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

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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

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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!

  • Shannon

    Thank you Valerie! I always love looking at your images and wondered how you got people to look so relaxed and inviting. Now I have a plan to go with my goal of more interactive street photography πŸ™‚

  • Joseen Jack

    A great article, Valerie!! I have done a bit of street portrait photography and have found people to be open to having their photos taken. I love the interaction and always ask for their name – I feel this makes it so much more personal! I also write their name down in case I forget it by the time I get home! Your article has inspired me to get out and do some more of this kind of photography…thanks!!

  • Will

    I’ve been wanting to photograph a stranger for a while. 2014 might be the year.

  • brilliant tips.. can’t believe I have been unconsciously doing most of your tips.. not sure / dare to share most of the candid pictures I took though as people are getting strange about that these days, do we need to get a ‘rights’ release form signed by them before we can share?.curious to what you might suggest/advise?

    keen to hear your feedback on my street photography pictures (I did ask their permission for taking photos, but not sign any release form):

    Huge & cuddly Newfoundlands dog “Max” IMG_0286 ‘Newfs’, ‘Newfies’ http://flic.kr/p/eRXTH1

    very nice & welcoming Miss Campus Party, πŸ˜‰ DSC_0955 @CampusPartyEU #CPEurope http://flic.kr/p/fHVpxL

    Who’s this gorgeous girl!?? IMG_0367 http://flic.kr/p/e3jnoh

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    why wait!? do it tomorrow!

  • Ron

    Should you ask for a model release and how do you go about it without raising concerns over what might be done with the portrait you just took?

  • Valerie Jardin

    Ron, as long as you are not using the images commercially (as in stock) and they are for editorial use only, you’re fine. It’s the same if the picture was to be published in the newspaper, in most countries the subject of the picture never knows it’s going to be published. This is why, in street photography and street portraits, respect is so important. I never photograph people in vulnerable or embarrassing situations for example.

  • Michael Presley

    I’m a pretty out going guy and usually don’t have any problems approaching people – but I don’t often overtly photograph strangers. I was a arts/jazz festival a few months ago and while sitting, waiting for The Blues Brothers to go on stage I saw these two lovely girls taking pictures of each other. They saw me taking shots of the crowd and asked me to take their picture with their phone camera. It was a great opportunity to get a shot of a stranger. I guess that’s one way to approach it.

  • Anil

    Great Article. “Reaching out to people” is the key while shooting people in the streets or in public places.

    I shot this picture of a monk during a train journey. He was a co-passenger. Normally by their own nature, Monks keep themselves quite reserved. So choose a topic smartly to initiate your conversation. In my case, “religion” was one of the obvious option. I initiated the conversation asking about his daily lifestyle, life being a monk etc. and eventually he opened up. Then this candid shot is the output. I captioned it as “En-Lighted soul reflecting through the bright eyes”

  • Anil

    Shot this one at a local fish market. After a little conversation, the fish vendor was generous enough to pose for the shot with a big fish holding in his arms.

  • Raghavendra

    i always wanted to take photographs of stranger, i need to try on this.

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.in/

  • Celi van Heerden

    Now this scares the daylights out of me. I will definitely stutter and lose my words if I have to ask a stranger if I may take his/her photo – and what if they say “NO”? That would be me finished.

  • Lisa Martinez

    love these ideas – definitely going to try it

  • Ken Lyons

    Nice article Valerie. I never did much, if any, street photography before taking your Paris workshop. You taught me so much that I’m now hooked. I love street photography. Is it uncomfortable? Sure, sometimes. And sometimes people say “No”, but there are plenty more people available to make images of. If someone doesn’t want their photo taken, just move on to the next person! I found most people approachable and accommodating. I’ve found my niche πŸ™‚

  • Dipanjan Mitra

    I have always tried to keep things easy and light and not force
    myself to do anything silly or extra. I have always encouraged myself in
    interacting closely with strangers who have or not have shown curiosity
    about photography. There have been days where I have just sat in one
    place without taking a picture but spending time interacting with
    strangers who used to approach me seeing a dslr in hand in one of the
    busiest areas where i live. The common question that i still face is “to
    which media you belong”? But that is NOT always. Body language of the
    photographer matters a lot. Being humble is a HuGe aspect in street photography.

    On
    the contrary there have been times when I have been lucky enough to get
    a candid pose without facing any questions. These work well for
    environmental portraits.

    At the end of the day, I
    feel it is very important to be a part of the street yourself. Feel the
    street, belong to the street, enjoying the flavor of it and be just
    another person like your passerby. Making the stranger feel comfortable with your presence is the trick as far as am concerned or my philosophy.

    http://www.dipanjan-mitra.com

  • Dipanjan Mitra

    one of my candid street shots

    http://www.dipanjan-mitra.com

  • Anil

    Sometimes you don’t need to utter a single word, the communication happens through the body language.

    On a recent photowalk, I was clicking some random stuffs on a relatively lonely street when I notices this lady enjoying her glass of morning tea. Though I was at a far distance from her, somehow she noticed I am trying to click her picture. Then I signaled her “can I take your picture?”. She agreed and posed for the shot with a little smile on her face. I zoomed in my 70-200 mm lens and clicked this one.

