Confront Your Fear: How to Shoot Portraits of Strangers on the Street

Approaching people on the street for photographs can seem incredibly uncomfortable, but as this short video proves, overcoming that fear and creating portraits of complete strangers can be incredibly satisfying and make for some fantastic images.

Personally, I find the prospect of wandering the streets approaching people at random a little intimidating, but these tips from photographers Jamie Windsor and Pablo Strong show how deploying a few simple techniques and combining it with a little practice can quickly get you to a stage where that sense of discomfort disappears. The other biggest hurdle is probably the fear of rejection and the awkwardness that you're going to experience if someone you've approached responds rudely to your request. However, like many aspects of photography, this is a numbers game; once you acknowledge that only a certain percentage of people are going to react positively, the failures don't weigh too heavily. As Windsor notes, the fear disappears very quickly and he found his first experience immensely rewarding and enjoyable.

Two things that Windsor doesn't mention are choice of gear and choice of location. Strong seems to be shooting with a 50mm prime, useful for a nice wide aperture to separate the subject from the background while also maintaining quite a small distance between him and his subject, allowing him to work incredibly quickly. He doesn't have to step back and create distance as he would with, say, an 85mm prime, and the low profile lens also feels less imposing when compared to something like the 24-70mm.

Regarding location, Soho in London must be an ideal place to attempt street portraits of strangers for the first time. A center of London's cultural diversity, people almost expect to see photographers, and requests to be photographed come as no surprise. A sunny afternoon close to lots of pubs makes for a very relaxed atmosphere and, I'm guessing, an increased chance of friendly responses.

Do you have any tips for shooting street portraits of strangers? Comment below and feel free to share your favorite shots.

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Michael L. McCray's picture

I started shooting people on the street in 1983 became fairly comfortable just asking. I generally have a purpose in mind. Usually get model releases which is a little trickier and get to know about 30 percent of the people I have photographed. My favorite is the first I sat for 5 minutes in the street poised to shoot Russell Kennedy as he ignored me. Neither of us talked and later hunted him down for a model release. Shot with a Nikon F2 with Tri-X film available light.

Andy Day's picture

Awesome. Thanks for sharing. :)

Great photo - but dont you need a model release for any photo that someone can be recognized in? That seems to me to make people more uncomfortable than taking the photograph. Cause then they start really thinking about it.

Daniel Medley's picture

No. Only if you're going to sell/license it. In fact, in the States you generally don't even need their permission if they are in a public space.

olivier borgognon's picture

I would dispute that with a first person personal experience.

Whilst being the curator for a UN Agency in 2012 prior to launching my own photo business, reaching the end of my term, a team member of a country office contacted me with a legal lawsuit we received from an attorney in his country.

This lawsuit was relative to the use of the image, in a third world country, on the topic of AIDS. The photo was a stock image of a mother holding her child.

The good point for me, was that this picture was used in a campaign prior to me being hired as a curator, and basically proved everything I was trying to put in place in the organization made sense, even if it had to piss off a few people. It had never taken place in during my term, and although the whole communications team felt initially that it was useless and that I was considered a problem troublemaker, I knew I was the warrant of the corporate images and ensuring this would not happen to us.

What happened then ? Well prior to my term, the former photo editor was asked to provide that type of portait for a campaign by the communications officer in charge. He therefore worked on finding images, and not hiring a photographer for this specific shoot. which, in itself is not a problem, this could have worked, but wait for it...

The young mother had her photo taken by a photographer, a strobed portrait in the streets of her country. He had her sign a model release in good and due form, then uploaded her photo to a large stock company whom I will not name as it is of no importance, they all have the same guidelines.

All agencies and stock companies ensure that they have full agreement and models sign releases in order to avoid lawsuits, as people have a right to their image anywhere in the world, and unless stating clearly that they agree for it to be used in a specific field and scope and free the agency from lawsuits, they can't be uploaded.

The issue here was the following. The photo was used for a Global Campaign on AIDS, in africa, stigma is very strong on HIV causes, and this person found herself banned from the village she lived in, from her tribe, and had to live in the streets with her baby after this situation occured.

The stock agency didn't do anything wrong, the photographer didn't either, but In my humble opinion, there was a flawed process in clearly using the image within the terms of use, which allowed the lawsuit to even take place.

I don't know how the case finally got settled, but when using an image, from a shoot or from a stock agency... the most important things to make sure you have available are the model releases, the property releases and a very clear understanding of the usage rights you are agreeing upon when buying the image.

Do not underestimate the implications of any photo which is taken and published, for free or for cash, anywhere, public space or not, group or not.

Daniel Medley's picture

Your long response still does not change the fact that a model release is not needed as long as the photo is not sold/licensed.

Let me rephrase: If shooting in the US you will not need a model agreement if you're not selling/licensing the image. Period.

