How to shoot stranger portraits

Photographing a stranger is something that is intimidating to a lot of photographers, and that’s completely understandable. After all we are injecting ourselves into another persons life, and they might or might not be willing to let us photograph them. We might get turned down or forced to be in an awkward situation. But, this struggle is something that is really fascinating because in a few short moments you can go from barely knowing someone, to creating an image with them that captures their true personality as well as being surprised at what a stranger will talk about. 

​So how do you start breaking down your barriers to the point that you feel comfortable approaching strangers and asking them for their portrait? A simple trick I used when I first started was to ignore my camera to start with and break down the first barrier which is the initial contact. What I would do was walk down the street and give people random compliments to gauge their reaction. For instance, if I saw someone with coloured hair or a fancy hat I would simple smile and say “I love the colour of your hair” or “that’s a cool looking hat” and carry on walking. Almost every time the person would smile back and thank me. What this taught me was that a simple compliment even from a complete stranger would result in a positive response. Using this simple technique you can build up your confidence to the point that you’re ready to take the next step which is to ask them if you can take their photo. 

​Using the compliment approach a lot of people will respond positively and if you also stop as well and follow it up with a second question such as “have you coloured your hair for a particular occasion” or “I’ve been looking for a hat like that for ages, where did you get it from” most people will also stop and answer. Once you start a conversation it’s just a simple task to ask if you can take their photo. At this point one of two things will happen; they will either agree straight away which is great! Or, they will ask you why you want to take their photo. Just be honest, say that you love shooting portraits and that they are helping you gain experience. It’s also worth mentioning that you may post the photo to your instagram (give them your instagram details) and offer to send them a copy by email. Most people will be fine and react accordingly. If they refuse at this point just smile, thank them for their time, wish them a good day and walk away. Never push the point or try and convince them to change their minds, there’s alway someone else around the next corner. 

​So next time you’re out walking around your city or at an event try giving people compliments and start breaking down the barriers. It’s amazing how quickly your confidence grows and before long you’ll be shooting stranger portraits on your local streets.

The following gallery contains just a small selection of the 700+ stranger portraits I’ve taken this year out on the streets of Calgary. Click on photo for larger version. All photographs copyrighted and taken by Chris Toombes – City Street Photos