First off, I'm not blessed with some high-degree of confidence that allows me to walk up to anybody, anytime, anywhere and ask them if I can take their picture. Chances are, neither are you. But it hasn't stopped me from taking some wonderful street portraits, and it shouldn't stop you either.
I'd like to be able to tell you that after you've done this a few times it get's easier. It doesn't. The first time I asked a stranger if I could take their picture, I was shaking and nervous as all get out. Same thing the 10th time. Same thing the 100th time.
What I can tell you is that once you've done this a few times, you'll start to develop a rhythm in how you approach a subject, and at some point, while the nervousness will still be there, you'll be better able to work through it and come away with much better shots.
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.
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.
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.
So you've spotted a potential subject, dialed in your gear as best you can before hand, and you're ready to make the pitch. Yes it would be so much easier to just shoot candids with a telephoto, but it's not the same thing. And trust me, your portraits will be so much better if you get over the hurdle of asking a stranger if you can take their photo. All I can say is that there's one key to making this work: honesty.
Walk right up to the subject and start by introducing yourself with a smile and a friendly tone. Tell them you're a photographer and that you're working on a personal project, or trying to improve your photography, and that they're exactly the type of person you'd like to have a photograph of in your portfolio. Tell them what your intended use is for the photo. If you have a business card, have it out and hand it to them when you introduce yourself. If you don't have a card, I'd recommend having some made up as I've found people are much more amenable to having their photo taken when they see that you're serious enough about your craft to have a card with a web address on it. Here's my standard pitch, but I change it from time to time depending on what I'm shooting:
"Hi, my name is Josh Larkin I'm a photographer working on a project of portraits of people wearing great T-Shirts and I saw you and thought that's someone who I'd love to have in this project. Would you mind if I take a few photos of you? I may use them on my website or in a blog post if I write about this topic in the future."
If it's a child, I always ask if their parent is around and ask them for permission first, then I talk to the kid. Trust me on this one, nothing will get you into a heated situation faster than asking a child if you can take their photo and then snapping away without asking their guardian for permission first!
With this approach, friendly and honest, I've found that about 75% of the time people are flattered that you've asked them and are more than willing to let you photograph them. Once you have the go ahead, it's time to shoot. But first, what if they say no?
Simple. You say, "Okay thanks. Have a good day," and walk away. Don't push it. You're not going to convince them, and chances are you won't get a very good photograph if you do manage to sway them. If they're on the fence, then try to convince them! I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say "I don't know, I don't photograph well," but are happy to let me take their picture when I ask if they've ever had a professional photographer take their photograph.
Depending on how the initial interaction went, how I shoot my subject will change. If they seem like they're not in a hurry and were talkative at first, then I'll just continue talking to them a bit, building up a rapport, and give them a little bit of direction as we go. If things are going really well, I may go a step farther and ask if they wouldn't mind posing or moving to another location - typically the location would be very close, maybe around a corner, or near a wall a few feet away.
If my subject seemed like they were in a hurry, then I cut back on the small talk and may just ask them to turn in a different direction or move a little ways here or there, snap a few shots and call it done. In these cases, I'm mainly concentrating on making sure that the light isn't going to ruin the photo or that there isn't something thoroughly distracting in the background, like a tree branch that appears to be sticking out of their ear.
Either way, I don't just stay behind the camera the whole time. Every so often I drop the camera, look at them and talk some more. This will put your subject at ease. Ask them where they're heading. If they've got grocery bags full of fresh veggies, ask them what they're cooking! Maybe they've got a great hat on -- ask them what the story is with the hat. Doesn't matter, just keep it light.
Some subjects, particularly those who were on the fence, may feel uncomfortable and may appear so in your images. This is normal, but I've found that the more relaxed I am, they generally start to feel more comfortable. Once I know I have a pretty decent shot of them, but I know I can get a great shot with just a little more effort, I'll casually say something like, "oh this is a great shot" and show them the back of my camera. Once people see that you can in fact make a really nice photograph of them, they instantly become more natural, and it will show in your final images.
Now here's the thing. At some point in the conversation, I'll always ask them to look directly into the lens. I've taken some great portraits with the subject looking out of the frame that I enjoy , but I always want an image of the person looking right at the camera. Why? Because this creates an immediate connection with the viewer and often times results in a very powerful final image. I may not always like that image the best, but when I get home and start looking through my shots, I at least like to have the option of having that type of portrait, and surprisingly, some people won't look directly into the lens unless you ask them to do so.
You've chimped your camera and you know you have the shot you want. Great! At this point I generally start by thanking them again for their time and telling that all of my contact info is on my card. If you don't have a card, offer to write down your email and/or phone number for them. As a personal rule, I tell all of my subjects that they're of course welcome to a digital copy of the photo and that they can contact me if they're interested. I'd say about 50% of the time folks do reach out and ask to at least see the photos.
I again let them know what my intended use is for the photo and then ask if I could have their name and where they're from. I like to have names with my photos, a hold over from my time working as a photojournalist. I ask them if they'd mind if I include their name with the photo if it's published online or in print, and if they say no, I make note of it. If they don't want to give me their name at all, I tell them it's not a problem. If it's a portfolio piece, then it's pretty much a done deal. If I think I might sell the photo for commercial work, then I'll ask if they wouldn't mind signing a standard model release that I keep in my camera bag. If I know that I'm not going to sell the image for publication but will likely use it in a blog post, I just let them know that's what I plan to do and forego the release.
At this point, we go our separate ways and I get ready to start the cycle all over again, nervousness and all, but some degree of confidence in knowing that I have a solid plan in place for approaching strangers to make street portraits.
I wish you the best in your street portrait adventures, and feel free to let us know how it goes in the comments and if you'd like to share some of your shots, drop a link in there as well!
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