The idea of making a close portrait of strangers sounds appalling for many beginner photographers in street photography. We’re not raised to engage with strangers freely, ask them for favors, or engage in casual conversations. So asking for close portraits is out of the question.
I won’t label the photographer as an introvert or an extrovert. Even for an extrovert person – the endeavor is challenging. With positive intent and good practice, you can make stunning street portraits or include people in street photography.
Whatever I’m going to share in this post, I’ve personally tried, tested, and verified during my travel to new countries or various cities in my own country. In many previous articles, I’ve called myself an introvert – but let’s get past that and share thoughts that are useful for every street photographer.
1. Get a well defined, crafted, and introspected purpose
Let’s keep it simple. Why do you want to include people in your street photography? Why close portraits? Why the specific person you’ve spotted? Make a list of such open-ended queries. Keep a handy answer to bring clarity to your mind and respond to the person if asked.
An indicative list of purpose: I want to publish in an article or a blog. I’m documenting street life in the city and want to feature some locals. The person has got a unique dress/ hat/ shoes/ pet/ beard/ hair-style/ etc. You’re curious about the person’s activity, want to capture it on the camera. Etc.
2. Research about the culture of the city/ country
Every city is unique in its culture, vibrance, openness, and restrictions. Making a portrait of women in a Muslim country can be offensive. Seek permission. Photographing people in public events is ok. Don’t hesitate. There are these subtleties you got to care about before you visit the place. A good research about the city’s values will help you hit the ground running.
Resources to know about the city: YouTube videos regarding the town. Blogs of a photographer who visited the city (Google for it). If the city is famous, look for any book on Kindle. Look for hashtags and location tags to the town on Instagram. Ask any friend who has visited the location.
Once you start researching, you’ll get to know more resources. And, when you arrive in the city, it won’t look strange to you. Pursue street photography like a pro!
3. Study about the key city locations
After you’ve understood the culture and value that the city bestows on, look for the key spots in the city where you’re likely to get locals or the people you’re likely to get. These could be major tourist places or remote locations best known for photography – not much for tourism.
For example, people go to Agra in India to photograph Taj. Still, a street photographer blends Taj with some local activity or a local person. Likewise, in Goa areas of Panjim and Old Goa attracts photographers more than its beaches.
To know these locations, go to Instagram and look for city tags and street photos with a good number of likes. The photographer tags the location. If you don’t get the site tagged, DM the photographer and ask about the place.
4. Visit public events to get max portraits in less time
I’ve written it several times: public events are the best occasions to make street portraits. People are in a suitable celebration mood and don’t mind showing up in front of the camera. If the event includes some festivals in the city, you have a good chance of finding people in their traditional attire.
To find about a public event in the city, look in Facebook events, festivals calendar of the city or country, or Google a popular site for listing events.
5. Get an understanding of legal aspects of photography in the city
Generally, photography is allowed in public places. But don’t go with this assumption everywhere; put some effort to know whether the location is restricted for the photography or the country doesn’t allow making street portraits without permission.
Beyond legal, apply some moral and ethical thinking. For example, don’t exchange money for a photograph. Don’t shoot homeless or people with disabilities. Seek parent’s permission if you want to make a kid’s portrait.
6. Build a knack for spotting unique and friendly strangers
A good understanding of body language comes in handy in street photography. Persons with relaxed eyes, open arms, and friendly gestures are approachable for photography. People who’ve dressed traditionally for some festivals love to show up in front of the camera.
Besides, people also judge your demeanor – before they allow you to take a picture if they find you a legitimate person:
whether you’re a serious photographer;
you won’t misuse the photos;
the person would be valued in the photograph.
Behave like a pro.
7. Engage first, photo later
If you’re not sure that the person would get intimidated in front of the camera, seeking permission is advisable. Precisely when you’ve landed in a foreign country and are clueless about their openness for street photography.
Approach with positive intent, ask general queries regarding the place, season, culture, street food, tourist locations, and many more such innovative questions. Once you become friends, ask to feature her in the photo – you’ve got better chances that she’ll say yes.
8. Appreciate generously and thoughtfully
A generic appreciation – like you look amazing, you’re beautiful, or you look unique – isn’t thoughtful. These lines would kill your prospects of getting a yes. Take extra pain to provide words to the uniqueness you noticed in the person.
Suppose you’re visiting India, and you spot a woman in her traditional attire, “Sari.” Tell her, “Can I feature you in my portfolio? I’m writing about the culture of the city and would like to feature a local like you in the traditional dress.” She may ask, “where would you publish the photo.” If you’re looking for a blog or your portfolio or your project – share it with her. The homework done in #1 (define your purpose) would guide you to explain better.
9. Don’t chase a stranger
Chasing a person from behind is strictly discouraged. It looks creepy. It’s uneasy for the person. On many occasions, we miss chances to feature great subjects – don’t regret it. Keep moving; you’ll spot more subjects.
10. Show them the photo you’ve taken
People fail to appreciate their own beauty or candidness in their actions. Show them the picture you’ve taken – it brings a smile to their faces to see a good quality picture. Your camera’s display is good enough for a quick view.
After seeing pictures, many people have even asked me to share the image. We exchange numbers or social media profiles and share the photo. If you live up to your promises, you’re setting an excellent example for future street photographers. People will gain trust in the photography community.
11. Don’t disturb them in mid of their activity
People are busy. They don’t care to get featured in the photograph. They don’t want to engage while they’re busy. Don’t disturb them.
