How to Make a Portrait of a Stranger in 8 Easy Steps

How to Make a Portrait of a Stranger in 8 Easy Steps

While you may be at ease shooting candid street photography, you may not feel quite as comfortable doing street portraits… Making a portrait of a stranger, is a very different approach which requires an interaction with your subject.

If you are a very social person who talks to strangers anywhere you go, like I do, taking the next step should not be too much of an issue. If, on the other hand, the thought of approaching a stranger terrifies you, keep reading.

Meet Steve ~ While waiting for the light to cross the street, I made a comment on his cool hat. We talked for 10 minutes! ©Valérie Jardin

Meet Steve ~ While waiting for the light to cross the street, I made a comment on his cool hat. We talked for 10 minutes! ©Valérie Jardin

Step 1 – practice without a camera

Make it a goal to talk with strangers everyday for a few days. They can be waiting in line at the coffee shop with you or on the subway. Make small talk about the weather, comment on the new coffee flavor, just about anything that comes to mind as long as it’s not weird. You may find it terrifying at first but I can assure you that it will become easier everyday and you will soon look forward to your next encounter.  Granted, there is a big leap between approaching a stranger to comment on their cool hat ,or funky sun glasses, and asking them to make a portrait.

Yet, if you are shy, the first step will help you get to the second.

Once there is eye contact, just tell your subject why you want to take a picture. Here I saw a timeless black and white image and I had to ask! ©Valérie Jardin

Once there is eye contact, just tell your subject why you want to take a picture. Here I saw a timeless black and white image and I had to ask! ©Valérie Jardin

Step 2 – photograph a street performer

Another way to ease into it is by photographing street performers. They are there to be seen and they are easy subjects. Purists will tell you that they don’t count because they are too easy. As far as I know there is no authority or rules for street portraiture or street photography in general, so go ahead! Photograph a street performer and remember to leave a tip.

Step 3 – go with a friend

Having another person at your side will embolden you, and you will find it easier to approach a stranger if you’re not alone. The friend doesn’t even have to be a photographer.

Step 4 – don’t hide behind a long lens

Just like with candid street photography, the closer the better! Also, a smaller camera will be less intimidating for your subject.

Step 5 – be confident

Introduce yourself and tell them why you want to make a portrait of them. You’re not doing anything wrong, so don’t take the shot and run! If they ask you why you want to take their picture, simply explain that you are photographing strangers for a personal project and you found them quite interesting. Most people will be flattered.

Most people are flattered that you want to make a portrait of them. ©Valérie Jardin

Most people are flattered that you want to make a portrait of them. ©Valérie Jardin

Step 6 – take your time

You asked for their permission to take the picture, so now it’s your responsibility to do a good job. The background may be distracting, or they may be squinting from the sun in their eyes. Ask them to move or even cross the street if the light is better. Take two or three shots until you are satisfied with the result. Make sure you thank them for their time before you part ways.

Once you have the permission to do a portrait, it's okay to ask your subject to move to a more pleasing background. This young woman was part of my ongoing 'Beautiful Smiles' blog series. ©Valérie Jardin

Once you have the permission to do a portrait, it’s okay to ask your subject to move to a more pleasing background. This young woman was part of my ongoing ‘Beautiful Smiles’ blog series. ©Valérie Jardin

Step 7 – enjoy the experience

Ask for their name, maybe you’ll even engage them in a conversation and find out some interesting things about their lives. Show them the picture on the back of the camera. Share email addresses and send them the best picture if they ask.

Step 8 – share your work

Those portraits are useless if they stay on your hard drive. Share them on a blog or social media network. The more you share, the better you will feel about your project and the more you’ll want to go out and shoot.

If you’ve never done this, why not make it a photographic goal for 2014? Good luck!

Next step . . .

Please share your experience with the dPS community. How did you start interacting with strangers to photograph them? Do you find it as addictive as candid street photography?

There are smiles that are irresistible! ©Valérie Jardin

There are smiles that are irresistible! ©Valérie Jardin

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Valerie Jardin I live and breathe in pixels! Photography is more than a passion, it's an obsession, almost an addiction. When I'm not shooting or writing, I spend my time teaching this beautiful craft during photo workshops all over the world! I am also thrilled to be an official X Photographer for Fujifilm USA. Visit my Website Follow me on Facebook , Twitter , Instagram. And listen to my Podcast!