How to Photograph a Portrait of a Stranger with the WOW Factor

How to Photograph a Portrait of a Stranger with the WOW Factor


how to create portraits of strangers with wow factor

Have you ever met a person, while travelling abroad or at home, who has such an interesting face that you would really like to photograph?  But, just before you press the shutter, you suddenly think, “How am I going to shoot this”?

Because there are so many questions to answer: How do I approach a strange person? Should I photograph from a distance, with a Tele-photo lens, or should I get closer? What if the person will get offended or angry?

It depends on the situation but, in 99% of my portraits, I use what I like to call the “being involved” technique.  This technique requires the photographer to get closer to the subject, by using a wide focal length lens and there is no doubt, that the subject will be aware of the photographer and the camera.

Fstop of 4.5, shutter speed@1\640 and ISO 320

Fstop of 4.5, shutter speed@1\640 and ISO 320

There are so many advantages to using this method, for instance the ability to control the composition, the angle, the background, not to mention asking your subject for “one more take” and of course, the possibility of  making a new friend. Creating a close-up portrait, with the technique of “being involved” creates intimacy and gives warmness to the image that you wouldn’t get with a Tele-photo lens in most cases. But, with this method as my students are well aware, there is one big disadvantage, when a person becomes aware of the camera, his behavior and the authenticity and spontaneity of the moment disappears.

Once, on a very cold night, while shooting in Japan, I asked my good friend and great photographer Dave Doisneau – “What kind of super power he would like to have?” (Cold nights in Japan will make you ask stupid and philosophical questions) Dave answered “I would like to be invisible. To be able to photograph a person, inches away from their face without them being aware that I was even there”. This for me sums up my whole philosophy on portrait photography. Losing the spontaneity, or the fear of losing authenticity, are just weak excuses. As a photographer, your job is to bring all these qualities back to your image. How can you do that? (Here’s a little hint for you) Photoshop or expensive equipment won’t help you.

Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@1\100 and ISO 100?

Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@1\100 and ISO 100

As one of the great photographers, Ansel Adams once said: “You don’t take a photograph, you make it”. The difference between an amateur and a professional is in the preparation.Knowledge is power and the more you know about a person and their culture, the easier it will be for you to become invisible. While I was in the Wakhan valley, between the Afghan and Tajikistan border, I learned, in advance that the people who live there have many cultural dos and don’ts. From the way they greet a stranger (Right hand on the chest and a slight bow) to the proper way to react when invited to a local house (just say yes and prepare yourself for tea, and lots of it!).

Fstop of 4.5, shutter speed@1\60 and ISO 125

Fstop of 4.5, shutter speed@1\60 and ISO 125

So before I travel anywhere, I familiarize myself, in advance, with any photography related taboos.  From how will people respond to the camera, to things that you should not shoot. For example, did you know that the people of the Akha tribe in south East Asia, believe that photographing one of their tribe member will actually steal his soul?

You can learn all these things and more by consulting with a photographer who has already visited the place.  The internet is a great place to find him or her. You can consult travel forums, books, or even call the embassy of the country of your destination.

Fstop of 4.5, shutter speed@1\200 and ISO 200

Fstop of 4.5, shutter speed@1\200 and ISO 200

Many photographers will advise you to take your camera with you all the times. For me, the camera is just a tool, and as a tool it must not interfere. Have you ever felt uncomfortable because someone is aiming a camera at you? Have you ever thought how YOU look when you stand behind the camera? (A bit like holding a weapon right?).

Nobody likes it when you aim something at them without any explanation or permission. That’s why, when I encounter a new and interesting person, I would like to photograph, I first introduce myself as Oded the person before as Oded the photographer. by the time I take out my camera, the person has lost interest in me, and gone back on his work, I then become invisible and Voilà I can take my shot and I’ve make a new friend into the bargain.

In the past year, I have photographed hostile tribes in South East Asia, gypsy communities in Central Asia and even in the former Soviet Union. If there is one thing that I’ve learned from visiting those places, is that most people would actually like their picture taken, if we do it right. So please give yourself a confidence boast and try it. Anywhere you are on the globe, if you act with respect, be polite, and even have a little bit of sense of humor, most of the time people will act the same way towards you.

Yes, we’ve all got a horror story, of the one person who shouted at us while we took his photo. Think about it for a second; did it happen when you tried to shoot the person without his permission? If you approach a person with dignity, make a connection, and then you take out the camera, what the worst thing that can happen? They will say no, but at least you would have tried right?

Fstop of 5.6, shutter speed@1\125 and ISO 100

Fstop of 5.6, shutter speed@1\125 and ISO 100

When you found a person with a unique face, invest the time to break the ice with them, then when you finally have his approval for the shoot, if he’s very polite, you will probably have around 30 seconds to take the shoot before they moves on, that’s some pressure.

This may be the most important section of this article, that many photographers forget, just relax. Being stressed never helps especially when dealing with people or while creating art. It’s true you may not have much time to decide on the focal length, the background, the shooting angle, the shutter or the aperture.

