Tips for Taking Street Portraits – Lessons Learned in India


On my trip to Rajasthan, India I packed my Canon 400D (Rebel XTi) with two lenses: my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS USM (for long and candid photos) and my Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II (for indoor portraits and low light photos) because I was aiming for portrait on the streets and specially head shots. Here are a few tips for taking street portraits, from my humble experience, and how to approach people before you take you shot.

#1 Always smile


You always want to let anyone who sees you with a camera know that you are a cheerful person and therefore they won’t mind being photographed by you. Even if they become angry because you asked, just smile and back off. You need to remember that being a photographer in the street is an image for all photographers in the public eyes.

#2 Avoid using the built-in flash on your camera

A common mistake that most beginners fall into is using the built in flash. For me this is meant only for quick shots of friends or family. But if you want to a portrait with great light, use natural daylight in the shade by making the subject face towards the light not the opposite.


#3 Don’t shoot in the sun

The reason is simple, hard light means hard shadows! Normally when you take a portrait for someone in the sun it creates hard shadows under the eyes, which is very bad for a portrait most of the time. Try to draw your subject to the nearest shady area available, or you can use a smooth board (or reflector) to make the light more even on the subject, that is if you dare to do all that with a stranger.


#4 Think about the light and shadows

It’s not enough just to take the shot in the shade during the day, away from the sun. You also need to consider how the light and the shadows are becoming on the subject’s face. You can do that by taking a test shot, then reviewing it on your camera screen by looking for the highlights and the shadows. If you don’t know how, practice it at home with your family or friends before going out to the streets.


#5 Don’t ask the person to smile

The good portrait comes first from the subject, then from you. So when you ask someone to smile, and they will, it won’t be a natural smile and sometimes it will bad for the shot. So don’t ask and they will reveal their true expression to the camera whether it’s a smile or sadness, sometimes you will be surprised.



#6 Use a large aperture for a blurry background

One of the key important things in portraiture is to focus on the eyes and blur the background, and sometimes part of the face. It will make a more dramatic and more attractive portrait to the viewer. And it also blur the background so it makes the viewer’s eye go only to the subject’s eye.


#7 Think about the background

What lies behind the subject is important, sometimes it’s good to have people in it and sometimes it’s better empty with no one. It really depends on how you intend to show your portrait.


Editor’s note: as I was searching Flickr for portrait images for the weekly inspiration collections (Portraits of menportraits of women, I kept finding Zuhair’s portraits stood out among the rest. So I approached him and asked him to share some tips with us and he was gracious enough to do so. I hope you enjoy his images as much I do. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, I feel Zuhair’s portraits do a great job of showing us his subjects’ souls. 



Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Zuhair A. Al-Traifi is from Saudi Arabia, interested in portrait and street photography. He begun photography in February 2010 and after one year found himself in love with the portrait field. You can see more of his work on his blog and 500px.

  • Jared Lawson

    Good tips for photographers beginning to get more serious about photography – and those who may be wondering why their photos aren’t crisp or lit well. . There is much to learn, keep doing it! Travel Photography

  • Guest

    Mr. Al-Traifi has a real gift for taking candid street portraits.

  • Jovanni

    This is great advice. Thank you.

  • photographing peanuts

    I love these photographs! Gorgeous!

  • Don’t ask them to smile and be aware of the background….is it a mistake to ask the subject to take a step one way or another (back, fwd, left, right), or lean to left or right – to go from a bad background to a good to great background, no matter how small the direction of the move?

  • Zuhair A. Al-Traifi

    No it’s not a mistake at all to ask that, if you are willing to ask something like that from a stranger known that he might refuse of not, go ahead and do it ! because that we really needs to to capture the photo you need, guts !

  • Terry K

    Here is the method that I use
    I sit some place with my telephoto lens and take random shots of people and things – I get some really good photos that way – Remember you can always erase the ones you do not like

  • Victoria

    I like the advice that you as the photographer should “always smile” – I can imagine that this would make the subject feel valued, and transform taking the portrait into a pleasant experience.

