Street Portraits: How to Master Taking Photos of Strangers

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Street portraits are all about connecting with the strangers you’re photographing. This differs from the general idea of street photography. That’s where the photographer makes no connection with what they are photographing.

Often, the thought of taking street portraits is somewhat unsettling. Especially to those who are inexperienced with street portraits photography. Unease about approaching strangers or making eye contact with them is very common.

Finding someone with an interesting face to photograph is not so difficult. The challenge for many photographers comes with having to make a connection for this kind of portrait photography.

To me, a good street portrait is more than about approaching strangers with interesting faces. An appealing looking subject does not make an appealing portrait alone. You need to incorporate:

  • Strong composition
  • Precise timing
  • Careful exposure
  • Pleasing color or tone range
  • And, most of all, connection

How do you achieve all this in street portraiture? By taking your time and practicing.

There are many factors that make street portrait photography challenging. So you have to apply yourself and practice a lot. I’ve been taking street portraits for years and am still practicing. In this article, I’ll share with you photography tips and techniques I use when I’m doing street portrait photography.

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Take Your Time To Make Great Street Portraits

Very few of the best photographs are made on the fly. Being patient is so important with most genres of photography. Portrait street photography definitely requires a patient and determined approach. Both when you are out in the street taking photos and before you get there.

Patience is needed for you to learn how to take great street portraits. Few photographers are able to step out into the street the first time and be comfortable photographing strangers. 

street portrait of a Bangkok merchant.
Bangkok street vendor demonstrating the wallet he’s trying to sell me is genuine © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

You must learn to be at peace with yourself and have confidence in what you are doing. You must learn to quiet the noisy voices in your head that are the source of your discomfort. This takes time and concentrated effort, but is necessary if you want to become more confident.

This may seem unrelated to photography, but it is not. It is vital to learn to confidently connect with the anyone you are photographing to be able to make the most interesting portraits of them.

street portrait of a kebab chef.
Chef prepares a traditional Turkish kebab at an open restaurant in Istanbul © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

How I Learned to Gain Confidence to Photograph People

As a beginner photographer, I found it extremely challenging to photograph someone I knew, let alone strangers in the street. That was impossible for me. Not because I didn’t know what lens or shutter speed setting to use. Those technical aspects of photography were not a problem.

The problem I had was being too unsure of myself and shy. It’s taken me a long time to become more comfortable and learn to gain the confidence to take street portraits.

I had to. A few years after buying a camera I got a job working in the photography department of a daily newspaper. At first I was doing mainly administrative work. But ever so often the picture editor would send me out on a photo assignment. I knew I had to return with a publishable picture every time or I would not keep my job for long.

Most photos in the newspaper had at least one person in them. Everyone I had to photograph were strangers. I had to learn to photograph them because I was motivated to keep my job.

Asian woman sitting on steps outdoors.
Sad looking young Asian woman sitting on steps © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Have a Good Reason to Shoot Street Portraits

When you have a good reason to shoot street portraits it will help you grow in confidence. It’s also something that can help you when you approach a person and they ask why you want to take their photo.

My reason to learn to photograph strangers was that I loved my job and wanted to keep it. At first, the strangers I photographed were not usually people I approached in the street. But being in the position of having to return to the newspaper office with a usable image of a person was a great training ground.

Take your time to find a good reason you can easily articulate to others about why you want to take street portraits. This will boost your confidence and also instill confidence in someone you want to make a street portrait of.

women shopping street portrait.
Two woman shopping at an outdoor market © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Develop Your Own Street Portrait Photography Project

One good reason to want to take street portraits you can tell people is that you’re working on a project. It may be purely a photography project. Or it could be a community oriented social project where you’re taking photos to use for an exhibition you’re planning. Use your imagination and I am sure you will come up with a great reason easily enough.

Making a project of it will also help keep you motivated to progress shooting street portraits. When you have in mind to work on making a series of photographs over a set period of time you will learn and grow as a photographer. This is true not only for street portrait photography but is a great way to learn any style of photography.

Every street photographer should be ready and able to articulate at least one reason they are taking street portraits. This can save you some stress if someone objects to what you are doing. It can also be a positive opener to an interesting conversation when someone is curious about what you are doing.

As a travel photographer, I often tell someone I am photographing that I am making a documentary about my travels. I encourage them that people are the most important part of any place that I visit. This is most often openly accepted because people can feel special that I am including them in my project.

market fish vendor.
A fish vendor at the fresh market poses for a photo in her shop front © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

When You’re Out Doing Street Photography

When heading out with your camera to take some street portraits you must be aware of how the people you will interact with you. You want them to say yes to you, so everything from how you’re dressed to your body language is important.

Dress in clothing that fits with the location you want to take photos. If you’re going to be in an upmarket part of town, don’t dress in your oldest jeans and t-shirt. Put on some presentable clothing. If you are heading somewhere there’s crowds of fans heading to a concert or sports game, dress like they are. Aim to blend in with whoever your subject might be, rather than to stand out. 

Be relaxed and let this show in your body language. Don’t stand with your arms folded across your chest or be looking down fiddling with your camera gear. This type of stance can easily put someone off. Be open and confident looking in the way you present yourself, even if you don’t really feel that way. Look approachable. Wear a smile and not a frown.

When you present yourself in a positive manner people will pick this up and they will reflect it back to you when you ask if you can photograph them. You will have many more positive results than if you appear hesitant and unsure of yourself.

street portrait of a senior man.
A senior Turkish man with a beard and wearing a hat beside the New Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Take Less Rather Than More Camera Gear

Photographers often carry more gear than they need. The concern they have is missing a photo opportunity because they don’t have the right lens, or a flash, or a tripod. The truth is often that you will more likely miss getting a photo because you’re weighed down with too much camera equipment.

