5 Tips For Capturing Great Street Portraits

5 Tips For Capturing Great Street Portraits


A Guest Post by Desmond Louw

I just love street photography and with this comes street portraiture.

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It can be a bit daunting to go up to a stranger and ask them to take their photo, but after a day or two it becomes addictive!  Here are some tricks that might make it a bit easier for you:

Trick number 1 – always have a camera with you

Always have your camera with you, don’t lug your whole photo bag or a tripod around like a tourist in your own town, just have your camera body and one lens handy. It sucks walking in the street and seeing something awesome and not having my camera with me!

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Trick number 2 – have a good lens

Have a good lens, this makes a huge impact. I like the 50mm F1.4/F1.8 and the 85mm F1.4/ F1.8, they are also small and relatively lightweight.

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The wide aperture isolates your subject nicely with a shallow depth of field.

Trick number 3 – avoid using flash

Don’t use a flash! Remember you want to maintain a low profile. Rather push your ISO up if you have to. I personaly think an onboard flash could spoil a photo.

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Trick number 4 – have your settings ready

Before approaching a person to ask him or her if you can take a photo, have your settings spot on. When they say yes, lift your arms and snap snap snap, say thank you, and walk away. Easy.

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Trick number 5 – turn the AF assist light off

If you are taking a shot of someone without them knowing, keep the auto focus assist light off, otherwise they will see it and spoil the mood.

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Connect with Desmnd Louw at his website and on instagram where his id is – desmond_in_capetown

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Some Older Comments

  • Leroy August 8, 2013 02:33 am

    Very Nice Pictures, I currently deal in cameras but security cameras and megapixel technology of 5mp and I get a lot of photos from customers DVR's with amazing Pics that can be edited. Keep up the good work!

  • Romayne June 3, 2013 06:52 pm

    Thanks for all the tips n trick you emel. It's really help me alot as a beginer. I had tried most of it and it's work. Thanks again.

  • Rachael June 2, 2013 07:28 am

    Nice article. I have only recently started to dabble in street photography, after buying a Fuji X-E1. I definitely felt too obvious using my 5Diii! Having a little camera really helps, although with its cool retro looks, the Fuji isn't as discreet as some. I feel awkward taking shots of people and have been shooting 'from the hip' instead. Good tips for street portraiture. Thanks.

  • Lesley May 31, 2013 09:45 pm

    I've been taking street photographs for years, a lot of them in the town where I live. I stick out like a sore thumb because of my looks, but people are used to me and I often stop to have a word or two. Some of the people I photographed years ago are still doing what they did then and are very interested to see the changes. When I travel I follow the same philosophy. I never hide and a smile, a thumbs up and inclination of the head from me will usually get the acknowledgement I want and the understanding that I want them to just carry on, which they usually do. I always show what I've taken afterwards. Now that more people have access to the net even in small villages, I'm preparing cards to give out if people would like to have a copy.

  • Shiloh Smith May 31, 2013 01:38 am

    Great post! thanks!

  • Mridula May 31, 2013 12:35 am

    Lovely captures.


  • Zain Abdullah May 29, 2013 02:35 pm

    I Found this genre of photography among the hardest. Thanks anyway for sharing the tips.

    Here are a few of my environmental/street portrait shots:

    A young clown




  • javan May 29, 2013 01:49 am

    I think there have always been more people doing this than we think. Vivian Mauer (I think I spelled the last name right) is an example of someone who was doing this as intently and perfectly as any of the "big names" but her work never saw the light of day until after her death. I think the Internet is more to blame than anything because we are exposed to content that in the past we would have had to seek out at the Library, specialty bookstores, galleries,etc. Ten years ago when I mentioned Street Photography, a lot of people thought I meant taking pictures of the street itself; now way more people know about the genre because of the Internet.

