Portraits of Strangers

As any street photographer will tell you people watching can be fascinating business.  It’s something many enjoy whether they ‘ve a camera in hand on not. Perhaps its has something to do with trying to guess someone’s story just from observing them that taps into our creativeness , or it be could real life is far more interesting than watching television, or even somehow by watching others it can help us to make sense of our own lives.

After a spell of shooting people who were usually unaware I felt I wanted to get in closer and shoot those interesting characters I had been watching from afar, capturing their faces in more detail and hopefully a touch of their spirit in my pictures.


‘Vexed’ M9 Summilux 35mm

Getting Closer

Using a Telephoto Lens – One obvious way to get closer without people knowing or without affecting a scene is just use a longer lens. Often I use a 90mm Summicron , probably not a lens most people would associate with street photography but I like the extra distance it gives me and that ability of getting closer without being noticed.  New York Street photographer Saul Leiter was very fond of using telephoto lenses and even used a 150mm lens for some of his Street work  .

The Candid Street Portrait  – This is using a standard focal length (usually 35mm or 50mm)  pointing a camera at someone point blank without asking their permission.  The candid method can produce some great photos if the person doesn’t notice you and can also provoke an interesting reaction if they do , usually one of disapproval. Personally I feel it can be intrusive, unsettling for the person and as recently pointed out to me by Stephen Cosh, it might end up ruining it for all street photographers –  if too many people complain about street togs sticking cameras in their faces , then street photography could end up becoming illegal.

Shooting Discreetly or From the Hip – This method works great and can produce some  wonderful close up shots, with very little chance of you being noticed . Sometimes seeing a person coming towards me I’ll pre/ zone focus which means choosing a point of focus that’s in their path and waiting for them to walk into it, whilst  trying my best not looking like I’m about to take their photo.  Shooting from the hip and walking around with the camera I generally set the aperture somewhere between ƒ5.6- ƒ8 to give a better chance of hitting my subject.

9613133216_e462ededce_c‘Girl in Juice Bar ‘  from the hip  – Summicron 50mm

Asking Permission – This has actually become my favored approach and the one I am going to talk mostly about. You might say that as soon as you’ve made that contact, the person has become aware that your taking a their picture so it totally changes the photo you’re going to get .

Now you’re dealing with that persons sense of how they want to be perceived its not a candid photo anymore, but to me that’s part of the challenge , developing a sense of how to make people feel at ease,  breaking down our natural social reserve.

I’ve found asking someone can often be most rewarding and I’ll often come away after meeting someone feeling really exhilarated from the experience, it’s difficult to put into words but I could say it’s like a good energy flow.

One of the most enjoyable things for me can be how happy the person is when they see the picture you made, something that none of the other close up methods I mentioned are likely to give you. Usually I’ll give a business card with my email and am always happy to mail them the picture.

Its possible you can ask for a portrait without even saying a word by just holding up the camera in a gesture as if pretending to make a shot and then you can generally gauge by the persons reaction whether or not it going to be cool.

It’s all down to your ability to catch the person in an honest and truthful way, making the person feel comfortable enough to let down their guard infront of a complete stranger and building a sense of trust between you . Its not something you can learn in a tutorial or from book but something that might either come naturally or can be developed by practice.

When I approach someone I know in my own mind that I am only trying to make a good photo and want them to be able to enjoy the photo too and I think people can sense if your intentions good.

8151910461_93f265f17b_c ‘Spencer’ M8 Summilux 35mm

Ready Set Go !

Sometimes you’re only going to get one shot so make sure you’re camera is set to go, there’s nothing worse than having to apologize because you got it wrong the first time . Usually I’ll have the camera set to Auto-exposure, which I can rely on to get me something about right and then if I have more time I’ll review and adjust manually to make sure I got it perfect.

What do I Say ?

There’s no set way of asking sometimes I can just walk over and engage in a conversation for a while before I even get round to asking for their picture,  other times  I’ll just come straight out and ask them, every situation is going to be  different .

If you use the simple and honest  ‘I am doing some kind of photo project ’ approach can often be the most successful, people are often willing to help . Perhaps there’s something interesting about the person you can point out , like they have a great beard or cool fashion style that could be part of a project or simply just I am doing this project which involves asking complete strangers for photos .

Keeping the conversation going , the more you build a rapport between you the more relaxed they’ll be and then you might be able to get them to help make a better photo by moving into a better light or background  .

Recalling the first time I made a street portrait I was so nervous ,

I saw this cool looking Rastafarian guy walking through Soho, and  before I knew what I was doing found myself following him down street. As I approached him I had butterflies in my stomach and I wasn’t even quite sure yet of what I was going to say to him .I think I said awkwardly something like

“Hello I’m a street photographer and I’m doing a project about people in London, would it be ok for me to take a picture of you ?”

His reply threw me a bit, he said in his strong Jamaican accent  “ Man… you to advanced for me “

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant but I just carried on chatting to him, being honest and explaining that he was actually the first person I’d ever asked .

I went on to tell him he looked a bit like the Reggae artist Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry which made him smile ,  it happened to be one of his favourite artists.

He then said “you’re ok man go on and take my photo “


‘Ras Ras’ M8 Summicron 50mm

The first time is always going to be the most frightening but with each person you ask its going become easier.  If you approach with a confident smile that’s going to be a big help and you always have to remember what’s the worst that can happen.

A Final Word

Of course its up to you how to approach Street portraiture and each situation can require a different method, you can only use your own judgment what’s going to work best . Sometimes its possible to use a more than one approach by discreetly getting a shot before asking as  you might get the feeling they’re probably not going to agree if you ask, so cover your bases rather than lose the shot.

If you’re interested in making street portraits and have been to nervous or shy to approach strangers I hope that reading this has helped a little and if you have any more thoughts on the subject , want to add any thought or share any of your own experiences or pictures on ‘The Leica Meet ‘ we’d be very happy to hear from you.