How to Take Street Portraits (without being awkward)

Some may argue that posed portraits of people on the streets is not “street photography” per-se. However regardless of all these definitions, I still feel that there is merit in taking portraits of people you might encounter on the street who have fascinating stories to share. There have been many occasions in which I have randomly started talking to people and wanted to simply take their portrait as it interests me as a photographer. However one problem that many people have is that they feel “awkward” doing so. Therefore I will teach you guys some practical tips how to take street portraits without being awkward.

1. Use a preface

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Shinji - An amazing hot-dog chef I met in Los Angeles. He had an incredible life story he shared with me.

Asking to take somebody’s portrait is a bit uncommon in western culture, although not everybody is totally opposed to it. To break the ice in asking a person for their portrait, using a preface is always a great way to make the other person feel relaxed.

My favorite preface to use when asking random people on the street to take their portrait is “I know this might seem weird, but would you mind if I took a photo of you?” In saying “I know this might seem weird,” you are acknowledging to the other person that what you are doing is against “the norm”, but it reassures the other person that you have no malicious intent. When asked this, most people shrug their shoulders and say, “Sure I guess so–why not?” Granted that you will get some people who say “no,” but I would say I find much more people who say yes.

2. Explain what you are trying to do

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"Cute as a Button" - Street Portrait of a Waitress on Sunset Blvd. She busted out this pose for me.

When you ask people to take their portrait, some people are curious why you are taking their portrait. Now this is a question you have to ask yourself. Why are you taking portraits of random people on the street? Are you trying to remember the faces of interesting people you meet? Are you trying to create a photo-essay of people you meet on the street? Are you trying to capture the diversity of your city? Whatever your purpose–prepare it beforehand so you can eloquently explain to your subjects why you are taking their photos. This way you will come off as much more professional and much less threatening.

3. Have a business card on hand

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"Hustling" - Street Portrait of some aspiring rappers I met in Chicago. Hopefully one day they make it big.

Having a business card on hand is a great idea not only for street photographers, but for all photographers. If people question your intent, you can show them your professionally polished business card–which will give you more credibility. Not only that, but some people like having their photos sent to them. This way you can have your subjects contact you and you can send them their portraits. It’s a win-win solution.

Recently I have found out about a site called moocards.com, which print business cards in different sizes and also have customizable backs. This way you can print some of your best street photographs on the back of these business cards and share them. I would definitely check it out.

Conclusion

What tips do you have on taking street portraits? How do you make your subjects feel comfortable without feeling awkward? Leave a comment below!

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  • http://www.jamesmaherphotography.com James Maher

    I have two suggestions. One is to smile when you ask them! The second is to go up to a person immediately when you get the chance. If they notice you and you’re just hanging around waiting to get up the courage to go up to them then they will feel like something is off or suspicious.

  • http://thecitruslens.com greg urbano

    i have been afriaid of just randomly taking peoples pictures on the street, is there any reprocussions for permission or release forms ? do you carry release forms and have everyone sign, what is your response to someone who lets you take their picture and then asks to be compensated ? you advice above is good stuff but htese questions and or fears are what is preventing me from doing alot of street photos
    thanks for another good post eric !

    • http://techpatio.com Klaus @ TechPatio

      I guess it depends on local laws, but I don’t think you need a release form unless you intend to use the photo for anything commercially. Likewise if they ask for payment upfront, I’ll just move along – if they ask afterwards, delete the picture.

      To be honest, I’m not a big street photog, I want to shoot a 100 strangers (100strangers.com) and I’ve only done three so far, but none of them asked for money or signed anything. All of them got a copy though (one of them didn’t have email so I printed him a copy immediately using my PoGo printer).

  • Joe N

    Moo is amazing. Great quality, linked to Flickr, great stock paper. I have *almost* nothing bad to say about them. My only issue is every image you use for your cards, it better be light/bright. Some of my favorite photos wouldn’t work on the cards because the image was way darker on card stock than it was on screen. That’s more my fault than theirs, and considering how ridiculously cheap they are, it’s my issue, not a complaint or a problem. I’ve used them 2 times before and actually plan on ordering another set after typing this.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/exi87/ Jaap Barnhoorn

    Thanks for the link to Moo, I’ll check it out.
    Most of the time, just holding up my camera and smile works for taking a quick portrait, but sometimes (well 2 times up to now) I just ask to take their picture. One of them asked me what it was for. I replied: “I’m doing streetphotography and I’m capturing life on the streets”. All he said was “Nice!”.

    With my 35mm crop I’m a bit further away from the person and I guess they feel comfortable with a little more distance and they immediately strike a pose.
    However taking a portrait up close with a wide screen is more pure imo and I love the warped faces because of the barrel distortion :)

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/exi87/ Jaap Barnhoorn

    By the way, this article reminded me of this video:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQHJcmpoAvM

    :D

  • http://thecastrosphotogallery.blogspot.com/ rob castro

    great read, eric… thanks for the tips… in item 2, what are some of the valid raison detre that you have heard or experienced? what were the subject’s reaction?

  • Marc

    Sorry to comment after a year….but these street photo posts/conversations ate excellent. Thanks for sharing!