How to Ask a Stranger for a Portrait. The Psychology of Street Portraits

It starts out with an understanding that we’re all human beings, and it’s not all that difficult.

Fact: You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Asking a stranger for a portrait isn’t as difficult as it seems. And like anything, you sometimes just need to prep for it. But a few bad photographers have given the rest of us a horrible reputation. In truth, it’s not hard to ask someone for their portrait. Sometimes they’ll say no, and other times they’ll say yes. But it’s the approach that matters. We’re going to quickly run through that in this article.

This book will inspire you to shoot better street portraits. Also see the work of Iwona Pinkowicz, Jenny Baker, Max Dedry, Will Crooks, and Debabrata Ray.

Calm Down

First off, get over your anxiety for a moment. You need to calm down. It’s normal to become super nervous about all this. But face it, if someone declines, it’s not like it’s going to affect you when you’re ready to retire. It’s a momentary fear that we hyperinflate in our heads. So do something to calm you down. Take a shot. Lay off the coffee. Listen to music to get into the mood. Get the anxiety out first before you go out there to shoot.

“All of a sudden he calms down. He smiles. It’s as if we’re friends now. Surprisingly he apologizes, “Okay. We make a deal. You email me the photo I give you kebab on the house.” Hey, I’m a sucker for a freebie and I do love a kebab – and that was that. As we ate I explained what I do and my motives for doing so. He understood the practice more and seemed rather impressed by it.”

Street Photographers Share Stories Of Confrontation (And Overcoming It)

Why Do You Want Their Portrait?

Something that we always say is that you should check your intentions first. Ask yourself why you want their portrait. Are they a person that you’re going to stare at longingly later on? If that’s the reason, then don’t do it. Put the camera down and leave it down. You don’t need to a voyeur, and you don’t need to be predatory. 

If the reason you want their portrait is that you genuinely want to create a proper body of work, then move forward.

Pro Tip: Make them smile. Don’t ask them to do so. Here’s how to do that!

A Trick: Bring a Flash with a Modifier. Then Ask a Stranger for a Portrait.

Here’s the truth. When someone just sees that you’ve got a camera and a lens, they think you’re just some random person. But when they see you’re taking it seriously with a flash and a modifier, they see you differently. We’re going to talk about this more later on. But maybe bring a flash. And of course, that means you should learn how to use one. Consider high-speed sync. Move into the shadows to get more light control. Just step up your shooting game and show that you really want this.

My personal recommendation: the Flashpoint R2 has always served me very well. Check out our review.

What Type of Environment are You In?

Are you just on a busy street during rush hour? No one has time to pose for you then. Are you observing someone in their downtime? Then ask for a super quick portrait. Always offer it to them too. Most cameras these days have Wifi built-in. So beam the image to your phone and text it to them. Otherwise, bring along an Instant film camera and offer them an instant film photo.

Of course, all this is different depending on the circumstances. If you’re at a festival or a convention, folks are more inclined to let you photograph them.

“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?”

8 Tips on How to Ask a Stranger for a Portrait

We should also probably address children here. Do you have good intentions? You do? Okay. Then shoot, and let the parents know what you’re doing.

They’re More Afraid of You

Always remember that they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. So try to make them understand why they shouldn’t be afraid of you. That requires empathy. And more than that, you need to check your own intentions.

Do it With Intent and Purpose: Ask a Stranger for a Portrait.

Have a reason to want to photograph them. Here are some questions to ask yourself. The more honest you are, the better it will be:

  • Why are you taking their portrait? 
  • What are you going to do with their portrait?
  • What makes this person so special?
  • How do they fit into the series or project you want to create?

Check out Part 1, 2, and 3 of our Guide to Doing Street Portraits for even more on how to ask a stranger for a portrait.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.