subject
  • End Your Interaction

In this piece, we take a closer look at how to approach a subject and how to deal with rejection.

What are Street Portraits?

Before we get started with the finer details, let’s first identify what street portraits are…

Street portraits are an off the cuff, impromptu photo of a person who is on the street. Unlike your typical portrait shoot, the subjects are not professional models, don’t follow a project and you won’t have the luxury of having a perfect lighting set up. It must also be said that these portraits are not entirely candid either. The subject will be fully aware that you’re taking their picture and will pose accordingly for the shot.

So, now that we have cleared that up, let’s take a look at how you should approach your subjects.

Identifying Your Subject And Starting Your Approach

The way you approach your subject is the most important part of taking a street portrait. It’s your sales pitch, and if you get it wrong, you won’t get the shot you wanted.

When I’m looking for an interesting subject, I tend to avoid people who are walking quickly, listening to music or generally giving off a “don’t talk to me” vibe. People who are hanging around will be more likely to engage with you than someone frantically pacing down the street. Once you have identified your subject, you need to act quickly. If they sense that you’re hesitant and frequently looking at them it will make them feel uncomfortable, making it a high risk of them rejecting you.

When opening up a dialogue, rather than saying “Can I take your picture?”, say to them “I would like to take your picture”. If you ask “Can I” it gives them an opportunity to say yes or no. If they say no, it instantly shuts the conversation down and you’ve lost the shot. Saying you “would like” will spark up their interest. Them asking “Why would you like to take my picture?” naturally keeps the conversation flowing, giving you further opportunity to seal the deal.

At this point, rub their ego a little bit. Tell them they are stylish and attractive – make them feel confident. Be sure to tell them why you’re taking their picture, explaining that you’re a photographer. Essentially you need to be doing all you can to ensure they don’t feel that you have any bad intentions.

Top Tip – Make good eye contact when speaking to your subjects. It will show you have conviction in what you’re saying. Be careful not say stare, but if they notice your eyes are darting all over the place they will lose confidence in you.

How to Handle Rejection

One thing you need to understand is that no matter how good or bad your approach is, you will experience rejection. Sometimes it will be a polite “no” and sometimes you will be on the receiving end of a sharp look that says “go away you freak”. You need to remember, everyday people are not used to having strangers asking if they can take their photo.

Don’t take rejection as a failure. See it as an opportunity to further challenge yourself, to work on your opening pitch and the confidence you show when delivering it. It’s important you don’t let your head go down, because the consequence of this is that you will withdraw and become frustrated.  Street portraits are meant to be fun, not stressful!

Top Tip – If you get a rejection, bounce back quickly. Don’t wait forever to ask someone else. Taking too long will let the feeling of rejection take over. Counter it by getting a success portrait and ride on the confident feeling it will give you.

Challenge

Now that you know more about the way you approach a street portrait, it’s time to go and do it yourself. This week, practice the habit of approaching people. Even if you don’t manage to take a photo, focus on your style, the way you carry yourself and how you manage a conversation. Go in with a “yes I can” attitude.

Be confident and good luck!

Come back next week, where we will look at how to make your subject feel relaxed when taking their portrait and what settings you should use on your camera.

Dan Ginn is a UK based street photographer and writer. Learn more about him via his website and Instagram.