  • David May 28, 2013 11:32 am

    street photography was cool and mildly accepted back when there was few photographers doing it. however in this day and time everyone is armed with a camera and its becoming a problem for those who don't want their picture taken. this will end in laws against street photography. however walmart will still be allowed to photograph you on their property. the government will still be photographing and video taping you in public places and some private places. the only ones who will be punished will be the "valid artist" the ones taking cell pixs will still take cell pixs and no one will say anything but the minute that we pull out a nice dslr or high in capture device we will be called out. it already happens and its not against the law. people call the police and they come and basically hound you into feeling uncomfortable and you leave. I use to enjoy documenting urban streets, parks, and other public areas. the people, the pets, the smiles the laughter the looks of desperation, hunger and pain. the love the joy its all there and so wanting to be captured. our market is FLOODED! now people are sick of being photographed by those who use zero discretion and post some of the worst images of them. I know I don't like it when someone post a bad picture of me. yet they do it anyway!

  • Robert Rosen May 28, 2013 03:43 am

    I agree street photography is a documentary of life. I started do street portraits because I wanted to know the stories behind the faces.


  • maitaifreebird May 28, 2013 12:13 am

    Thanks for the tips! I've just bought a 50mm 1.4, but I'm still too shy to walk up to people and ask. I've taken a few candid shots, but that only works on a noisy street. I'll try to pluck up courage, my neighbourhood is full of super interesting people!

  • javan May 27, 2013 11:21 pm

    I understand the concern that many express about shooting people without their knowledge...but we need to consider both sides. If a person is in a public place they have given up any right to privacy. They are visible to hundreds or thousands of people and at any moment one of those people may be staring at them and taking in every feature. That is not illegal or immoral. Why is it different if you take their picture? Why is it different if you post the picture? I believe in documentary photography as a vital tool for recording the history of humans and society. If every picture we take is made with the subjects knowledge we lose some of the authenticity of the moment and the validity of the scene. Some people can be traumitized by the actions or appearance of other people but we don't say that everyone has to act or dress a certain way to be in public. Photographers have the right to practice their craft and art just like anyone else. Of course they should not be a nuisance but if the subject is unaware no more harm is done than if someone looks at them. Light is free; it's not my fault it's bouncing off of you.

  • katesi May 27, 2013 09:39 pm

    Trick #5 is a tip on how to short term stalk someone. Whether or not it is legal, it is very violating to take pictures of someone without their permission and then even more so to post them. This is apparently something so many people cannot understand but it causes real fear and trauma to some people when/if they do find out.

  • Tod May 27, 2013 10:46 am

    A good lens for street work (for canon shooters) is the 40mm f2.8 STM. It is the most light and compact lens around and pefert for street work. Another tip is to start off with strangers is to go for street performers first to get into to groove of it, it is definately polite to throw some coins in their hat but most will love being a subject

  • Kumar Varun May 2, 2012 05:51 pm

    cool tips...

  • David January 1, 2012 10:44 am

    focus assist beam or light is the red light located on the front of some cameras that shoots a beam of light creating contrast to help the focus system establish a proper focus. some cameras have this light on the off camera flash unit / speed light. this light can be turned off in the camera custume function menu.

    the mode for shooting in is all based on what is a priority? if depth of field is most important you may shoot in aperture priority. your aperture stays constant and the camera dictates a propper shutter speed. however you must still be aware that the shutter speed does not dip so low to introduce to much motion blur. "at night". in which case shutter priority will be a good choice maintaining a fast enough shutter speed to keep down the softness of motion blur. however using this setting may open your aperture so wide in low light that you loose needed depth of field.

    its no absolute answer,

    what ever you shoot in av tv or manual keep in mind some important thoughts and the reading of the camera's internal light meter. "I wont get to indepth with light meter setting". when using the camera's light meter its just as easy to shoot in manual mode. pick whats important to you! shutter speed? or aperture? ask what you want to convey? do you want to stop motion? perhaps its more important to isolate the subject infront of you with aperture settings creating a small depth of field. what ever the case may be pick one or the other and set it accordingly.
    example: you want an isolated subject using shallow depth of field. set camera to manual mode, set aperture to f2.8 or wider, now look through the camera half press the shutter and see where your light meter is. now adjust the shutter speed until the light meter is moved to center position. we will assume that center is where you want the exposure to be. some may like it a tad over or a tad under. "salt and pepper" to taste.
    take the shot, check the histogram! adjust if needed.

    now suppose you want to show motion. lets set the camera to manual mode, set shutter speed to 1/40 or lower "tripod time" look through the lense half press shutter, where does the meter read all the way left? all the way right? adjust aperture until centered or "to taste". take the shot, check the histogram, adjust if needed.

