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Street Portraits - How to Approach & Photograph Strangers


Keywords: street, photography, photographic, disciplines, guides, tips

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First off, if you're not comfortable with your camera then you're fighting an uphill battle right from the get-go. I'm a manual shooter through and through. Nearly every setting on my camera I set myself, and I manually control flash output when using a speedlight. You may not shoot this way, which is fine, but you still need to understand your equipment and be comfortable enough to make changes on the fly. I don't mean to dissuade you from trying anything here, but if you just started making photographs a few weeks ago and think you'll try your hand at photographing strangers, you've got an extra hard row to hoe and will likely come away with fewer good shots. Nothing makes for a more terrible experience than having to fumble around to figure out how to spot meter while your subject, someone who you've just interrupted, stands there waiting on you.



Street Portrait

Secondly, make sure you're using the right lens for the job. Sure you can shoot a portrait with any lens, but your subject will look a whole lot better if you avoid using a wide-angle lens and will be easier to connect with if you're not shooting with a very long telephoto. My preferred lens is my Nikkor 50mm 1.8. Mounted on a D7000, this gives me an effective focal length of about 75mm due to the crop factor of DX sensors, which is a good focal length that doesn't distort or flatten facial features too much and allows for a good working distance between me and the subject. As a rule of thumb, when I shoot portraits I try to keep my focal length somewhere in the 70 to 120mm range.

Knowing my gear is key to the next step in the process: dialing in your settings as much as possible before even approaching the subject. For me, when I'm walking around, I'm constantly assessing the light and making adjustments to my shutter speed and aperture as I go. This usually means that when I see someone I'd like to photograph, I'm at least in the ballpark for a good exposure.


Street Portrait 4

Once I find a subject, I make pretty immediate decisions about how I'd like the final image to turn out. If I want to isolate the subject from the background, I know I need to open up the lens, so I'll dial that in, check my exposure meter and finesse the shutter speed and ISO to achieve my goal. Same process, different settings, if I want more depth of field - smaller aperture, check the meter, adjust shutter and ISO as needed, all before even asking for the photo. If I'm shooting flash, this becomes a little more complicated, but usually I'll start with my power set to around 1/8th if it's fairly light where I'm shooting, to 1/4th if it's a bit darker. With flash I'll start by underexposing the entire scene by 1 to 2 stops to capture some ambient light.


(5 Votes )
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Originally written on December 10, 2012

Last updated on August 25, 2016

User User


George Zullich (Sawfish) on November 15, 2013

I get in thier face and shoot, if they voice any derision I pretend to be a deaf mute and present my card (pointing to some flickr street photos). Any more questions and I deck them...

User on February 27, 2013

I have always really enjoyed looking at other people's street photography. I would love to do some of it myself. But my two concerns are as you have mentioned getting comfortable to ask someone to take their photo and mostly the legal side of using thier photos. What is the legal side of it in US. That bothers me more than anything else.

User on January 3, 2013

In the City environment, even a super-wide lens also good to be use, I like it. see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gentlehug/8339287826/in/photostream/lightbox

User on December 31, 2012

In forty years of my street photography, I almost never ask a permission to shot. In former Soviet Union people usually did not fear to be shot, rarely their reaction was negative. Now, In my New York, The City Low permit street photography on public space without a consensus. Of course, conflicts are unavoidable because of cultural and ethic differences in such Mega City as New York. I agree that our intent must positive, honest and moral.

Ankur Vashishtha (Ankur0403) on December 24, 2012

Very helpful article, Thank YOu !

User on December 17, 2012

Thanks for this detailed description of your interaction with people- it's great and something I will put right to use (after working out the equivalent in Japanese, as I am in Japan). I take a lot of shots, but your approach is much more professional than what I have done until now, and I think will get better results- again, thanks. I'm using a D90 with a 35mm 1.8 DX- I thought about the 50mm, but there are so many tight spaces here, I would often have to stand in the next room to get more than a small group.

User on December 17, 2012

One tactic that I use is the same as what I do in shops in developing countries- or yard-sales, for that matter- I never initially focus on the item/subject I'm most interested in, then, after showing interest elsewhere, I casually turn my attention to what I am actually aiming to 'capture'. Another tactic I've been successful with, is to have the person or persons take my photo (like any tourist might), and then with an 'oh, by the way' I ask to shot them.

Barbara Obrai (Barbo) on December 13, 2012

Thank you for all the useful information. Can you recommend a simple model release form format.

vivien lougheed (Xelahu) on December 12, 2012

I work mostly in developing countries and paying for a shot or two is normal. It seldom costs more than a dollar and at the price of mail, that is much cheaper than a copy of the photo. And usually the people can use the money more than a picture. That is not to say I never send copies but that is the norm for me.

Blaine P Biedermann (blainepaul) on December 11, 2012

Do you ever get people who want to be compensated for the privilege of consent, especially when you get the release out? For example, "What's in it for me?" or "How much will you pay me?". The response would be, "I'll give you a copy of the portrait."

Robert Dein (Bob Dein) on December 10, 2012

Rhythm, heck..., it's addicting! http://www.deinfaces.com/