Also, generally in the US, if in a public space, you don't even have ask permission. Period.

Laws in other countries may be different.

Also, I know of MANY stranger photographers in the UK who do not get a model release. When speaking to them, they have said that unless the image is sold/licensed, no model release is needed.

Requesting a model release for a portrait that will not result in monetary gain would be nonsensical.

olivier borgognon's picture

Hi daniel, yes apologies for such a long answer.

How would you dispute their request to withdraw their image and prove that it's use has not had negative implications on their life ? i.e. imagine a couple you shoot in the street, but they are not a couple, you publish on social media, the wife notices it, they go to court, the photo is used as evidence. (yes i know far stretched).

I don't know US law, so it would be a very wild guess in this sense, but might be worth questionning, even though i totally agree with you that street photographers don't ask, it would make it impossible to shoot street if it was the case.

Daniel Medley's picture

The scenario you describe is not the same as asking someone if you can take their photo. It's more along the lines of straight up street photography; snapping pics of random people. Either way, if someone asked me to remove the photo from social media, I would do so because I'm not a jerk. But, in the US, if I took it in a public space, I wouldn't be legally bound to do so. Legally speaking, the expectation of privacy when in a public space is very limited.

As far as the scenario with a couple in court etc. Again, I would not be held legally liable.

Personally, I've taken to asking people if I can take their pic. Since I don't license or sell them, I don't ask for a model release. I've only had, I think, two people say they would rather not after I explain to them that I plan to use the pic on my website and on the Flickr 100 Strangers page.

Michael L. McCray's picture

The model release is a habit of mine and I always try and obtain one when possible. Photography is how I make my living. I started before the Internet hoping to get my work printed. I don't have studio do no consumer photography and when I did it was as a sub contractor. I don't shoot without purpose even though I might not understand why sometimes until latter. Never regretting it even though my goals might not be met. The issue I had with Russell was after I got the release, a priest ask me what made think we was competent to sign a release. I photographed Russell for over a year.

Try this in NYC and it may not end up well....

olivier borgognon's picture

Lou, how do feel this would be different in NYC and why ? it's quite interesting to have another point of view on this one, how would NYC be very different ?

Brandon stanton with Humans Of New-York would disagree with you on this one, with the thousands of people he has photographed in New-York and around the globe, but that's one example only.

I think it's all a matter of how we approach people, and the rate of rejection which might be higher in NYC, what do you think ?

Hi Olivier, thanks for the kind reply!
I’m a photo journalist in NYC, so my view on the topic comes from my twenty plus years in this city.
NYC is a very unique city, unlike any other in the world. It’s the greatest in many ways as it is very challenging in other ways.
After 911 it became a police state. Security mindset accompanied by high anxiety keep people on edge. This is what I tell my friends from out of town who want to shoot in NYC with professional looking cameras.

- Stay away from police
- Do not shoot or interact with strangers
- Do not shoot in crowded places
- Do not shoot near the homeless or the mentally ill folks
- Do not shoot in private areas
- Do not shoot in the subways

Asking strangers in NYC to take their pictures can potentially lead to all sorts
of problems and even confrontation. Obviously other photographers might have a radically different take on this topic.

olivier borgognon's picture

Hi Lou,

You know what... These exchanges make me appreciate the web 2.0 and comments, when it's not about slashing and bashing, but about open talk and discussion, it's really lovely to share views with fellow photographers and learn from them.

I was in NYC last year and didn't feel it that way at all, but I wasn't on a photo journey, but more on vacation for a few days with my partner, and in some ways i see where you're coming from with the background, and the severe changes post 9/11.

It is a wise advice to take into consideration when shooting in the big apple, may others have other views, it takes an honest assessment of how things have changed, and how things could change (for better or worse) depending on our actions.

I am of the ones who will challenge negativity and try to figure out a new approach, by trying, through my own traits, behaviour and personality, to bring trust to those i'm asking to photograph.

It certainly takes hard work, and being selective about the unknown people we wish to photograph, to maybe avoid as much trouble as possible. (i don't like the term strangers, meaning they are strange by root of the word)

It is funny how from abroad, when coming to NYC, we don't see it as much as a police state, for sure police is everywhere, but I didn't feel that way. Looking up how we can shoot in NYC allowed for quite a lot of flexibility, except for large productions, but I can understand, otherwise NYC would have movies and large productions in each street of manhattan and other subareas on a daily basis...

and it is really interesting to get another view on that, thank you so much for your feedback.

Hi Olivier, it’s great to hear your perspective as well! Mine comes from an abundance of caution, guided by working in the news business in NYC and experiencing first hand the negative side of the city. However I do not discourage anyone from coming here with their bslrs and shoot in this beautiful place :)

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Lou, that's a rather extensive list and for someone who want's to stay 100% on the safe side it's probably good but I doubt it will work for anyone who want's to photograph NYC beyond taking snapshots of iconic landmarks.