Also, try not to let your technical level stand in your way. How? Before starting to shoot people, try your craft on still life. Flowers would be perfect to start with. Also it would be really wise to invest in some photography course (much more important than buying new equipment). Last but by no means least, don’t forget to RTFM- read the camera’s fu*** manual!

That’s right, creating interesting and strong portraits is not easy. Take your time to work on your craft. Shoot flowers, then your friends and family members. Learn, learn and learn everything you can about your camera and about your subject. Come with respect and most important – relax.

Fstop of 3.2, shutter speed@1\250 and ISO 200

Fstop of 3.2, shutter speed@1\250 and ISO 200


Read more from our category

Oded Wagenstein is a cultures photojournalist and author. His work has been published in numerous international publications, such as the National,, and Time Out. He is the author of three photography books. Visit his Facebook page and continue to discuss travel and people photography and get more fantastic tips!

Some Older Comments

  • Joseph Powell September 22, 2013 05:40 am

    This is what really bothers me about articles like this. Who is to say what a "Wow" factor is? Portraits are unique to the individuals making and appearing in them. What I consider to be a "Wow" factor, may not be considered a "Wow" factor to other people. Some of the work I am most proud of isn't ANYTHING other people might look at and think possesses a "Wow" factor. The photo of the man with the hat standing up against the graffiti looks, to me, like he has something stuck in his teeth. I'm sure to the photographer, it has a wow factor. Maybe he met the guy. Maybe he knows something about the situation. Those are all worthy things. But "wow" doesn't translate across all people. That's the BEST thing about photography. It's unique. I get to make up my own rules.

  • Penny Sadler September 16, 2013 10:57 pm

    Great article. I have done this several times and it usually works. The only time I hesitate is when it's a child I want to shoot. I'm always worried that the parents will think I'm creepy.

  • Kishan September 15, 2013 04:51 pm

    Wonderful article. I always struggle to take pictures of strangers. Its more easier in Asia than in Europe or the US.
    I will follow your advice next time I am shooting street portraits.

    Following are some pictures that I shot in India..

  • Oded Wagenstein September 13, 2013 09:38 pm

    Hello Friends,
    Wow! Thank you so much for all your heart warming comments. I was very happy to learn that you liked my article.
    Would appreciate it if you can join my FB photography page here:

    Dear Arun
    I agree that working with people in Europe or the United States is complex (Although one of the images shown here was taken in the Dominican Republic - a very difficult place for photographs).
    Well, New York was perhaps the most difficult place I shot in. So I will share with you my approach to those kind of places. I go to people and say: "Hello, my name is Oded and I'm a photographer. I'd love to take you photo because of your______ ( Beautiful hat, nice facial features, Special clothing).

    You will be surprised how this approach works. People told me "Do you know what? OK, just because you asked so nicely".

    Dear kirtu- Thank you, I am happy you liked my article

    Dear Darlene- The photos displayed were taken in: Laos, Western India, Dominican Republic, Western India, Istanbul and Laos.

    Dear edmund - There are shop owners who do not like to be photographed, perhaps because they do not declare tax :)


  • Mridula September 13, 2013 03:38 pm

    In a crowded street in the border between Thailand and Cambodia I stood at one spot and watched people going about their life. Half of them didn't even notice me doing photography!

  • Darlene Hildebrandt September 13, 2013 09:55 am

    Here's a native festival in AZ
    - I even got model releases from several of them

    My home town, both quite away I was shooting them, so NOT the best area of town

  • Darlene Hildebrandt September 13, 2013 09:51 am

    @arun does Turkey count? It's partly in Europe.

    Go forward from there, all from Turkey.

    I have lots from the US too, this is New Orleans.

  • Edmund September 13, 2013 06:06 am

    Definitely one of the best articles I have ever read on DPS. I have always had a problem with overcoming the embarassment of photographing strangers and then there is the problem of getting them to sign a model release form if you post to an agency. There is a certain Turkish butcher who would rather chop your head off than be photographed so sometimes it is best to click and run!

  • Darlene September 13, 2013 05:29 am

    @Oded Great images I'd love to know the country each was taken in?

  • Ben September 13, 2013 04:31 am

    Nice post again. The 30 seconds you mentioned seems short to me. Usually people don't mind if it takes some extra time (especially since they already agreed). But that's my experience...
    There's another trick that works for me: I'll visit the streets accompanied by a girlfriend: She talks to people first, then I take the picture a few moments later! See my website of Dutch people/portraits at

    Thanks for this useful post, Oded. [eimg url='' title='IMG_5812B.jpg']

  • Kirtu Riba September 13, 2013 03:21 am

    Bravo !!! This is one of the most interesting and educative article on photography I have ever come across. Indisputably, photographing the strangers is a very delicate and challenging area of photography..Thanks and congratulations again to Oded for touching upon the most significant aspect of the job.

