Don't Be Afraid of Asking Someone for Their Portrait


On a recent photo safari with the B&H Event Space, we pulled random people off the streets of NYC for quick photoshoots with attendees. Throughout, I noticed timidness in many photographers while shooting portraits of people they didn't know. Your fears are going to hold you back from creating better portraits. If you can adjust your thinking a bit, and internalize some basic principles, you'll be shooting with confidence regularly. Here are a couple of tips to rid yourself of your fears.



Most People Are Genuinely Nice

If you approach someone and ask for their portrait, chances are that if they're not extremely busy they will let you take it if you approach them with enough confidence. When asking for a portrait, always remember your manners—be polite and friendly. Here are some good pointers to help you along:

- Look for people dressed interestingly, or that have a particular great feature.

- Compliment them, mentioning that feature.

- Be aware of your location, to create the best photo that you can.

- Your subject will obviously ask to get a copy of the photo when it's done, so be ready to exchange contact info.

- Try to get the right exposure, and shoot quickly.

Compliments will usually get you far. If it doesn't work, keep in mind that there are always more people walking around whom you can photograph.


Scott Schumann of The Sartorialist is a master at doing this. Take a look at the video above, and learn from his technique. Notice how he asks very kindly for someone's photo, gives kind and reasonable directions, and thanks them kindly after the quick shoot.

Lastly, keep in mind that if you ask someone for their portrait, they will most likely not try to break your camera.

Tell them you're Learning (Your Camera Isn't a Weapon)

I think back to my experience with getting people to let me take their photos: Back in college, I used to tell people that I was trying to learn to take portraits for my photography class, and that I needed to photograph a stranger. Applying the tips that I mentioned above, I was usually able to get the person to acquiesce. I began to realize that although my DSLR was huge, it wasn't a weapon. I couldn't go up to someone with it and say, "Hey, give me your money or I'll shoot!"

Once that was through my head, my mentality changed. If you're afraid of having people say 'no' to you, try keeping this in mind: If they tell you 'no' they may just be having a bad day. Also keep in mind that by taking the photo of the person, you mean them no harm.

When I was on the Photo Safari, I told people that we were trying to help the attendees learn to become better photographers. We didn't encounter anyone saying 'no' to us.

If you're timid, perhaps you may want to attend a Photo Safari in the future, or head over to the B&H Event Space's free portrait events.

Look for People Who are Not so Busy

It is a good idea to opt for people that don't look so busy or in a rush. Those people will often be the most receptive to you, and the experience can be a confidence booster for both of you.

Think about the psychology: You're a random stranger, and someone is stopping you to take your photo after complimenting you. Wouldn't you be flattered?

Once you start to do it more often, you'll eventually work out your own strategy for getting people to say 'yes.' Eventually, start introducing other elements, such as lighting, reflectors, flash modifiers, etc.

How did you lose your timidness? Let us know in the comments below.


Quite a few people are a bit camera shy so while asking for a posed photo can be great, I always prefer to catch people in their natural, more comfortable state.  Shooting from the hip can provide this, but then again tough to get a closer shot.  

Bumblejax Photo Mounting

I shoot from the hip a lot so the pigeons I'm photographing never know I got the shot. It takes practice to learn how to hold the camera and guage the shot. Why bother to ask if you don't have to. That way you get people with real expressions about what their lives are really like. Not some fake smile.

No mention of, "Make sure you carry your model release forms with you". Is that something to consider?

I use the trick of the smile. When you smile at someone, hardly they won't smile back at you. So, before saying anything, I establish a good mood and say hello with no words, just with a smile. Right after that, I let them know my motives for taking the portraits, and, as said above, most of them let you take it.