  • Abhilash Safai

    I had gone to phuskhar and in the market i got some really good portraits. I just used nikkor 50mm 1.8 on my nikon d40 , even though with a low resolution camera portraits have the ability to appeal to the viewers. Zuhair A.Al Traifi thanks for the wonderful tips. Really helpful !

  • ColininOz

    This Sri Lankan lady was begging on the steps of a temple and was only too happy to be photographed in hopeful expectation of a contribution – which of course I gave her. Beggars and street vendors are good starting subjects for street photography but always make recognition with a little currency. They probably live on a dollar a day or less.

  • ColininOz

    ColininOz • a minute ago
    This Sri Lankan lady was begging on the steps of a temple and was only too happy to be photographed in hopeful expectation of a contribution – which of course I gave her. Beggars and street vendors are good starting subjects for street photography but always make recognition with a little currency. They probably live on a dollar a day or less.

  • ColininOz

    I give up – two failed attempts to upload an image ! Sorry.

  • Zuhair A. Al-Traifi

    You’re welcome, by the way the last photo for the old woman that’s smoking is from the market in phuskhar ! 🙂

  • Abhilash Safai

    🙂 Phuskhar is an amazing place !

  • walwit

    I have had the same experience.

  • sj

    In the US is asking someone enough permission to take their portrait (and then display and or sell)?

  • Zuhair A. Al-Traifi

    I’m not from the US and never been there, but if I recall right that’s not enough, I think there is some kind of a release form to be 100% sure that you can do what ever with the photo. Any photographer from the US can help you out more with this matter

  • Hello Zuhair:
    Many thanks for sharing your great photos and your words of wisdom. I fully agree with you, especially with your rule no. 1 “Always Smile”. This will put both the photographer and her model into a resourceful emotional state which will show on the photo. It will also help to create rapport with your model and help to “ask” your model for permission to take her portrait. This “asking for permission” could take any amount of time, from a few milliseconds of eye contact to a few hours of shared fun in a hotel…
    Feel free to have a look at my own reflections on travel photography and learning curve in our travel diary about Asia.
    By the way, almost all of the models in your blog are male. Find below a few female portraits within your cultural context. Yes, it’s possible (…and great fun).
    Good luck, Matt.

  • Geoff

    Many thanks for the tips, Zuhair. Obviously a lot depends on whether you’re looking for posed photo’s or not. In unposed situations you have to accept certain circumstances as they are: whether the subject is in the sun for instance, or smiling. What you usually can prepare in advance is that you have the light in your back; that it’s favourable to capture the subject at their best.
    Personally I try to be invisible and therefore don’t stand grinning behind the camera…

  • sj – depends on how you intend to sell it. Yes it is enough to TAKE their photo and display it. If you want to sell it as an editorial image or fine art that’s all you need also. But if you want to sell it as a stock image you must have a model release.

  • that’s on my bucket list – maybe you can show me there Zuhair!

  • yes he does that’s why I asked him to share his work and tips with us!

  • Soumyadeep Das

    A picture taken in haridwar , India .
    The lady was at a shop near the streets , managing her uttensils kept at her place , I found her face to be much photographic , which gave me this result after capturing her .

  • Great tips! Thanks!

  • Rajesh Seshadri

    Always smile does not always show the actual feeling….

  • Rajesh Seshadri

    Like I said in the last comment…..

  • Thank you so much fantastic, brilliant advice ! Will follow you on 500px Sir

  • you must check Lee Jeffries on 5oopx sir you will love it !

  • Zuhair A. Al-Traifi

    Hello Rajesh, thanks for your comment my friend! You must misunderstood what I meant, the phrase “Always smile” was meant for the photographer himself not the subject that were meant photographed 🙂

  • Zuhair A. Al-Traifi

    Thanks very much! Yes I’m a big fan myself of LJ

  • 🙂 sir pls visit my gallery and please leave you comment on any improvements needed.(

  • Lone Kiter
    Not really my thing as I find “street” a bit daunting, but this is a busker in Aberdeen UK, he hardly ever looks up so I felt ok about getting a shot, only had my 150-600 on me but was nice to stand back to get the shot.

  • Kallinikos Lepi

    The 1st photo at #5 made me sad 🙁 excellent..

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