Doing street portraits you can become comfortable with one lens. You don’t even need to carry a camera bag with you. A second lens can be carried in any kind of bag or maybe even in a jacket pocket.

With minimal gear, you can move about more freely. You will not be worried about your gear so much, particularly if you’re doing street photography in a busy area.

portrait of a young cosplay woman.
Street portrait at a cosplay fair © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Be Observant, Especially of the People

Street photography is a lot about capturing what’s happening. The photographer has little or no influence over their subjects. Making a street portrait is a little different because the photographer will interact with their subject.

Still, it is important to be observant and see what’s going on around you. Be aware as you do any street photography. Take some time to pause and observe the flow of life in the street. What are people doing? Are they relaxed or in a hurry? Do many of them stop to do something or are they just passing through? What’s the light like? Which parts of the environment will make the best backgrounds for a street portrait?

Look for patterns of movement and repetition. This will help you predict the best time to take your photos. You can approach people as they wait on the sidewalk for a cross signal. Or as they wait for coffee or street food to be prepared. 

Whatever environment you are  doing street photography in, take your time to check it out. Get to know the area. Feel the flow and vibe of life there and aim to capture this as part of your street portraits.

Thai man market portrait.
A market porter pauses for me to take his portrait in Chiang Mai, Thailand © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Look for People Who Want a Street Portrait

Look for people who will enjoy being photographed. Some people will love it that you want to make a street portrait of them. Others will not be so enthusiastic. Learning to look for the people you think will love will result in a higher success rate for you.

You will have a greater percentage of the people you ask say yes. You’ll also take more engaging photos when you work with willing subjects.

People who smile and interact with others around them are more likely to say yes when you approach them for a street portrait. Someone walking with their head down and in a hurry is not so likely to want to stop and pose for a portrait. Look for signs you think a person may be more open to your invitation to have a portrait made before you ask.

man selling vegetables in a market.
This man in a market in Mandalay, Myanmar, was more than happy to have me photograph him © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

How To Talk to a Potential Subject

Once you’ve identified someone who you want to photograph, approach them and initiate a conversation. Make eye contact with your subject. You don’t need to ask them  immediately if you can take their photo. 

Be interested in who they are or what they’re doing. Make some small talk. Ask them if they are from around that area. Discuss what they are doing or if they come to this part of town often. Explain that you are interested in street photography and are working on a project making street portraits.

Watch the person’s face and gauge their expression. Do they look interested? Do you think they are open to having their portrait included in your project?

If they don’t want to, don’t take their photo. Continue your conversation a little, if you feel it’s appropriate. Or thank them for and move on. 

One of the key aspects of learning to be a good street photographer who make portraits is being able to communicate well. This involves listening carefully and watching people’s body language and facial expressions. Look to see when a subject is feeling uncomfortable. Respond in such a way that will help them feel confident is as important as getting your exposure settings correct.

You cannot only concentrate on your camera. You must focus on the relationship you have with your subject. It does not matter how short the conversation is. The more you connect with the people you photograph, the more feeling you’ll capture when you are doing street photography. This is one of the most important photography tips I can offer you, even though it has nothing to do with managing your camera.

Asian woman portrait.
Looking down on an Asian young woman posing for a portrait on a sidewalk © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Being Well Prepared to Make a Street Portrait

As with any type of photography, being well prepared is a key aspect of street photography. Knowing your camera settings are how you want them before you approach a subject allows you to connect with them more comfortably. 

If you walk up and start a conversation with someone you want to keep the flow. If they agree to have you make their portrait, you don’t want to cut off the conversation because you’re fiddling with your camera settings. 

When you are talking with a subject, it’s polite to give them more attention that you’re giving your camera. Pick a spot to take some portraits and set your exposure before you talk with someone. This will reduce the amount of time you take with your camera as you’re converting with your subject. When you already have your settings adjusted, as you put your camera to your eye to make a portrait you can easily tweak your settings if you need to.

What lens will you use? Put this on your camera before you start. How much of the portrait do you want in focus? Set your aperture appropriately. Do you want to include motion blur or have everything appear frozen? Choose a shutter speed that will create the look you want. Then adjust your ISO setting so you’re happy with the exposure.

Having everything set up before you connect with a subject will help the whole experience flow well for both of you.

Candid photography in a market in Istanbul.
Candid street photography in Istanbul, Turkey © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

A Few More Street Photography Tips

Don’t pressure yourself too much. Many photographers can feel intimidated at he prospect of engaging in street photography. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it. If taking street portraits seems to hard, but you want to try, take some steps and build up to it.

Candid street photography is less threatening. Both to the photographer and to the subject. The photographer can remain isolated from the person they are photographing. Working anonymously is a popular method of shooting street. To approach people you don’t know will typically push you out of your comfort zone.

Practice with someone you already know. Take them to street location you like and make a series of portraits of them there. Go to the same location and make portraits with someone you know more than once. This will help you become familiar with the process. You’ll get a feel for what it’s like to photograph at that location. When you come to take your street portraits with people you do not know, you’ll be more confident because you have practiced.

Take only one lens. Concentrate more on the people than your camera settings. Think about how you’ll approach people and what you say. Remember to be confident and appear approachable. People will reflect back to you your confidence, or lack of it. If people sense you’re unsure of yourself, they are less likely to want you to photograph them.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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