    I wont get into light meter settings,ie spot, center weighted etc, as this is dependent on many things and is beyond the scope of this simple answer. for the sake of argument set it to "evaluative" and adjust shutter / aperture from there.

    as stated there is NO exact answer since its art we are describing, does a painter paint with left to right strokes? right to left? top to bottom? that depends on many things.

    additionally I will add this, you can be lazy and set the iso to auto and the camera will do the settings for you for that aspect. or you can look at the available light, make a educated guess. is it light to dimmly lit. start at 200 or 400 iso and adjust shutter or aperture, then check meter if you cant get where you need to be move the iso up 200 400..... so on. if its dark start at iso 800 and go from there. try and keep the lowest iso you can get away with and still have the results you want.

    well I hope this has helped. I know the camera with all its setting can be a bit over whelming at times but just tackle one aspect at a time and over time you will become very fluid at making the adjustments.

  • duke December 30, 2011 10:48 pm

    hi please HELP,

    i'm a beginner to street photography. i just read this article and i was confused on the "Trick Number 5"
    What do you mean by "keep the auto focus assist light off"?
    i know auto focus but not sure on assist light being off.
    do you mean the flash? what is the best mode to shoot on street? i mean it is manual mode, AV or TV?

    Happy New year to all :)

  • David December 30, 2011 05:08 pm

    great article! and as previously stated in the usa no release is needed for publishing public available photography unless for commercial use as in I shoot you and use your likeness to sell a product or service. which excludes news media sales, and news coverage of events that may be used to promote that event. or editorial use. this includes children of all ages. grant it you may draw attention to yourself since we live in such paronoid state of being. its funny we fear the street photographer but dont seem to mind that walmart is filming you as you pick up prescriptions, the goverment is filming you on the street as well. and we post our every move and mood via twitter, facebook and so on.

  • Anh Tr?nh December 30, 2011 03:00 pm

    Do u usually use AF or MF for the Street Photography?
    I have a 24-205L F4 and a 50 F1.8, which one u recommend me to use for carrying around? (My 7D quite heavy with the 24-105, anw, )

  • hansi trompka December 29, 2011 08:32 am

    Street Portrait in Munich...


  • ruben November 11, 2011 10:31 am

    Fantastic Post for Security Camera relevant Items. fort worth security cameras

  • Quan August 10, 2011 11:26 am

    great tips...love it...

  • Piero August 1, 2011 08:09 am

    I first shoot THEN ask ;-) best way to capture the best moment. After approval just random shooting.
    As far as legal issues, well I think the world has become simply paranoic!

  • B July 30, 2011 04:40 am

    "Are we legally allowed to photograph people with out them knowing it and then post it(as you did of thelast gentleman) but not sell it?"

    In the US, you do not need a release to either post an image OR to sell it as a print. There are three basic types of use: editorial, retail, and commercial. Only commercial (e.g., for use in advertising) requires a release. Selling prints or a photobook is considered retail (though using, for example, the cover image of a book which has an identifiable person as advertising for that book may be commercial), and does not require a release. Of course, always check your state and local laws, things can vary. And depending specifically on how you present someone's image, you could run into problems of, say, defamation.

    Ethically I see no problem, we're talking about photos of people in public places. Your image is being recorded all the time -- what do you think the security cameras on every building are for? At least the street photographer is there on the street interacting, can be approached, is honest (hopefully) about their actions, and (again hopefully) is doing it for a better purpose.

    Though this is about street portraits and not street photography, I also disagree with this no flash rule. I don't find it useful to limit the tools you use (and similarly dislike the "use a good lens" rule, a good photo will be a good photo regardless of whether the background is suitably blurry or details are super sharp). I like using flash on the street for a few reasons, one is that it removes any doubt of being sneaky, people know you just took their photo. Trying to take stealth street photos is not my style, it's like an admission of guilt, and I'm not doing anything wrong. You also don't have a lot of control over the lighting, and the best time to find interesting people/scenes may be around noon, flash helps fill in the harsh shadows. And if you have a flash on you, you can keep shooting at night, where some of the most interesting, and most real, things happen.

