Shooting People: How to Shoot Street Photography Portraits

January 8, 2009 - By 

Shooting street photography of people can be nerve-wracking for the beginner and the experienced photographer alike. Many people ask me how I get shots of people I don’t know. It can get uncomfortable to point a camera at unknown subjects. The image of voyeurs, stalkers and spies with huge lenses is forever burnt into everyone’s mind thanks to Hitchcock and TMZ.

Follow these steps and you will go from shooting feet to shooting faces in no time.

Step 1: Take Photos of your Friends

Take your camera to your next get-together and start taking shots. You may already do this. The idea is to get as comfortable shooting people as you can while they are interacting with others. Don’t just hide in the corner! Get up and be a part of the room. Engage yourself. Lay on the ground or stand on a chair to get the shot you want. Don’t let good shots be a mistake. Make them happen.

Step 2: Shoot Street Portraits

Set up a challenge for yourself to shoot 12 different portraits of people. Go to a neighborhood park or public area and ask interesting looking people if you can take their portrait. If they say no, thank them for their time and move on to your next subject. If they say yes, then step back, smile at them, and prepare to take their shot. Take your time. They have already given you permission. Compose your shot, take two or three different variations, tell them thank you and move on to your next person.

Tip: Try using an interesting camera for this challenge. My vintage Rolleicord was a great conversation starter. “What kind of camera is that?” and “is that film?” was the beginning of many of the conversations I had with my subjects as I took their photo. Here is my first photo challenge from a few years ago. I took 12 portraits in one afternoon using the same method as above. Shooting street portraits is a great way to gain confidence for the real challenge, taking the shot without permission.

Step 3: Shoot Without Permission

OK, now you’re ready to head out and take some street photos. Use a 50mm lens or wider. (Telephoto lenses are for sports, not the street.) Remember, you’re not getting in the way, you are there to be a part of the scene and visually document it. Head out to another park, or any outdoor public area. Downtown Chicago on LaSalle as the Suits leave work is my favorite place. Get your camera ready and shoot. Walk around and be a part of the scene. If you act like you’re not supposed to be there then people will look at you that way. Be confident. Go take a close up of that couple on a park bench. Head over to the bus stop and capture that moment of a guy on his cell phone. Be respectful of course. If they put their hand over their face, or look at you funny, then smile and move on. People may be suspicious, but keep smiling and nodding. This is your job today. Make no apologies and keep shooting. You will be a little nervous. That’s good! It will be thrilling to push your photographic boundaries and you will be rewarded with great shots!

Dont Cheat:

There are a few tools on the market that try to avoid actual confrontation. This Spy Lens lets you take photos out the side of the lens instead of the front. Avoid these cheats! Tools like this won’t help engage your inner street photographer. They only enforce the stereotype of the “sneaky spy photographer,” and they won’t help overcome the shyness that photographers have. Learn the correct way, and you will reap the benefits of being comfortable while you are shooting. Overcome this fear and you’re on your way to becoming a great street photographer.

Happy Shooting.

Posted In:  Ideas Photography
  • Just a few days ago a “sneaky spy photographer” got me on the train at a stop. He stood outside the doors pretending to be waiting for the train, and before the doors closed again, he took a shot from the hip. Literally. I’m guessing he got a lot of shots off that way during rush hour, but I prefer your method. It’s much better to get over the awkwardness so that, if a really great opportunity presents itself, you don’t hesitate to jump into action.

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  • Great article thanks! It’s so difficult in the beginning when you start taking pictures of strangers

  • I just found this post and I have determined it is by far my favorite post by you. (: Love it!

  • I do quite a lot of street photography, but must admit I don’t have the knack yet of fitting into the scene and still have a tendency to stay on the edges, although my 100 stranger project (PJMixer on Flickr) is still going strong. I do find that being confident with your camera and taking lots and frequent shots on the street gets recognized as “a job” and gives you more freedom. Getting over that confidence hump is the trick (and one I’m still working on).

  • I teach at a public high school and have carried my camera to every event and every day. … the kids are use to it. Sometimes I shoot for the yearbook, too, so they are more than excited about getting in the frame. I transfer this confidence to the people I don’t know on the streets.

  • Cool post, thank you !!
    It’s true that’s it’s quite uncomfortable to ask someone for a photo. Sometimes people who are waiting for the shot are not so natural as if u didn’t ask ! here is the problematic!
    Anyway, it’s a good way to share this passion and to explain to the people how you see that way !

  • OK, a good article, but for me, the wrong way round….
    number 1 is fine, I’m more than happy to get right in peoples faces, to the point where I’m sure they want to hit me. Number 2, that scares the hell out of me. I really really struggle with it. Number 3, I’m OK, sometimes I shoot from the hip, sometimes normally, and I usually have my 20-40mm lens so I’m not just off in the distance being sneaky. But step 2 still gets me every time.

  • I went around my neighbourhood a couple of weeks ago and took shots from people in the streets and particularly in a market area. Most people seemed to be OK with it, although one person came to me and asked me to delete his picture because he was a undercover street officer or whatever. In another hand, some guys in a shop were so happy they asked me to take a portrait of them and send it to them and asked me if I could take some shots of the place in the future to hang them around the shop as a project. I found the experience awesome and am ready to do it again anytime, as long as you don’t feel too shy about it, I guess most people think you are a professional artist and they don’t bother too much about it, but be careful with people striking funny faces or coming at you in a hurry!

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