How I take Portraits of Strangers

I’m the kind of person who always gets asked for directions by strangers….  a lot!

This used to really bemuse me. Why, out of all the people around, was it always me that would get asked, especially when I was in a foreign city?!

A while ago, it struck me that I could turn the tables on this  ‘approach me’ aura I seem to project. I’d always been a landscape and street photographer but really hanckered to shoot portraits. I made excuses about not knowing people who would sit for me, which covered the real fact I didn’t have the confidence to ask anyone!

I came across a few photographers  who were taking strangers portraits and this seemed like something that was so far out of my comfort zone that I knew it was a place I had to go, if I was to develop my photography. 

I decided, given the ‘ask me for directions’ thing, I must be approachable -  so I went for it.

My first attempts went better than expected (and to date, I’ve only been told ‘no’ a portrait by 3 people; a nun, an Eastern European lady who said her (absent) brother wouldn’t allow it and a top-to-toe in pink young woman who said she was too busy Xmas shopping).

A Turning Point

It was when I noticed how thrilled some people often were with the output that I realised I’m not taking anything from these people, I’m enriching them with a nice photo and the attention of someone who notices them and takes the time to say ‘hi’.

The idea that this is an exchange, not a one way exchange, made approaching people a lot easier, although there are still many times when I just can’t do it.

The Gear

I’ve gone from shooting with a digital camera to now hefting around a Mamiya RZ Pro II. A heavy medium format film studio camera. It’s worth the effort for two reasons:

1 - It opens metaphorical doors. I’ve got a few portraits I wouldn’t have had with a smaller camera because people have wanted to talk to me about the camera I was carrying!

2 - I can focus it pretty accurately and get a tighter headshot if I decide to than is possible with my Mamiya 7II (another medium format film camera I tried for this type of photography).

The Strangers

I don’t ask any old passer by. For me, I realised that some people just carry themselves differently.

They seem to have figured out their role in the world and are confidently going about their personal mission and it’s these people I’m compelled to shoot - maybe because I’m intrigued by it!

I’d suggest anyone who wanted to go down this route to ask themselves their purpose for doing so. I see some photographers are like face collectors and I can tell that they didn’t invest much effort in creating a micro rapport with their subject. This is something I try and generate from the moment I get someone’s attention.

Tell me how!

I don’t think this can be taught, because it has be something you own and therefore needs to be a reflection of your personality and motivations behind stopping someone! You’ve got to just dive in.

Lighting, Background etc

Once you’ve got passed the ‘asking’ thing, you’ve then got to figure out the artistic side of the shoot. People are never in the right place, so you’ve got to make quick decision about where to place them (whilst building that micro-rapport) so that the background contributes to your images and so that the lighting is the best it can be on your subject (I only do this with natural light by the way). This bit takes getting used to because in your initial shoots, you’re so taken up with the approaching bit, you forget the others stuff!

Let’s get started!

Let’s say you’re really keen to get started but still lacking the confidence to do it. You can try teaming up with someone who can do this and work together - that might be enough to get things going. Then it’s a case of practice and getting your opening lines sorted so you don’t sound like a creep.

Have fun and good luck!


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