  • Shutterbug July 30, 2011 04:31 am

    Gorgeous portraits! This is something that I would like to try next. Thank you so much for the helpful tips!

  • Sweet Ronit July 30, 2011 01:01 am

    These shots are fabulous! I love how you are able to keep such a definite style while shooting such different people. Great tips too!

    I've been doing street photography/portraiture for many many years. I have always used an approach and philosophy similar to Steve Stern's above, and he said it so well I won't even try to repeat it. And like Nomadic Samuel, I try to get an email address and send the pics to the subject. But I also spend a lot of time shooting in a community where the many of the members live on the other side of the digital divide, and in that case I get an address to send a small print. Here's a street session from just the other day:


  • 9ale7 July 29, 2011 05:18 pm

    this is difficult for me, because i hate people to take pictures for myself !

  • Judi Lamb July 29, 2011 08:00 am

    Great shots and nice file treatment, Desmond.

  • Steve Stern July 29, 2011 05:21 am

    Nice shots, I also love street photography. I take a slightly different approach than you show in Step 4. Years ago, I read that a portrait is an artifact of a relationship. Ever since, I have slowed down. Rather than shot as fast as possible, I shoot while I am asking a couple of questions or bantering back and forth. We have a mini relationship. Counter intuitively, when I used to be as quick as possible, it was often an intrusion; having a relationship, even if only for five minutes, honors the person. This is especially true when traveling in countries where people normally don't like their picture being taken.

  • africanrefugee July 29, 2011 02:05 am

    Like the OP I am a South African (now living in the UK). Coming from Africa I have found it strange the way people here take exception to having their photos taken, to the point of treating everyone with a camera in public a pervert. Yes if you are wanting to do numerous shots of a person you need to ask their permission, but a one off in a public place (AKA street photography) should not cause offence. Legalities aside (Its legal to take photographs of people in public places in the UK by the way) what's the big deal? And taking photographs of children here can definately land you in hot water! Oh for the beauty and innocence of youth enjoying life as only the young can. Spontenaity cannot be created, it can only be captured at the moment it is seen.

  • Marlo Casabar July 29, 2011 01:09 am

    I became interested in shooting strangers when I came across the site 100strangers.com. It's been a great project for me. Here are my first 38 strangers - http://www.flickr.com/photos/marlocasabar/sets/72157626408002005/

  • Clearviz July 28, 2011 08:04 pm

    There is no legal requirement to get the subject to sign a model release form in the UK. However an agency may request one to cover themselves.

    You also say that you cannot claim rights from an image of someone in the UK. This is untrue, if I take a photo of someone then I own the copyright, not the subject.

  • Jico Gallana July 28, 2011 02:14 pm


    I started following this website around 4 months ago when i decided to take photography seriously as a hobby. I learned a lot, right from the basics and all the way to the advanced techniques.

    Anyway, here's the first photo I took that I am truly proud of:

    Taken at Fort Worth Stockyards, Fort Worth Texas:


  • Biomech July 26, 2011 08:58 pm

    Just to add, I would suggest that you don't snap and run, but thank them, tell them how good it looks (even basic words if you're abroad; "Ah muchos bueno", "bella!", even if the words aren't quite right they will get the idea), offer to show them and if language isn't a problem you can offer to send them a copy.

    In the UK you don't have to get permission to photograph someone. Although it is polite and professional to ask.

  • Fuzzypiggy July 26, 2011 05:18 pm


    Depends upon the country, here in the UK you can take people's pictures in the street ( only polite to ask them ) but if you intend to make money the subject must sign a model waiver form for you ( Google for examples if you need one ). Their image is there's and there's alone to offer, you cannot claim rights on someone else's image ( ie, their face) and make money from it without their permission.

    Large crowd scenes are a tricky matter, you should obtain forms from the faces that can be seen clearly but that's obviously not very practical, so you tend to blur them a little just be sure, then you won't need a model waiver form.

