How to Shoot Street Portraits


Posted on June 17th, by Danny Santos II in Articles, Tips. 77 comments

Danny Santos shooting portraits of strangers, taken by Paulo Legaspi
Photo above taken by photography hobbyist Paulo Legaspi

About a month ago, I was invited by street photographer Eric Kim to be a guest writer for his blog. He wanted me to write a few tips on shooting street portraits. Although I’ve already blogged about my thoughts and experiences while working on my Portraits of Strangers project, I haven’t really provided any direct tips on how to work on a project like this. So I started writing down a few quick tips based on what worked for me. I’d like to share this article with you guys. Hope this helps :)

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 :)

If you guys have any more questions about this, just post it up in the comments :)

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This article was originally posted on Eric Kim’s Street Photography blog. I’d like to thank Eric for giving me this chance to share my tips and experience on shooting street portraits.

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77 thoughts on “How to Shoot Street Portraits

  1. Hi Danny,
    I love the tips.
    I’ve been shooting around India for a couple years, and it’s been very easy to get portraits, especially in the rural villages where people don’t see a lot of photographs.
    But I’ve been so nervous to try the same shots back home in the US. People take offense more often. I’ve been looking for good advice on street portraits and your advice is the best I’ve read.
    Thanks you.

  2. Hi Danny, this is fantastic stuff.
    It was many years since I was so inspired by anyone’s work, you kicked me in my backside and I also want to get out there myself now!

    When I move closer to London I will certainly pick up your idea and start shooting strangers myself….. it is great idea and great execution you have here.

    BTW, many of your portraits got a delicious bokeh and they are technically super nice as well :)

    This is my favourite of them all, I wish I had taken this one myself.
    http://www.dannyst.com/blogimg/gallery-portraits-of-strangers-18.jpg

    Take care and keep up the good work.
    M.

  3. Great information. I’m so happy to hear that the nervousness of taking strangers photos is just not me and that it happens to even the most professional photographers.

  4. Pingback: Street Portrait Tips - London Street Photo

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  6. Hi – Just wanted to say thanks for sharing your wisdom here – some really usable insight. I’ve just set out on the road of street photography – I’ve had experience of photographing strangers in nightclubs quite a lot, but that works very differently from street photography. If you’re in a nightclub with a ‘proper’ camera rig, you get people coming up to you wanting their photo taken – it’s like a kudos / pseudo celeb thing going on – but street? Different kettle of fish altogether!

    Thanks again.

    Matt

    • Hi David, if you do not intend to use the images for commercial purposes, a signed release is not necessary. Using the images for art, gallery, or portfolio purposes does not require a release form. BUT, whenever you can, it’s always safer to have one :)

  7. As a rough percentage though, how many of the strangers you shoot will agree to sign a model release form. I’d be too frightened to ask as it seems too rude to ask. If someone asked me i’d almost certainly decline or at least want to read all of what i was signing first.

    • Hi Dan, I do not ask them to sign for a release form as I do not intend to use their images for commercial purposes.. it’s only for portfolio use. But I think I’ve read somewhere that there are photographers who do this.. they ask the subjects to sign a release form just in case.

  8. First of all thanks for the tips. I am a fan. Mabuhay ka!

    Where do you usually shoot? (Aside from Orchard) Do you still do street portraits? Can I join one of your photowalks?

    Thanks again!

  9. Hi Danny,

    Many thanks for your tips and huge inspiration! I just started similar project in London and hope you have nothing against it. If you would like to look at the project, I will be more than happy to provide link to my flickr account.

    Best regards
    Kris

  10. Pingback: Photowalks and Portraits | Melange

  11. Hi Danny, I’ve been following your photography ever since I came across your Stranger pictures; I find them amazing and I love the way you compose them so that the eyes become the focal point and draw you in. I haven’t dared focus so tight yet so I have to ask you, do you crop in the camera meaning do you compose the shot really tight, like the final images that we see on your site, or do you crop in post-processing?

    Thanks!
    Gabe

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