Living here for over 20 years I would say that it's definitely a city where one should know his way around but it's probably not nearly as bad and dangerous as some folks would like to believe.

I take photos on the street on a daily baisis. I'm not in your face Bruce Gilden style. I don't roam around sketchy parts of the metro area. I try to take candid style photos if possible. I'm still not great at it but I try to not only overcome my own fears but also to make people feel more comfortable when I take photos. And I think this last point is truly the key. We have in New York such photographers as Boogie or Donato Di Camillo who consistently photograph in rough areas and their subjects are sometimes even involved in criminal activities but those photographers managed to establish proper communication pattern with such environment. Not to be misunderstood, I'm not trying to claim anyone can go that far without consequences but I believw most people can take interesting photographs in public in NYC and live another day to tell about it :)

I would personally recommend ditching DSLR in favor of discrete but upper tier point and shoot camera. Also learning to act more like New Yorkers and less like peeping Tom would help a lot. Also of composing your pictures quickly and fast, accurate AF can also help to take a photo and walk away before someone realizes what happened.

Thanks for sharing your POV on this subject. I do not disagree with anything you said. Your suggestion of shooting with an unassuming point-and-shoot camera is a great idea. I use my cell phone when I don’t want to attract attention. As I’ve stated before my approach errs on the side of extra caution.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

I honestly tried my cellphone with and without grip and I still cannot get over the ergonomics. Then I follow those few guys on Instagram that use their smartphones exclusively and they consistently deliver photos high in both content and quality. As for me I abuse my Ricoh GR on a daily basis and occasionally I pick up Fuji X100s. Can't afford Leica but I'm always wondering if I really want that extra weight.

Sometimes I use my GH4 with small Olympus prime lens. It helps because it’s not a professional look.

Michael L. McCray's picture

Most of my work was in Cleveland but I lived in NYC for a while, Understanding most rejection is not personal is important.

Michael Comeau's picture

I live in New York City. I've shot hundreds if not thousands of street portraits and most people are cool about it, even if they say no.

Daniel Medley's picture

True. Plus, depending on where you shoot in NYC most of the people there may not even be from NYC. In fact I'd go so far as to say that NYC is possibly one of the most street photo friendly cities in the world.

I shoot in NYC a couple of times every year and find New Yorkers friendlier than people in most cities.

OK I have a question. I like to paint portraits but was told that legally I have to get anyone I want to paint to sign a model release or the painting can never be sold. So is that not true anymore? Are you able to do whatever you want with these photographs? Can you sell them without worrying about the person coming back and asking for a portion of your sale? Because I think that’s where it gets more sticky when you have to then ask them to sign a release.

You should (I think) need a release if you are intending to sell images. I think its all about that gray area between art and commercial.

Daniel Medley's picture

Flickr has a pretty active group dedicated to "stranger photography" in which you ask permission to photograph someone: and get to know them a bit.

I've been doing it as part of this group for several months now and it's been great; both from a challenge perspective and from an improving my technique perspective.

People are generally very receptive. Those that aren't so much aren't rude about it. Plus I've had a few "strangers" become pretty good acquaintances and regular models for more formal shooting and concepts. Great fun.

Walid Azami's picture

ugh... been meaning to do this, thanks for the article/video. It's one of the things i'm most shy about.

Publishing pictures (in the US) of people without model release CAN lead to legal trouble even if you are not selling them. It all depends on the context, news value, etc. The US is a highly litigious society.

I have been taking "stranger photos" at public events for about three years, usually at a particular music festival. Last year I handed those I could get to in a crowded place, a slightly humourous business card and said I would be happy to send them a downloadable link. Only one of about 20 people I gave my card to got back to me. From what the (infallible, right?) internet tells me, in Canada , I can shoot nearly anyone in a public place or visible from one. I can publish most of these shots including on my website or a Flikr type site (excepting military installations, youth offenders protected by law, or pretty much anything that might cause harm) . Recognizable buildings and/or trade marks are off limit (for reasons I do not understand- if a trademark is in a public place why can't i depict that trade mark in a public place?) . Except in Toronto, there are more restrictions. And in some other parts of the country. And my local government tried and failed to make it illegal to take pictures of gravestones. And, well, it seems a mess of rules, practices and grey areas of misunderstanding.

So I bought a model release app for my phone. I have never used it assuming someone I take a shot of , even if they agree to sign, will not want to type into my phone's tiny keyboard their name, address, email and phone number. And stand still while I take a phone shot for the release. So.... does anyone here know it it would be acceptable to simply get a signature and let them go about their busy lives, without the extra information?