Oct 5, 2022

Street Portrait Photography: The Complete Guide

Learn how to take great street portraits, from cold approaches, to composition and framing.

Hunter Scott
Hunter Scott
Street Portrait Photography: The Complete Guide

What Is Street Portrait Photography?

Street Portrait Photography is the art of approaching strangers in public, and asking to take posed photos of them. You might ask to photograph them exactly as they are, or you might move them to a better angle, and direct them on how to pose and act. This is in contrast to candid street photography, where you take unposed photos of your subjects, without interacting with them, and even sometimes without them noticing. 

Street portraiture can be as simple as asking for a photo, then taking their picture exactly how they are, whether they’re shopping, sitting on the bus, or just walking down the street. It can also be as complex as asking your stranger of choice to stand where the light is best, to perform different poses for you, and to have some input as to which photos you’ve taken they like. Some photographers go as far as setting up a backdrop and strobes in the street and ask passers-by to take a seat for a portrait! 

Why You Need To Shoot Street Portraits

Even if you’re more of a candid shooter, like myself, street portrait days are a brilliant way to practice your portraiture, and build confidence with your camera gear. They’re also very good at making you a more confident communicator! When you ask a stranger to be in your photos, you’ll be nervous, and you probably won’t have all day to get the shot you’ve pre-visualized. Having to shoot in this manner means you get to stress-test your muscle memory with the camera; your framing, composition, and scene selection has to be on point. Don’t be discouraged if your first batch of street portraits don’t come out exactly how you’d have liked. Street portraiture is a skill that takes time and commitment to get right. 

I can’t stress enough how useful it is to be confident talking to people you don’t know. Taking street portraits not only builds your photographic skills, it also helps you to develop your rapport building skills! Being able to quickly make someone feel comfortable, safe, and friendly is a key skill not only as a photographer, but in any profession or business. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.

Street Portrait Photography Example

How To Approach People For Street Portraits

Everyone has their own style and approach for street portraiture, but there are some basic guidelines to follow that should get you started. Make sure you approach with a smile on your face, make eye contact, and don’t lead with photography! Eye contact and smiling, as well as having open body language, will help your subject (remember they don’t know you!) feel comfortable being approached. People can be a bit on edge these days, especially in big cities, so make sure you’re polite and friendly as a priority

I usually try not to introduce myself with “Can I take your photo” or “I’m a photographer”. It can come across as callous, and like you’re just using them for a photography opportunity. Usually, when I want to take a street portrait of someone, it’s because I’ve seen something about them that I think looks great! Why not lead with “I love your outfit!” or “You look like you’re having fun!” instead? Showing a genuine interest, and approaching people as if you’re just looking to say hello, is your best bet when you’re new to all of this.

If they aren’t interested, or they look uncomfortable, don’t be a pest. Some people are camera shy, some people are self-conscious, but more importantly, some people don’t like strangers approaching them. They might have a past experience that makes them wary, or they might not speak the same language as you. If this is the case, be gracious, smile and say thank you, and move on. Your goal is to make people feel good about themselves, not to get lots of good pictures. Keep that in mind.

How To Take A Street Portrait 

Now it’s crunch-time! When you first get started, it can seem impossible to just go up to someone, let alone ask to take their portrait. The real trick is, when they unexpectedly say “Sure!” (most people love it when I ask to take their photo) then you may have a moment of panic. Now you have to take a photo! No pressure. Stay calm, and think about photography now. 

What do you want to accentuate about the subject? Where are they standing, and how does the light fall on them? Maybe they’re wearing a great outfit, so you want to move back a bit and get a full body shot, showing off their kicks. Maybe they have amazing hair, and you want to get close and low down, to have the sun shining through their locks. This is all easily said, but it will take you a few hours of practice to begin to think about these sorts of things rather than snapping away, saying thank you, and then going for a cup of tea to calm your nerves. 

Remember to consider the background as well - having someone else’s forehead coming out of your subject’s shoulder might not be the look you’re going for. You’ll also very quickly figure out your street portrait style, and get better at directing and posing people. You might want to ask them to do fashion-style poses, or maybe you’ll set them up in more of a candid-esque lifestyle situation. For example, I typically like to get close to the subject with a wide angle lens if I can, and capture a slice-of-life look. 

Street Portrait Photography Example

What To Do After Your Shoot

Take a deep breath. You did it! Now what? Firstly, thank your willing subject for putting up with you, and tell them just how well they did and how great they looked. If you’re shooting digital, you might want to show them the back of the camera so they can see what you’ve shot. Some photographers prefer to keep to their own social bubble, and will move on fairly quickly after this, but I think it’s a missed opportunity. This is a perfect time to swap social media/business cards/phone numbers with the person you’ve just met! I’ve made plenty of great friends this way, believe it or not. It’s also nice to send the subject your edited selects from the shoot once you’ve sorted them out in post, and let them know they’re free to use them for anything they like. Remember, your subject is likely not a professional model, and might not have had a great photo of themselves in years! Why not give them full license to use it for their small business, or twitter profile? 

How To Send Your Street Portrait Photography?

You can send the photos over to their Instagram, or email address, but I’ve found it’s quicker and easier to use either a shareable Google Drive link, or if you’ve got a plan for your professional photography, WeTransfer. To make a Drive folder visible to anyone with the link, go to the Share button, and under “General Access” click the dropdown arrow. Then you can select who can see the folder, and who has permission to view, comment, and edit. This will make it easier for the subject to share the photos with their friends, and it avoids the compression issues that can happen when you share high resolution files on social media. 

Street Portrait Photography Example

Leveling Up Your Street Portrait Photography

Once you’ve got the hang of all of that, you can start to get really creative! Maybe you could use a handheld strobe to light your subject. Maybe you’ll bring props along, so that you can create a series of street portraits with a common thread. You could even find a stranger you really click with, who wants to shoot more! I’ve met people in the street who’ve been on their way to events and shows that have invited me along to document the whole day! Sure, sometimes you won’t be able to, but you never know where street portraits can take you. Don’t be discouraged by rejection; instead, think about how you can improve your approach the next time. Give this all some practice, and you’ll be a street portrait master in no time (ok, maybe some time.)

If you found that article useful, and want to go deeper into the rabbit hole, pop your email in the box below to sign up for my monthly street photography newsletter. Feel free to fire me a DM if you’ve got more questions as well! You can find me over on YouTube or Instagram.