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Street Portraits: How To Approach Strangers

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Street portraits are so popular now that there’s reels (& probably TikToks) making fun of the genre. “Do you speak english? Can I take your photo?” But street portraits can be beautiful. They’re an incredible opportunity to connect on a deeper level in this infinitely connected world. Making portraits with strangers can make someone feel seen, appreciated and wanted. Even just the conversation a photographer might share with their subject can be therapeutic. And as a portrait photographer, making the humble street portrait can be hugely affective in improving many other aspects of your portrait career, like building instant rapport with a client and helping them feel at ease in front of a camera. 

So how do you approach a stranger and get their approval or consent to take their photograph? Let’s get in to it, and as always, let me know what you think down below.

Note: I’m sure there’s other ways than what I’m about to describe. I’m what I’d consider a full blown anxiety-riddled introvert. These steps are how I approach a potential portrait subject to a) make me feel less creepy, b) help ensure it’s not just about me and my insta-following & c) maximise my chances of them saying yes.

6 steps to making a street portrait

Step 1: Be Mindful

Be mindful of your space. This doesn’t mean where the Moon, Jupiter or Halley’s Comet is, this is about who you’re looking to photograph. Do a little bit of people watching. Understand their movements, people’s body language and whether or not they look like they’re in a rush. 

Not only do you want to be mindful of the people but also be aware of your surroundings. You’re no doubt already doing this but make sure you’re not putting them, or yourself at risk. Check for cars, trams, crowds or escaped lions.

Step 2: Give a compliment and Be Genuine

Mate, being genuine shouldn’t need to be said but after watching a few videos on YouTube lately, I feel obliged to mention it. Anyway, offer a genuine compliment. Spot someone you find interesting and compliment them what caught your attention. “Hey, I like your hat!” Then be ready to listen to their response. Listen and learn more about what it was you asked about and respond accordingly. 

Step 3: Keep the conversation going

Now you’ve broken the ice with a cute compliment, keep the conversation going. Ask them more about their day, the weather, what’s on for the day. Anything that requires more than yes/no. This helps if you remember step 2 and being genuinely interested in the person you’re talking to. 

Let the conversation flow and introduce your camera to the chat. It’s not a big deal. It’s a camera. You like to shoot people in the face with it. It’s really harmless. Feel out the conversation and move to Step 4

Step 4: Be Happy with just having a conversation

Not all conversations are going to allow you to lead into making street portraits. Be happy with that. And let’s face it, adding another notch on the list of good conversations makes for a great day. Say your good byes and move on.

Step 5: Ask to MAKE their portrait

Street portraits are a collaboration. They are a dance between strangers, a beautiful duet done only when two people have connected on some level. There is, some would say, a distinct difference between ‘taking’ & ‘making‘ a portrait. “Can we please make your portrait today?” sounds a lot better than “Hey, can I take your photo?” don’t yo think?

Be polite, courteous and kind. Ask for consent if you need to adjust their hair or pose or anything like that. Prove that you care.

Step 6: Exchange contact details

You’re not taking their portrait so ensure you grab their full contact details so you can send them a copy of the photographs you both made. Name, email, phone number. All of the things you think you may need to call them.

BONUS Step: Image Usage

This is a little bonus step that is definitely a valuable one. Make sure they’re aware of your intentions including where and how you might use the street portraits. When you email the digitals or post them a print, add those usage details in there too.

In Conclusion...

This all takes practice. Practice, practice, practice. Being comfortable enough to walk up to a stranger and generate a conversation out of thin air isn’t the easiest task for a lot of introverted photographers. Be ready for a few knock backs but don’t be too concerned. Some people, probably including yourself, don’t like having their photograph made. 

So to wrap things up, be aware of your surroundings and that of your potential subject. Be genuine and talk politely. Sometimes the conversation is far more important and valuable than a portrait and that’s fantastic. Ask for consent and then exchange details. You’re going to want to send them a copy of the portrait you made together. And don’t forget to let them know what the portrait is for, where it may go and how it may be used.

Have I left anything out? Be sure to let me know in the comments below or send me an email and let’s chat!

Extra Information and Examples of Street Portraits

I mentioned earlier, street portraits are popular enough to have their own parody TikToks and reels. Haley Kalil has one of the better ones out there. But if you want to see a quality video of someone making proper connections and absolutely stunning portraits with people off the street, check out the video below with Bryan Birks. Dude is incredible.

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