Tips for Creating Portraits of Strangers

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The most important elements in portrait photography are the expression and the eyes. I believe that expression can convey emotions, feelings, and stories. It can impact the viewer. We all agree that the eyes are the windows of the soul. While shooting fashion, you work with professional models who know how to pose and give you an expression which will serve your concept. But creating portraits of strangers is different.

Approaching strangers street photography 01

Approaching strangers street photography 16

Talk to the person

In order to get a good expression, you need to make the stranger feel comfortable with you. For that you need to speak with him and gain his trust. Once the stranger feels comfortable, you will be able to capture good expressions. The more you talk with them and the better your approach, the more trust you will gain. Consequently, you will capture better expressions and better photographs.

It’s very important to move out of your comfort zone and speak with the stranger with a smile. Do the following:

  • Introduce yourself.
  • Explain why you want to photograph him/her.
  • Explain how you will use the photograph.

Approaching strangers street photography 11

Approaching strangers street photography 12

Posing

If the stranger accepts, ask him to be natural while posing and to forget that you are there. If he was working, ask him to continue doing so. If it’s a child who was playing, ask him to keep playing. Once they feel comfortable and trust you, they will give you a natural expression without stress or worry, and without asking themselves what this wants from them and they are being photographed.

Take quick photographs and show him on the camera. Ask him how he likes it, he will hopefully be happy. Then after that, you can move him to a better background if needed, and discuss his pose and whether you want him to smile, be natural, etc.

Approaching strangers street photography 07

Approaching strangers street photography 09

Choose a good background and location

My advice is not to shoot a human figure at their own place. It’s very likely that many photographers will come and shoot the same photograph of the same person. Once you find a person you want to photograph, move around and search for a good background. You want to introduce yourself and interact with them only after you’ve found a good location. Take a couple of photographs, show him the result, then politely ask him to come with you to the better background (you could even take a sample shot of the background to show them as well).

Choose a background which suits your subject, strengthens your composition, conveys a sense of place, and makes your viewer feel harmony and relation. Don’t choose one which is far because children will be scared to move with you, old people may be too tired to relocate, and working people will refuse because they are busy.

Approaching strangers street photography 08

Approaching strangers street photography 14

Using the right approach is key

When you approach people wrongly or shoot them suddenly, they can get shocked and feel abused. Some are scared that you could be police, someone who wants to steal his house/shop, or that you will harm them in some way. Others fear you may be a photojournalist who will publish their image in the newspaper under the topic of poverty. They feel that you violate their privacy. But when you approach them kindly, they start to respond in a positive way and sometimes they can invite you into their houses, private spaces, or shops where you can take special images.

Approaching strangers street photography 04

Approaching strangers street photography 15

Approaching strangers street photography 17

Finally

Last but not least, always be kind, and if you are going to visit the same place again, you can make a small print of the picture and give it to the photographed person as a gift. Many people don’t have personal pictures of themselves. It won’t cost you a lot, but it could mean the world to them.

If you want more reading on this topic try these dPS articles:

Please post your questions, comments, and portraits of strangers you’ve created in the comments section below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Yasser Alaa Mobarak is a 24-year-old, Egyptian award-winning photographer. Yasser's works have been featured in National Geographic Magyarország, National Geographic Traveler India, National Geographic Srbija, Digital Camera World Magazine, Amateur Photographer Magazine, Smart Photography Magazine, Silvershotz Magazine and Adobe Blog. He is the holder of the AFIAP distinction from the International Federation of Photographic Art. He was a judge at Adobe Youth Voices Awards, Romania's National Creativity Contest, and The Photographic Angle. His work can be seen at on his website and on Instagram.

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  • Tim Lowe

    You have really nice examples. Your prose… Needs work.

    Doing photography and writing about it are two completely different things.

    Seems you are good at the former and not so much at the latter.

  • Yasser Alaa Mobarak

    Tim, thank you for your comment. I’m photographer not writer that’s why I’m using my simple English to share my experiences however our main language is photography not English.

  • Chris

    Thank you for your article Yasser. I enjoyed it very much because last week our photography teacher tasked us with the subject ‘Occupations’. I had to approach strangers and ask them for a portrait. All the advice you give above is relevant and it worked for me. I was friendly, kind and appreciative and my subjects responded well. I have also had some prints done for them as a thank you.

  • Yasser Alaa Mobarak

    Thank you, Chris!! Pleased to hear from you and glad that you find the article useful. I wish you best of luck in your photography!!

  • Beautiful photographs! Thanks for sharing your tips. I’m not very comfortable taking photos of strangers, but I think these tips will help. In the end, it’s always about respect.

    I also often try to give people I photograph (especially in rural Morocco) a print of their photo, and it’s usually very appreciated.

  • Yasser Alaa Mobarak

    Thank you, Hannele!! Pleased to read your words and glad that you find the article useful.

    Looking forward seeing your stranger’s images!!

  • OldPom

    If the subject has a begging bowl put a coin in it. If they are selling something, fruit or vegetables or clothing, buy a small item. Makes you popular and is only fair to the person. Children respond well to pulling an amusing face at them and will accept you as a fellow ‘child’ . I tend towards the very ‘tight’ composition or crop that you have used in your final image – the bearded man with that enigmatic ‘almost smile’. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/613685b66c284363bcef77886fec22dbfab9a42bafb5774950f566d6582416a0.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/51acf85c0d3046d10947ebece33a6259320eb07f902ae82d4187c43014485360.jpg

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b9463a4bf53c48ac903eb677972289bed31831840e926184e30a70c924469c1e.jpg

  • Zenta Sobaka Graverholt

    Whereever I go, I try to make portraits of local people. The problem is that I do not always speak their language – for instance when I was in Moscow ½ year ago.
    So I made a short text, introducing myself, explaining what I wanted + tha address of my website where I would post the pictures – and had it translated to Russian by a guy I found on Tripadvisor.
    And then I made 50 business cards with a picture of myself with my dog 🙂 + the text.
    That works 🙂

  • Yasser Alaa Mobarak

    Thank you for your comment. You are right, but sometimes I feel buying something or giving money is forcing them to be photographed because they are in need. I always prefer to shoot without forcing anyone. Your portraits is awesome and meaningful!!

  • Yasser Alaa Mobarak

    Great Idea!! Thank you very much for sharing!!

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