  • Kirtu Riba September 13, 2013 03:11 am

    Bravo !!! This is definitely one of the most interesting article on photography I have ever come across . Indisputably, photographing the strangers is one of the most delicate and challenging areas for any photographer. I thank and congratulate Oded for this highly useful/educative composition on the subject of photography.

  • Paul September 13, 2013 02:18 am

    A few years ago I had the same feelings as Juan does. Then I started shooting Civil War reenactments. At first I thought it was the "gunpowder" shots that were the subject, but I soon found it was a portrait project. I developed several techniques to approach people, but the most effective is the casual introduction. If they are busy or forming up for battle, then a gesture with the camera works. [eimg url='' title='h4cd6be7a#h4cd6be7a']

  • Arun Prabhu September 13, 2013 01:06 am

    Most of the splendid candids we see are of people from Asia and Middle -East. It is not so easy to take pics of Europeans and Americans without their permission . It has to be discreet or by "being involved technique".

    Anyways, here is one I clicked at Battery Park, Manhattan, New York.

    [eimg url='' title='document.php?id=17619']

  • Oded Wagenstein September 12, 2013 01:08 am

    Dear Kevin.

    I liked the very first picture you uploaded. I think it presents a special moment in time
    The soft lighting in the image the combination of colors and textures (Her dress and background) make it interesting and appealing to the eye.

    I think that the image had the potential to be much better:
    Composition: The image conveys a pleasant and peaceful feeling, but the composition, which crop the girl, gives a sense of pressure. I feel that it was better to leave her right shoulder in the frame.

    Composition#2: Looking space is putting your subject according to the direction in which he looks. But here you broke the looking space = girl looking to the right and you placed it on the right side of the frame. There are photos that such composition is wonderful (I use it a lot) here I feel it does not work as it gives sense of off balance

    Depth of Field: As I said, the background of the image is wonderful. But I think it steals the viewer's attention from the subject. if you would open the aperture a bit, you could get just slightly blurred background, which I feel that is much better.

    Hoped it helped.

    If you or the others want to seek my advice on your photography portfolio, and get more in- depth advice, you can send it to me by my Portfolio Review link here:


  • Oded Wagenstein September 12, 2013 12:52 am

    Dear Dave!
    First, Godspeed on your journey. it will be fascinating.
    "Pardon my French" but what is a "smart setup"? Smart for who? Your setup need to be smart and right only for you.

    What I'm basically saying is that you need to adjust the equipment for you. Choosing a lens depends on several factors, including:
    * What subjects do you like to photograph (people, animals, landscapes etc')
    * How much weight you are willing to carry?
    * And how much money you can spend.

    Your crop factor is *2, which means that you have a 24 mm' lens and 90 mm' lens. if you take a lens which is about 20 it will be 40 mm. I think that you have a great set for portraits, but again, it is up to you.

    If you wish to know more about this subject, please read my blog post : Best lens for travel photography?


  • Dave September 11, 2013 03:47 pm

    Hi Oded and fellow readers,
    I'm about to make a rather big journey soon. Going from the Netherlands all the way to Indonesia with only a backpack. I've followed a photography course here in Holland for this purpose. Although I don't want to ask too much gear related questions, I'm going to do it anyway.. I currently own a Olympus OM-D and I'm wondering what the best setup for would be to bring.. At the moment I own the 45mm and 12mm primes, is this a smart setup or would it be smarter to just take a lens that's around 20mm to be closer to the 37/50mm standard? Thanks for the article, I believe I have learned a great technique to come home with more than decent portraits.

  • Kevin Etter September 11, 2013 10:17 am

    I was lucky to grab 2 cool portraits of strangers at the Nor Cal Pirate Festival in June. Here's one of them. [eimg url='' title='9059517513_bfdfc57dc1_n.jpg']

  • Karen k September 11, 2013 05:08 am

    I have learned that a smile and a gesture with my camera often results in a wonderful engagement with a stranger- in this case a beggar in China- and yes, the 5RMB I gave her probably helped! [eimg url='' title='photo.php?fbid=10150813313492509&l=6c04a8c00e']

  • Juan Castillo September 10, 2013 09:53 pm

    I have to admit, one of the scariest things for me is photographing people. Mainly because I'm an introvert and is always weird for me going to random people and striking a conversation. But, it looks as if i'm just going to have to get over that. Thanks for the post :).

  • Maïeva Voyage September 10, 2013 01:32 pm

    Hi Oded Wagenstein,
    Thank you very much for the tips (I've just RT twice)!
    I also love street and travel photography and I've just written a tutorial with some advice for more spontaneous portraits, so if you're interested to have a look at it
    All the best,
    Maïeva Voyage
    [eimg url='' title='Tuto-1-Photo-5.jpg']

  • Jo Ann Gonzalez September 10, 2013 08:40 am

    I'm getting back in to "street photography" and would love to learn as much as I can. I have done a lot of
    reading of the greats from back in the 50's and up who just knew how to get your photo there on the streets.
    I use a DSLR camera Sony 65..