My favorite way to tell the story of the places I visit is through its people. Photography always requires mastery of light, composition, creativity and technical craft. Creating authentic travel portraits of people in their own environment means you must master another skill—human connection.
For the fourth consecutive year, I’m teaching a Photo Walk class at WPPI about how to get over the fear of approaching strangers to make their portrait. The class is not about using a 70-200mm lens to capture someone’s image from a distance without them knowing. It’s about being fully present so you can make a real photographer-to-subject connection that can be felt in the final photo. Using body language, eye contact, and finding commonalities before you press the shutter, you can improve any portrait.
Since my WPPI Photo Walk class is limited to only 20 participants, here are my 5 Steps to Creating Authentic Street Portraits for all who can’t join me in person!
Step 1. Make eye contact
When traveling, start by looking for places where people are accustomed to interacting with other people (markets, local shops, parks etc.) and then scope out the scene. Before you approach someone, try to get his or her attention by making eye contact, give a soft smile, then a nod. If you someone looks you back in the eye, smiles back, nods back, you have your first green light. If they don’t, take that as a polite no-thank-you.
Step 2. Own your body language
Body language makes or breaks a first impression, so be mindful of it. Exude a gentle confidence, as your own nervous energy will make another person nervous. Would you rather talk with someone who is making an awkward face with arms crossed walking quickly toward you or someone with an open stance, a confident solid stride and a calm smile?
People mirror each other’s body language and emotions. Approach calmly and offer a hand, a bow, a hands-together ‘Namaste’—whatever the welcome gesture is in that culture. It’s an energetic exchange; what you project they will reflect.
Step 3. Pay a compliment
A genuine compliment often breaks the ice and results in a smile. Some go-to topics include what someone is wearing, selling, making or doing. Try to find something you have in common as a point of discussion. Follow your compliment with a leading question. For example, “I love your green sweater! Green is my favorite color. Where did you get the sweater?” Get the other person talking so you can stop – it’s not about you. Then introduce yourself with your name, where you’re from, and offer a bit of context of why you’re there.
Step 4. Establish trust and be present
You must be your authentic self if you’re asking people to do the same. We all recognize fake immediately and are repelled by it. One way to establish trust quickly is to be vulnerable. You’re already taking a risk by approaching the person, so acknowledge that. For example, “I’m a little nervous to come up and talk with you.”
Be at ease and talk with your subject as if you’re already friends. Act as if they have already said yes to you creating their portrait. Ask questions about their lives and really listen to their answers. Maintain eye contact and open body language.
Pro Tip: To engage with children, start playing sports or a game with them. Get silly. Kids connect to adults via smiles, laughter, and by you showing genuine interest in what they are doing. Jump into their game of soccer in the streets and you may just catch them off guard and endear them.
Step 5. Embrace your Craft
You’re now ready to go in for the ask, whether that’s a verbal “May I?” or a gesture lifting your camera and nodding. Take a deep breath and maintain the energetic connection. Don’t go silent on them or lose control of the situation. Find the catch lights and focus on the eyes. Create a composition that establishes the story you want to tell about this person. You studied and practiced mastering your technical skills, now use them with confidence.
When your exchange is over, be sure to show gratitude and say thank you. If someone asks for you to send their portrait, get their contact information and do it.
Bonus Points. Instant Camera
Another great way to engage with people while traveling is using an instant camera to gift portraits in real time. I love to travel with my Fuji Instax Mini and lots of instant film. I’ve encountered several people who at first gestured that they didn’t want me to photograph them, however changed their minds once I showed them a sample tiny print (especially kids). The difference in the portraits I create before I gift them a print and after can be dramatically different in energy and emotion.
In the end, if someone doesn’t want you to make his or her portrait, don’t then try to “get it secretly on the sly.” There isn’t going to be a real connection in your image. Respect a no. You aren’t entitled to take someone’s photograph. Say thank you and move on. Don’t take it personally or get discouraged. Keep trying.
Before your next adventure test-drive these five steps by making portraits of strangers locally. Get out of your comfort zone now so that your travel portraits will result in the comments, “Look at the emotion and soul in those eyes!” Approach the people you think might be unapproachable. You just might be pleasantly surprised.
To celebrate WPPI, we’ve curated an exclusive 6-class bundle to include some of our favorite WPPI speakers. Learn how to transform your images into art, how to connect with people to capture powerful portraits, and how to get the compensation that you deserve through negotiation techniques. This is a must-have bundle for all photographers looking to learn new skills for next-level photos.