Hello, my name is Anil Mistry. I love messing with both film and digital cameras and I shoot lots of street portraits. It’s an incredibly rewarding pastime that builds your photography skills quickly.
In this mini-guide I’ll be sharing my thoughts and tips on how to confidently approach people and take their picture on the street. This post is a build-out of a printed handout that I give to photographers when I host photowalks.
For some photographers, the idea of engaging with total strangers is their worst nightmare for what I see as three main reasons:
- The fear of speaking to a stranger in public.
- The fear of rejection.
- The fear of looking like a moron in some unexpected altercation that suddenly happens out of the blue whilst a whole street looks on.
Luckily, we live in an age where to be photographed is to exist, and you’ll be surprised how many people are happy to take part in the exercise and pose for you. In my experience, the “yes” rate is roughly 75-80%.
The main focus today is to get you to develop confidence on the street and to deal with the subtleties of human interaction.
The first thing I’ll say is this: We all feel nervous and shy and embarrassed. It’s perfectly natural.
The second thing I’ll say is this: Human beings are social animals. We like to interact with others. Most people you approach will be polite and flattered, whether they agree to let you shoot them or not.
And the third thing I’ll say is this: Life is short. And when your time comes to leave this mortal coil and the wonder and absurdity of life hits you in an all-engulfing moment of stunning clarity, you don’t want to be regretting not having just asked a few strangers if they minded having their picture taken. Because it really isn’t a big deal. It’s as embarrassing as YOU decide to make it, and it has the potential to be infinitely rewarding in a way that negates any random awkward moments that you feel as you learn a simple new skill.
In short, You will get out of street portraits what you put into it. So give this a try. If you end a day with one or two pictures you previously never would have dared to take, then you’ve won. Here’s what’s covered:
Table of contents
Before we get into it, Let’s get the don’ts out of the way. All common sense stuff.
- Don’t take shots on private property / land (eg. a shop / mall) without permission of the owner.
- Don’t ask to take photographs of children.
- Don’t take photographs without permission – this can lead to difficult situations, especially if you’re new to the whole street portrait thing.
- Don’t ask homeless people if you can take their photographs. There is no legal reason for this – for me it’s a respect thing – and I think it’s crass.
- Don’t block any pavements or paths – it’ll really piss people off.
Right… Are you ready? Here we go…
Section 1: Presenting yourself, approaching people, and being sensible
I always make an effort to look smart in a “minimal” sort of way when I shoot people. This makes me unthreatening, inoffensive and neutral to anyone I approach.
- Look presentable and professional. You are a photographer and you do this all the time. You need to look trustworthy, and not like a weirdo in any way.
- Be confident, and relax. You’re a person with a camera, like the millions of other people with cameras, and you’re out for the day looking for interesting people to take photographs of. You’re doing nothing wrong… You belong here!
- If you appear nervous, the subject may get nervous. Give good eye contact and smile when speaking.
- Don’t ask homeless people. It’s crass and disrespectful in my opinion, and if someone’s having a hard day and you turn up with a camera, there may be repercussions.
- General rule – use your instincts – if something appears not right about a potential subject or an area, then trust your instincts, move on and find someplace else.
- Here’s a tip I learned from a social worker. You can learn a lot about a person from the state of their footwear. If their shoes are in really bad shape then don’t approach them. They are likely to have bigger problems in life. Again, it’s a respect thing.
Section 2: Asking
This is the main bit. Relax and enjoy it, and always smile. Remember, a person may say no… but they are more likely to say yes. What’s the harm in asking?
- Find an area where people are happily ambling about and not busily getting from A to B, where you might piss them off, and get more “sorry I’m in a rush” replies, which will chip away at your confidence.
- Find your subject- stand still and look at all the people approaching you- find someone who you can engage with for a specific reason, eg: They have a colourful scarf, a cute dog or cool sunglasses, etc – or:
- Look for someone who’s made a bit of an effort! People who have made an effort to get dressed up usually want to be noticed and if you notice that they look good and acknowledge the fact, they will be flattered, and more likely to play ball.
- Approach them from the front / side with a big smile (not from behind- this can be threatening or put them off)
- Keep your reason for approach really brisk, simple and complimentary,. No need for a big speech- and SMILE! Here’s some simple lines that work:
- “Excuse me, I love your scarf, would you mind if I took a picture of you?”
- “Wow that’s such a cute dog, can I get a picture of you both?”
- “Hey, you look really cool in those sunglasses, can I get a quick photo of you?”
- “You two look really stylish, can I get a quick picture?”
- “You two look really happy together, can I get a quick picture?”
- “Excuse me I couldn’t help but notice your amazing tattoos- can I get a quick picture?”
- “Wow, I love your beard mate, can I get a quick picture?”
Section 3: WHY?
People will want to know why you want to take their picture (wouldn’t you?) , so you need a response. Be honest and you’ll be fine, eg:
- “I just noticed you on the street and I thought you’d make a great photograph!”
