Sunday, March 16, 2014

Essential Tips for Photographing Strangers

I can't remember ever coming across a photographer who said they find it easy to go up to a complete stranger in the street to ask to take a photograph. I hope the tips below will help you overcome this perfectly natural reaction and improve your chances of persuading a stranger to agree to be photographed.

Right, let's get straight down to it then. Think about what you're doing and put yourself in the other person's place. What would your reaction be to someone coming up to you in the street? This mindset can help you, not only approach people but also to take a better picture. The key to a good portrait is empathy with your subject.


Be clear and open about your intention. Approach people from an angle where they can see you coming. Don't sneak up on someone from behind and tap them on the shoulder. Giving them a fright is not a great start.

Your camera should be visible. It's a clue about your intention and allows the person you're about to ask to prepare themselves. From the moment they see you coming they're doing a risk assessment and wondering what you want. Your camera is one of the visual clues they'll use to judge the situation. Muggers, beggers and sales people don't usually carry cameras.

If you have an outlandish fashion sense you may want to reign it in. People judge you by the way you look. Dress like the subjects you want to photograph to blend in with the crowd. Having said that, a quirky element can make you look 'arty' and interesting. Just don't over do it.

Take off your sunglasses when you speak to people. We all know how important it is to be able to see someone's eyes.

If you're photographing in a foreign country then take the time to study local culture and customs to ensure you do not do anything that could cause offence. Be aware of how close you are standing next to your subject. Don't invade their space and take care with your gestures and body language.

Location and time

Taking an extreme example to illustrate this point, if you approach someone in a dark alley, late at night, you're going to be seen as far more of a threat than in broad daylight in a very public place. 

Don't corner people in a place where they may feel uncomfortable. If you have a good location that is a bit off the beaten path you first have to earn your subject's trust before you can ask them to accompany you to your wonderfully photogenic spot.

Even if someone does agree to pose, if they feel uncomfortable, it will show in your image and possibly spoil the shot.


Keep your introduction short and to the point. Introduce yourself and explain why you would like to take their photograph and how you intend to use the image. These are the key questions that people generally want to know. If you come across as open and straightforward, people will have more confidence in you than if they have to drag all the answers out of you.

Travel photographers can benefit from employing a local guide, who can translate and open a conversation with the person you would like to photograph.

Also remember that you are asking people to give you their time, however brief. You're taking their picture. They're giving you a gift so the least you can do is thank them. Using bit of charm also goes a long way but don't overdo it. Just behave normally and be courteous. I always offer to email my picture to the person I have photographed and have met some very interesting people this way.

A final point. If someone says no then accept it gracefully. There are plenty of other people in the world to photograph.

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Till soon,
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My wife and fellow professional photographer, Magda Indigo, finishes a spontaneous group portrait in Antwerp. We love meeting people and talking to them.