The world is full of people, currently something like seven billion of them. A few of them live in your street, work with you or share your leisure time. They are all potential portraiture subjects. Every individual is different - unique in appearance, personality and circumstances. The challenge is to capture that individuality - but how does one get started?
There are a number of basic approaches, each implying a different degree of involvement. Some photographers do candid work, using a telephoto lens, where no contact is necessary. Little planning is required but the lack of communication shows in the images. Braver souls go in closer, get involved and use standard or wide-angle lenses. Success here is much more dependent upon interpersonal skills. Photographing people is not just about placing someone in front of your lens - far from it. It is about relating to people and communicating effectively. On too many occasions photographers ask what camera, lens and settings should be used for a particular image with never a mention of how the subject was found or approached.
If the direct co-operation of subjects in required, more planning and preparation is needed. It may be necessary to find suitable people who are willing to make themselves available at a particular time and location. Start by seeking help from family and friends. It is easier and safer to approach those you know. However the net will inevitably be cast wider as confidence grows and the enthusiasm of this inner circle wanes.
Where and how you search for new subjects will be dependent upon the type of photography you have in mind. Make sure this is clear in your own mind before you begin. Then try placing an advertisement in a shop window, newspaper or magazine. Also make your interest known at local photographic clubs, college art departments, dance or drama groups and other similar organizations. People who have been trained to perform often make interesting subjects.
Another approach is to print cards giving your name and contact information. These can be distributed locally and even handed to strangers in the street. Explain that you are a photographer working on a particular project, and that you are looking for models or subjects. Don't expect an immediate answer, and don't ask a second time - just leave your card and move on before embarrassment sets in. If those you meet want to make contact they will do so.
People are often flattered by your interest in them, but make sure they understand your real motives. A hidden agenda always leads to problems. If you are planning to photograph children, arrange for a parent to be present. If you like the local fishmonger's face, because it is friendly and deeply wrinkled, then explain this to him. He knows anyway, so it will not come as a surprise. And if your interest in him is based upon making money, declare it. He is after all profiting by selling fish to your family. If you want to photograph a girl in a bikini because you think she has a beautiful face and a perfect figure, then be honest about it. If you intend sending the images to a magazine, explain this to her and ask her to sign a model release form. If she is under 18 seek the permission of a parent or guardian. It's not fair to do otherwise.
It is also helpful to assemble a credible portfolio - good prints of your best ten or fifteen images. This is a convenient way to demonstrate genuine interest and show prospective subjects what type of work you have in mind. The discussion can then move on to consideration of what the subject or model would like in return - perhaps cash or prints. Above all, don't get involved unless you can explain your motives. Openness will be rewarded with trust, and trust is the basis upon which good images of people are built.