  • andikreshna

    @valeriejardin:disqus, thanks! I’d just want to re-highlight your excellent remark about street photo manner: “…This is why, in street photography and street portraits, respect is so important. I never photograph people in vulnerable or embarrassing situations for example.”

  • @valeriejardin:disqus Your imagery is simply timeless! You inspire, thank you.

  • Bob

    So what if they say “no?” Thank them anyway, maybe have a little conversation nonetheless, and wish them a good day. Try again with someone else. You’d be surprised how often people say “yes.”

  • Vidal Brownlee

    I have already decided to do the Flickr 100 strangers project in 2014. These tips will ensure I set off on the correct footing. Many thanks, Vidal

  • ColininOz

    Try kids to get used to informal portraits in the outdoors – but be sure that a parent or other person knows you have no ulterior motives ! Brave new world.

  • Karen

    it is my understanding that if you are going to publish these photos in any way you must have a signed release. Am I not correct on this?

  • Valerie Jardin

    As long as the images are not used commercially and they were shot in a public place, you don’t need a release in most countries.

  • Edwin Montgomery

    While on a business trip to Hyderabad, India from the States I left the hotel for a walkabout with my camera. I found the people of India to be very friendly even though we were often not able to communicate. I used hand gestures to request photo ops from the people on the streets. I often received a pose and a smile at which point I would fire off a few shots.

    This is one of several people. A young lady that was sitting next to the base of a statue in the park. The colors and her smile were irresistible.Not one word was spoken between us…

  • Graeme Finlayson

    I’m relatively new to street photography/portraiture, but this is one I took at a Christmas market in 2013. This young German lady was serving GlΓΌhwein at the Christmas market in Bristol. I remarked on her hat and asked her if I could take her photo. Her response was the most wonderfully natural smile I’ve ever seen…

  • Patti Bodenhamer

    I asked to take this picture. It is one thing that doesn’t bother me

  • Chandrayee Biswas

    not a very happy face though ; } ..but i love how I gave it a try. Maybe she needed an introduction or something ..

  • Mike Vincent

    I just started my project of 100 strangers

  • Mike Vincent
  • Will

    I know this was a while back but I wanted to let you know that I have now photographed 2 strangers!

  • Cameron McMurray

    I have dreaded trying to approach people, but after reading this I’m so Inspired to take the next step

  • Sequoia

    Nice!

  • Sequoia

    It’s a face that tells us about her. Beautiful!

  • Abhijit Deo

    I find DPS so interesting and their posts are so easy to understand. I really admire the service you are giving to shutterbugs. So much positive energy here. Cannot thank you enough

  • dantefrizzoli

    I’ll try this out. Thank you

  • Celi van Heerden

    Do you remember this post Bob? I tried again and the person said OK which really boosted my confidence. I’m still wary to ask but have done a few portraits now and it doesn’t scare me quite as much as before.

  • Jeff M

    Great article Valerie. I started in the street photography genre through the $2 Portrait project on Flickr about 3-1/2 years ago. Have met some really interesting people and had the opportunity to save a young woman’s life by helping her get off the streets. Even after all this time, it is still intimidating on occasion. But we gotta keep at it!

    https://www.flickr.com/groups/2dollarportraits

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffm211/sets/72157626211920319/

  • I don’t do this anywhere near as often as I should. I am, by trade, a portrait photographer but I’m hired to shoot, so it’s all pre-arranged. Strangers, off the street as it were, is a whole different ball game. I remember doing it once and I got a polite ‘No’ but then we had a conversation where he told me he loved shooting film photography but was not confident on the other side of the camera. I told him I related completely πŸ™‚

  • Larry the Drummer in San Francisco, California.

  • Eric Zenteno

    Wonderful picture!

  • Elena

    Nice shot!

  • Elena

    Great tips! I have never done it and I am quite shy, so it’s one of my goals for 2015… so scary.

  • Pedro Brito

    I recently started my Flikcr 100 Strangers Project and it’s a wonderful felling when you are able to overcome that fear of approaching a stranger!

  • Pedro Brito

    I recently started my Flickr 100 Stranger Project… what a great felling when you overcome the fear of approaching a stranger to take a portrait!

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/pedro_aboim/sets/72157649039320120/

  • Chandrayee Biswas

    πŸ™‚ thank you

  • Steven Spud Tait

    I am doing a 100 Project similar to that described above….its great and bloody scary. The rules are engage with the subject for at least 2 mins and get permission https://www.flickr.com/photos/spudtait/ look in Albums for The 100 Project….enjoy

  • Parinay Sharma

    Just start an interaction obviously they point out your camera and you ask them to take their photo….. Very simple…

  • Parinay Sharma

    Just start an interaction obviously they point out your camera and you ask them to take their photo….. Very simple……

  • Friend2303

    Its been a year on the Strangers project – still cant avoid a rising heartbeat πŸ˜‰ .. heres a recent stranger one I did in Mumbai … https://www.flickr.com/photos/vijaybrittophotography/26815749966/

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