    Taking pictures of public servants like Police and Fire is allowed in the UK at least but be warned a lot of the coppers can get irate and ask you to stop or remove their images from your camera for security reasons. This is more likely during a tense events like a riot or protests for example. On just a carnival day or simple boy scout parade for example, the Police are a lot more accomodating when relaxed, just use common sense and sensible judgement.

  • Nevervoid July 26, 2011 04:31 pm

    Those are some great tips, I always used to wonder if we needed a decent zoom (18-200). I'm going to try the 50mm f 1.4 and check out what I get.
    Thanks for the tips!


  • Eric G. July 26, 2011 07:24 am

    Excellent shots OP

    I usually shoot nature and landscapes (they never complain about how the shot came out if I screw it up) however I think this has inspired me. I might go and try this sometime soon... just need to get up the nerve to ask total strangers to take their picture... :/

  • Madison Raine July 26, 2011 06:49 am

    @ Chris Kellyman,
    Oh, well I think if your going to take photos of people without them know, you should defiantly get there permission after to share those photos with the world or to sale them. Yeah, I think it's wrong to take photos of people and post them without their knowledge. Thankyou for helping me understand what he was saying.

    @ Eric B,
    I misunderstood you. It is wrong to post photos of people without their knowledge. Some girl actually did that of me, and I got VERY upset. Especially since she put them on a social network not a photo sharing network. Anyways, yeah we should have to get peoples permission.

  • Chris Kellyman July 26, 2011 06:43 am

    @Madison. What Eric B is referring to is the form that makes it legal and gives the photographer permission to use the images. The OP stated that in Africa where they live, it is not necessary but in the US where I live, best practices and ethics dictate that one would be necessary and saves you from liability if the images are used.

  • Madison Raine July 26, 2011 06:28 am

    @ Eric B,
    If you hire a model, they will look perfect. And in real life no one is perfect, half the world doesn’t even look perfect. Capturing portraits on the street is showing true life. It’s not a cheap way to capture people. It’s a way to capture the world how it truly is. Do you see a problem with this?

  • Madison Raine July 26, 2011 06:25 am

    @ Eric B,
    If you hire a model, they will look perfect. And in real life no one is perfect, half the world doesn't even look perfect. Capturing portraits on the street is showing true life. It's not a cheap way to capture people. It's a way to capture the world how it truly is.

  • Eric B July 26, 2011 06:18 am

    I noticed that no one brought this up but what exactly can you get from these types of photos (besides personal enjoyment) without having a model release signed every time?

  • Chris Kellyman July 26, 2011 01:29 am

    I have always been a bit apprehensive about approaching a total stranger so shots I have composed in my mind usually go to waste. Plus, I am always thinking to myself, 'Self, aren't you going to need a signed release from this individual in order to use the images?'

    The 2nd image in the adult portraits slideshow at http://www.kellymanphotography.com/index.php#mi=2&pt=1&pi=10000&s=1&p=1&a=0&at=0 is of a young man that I approached and asked if he would mind that I took a picture. He is not a total stranger to me so I wasn't quite as apprehensive. I guess my apprehension is just one of the things I will have to overcome to be better at what I like to do.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer July 25, 2011 11:51 pm

    I really like the waitress in the diner shot (2nd from top).

    I do not know why the author says to not use flash though in order to maintain a low profile. If you are asking the subject for permission and having them look into the lens, to me that is already creating a large profile, at least with the subject, plus there is no need for stealth then.

    While photographing a New Year's Eve party I asked this one server if I could make her portrait and did use flash:


    For shots like the last one in this post, then I would agree to not use flash in order to keep the subject unaware he/she was being photographed.

  • Desmond Louw July 25, 2011 07:40 pm

    Thanks for all the lovely comments guys!! I love sharing :)
    About the legal part of taking pictures of strangers, in my country South Africa this is allowed, so better find out if you are allowed in yours.
    If I see in my viewfinder the subject just realized I took a shot of him, I kinda look up and past him into the distance as if I shot something behind him, this works very good haha
    enjoy guys.
    Peace from Cape Town

  • Keren July 25, 2011 04:52 pm

    Assist beam...HA! Those Nikon-Users ;). Great article!

