Environmental Portrait Photography: How to Approach Anyone for Photos

Environmental portrait photography is a fascinating genre that reflects more than a person’s appearance, it illuminates one’s social background, authentic personality and way of life. The hurdle for many photographers to shoot environment portrait is not technical abilities. Instead, approaching strangers, asking for permission, dealing with rejection are huge challenges for all who are not tough-skinned extroverts. If you don’t know where to start, follow the below step by step guide that helped me over the years to guarantee you can overcome fear and start building an environment portrait portfolio.

I stood on sidewalks, awaiting the pedestrians to enter the frame
I stood on sidewalks, awaiting the pedestrians to enter the frame

Step 1. Starting with someone you know

A most obvious starting point is someone you know in a place within the subject person’s comfort zone. To give you some ideas, your subject may be the barista in your usual cafe, the owner of a neighbourhood corner shop, a librarian in the local library, the school bus driver, your neighbour who loves gardening in his front yard, the postman on his bike. If you have a pretty good idea that the person won’t mind, just take the photo and tell him honestly that you are doing photography and would love to capture the moment you spend with him. Who would reject such a small request from a warm-hearted, slightly sentimental person?

photographed from hip outside of a barber shop
photographed from hip outside of a barber shop

Step 2. The first encounter with strangers: location is key

The problem with step 1 is that you will soon run out of family and friend to take photos of. It’s time to be brave and move on to those you haven’t met yet! To have success in your first few ‘candid’ environmental portrait attempts, it is best to choose locations that guarantee a high success rate. The rule in this step is: go for crowded, public places where taking photos is seen as common and acceptable. My suggestions are the nearby tourist attractions, public events, festivals and weekend markets.  You get the idea: it is OK to take photos in these locations because people assume you are a tourist or you wish to document the special occasion. Once you are at the right place, just blend into the crowd, relax and get shutter happy! There are plenty of people who spend their day to day life in a public environment which are both interesting and photo-worthy. Find them, take the photos and merge back into dozens more of photographers doing the same thing. To keep the ‘environment’ informative but not messy, one additional tip is to keep away from extremely crowded spots otherwise it will be hard to find a clean background. A little bokeh might also help to separate the subject person from everyone else around.

candid photo taken very close to the newly-wed (the bride looked away)
candid photo taken very close to the newly-wed (the bride looked away)

Step 3. How to be discreet

You have pretended to be an event goer or a tourist a few times, now what? Sure there are even more opportunities to expand your portfolio. The next challenge requires you to be discreet and ‘invisible’. A little preparation before you leave home goes a long way.  Put on an ‘everyday’ outfit that does not attract attention. Choose a very compact camera, I have used and believe the following are decent ‘street photography’ cameras: Ricoh GR II; Fujifilm XE-2; Fujifilm X100F, Sony RX100 V. Just walk in a normal pace towards the person and press the shutter. Techniques such as pre-focusing, zone focusing works well. You will be surprised how people are unresponsive to their surroundings especially if you are in a downtown area of a big city (I am in Sydney, Australia). I even used flash 1 meter (3 feet) away from pedestrians without having anyone reacting to the flash.  Do not look at the subject person and he will just assume you photographed something behind him. One important tip: do not act suspicious or creepy, avoid covering yourself with baseball caps etc, remember it is your legal rights to take photos on the street.

a wig shop keeper wearing a wig
a wig shop keeper wearing a wig

Step 4. Pre-position yourself for legitimacy

The fear of rejection is probably what’s most fearsome for photographing strangers. One of my strategies is to pre-position myself to create a sense of legitimacy and entitlement in front of my subject person. If you find being discreet is not your style, dress like you mean the business. Invest in a photographer’s vest and a cap with a ‘Canon’ or ‘Nikon’ logo. take your biggest DSLR and flashgun and a tripod, bring out the whole arsenal. This inspires some of us to lift confidence to match the look. If you think it will help you, don’t be afraid to be a little dominant in your communication style. Ask the subject person to look at the camera, smile, hold his cup a little higher, my favourite line: ‘keep walking, don’t look at the camera’. If someone ever rejects you, just act as if he is being unreasonable. You are creating art not to benefit yourself but for the whole humanity, which part of this is not noble? The key to this approach is that you must believe in your legitimacy all the way. Tell yourself you are ‘working’ on the street just like the person painting a wall or driving a van.  

I do not own these ‘pro outfits’ but I’m sure they will make you look like ‘the real deal’:

Family in Tokyo
A Family in Tokyo

Step 5. Complement is the best catalyst

The next challenge takes us to less public places: inside a shop (check for ‘no photograph’ signs first, don’t break the law), right in front of a market stall, inside someone’s workshop. In general, it may be somewhere indoor, quiet with little to no traffic. There is no chance that you can take a photo of a person without being noticed. Don’t give up the chance of a great shot, I have more tips and tricks for this situation. Everyone knows complement works wonders, for environment portrait photographers the timing of complement is key to avoiding rejection. Never use complement as conversation starters to ‘chat up’ your subject before asking for a photo. Raise your camera and quickly take a photo first. As soon as the person responds and looks at you, this is the golden moment to complement. Focus on a detail: ‘I like your scarf, nice tie, great suit” or what he is doing “it’s very interesting to me how you made this thing”. Don’t tell a female how attractive or beautiful she is, sometimes genuine and creepy is perceived differently by different people. Your subject accepts the compliment with a neutral sounding ‘thank you’, this is your best opportunity to leave with your photo before he changes his mind. If he responds joyfully, congratulations, have a little conversation and keep taking more photos. Explain honesty to him what you are doing and even show him the photo you took on the LED screen of your camera. It will be a golden opportunity that you ask him to sign a model release before leaving. Read on.

in my imagination he is a secret agent
in my imagination he is a secret agent

Step 6. Model Release: do you need it and how to prepare one?

Model release basically is a document you ask the subject person to sign saying he or she is comfortable for you to use his or her image. In the US, UK, Canada, European countries, Australia or New Zealand the relevant laws are different in each jurisdiction. As an example ‘freedom of speech’ applies to the right to take photos in public places yet there is no such concept in the Australian law. It is always best to seek local legal advice if you find yourself in tricky situations. I must declare here I am not providing legal advice to readers of this article.

To me, having something in writing is always better than having nothing. While a full model release form prepared by a lawyer and witnessed by an independent party works best to defend yourself in court, it is mostly used in commercial situations with professional models. For candid environment portraits, a full contract scares the subject person away rather than encourages them to sign. Just ask yourself, will you sign a 10-page contract with a stranger who you met 2 minutes ago? I know I won’t.  I prepare a very short statement along the lines of ‘I permit [insert your name] to use my photo for artistic, non-commercial purposes.” Ask your subject to sign and ask if he is happy to leave a phone number or email address in case you need to contact them. This statement should at least discourage the subject person from pursuing legal actions against you. It also gives you an opportunity to contact him BEFORE you sell or lease the photo but AFTER you’ve received interest to use the photo commercially.

Conclusion

With these steps by step guidelines, you are able to approach anyone in any situation for environment portrait photographs. Let’s face it: everyone is different and rejection is unavoidable. If you face rejection, simply apologize and delete the photo on request. Do not ‘defend your freedom to take photos’ and escalate as it is not worth your precious time. Move on, there are ample interesting and friendly people. Be consistent and gradually build up your portfolio.

Anything to share or discuss? Drop me a line below.

If you’d like to learn from environment portrait masters, read on:

Environment Portrait Masters – Eve Arnold

Environment Portrait Masters – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Books I like and recommend on black and white photography:


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