- “I’m a street photographer and today I’m taking street portraits of interesting people I meet (this is my favourite line- it qualifies you as someone who belongs on the street with a camera, and it flatters them because you – a street photographer- think they’re interesting“
- “I’m doing a photography workshop today and learning how to approach people and take their portrait on the street”
- You really stood out with that cool coat and I thought I’d ask to see if you’d be up for a street portrait”
- “I’m learning photography, and this is an exercise to help me get over the nerves of asking people on the street” (this is a good one too- it’s honest, and you put the onus on your subject to help you out with a mini kindness. Most people are happy to help)
- SHOW THEM YOUR WORK- always carry some physical examples of your work- ideally a mini photo book, some prints or even an iPad gallery- show them how great you are and how lucky they are that you picked them to shoot. It provides a great talking point and endears them to you and your quest.
Be Transparent! People may be afraid of their picture being used in some way they don’t like so be clear on where the picture will end up:
- Just for personal use (developing your work and your confidence)
- It will go on your website (give them a link)
- It’s for your instagram or twitter / facebook page (give them a link to it so that they can share it)
Section 4: REJECTION
Nobody likes rejection, but it goes with the territory. It’s not “bad”, it’s just someone who doesn’t want their picture taken. And that’s fair enough.
Your subject may say no for many reasons- they’re in a hurry, they don’t want their picture taken, some religious or other belief, or they simply don’t feel like it today. And that’s fine. Always thank them and move on:
- “No worries, thanks for your time”
- “Oh that’s a shame- thanks anyway”
- “Ok I understand- have a good day!”
- “Oh no problem- bye!”
What’s important is how YOU deal with the moment of rejection. Sometimes if you get a few “no” responses in a row it can be disheartening. That’s totally normal. So here’s my tips:
- Walk on a bit to another part of the street,
- or find another location entirely
- or best of all, just jump straight back in and ask someone else.
- Sometimes I may have a whisky to loosen myself up a tiny bit. But don’t walk around with a camera whilst stinking of booze- it’s a bad look.
People have a right to refuse, but remember that you have a right to ask too! Don’t be put off by rejection- you don’t ask, you don’t get!
Section 5: THE RETURN PATH
If you’re taking a picture of someone, it’s only fair that you offer them a copy of it. This will give them another reason to pose for you, and qualify you as someone who is legit.
- When asking, make sure that you offer a way for them to get a copy from you to close the deal- “If you let me take your picture I’ll be able to send you a digital copy of it”
- Give them your email address and the filename of the picture so that they can contact you later and ask for a copy (keep some post it notes and a pen on you) or if shooting on film- explain that if the pictures come out, you’ll be able to send them copies in a few weeks.
- Start an Instagram page of your shots- people love a bit of Instafame- and give them your handle so they can follow you and message you to get the shot when you post it
- Create a special card with all the info on it. This will make you look more “official” and provide a talking point too. I highly recommend that you do this. It makes conversation a lot easier, and will boost your confidence too. Sometimes I hand my card out whilst I’m asking the person so that they feel like they’ve been specially picked out from the crowd.
Section 6: TAKING THE SHOT
Now that they’ve agreed to have a shot taken, you have about 30 secs – 1 minute to take it, so get going! You are the photographer, and you are now in charge of directing them. Be clear on what you want them to do and be amazed as a total stranger is now taking your direction on the street!
- Work with a focal length between 28- 70mm so you’re not having to stand too far back and block a pavement
- Ensure the sun is behind you/ to the side, and not behind the subject
- Make sure that the background isn’t too busy
- Ask the subject to look directly into the lens or just past the lens
- Smile or not? Go with the natural demeanour of your subject. Don’t force them into a facial pose that makes them uncomfortable.
- Focus on their eyes and reframe
- Take the shot
- Ask them to change the pose a little and look in another direction
- Take the next shot
- Thank them, give them your email address /contact details
- Find your next subject
Section 7: Sample scenario
Read this carefully and imagine the scenario playing out. Most of your encounters will end up like this. Simple, isn’t it?
You: “Excuse me- I love your outfit you look really cool – would you mind if I took your picture?”
Subject: “er… why?”
You: “I’m a street photographer and today I’m taking portraits of interesting people I meet whilst out and about. I’ll be able to send you a copy of the picture afterwards”
Subject: “Where will the picture go?”
You: “Don’t worry, it won’t end up in a newspaper or anything it’s for my Instagram feed of street portraits”
Sbject: “OK then, what do you want me to do?”
(TAKE CONTROL AND TAKE THE PICTURE)
You: “Here’s my email address and the picture number – contact me and I’ll send you the shot when I get back home – thanks very much for your time.”
Section 8: Easy wins
Finally, Some tips for making your life easier and increasing the chances of a “yes” when starting
- Find an area where people are having fun, eg: a food market, a fair, in an area where people are watching street performers, or even outside a pub. When people are relaxed and having fun they are a lot more amenable
- Ask students (over 18 years of age of course)– they are always happy to help and willing to try something new
- Ask groups of friends- they will egg each other on and end up competing and you’ll suddenly have a handful of subjects
- Search out people who have really made an effort to look good. Play to their vanity: “Wow- you look amaaaayzing!” and they will be putty in your hands.
I hope these tips help. There’s no substitute for getting out there and just trying it. So do. Take your favourite camera out and shoot some street portraits. You’ll thank yourself.
~ Anil Mistry
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