  • KenP July 25, 2011 01:06 pm

    This guy has some cool street photography and portraits: http://robinwong.blogspot.com/

  • Mei Teng July 25, 2011 10:37 am

    Very good tips and beautiful portraits.

  • Alexander July 25, 2011 10:36 am

    Thank you for the tips! I'm relatively new to photography and was wondering how I should go about taking street portraits. This definitely cleared a lot of confusion up.

  • Joan Nova July 25, 2011 09:03 am

    Great advice...thanks for the tips. Your portrait images are stunning.

  • JacksonG July 25, 2011 09:00 am

    I went to vista print and had some business cards printed for my photography hobby and I give them to someone when I want to take their photo. The card puts people at ease and I tell them to contact me and I'll send them a free copy of the photo. I take a lot of pictures in the tourist areas of Boston so I blend right in with my camera.

  • Through the Lens of Kimberly Gauthier, Photography Blog July 25, 2011 07:36 am

    Fantastic post! I'm still working on the courage to take portraits of strangers; your work is beautiful so I think I'll give this a try this week.

  • Shauna July 25, 2011 06:52 am

    Great tips. I love street photography...especially with animals, but also with people. I added him on Instagram!

  • Nomadic Samuel July 25, 2011 06:03 am

    Street photography/ candid portraits is my favorite genre. These are great tips. If I could add one more - sometimes you can suggest sending the photo to them by email as a way to have them more engaged and interested.

  • JoAnne July 25, 2011 05:48 am

    Are we legally allowed to photograph people with out them knowing it and then post it(as you did of thelast gentleman) but not sell it?

  • Zhu July 25, 2011 05:18 am

    These portraits are simply awesome. You definitely have a gift to find the right people and snap the right shot. Best advice I've read in a while too!

  • john July 25, 2011 04:48 am

    Ye dont make a habit of sneaking round the streets taking photos of people,But you are right guys it would be worse getting caught than asking

  • rian July 25, 2011 04:14 am

    Some of the best street portraits I've seen are from this guy http://www.dannyst.com/

  • Jay July 25, 2011 04:05 am

    This is a great article, I too have been somewhat timid about the whole stealth approach but I do agree that you get a truly raw look into your subject that way.
    I recently took a completely different approach, inspired by Clay Enos I set up in the street and stopped people for their portraits. I was shooting at night sock set up my flash and umbrella with a reflector. Here's the blog post with the results

  • Jojie July 25, 2011 03:57 am

    This is something that I have always had a problem with. It's too embarrassing for me to ask , but over the years , I have slowly and randomly just a handful of people for now. Eventually I will get there.

  • scottc July 25, 2011 03:16 am

    I enjoy candids as well, though not the secretive kind.


  • Erik Kerstenbeck July 25, 2011 02:37 am


    I am not a big fan regarding taking pictures of peopel without letting them know. I took this simple picture of the sign outside of this Biker Bar in California and then went inside for a refreshment. About 30 minutes later I was accosted by several patrons who were really concerned if I was a Private Investigator. (Nikon D90, Tripod visible...Hmmm...very steathly!)

    My lesson is to respect your subjects, ask and it will always be better!


  • Tara July 25, 2011 02:31 am

    Great post! I've learned a lot. thanks (",)

  • Pavlos Pavlidis July 25, 2011 02:03 am

    So you often take photos of people without them knowing? A greatest fear than asking people to take their photo is getting caught when taking it without asking... :/

  • john July 25, 2011 01:59 am

    Been wanting to try this for ages have done it a few times but only really sneaky shots.And they are not the same as asking some think as you said it could be quite addictive once you start,Will get up the courage soon.Thanks for the advice on this subject helps a lot.DPS team

  • Sheryl Salisbury July 25, 2011 01:55 am

    I love street photography and portraits so this is a great article for me. I am always so nervous about asking. I need to practice on this. Thanks for the info.

  • Mike T July 25, 2011 01:53 am

    Thank you so much! I've been working with street photography for a few days and yesterday I was finally able to ask someone if I could take their picture. After asking one person I was able to just go up to others and ask the same. These tips are great!

  • Madison Raine July 25, 2011 01:30 am

    Thanks for sharing the tips. I've been thinking of trying street photography but wasn't sure.