The notion of walking up to a complete stranger on the street and asking to take their photo might seem like a fairly daunting idea to most people. I know it was for me but I have always really admired portrait photographers such as Steve McCurry, Don McCullin, Diane Arbus and Mark Seliger. Even though these names might not be synonymous with “Street” Portraits per se their work often consists of everyday people and I love the intimacy that gives an image. Now there are some photographers, such as the infamous Bruce Gilden, who are comfortable capturing close up portraits of people without asking their permission. If you have never seen Bruce at work you have to check him out on youtube. It is the true definition of “Zero F@!ks Given!”. But what if, like me, you fall on the “introvert” side of the photographer gene pool? What if you are actually quite shy? What if the thought of walking up to a stranger and saying “Hey, How are you? I’m a portrait photographer and I was wondering if I could take your photo?” scares the crap out of you. Can you too capture street portraits….. Well yes, you can!
Now before I go into more depth of my approach to this genre of portraiture I need to say one thing. Sadly there are no tricks or gimmicks or special pills that give you the confidence to walk up to someone you’ve never met and ask to take their photo. The bottom line is.. you just have to do it! A tutor of mine at music college once gave the class a piece of advice – “Shit or get off the pot” (he had such a beautiful way with words). It is, however, a very good piece of advice. Either do something or don’t do it.. don’t talk about it for 6 months or spend 10 years planning it and never actually take that step. The one thing that I will tell you with absolute honesty though… asking for street portraits isn’t anywhere near as bad as you think it’s going to be. I promise you. So with my tutor’s advice still ringing in my ears I stopped thinking about doing it… and just did it. I did have some motivation though. A few weeks ago I was challenged to capture 5 Street Portraits of complete strangers, in 2 weeks. Fairly simple you might think but not so easy when you are someone who is actually very shy around people and has a real tendency of talking himself out of things that might be scary (yes, I get this isn’t the best quality to have as a photographer).
If truth be told it is not the act of taking a stranger’s portrait that is worrying. It’s approaching them in the first place. It’s the thought of “What if they say no?”, “What if they think I’m a creep?”, “What if they get angry and punch me in the face?!”. So firstly… BREATHE! Secondly, your mind is playing tricks on you! The one consistent message that runs throughout all the videos & articles out there on the subject of Street Portraits is that people are a LOT more open to having their photo taken than you might think. They won’t think you are a creep, they aren’t gonna punch you in the face (they are more likely to punch you if you take a photo without their permission) and yes, they may say no. But at the end of the day what’s the big deal in that.. you simply say “okay, no worries!” and you move on. The truth is, some people, are actually really flattered that you ask them. I have genuinely had people thank me for asking them! So there you go! Not as scary as you think. Now a lot of your success with asking for street portraits is going to be down to your “approach”.
How you approach the person and how you speak to them is going to be a huge factor in whether you get a yes or a no. Once again, there is nothing wrong with getting a “no”. Don’t fear hearing no. There are a few ways you can go about this but being polite is the key. Always open with something like “Excuse me, sorry to bother you. My name is Tian Williams…” etc, etc (but use your name.. not mine). Then I would probably say 1 of 2 things:
“I am a local portrait photographer and I am doing a project on street portraits and I was wondering if you’d mind me taking a portrait of you?”
Now, this approach can often bring on a few follow-up questions: “What are you using the image for?”, “Where are you posting it?”, “Are you selling it?”. So you should be prepared.
My second approach, which I have had more success with goes something like:
“I am a photography student (this isn’t really a lie, we are all learning & studying photography so technically all photography students) and I am doing a project on street photography and I was wondering if I could take a portrait of you?”
I have found that people are usually really lovely about it and you will probably get a bit of an embarrassed smile and laugh from them for being asked but then they are more than happy to pose for you. Even those who have declined to have their photo taken are always really cool about it. I mainly get… “Ah no thank you” or “Sorry I’m not interested”. Both of those aren’t that bad to hear and you move on to the next person. Simples!
When starting out I would suggest going somewhere fairly public like your local high street or town center. Running up to a person walking down a quiet residential street might cause them to freak out and run in the opposite direction or reach for the pepper spray! I decided that I would start out on Southbank (outside the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern). I figured this would have a good mixture of people such as tourists and other photographers so people would be used to someone walking around with a camera taking pictures. You also get a lot of people stopping to look out over the Thames which gives me the perfect opportunity to pop over and ask to take a picture! However much success I’ve had on Southbank I do think it’s time to expand my territory. I’ve seen a lot of photographers get some incredible portraits around Soho. Obviously, because there are a lot of very interesting people in Soho… so next time I go out on a street portrait adventure I am heading there.
Just get out there and do it
Now you have picked your location and practiced your perfect approach there is only one thing left to do.. Go out and ask people! Obviously it is easier said than done and I still find it really hard to push myself to go and do it. But once you can silence those doubts in your mind and push yourself to go ask that first person, it gets so much easier… trust me! And once you’ve asked a few people and you’ve got yourself a couple of “No’s”, asking a complete stranger for a photo really doesn’t seem that bad after all!
My Street Portraits
Below are a few more of the portraits I’ve have taken on the street. I like to make mine black and white because… well I just love black and white photos! I like that it really accentuates the pores and wrinkles in the subject’s skin! I find black and white images makes your eye focus more on textures and light instead of loads of distracting colours. For those techy people who love the camera settings, I shot all of these portraits on my Nikon D750 with an 85mm f1.8 lens. I shoot wide open (f1.8) and the camera is set on Aperture Priority so I don’t waste the subject’s time fiddling with settings. Don’t forget that you are asking someone to give up their time. Even if it is only for a few minutes so I, personally, don’t want to take the p!$$. So I’d rather shoot in Aperture Priority just so that once they say yes, it’s a matter of composing, focus and shoot. ISO is usually 100 or 200 depending on if it’s cloudy and how low the shutter speed gets but apart from that I let the camera do its thing. I will usually show the person the image, I know not all photographers do this but I quite like showing the person the image so if they were to say “Oh god, that’s horrible!” then I have the chance to rectify it and take another image. Lastly, I always carry some business cards with me and tell them that if they would like a copy of the image that they can drop me a line and I will email it over to them. I think that is the least I can do for them posing for me. Beyond that, it’s just about having fun and meeting some new people! If you would like more information on shoot in Aperture Priority mode I have a blog post about it here. Get out of Auto Blog Post
So there you have it. Not as scary as you think. Not only that you get to meet some really lovely people (with some incredible beards – like the guy above!). So if you have been thinking about giving it a go or always wanted to try it then my advice to you is.. Shit or get off the pot!
Thank you for reading my latest blog post. Please let me know if you like the post or drop me a line just to say hello.
I will see you next time!