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Portrait Photography FuelTip: Taking Environmental Portraits of Strangers

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John Batdorff offers advice on how to approach a stranger on the street about taking his photograph, in this excerpt from Street Photography: A Guide to Finding and Capturing Authentic Portraits and Streetscapes.

Fuel Books

From the book

Nothing is more rewarding to me than creating an environmental portrait. It’s about forming a brief connection with a complete stranger and earning enough of his/her trust to allow me into their personal space. It’s about trying to create an authentic moment that transcends the grin-and-grip shot that we’re so accustomed to seeing in the news. I make no secret of my intentions and don’t hide behind a false pretense of bringing about social awareness. I photograph people who interest me, have something special about them, and make me wonder about their lives. The exchange is usually brief and interlaced with superficial questions that, while not deep, often yield a glimpse into the person’s personality.

As mentioned earlier, close-up portraits are best handled by asking permission and respecting the answer. I like to chat a bit and shoot during those minutes of pause, but I never linger and always complete my series in fewer than a couple minutes. It’s as though you’re both left with unanswered questions and at the same time you have mutual respect. They feel special because I sincerely saw something that captivated me to ask permission to take the photo, and I leave feeling honored that they indulged my request.


ISO 200, 50mm, f/2.2, 1/640 sec.

During a Sunday walk I noticed this dapper gentleman at a bus station. He had just left church and was waiting for his next ride. I asked if I may take his photo and he quietly replied, “Why?” I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Because you look good!” He smiled and gave me the nod. Sometimes that’s all it takes, and the worst case is he would have politely said no.

Handling Rejections

You will hear your fair share of no’s, but you will be amazed by how many times you’ll get a yes. I was never a serial dater but I joke that the principles are very similar. You need to be brave enough to ask, graceful during the rejection, and learn from your mistakes, then repeat!

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