Instant Inspiration (8) -Make a portrait of a stranger

Guitar Hero

There is no other way to start the photographic new year than with a new edition of my “Instant Inspirations”, something for you to try to overcome photographers block or if you simply want to give your photography a new angle. This eight episode might be tough on some of my readers, as it is about shooting  Street Portraits. For a bit of how-to, more examples and links to previous episodes 1 through 7 continue reading after the jump…..

By nature human beings are wary of each other. Especially so when they are complete strangers to one another. Combine that with an often observed awkwardness when it comes to the making of portraits, more often on the subject’s side, but some times also for a photographer who makes only the occasional portrait. Combine those two effects and you face a situation that id seemingly difficult to overcome. Only it really is not.

Mr. Cool

First of all, there is absolutely nothing to lose. If you see someone that fascinates you just go up, give them a big smile and ask if you can “make” a portrait of them. The worst thing that can happen is that you get a rejection. Then you just smile, say “thanks” and move on. But trust me, it is by far more common that people smile back and agree than they would reject you.

Smiling is one of the biggest success factors anyway. This is the way human beings are wired. If someone approaches you in a friendly way you typically return a friendly reaction. There is no bigger ice-breaker than a smile.

Asides from smiling, approach your subjects in a confident and professional way. This is also why you should ask if they mind if you can make a portrait of then, rather than asking if you can take their photo. Tell them you like their looks, their demeanor,  bit of flattering never hurts. Another important point is that you have you camera set and now your equipment inside out. Nothing worse if your object of desire agrees and you start fumbling with your equipment.


One of the benefits to making deliberate portraits of strangers is that it often gives you the opportunity of further interaction with your subjects. Show them the portrait on the LCD screen of your camera, ask them if they would like to throw another pose. Introduce yourself, give them your Street Photographer’s Business Card and offer them to send them the photograph, as most people don’t even have a proper portrait of themselves.  Ask them for their story. You will be amazed how interesting these little conversations can be.

I understand that approaching strangers will put many people out of their comfort zone. But there is much more to gain than to lose. If you are unsure, find yourself an interesting street musician. They play to earn some money. So trow them a few coins in their hat and start shooting. They will absolutely to mind, trust me, and even throw in some nice poses.

So use the start of the new year to give your photography a new interesting angle. Step out of your comfort zone and look for those rewards.

Most of all, have fun!

If you succeed in making some interesting street portraits, I would love to see the results. Post the links in the comments below.


Related Posts:

A Street Photographer’s Business Card

Instant Inspiration (7) – ICM

Instant Inspiration (6) – Storefront Windows

Instant Inspiration (5) – Puddle Shooting

Instant Inspiration (4) – Juxtaposition

Instant Inspiration (3) – Silhouettes

Instant Inspiration (2) – Motion Blur

Instant Inspiration (I) – Get Down Low


48 thoughts on “Instant Inspiration (8) -Make a portrait of a stranger

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  1. Great advice Marcus! Can’t understate the importance of a smile, especially when language is a barrier.

    Coincidental with your post (almost to the same day) I took this street portrait in Bagan & thought I’d share. It’s posted in my Flickr stream at

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Sandra! A smile is the best universal communication! Love your portrait of the smoking lady, this is awesome. Thanks for sharing the link!! Marcus

  2. This is something I’m going to try to work on in 2017! I love street photography but am not good at confrontation. I need to be ok with a possible “no”. PLUS, you reminded me that I need to post about my street photography class in New York! Going to work on that now.

    1. Well, a “no” is just a “no” and in almost no cases in any way confrontational. Just smile, say “thanks” and walk away. All good. Would love to hear your workshop experiences. I’m turning 50 on Friday and the combined present from friends and family is a photo workshop I can choose. I’m thinking of something “out of country” where I can travel with my wife for a couple days.

  3. I enjoy street photography, some I ask, some I don’t, it depends on the situation. When I do ask, they almost always say “yes”.

  4. Great idea for inspiration. In English I’ve started using the phrase “give you a portrait” as I’ve seen people react a bit strangely to “make” a portrait (It does seem like an English mistake) and with my little Fuji Instax printer, I can literally give them a print as well. I think I might have to get out and shoot some more with permission street portraits now 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment, Chris! I love the idea with the Instax printer. I have one, always contemplated bringing it along but never did. Will try that in the future. Regarding language, in German language “machen” (make) a portrait is the natural thing to say. But even when traveling and speaking in English, I don’t use “take” when I ask for a portrait. But “give” seems also a great wording, will try this next time! Thanks for the suggestions!Marcus

      1. I guessed it was “make” in German, it is in most languages do it works well 🙂 I have a Fuji camera which links via wifi to the Instax which makes it very easy to use. If I had to go via my smartphone, downloading then uploading, I doubt I’d use it as much. Let me know how you get on with the Instax 🙂

  5. Great suggestions, Marcus accompanied by your fabulous portraits- they are all so dynamic, I feel like I am standing right there. Amazing. Agree, terrific idea about the business cards.

    1. Thanks, Jane! Coming from you this means a lot 🙂 ! The business card thing is indeed fun. I need to create new ones though, because since designing these I have also designed my Logo that I want to put on the card as well. So back to the drawing-board 😉

  6. What I love about your advice here is it’s simple, yet confidence building. I especially like the wording you chose when approaching someone. Just curious if they have to sign a photo release? Or is their permission to take the portrait the release?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jessica, it means a lot! I think it is important to address people in a professional way, relay the message that I’m creating art, not snapshots. That makes people much more comfortable, at least in my perception! Regarding photo release…I’m not letting anyone sign anything. First, most people in the streets wouldn’t understand what I want from them. Second, I don’t commercialize my work, so noone would ask me if for a photo release anyway. Generally I tell the people I have a blog and might put their photo up. When they tell me they have a problem with that I don’t publish the images, just use them for my own “pleasure” (personal calendars, personal Street Photo books). I also have a statement on my blog that upon request I would take down any photo if someone would have an issue with it later. It never happened….For me it is important to respect peoples privacy wishes and treat these things with respect.

      1. Good points. Especially about them not understanding what you’d want from them with a paper to sign. I just wasn’t sure how it worked with publishing pictures online. A lot has changed since film cameras and printing images. I’ve always just been curious how the online side of publishing a person’s photo worked. Thank you for your thorough answer. I appreciate your time. There have been a few people I’ve met on my journeys that I’d love to photograph. Maybe next time I’ll ask. 🙂

  7. These are great! I’ve seen that last one I think, and love it… but the top two- oh my gosh. Love them. And yes- I’m taking you up on this challenge. I’ll share my results soon! I hope…. 🙂 Thanks Marcus! I just love that street musician!! Seems to enjoy the camera 😉

    1. Thanks, Janet! All of the portraits have been on the blog already, but why shouldn’t I recycle a bit 😉 ? Would love to see your results! It means a lot to actually have you “inspired” 🙂 ! Have a great afternoon!

  8. Marcus, that is one great and very helpful post. Your portraits are amazing. They are candid and they don’t need words; they all speak for themselves. I like your advice how to approach people on the street. Very helpful!!!

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