How to Talk to People When Taking Street Portraits

One of the main reasons I love doing street photography is because it can blend so many different types of photography. It can be landscape, architectural, narrative and portrait. Each type has its own challenges for different reasons. The last one, portrait, is the one I struggled with the most.

I think most of us would be a bit shy when it came to going up to a complete stranger in the street and asking if we can take their photo. We are nervous about how they are going to react. Are they going to be angry, scared, confused, all of the above?

Here are some tips to get over your nerves and talk to strangers.

1 . Smile, but not in a creepy way, just smile naturally. A smile can go a long way to making people feel calm around you. So when approaching someone to ask if you can take their photo, be friendly, calm and confident. If you come across as nervous and as if you’re doing something wrong, they will be nervous and they will think you are doing something wrong.



2 . Explain why you want to take the picture. A typical introduction for me might go something like this:

“Hi, would you mind if I took your picture? I’m here with a group on a photowalk and my theme for the day is to get pictures of yellow. I really love the yellow hat you’ve got on, would you mind if I snap a few pics?”

If they say no, just smile, say thanks and walk away. NEVER take someone’s picture if they have expressly said they don’t want you to. My strike rate is about 1 in 8 people says ‘no’. Most people are not only happy to have their picture taken, they actually get really into it. I’ve had subjects offer to pose, move into better light and even take a jacket off because they thought it would look better in the shot.

3 . Once you’ve taken the picture, show them what it looks like on your camera. Most people love to see pictures of themselves.It helps make them feel more involved in the process and less ‘taken advantage of’. Also, it can make you look less like an amateur (even if you are!).



4 . If you don’t speak the same language as the person, most times you can get away with hand gestures. Try to research the local culture and make sure that you’re not conveying something rude with your hand gestures—nothing worse than trying to establish rapport with someone and ending up insulting them. Here smiles are even more important than if you do speak the same language. Smiles mean the same thing in any language.

5 . This next step is not essential, but I really like to do it. Have a stack of business cards in your pocket with your website or even just an email address and give it to them. Let them know that if they want a copy of the photo, they can contact you to get it.

6 . Just do it. I know this sounds basic but the best way to get more confident with street portraits is to take them. Approach people again and again. You’ll have some rejections and they’ll hurt, but the more you do it, the better you’ll become. Before too long, you’ll wonder why you were so nervous in the first place.