Take a candid photo from a safe distance that doesn’t distract them from their activity. I’ve written in my book Street Portrait Photography, I ensure that I’ve got tacit permission to shoot people if they’re in mid of their action.
12. Keep walking, don’t stay longer at one place
People get curious and may approach you with several questions if you stay in one place. You’re also in mid of your action and don’t want to get disturbed, right? Adopt the strategy to keep moving once you exhaust your options at one spot.
In the midst of finding a good subject for street photography, you won’t like to become a subject yourself. ?
13. Try multiple available lighting, composition, and background
Street photographers, unlike studio photographers, are at the mercy of natural light. They’ve got limited options to modify light. But you can request the subject to change the direction where she’s facing. A minor tweak would change the photo drastically.
So, once you gain friendliness with the person, request to move a couple of steps to get a good background, light, and composition to help you with a better story. Again, don’t bother too much.
14. Bring only the camera and lens you need for street portraits
A DSLR or mirrorless would result in good-quality portraits. Mount a prime lens – 35 mm or 50 mm – on the camera. The camera and the prime lens would help you with a range of choices: a close portrait, soft background, and ensure noise-free photo in low-light conditions.
Don’t burden yourself with lots of gear, glasses, and accessories. Street photographers walk a lot. Travel light.
15. Know your legal rights and restrictions
An understanding of your legal rights, coupled with high moral values, empowers you to approach strangers and include them in your street photos. If someone raises objections, don’t throw your rights on them to escalate the matter. Apply your judgment, don’t waste time arguing. If the person asks to delete it, delete it.
Similarly, stay mindful of the local restriction. Ask locals of any prohibitions if you’re not sure.
16. Hire a guide
Well, this is the most promising way of getting good street photos but a costly option too. I’ve hired guides in unfamiliar locations or places where I couldn’t research well. A guide will also help with the local language and take your street photography experience to the next level.
There are inexpensive ways of hiring guides. Look for all options – group, personal, with/ without a vehicle, language, etc. before hiring a guide. Negotiate well. Guides usually charge disproportionately high to the foreigners.
17. Rejections are not personal
I’ve shared this story multiple times. My first experience of street photography in Saigon, Vietnam, was disappointing. I went to Ben Tan Market in the evening. None of the locals, shopkeepers, or street vendors wanted to get photographed. I thought my stay in Vietnam for the next couple of weeks is a waste if this continues.
I hired a guide, and she told me the reason behind the rejections – those shopkeepers were keen to sell their products and may not be doing good business those days. Hence, they are not interested in photos. Otherwise, locals are amiable for photography. She took me to several places where I got a fantastic portfolio of street life in Vietnam.
I learned the lesson: don’t take rejections as personal. Even if few people asked you not to show up in front of the camera. This is about the other possibilities beyond your failure in street photography.
18. Altercation in streets is strictly no-no
If the person prefers privacy and asks you not to take pictures, honor it. If the person gets into a verbal spat, de-escalate. Fights may turn ugly. Plus, you’re not a native to the place. Most importantly, you won’t like to waste your time and risk your costly gear. Find smart ways to avoid such situations in the first place with the proper understanding of people’s locality and body language.
19. Try shooting from the hip
I personally don’t prefer this method. But there’s no harm trying before ruling it out completely. Shooting from in photography means that you’d hold the camera at the height of your waist or in a natural position that won’t look like you’re going to take a photo.
Apply the focus in advance before moving the camera at the waist’s position. Keep your finger on the shutter button. Shoot when you spot and interesting action. This way, you’re able to avoid any objections and get to make candid street photos.
20. Care for the direction and quality of the light
While I shared most of the thoughts about techniques of engaging and making a portrait of local humans, always keep photography techniques – the quality of light, composition, and sharpness of the photo – also in mind.
I practice similar conditions at home before visiting a new city. For example, I had to visit Goa and had some time in the evening for photography. A couple of days before my trip, I practiced in the evening with similar light conditions of sunset to measure the manual settings of the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO for optimal sharpness, noise-free, and well-exposed photo. I replicated the practiced camera settings in Goa!
21. Restrict engaging too much
Become friendly but don’t engage beyond a point in the first meeting. If you take a lot of interest in the person, you’ll waste a lot of time during your busy street schedule and create doubts in the person’s mind regarding your purpose. If the person is keen to take the association further, exchange numbers, emails, or social profiles and contact later.
A bonus tip: Effective methods of editing, storing, and retrieving street portraits
A street portrait’s authenticity is in its natural-looking photo. Documentary photography’s job is to display life as it is. Barring composition, exposure, technical defects (noise, etc.), don’t delve much into the post-processing of the street portraits. Unlike wedding or fashion photography, it won’t look like an authentic portrait of tribes if you retouch the people’s skins.
I convert a lot of my photos in black and white. The choice depends on whether the color is distracting or contributing to the narrative of the picture. Suppose I find the colors boring or grabbing the viewer’s attention more than my story. In that case, I’d neutralize the color and make it monochrome. Try this; you’d start loving black and white photography also.
Lastly, catalog your photos in a structured manner so that retrieval becomes easy. A picture can be repurposed on many themes. The photograph above (dancing African girl on the stage) in this blog post can be used as a portrait, dance, happiness, tribe-related theme, or stage performance. I save all my pictures in Adobe cloud and add tags to the photos in Lightroom. The search is possible on the date or the keywords in tags.
Long story short: Lack of education causes anxiety. Educate yourself with my proven techniques, knowledge about the city, and the culture; you’d never feel petrified while asking a stranger, “Can I make your portrait?”