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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 10 Tips for Photographing Strangers
- How to Photograph Strangers: The 100 Strangers Project
- 9 Tips for Creating Great Street Portraits
Please post your questions, comments, and portraits of strangers you’ve created in the comments section below.