How to Photograph Strangers
Finding the confidence to make brilliant portraits out on the street
About ten years ago, on one of my dawn escapades, I came across a homeless man who was asleep in an alley. He had covered himself in magazines and newspaper to keep warm. Lying on his chest was a magazine-spread of a lady’s buxom breasts. It was a perfect photo.
But I was struck by anxiety – was this crossing my internal ethical line? He was asleep, not participating in the photo. Was I using his misfortune and the naked lady who was keeping him warm, to make fun of him? I battled internally for a few minutes and then I walked away.
I still think about that photo and wonder if I made the right choice. Sometimes I think I should have taken it, but most of the time I know I was right not to. And the reason I start this post with that story is that I think that it’s really important to consider your ethical line when you are taking photos of strangers.
The world is your oyster when you are a photographer, and you have the right (often enshrined in each country’s law, not in Hungary though!) to take photos (although usage is a different matter. See the P.S. below).
Considering the people you photograph and their right to be represented fairly is essential, in my view.
Last year my family and I were at an exhibition in an empty car park in London. My kids were having a great time running up and down a ramp. Suddenly a man appeared and started taking lots of photos of my daughter.
My wife approached him and asked him what it was for. He said “ohhhhh, I am a new photographer, it’s just for my website.” Even though she is married to a photographer my wife was really nervous about approaching him. I eventually went over to talk to him and told him it was definitely not cool to photograph someone’s child without asking them first and, secondly, to be so vague about usage.
You should always give your subjects the courtesy of knowing where the photos will be and what for if they ask – particularly if you’re photographing children.
So once you have your ethical code in order, I would like say that photographing strangers is awesomely fun! Not only can you get great photos but you can also meet some really cool people. It’s a brilliant way to penetrate a new culture and get under the skin of a new place. And for the most part, people like to be ‘seen’, to be noticed and that’s a point to focus on.
Be friendly, polite and hopefully relaxed, you will rarely encounter someone who doesn’t respond in kind. And for those that don’t want to be photographed – just smile, apologise and be on your way. Don’t try to force the issue, or wait until they aren’t noticing.
Everyone has their own style My style is more environmental portraits. I am not a ‘street photographer’, although I occasionally delve into that territory. Street photography is a candid genre, focusing on capturing moments of life – not creating or pre-visualising a shot but seeing and capturing what’s happening out there on the street right now (the street photographers collective In-Public have a good explanation)
- Posed portraits
- Anonymous portraits
- Portraits I ‘find’ and ask permission to photograph
From London at Dawn, which is also a book.
Another (yes, another!) amazing thing about shooting at dawn is the fact that when you encounter people they are usually really friendly (and drunk) and want to know what you are doing wandering the dawn streets with a camera.
The photo, above, was a very typical experience for me. Two inebriated young men fell into conversation with me and wanted me to take their photo. They decided to climb this tree (it was completely their idea not mine) and I got this shot, one of my favourites from my London book.
Now I know many people don’t feel safe wandering around alone at dawn – I totally get it. I probably feel more confident alone because I spent the early part of my career living in Los Angeles. The city not only has horrid crime statistics (America’s great gun culture), but feels really hostile because everyone is in their car, not engaging with each other and making themselves feel even more paranoid and frightened of each other.
When I moved to Europe it was like a great big sigh of relief. Walking around on actual streets does a lot to combat people’s fear of strangers. That’s not to say I haven’t had any dodgy encounters (I love that English word, dodgy).
But of the hundreds and hundreds of mornings I’ve been out, I can only remember two, and it was intimidation not actual violence, so fingers crossed, it stays like that. The upshot being, take out a friend or two (or five!) if you feel a bit strange wandering at dawn (or join me on my workshops!)
I do a lot of these posed portraits on the street (my entire Belly Project is exactly that – over 100 bellies of strangers). You would be amazed by how many people will pose for a photo (even people who aren’t drunk). Amazed!
There are people who are just perfectly happy to be photographed, and those who are down right exhibitionists and hams in front of the camera (both my son and my wife are of the ham variety), but there are only a small, very small proportion of people who hate being photographed. And that’s OK. So – remember that the maths is in your favour.
If you are new to photographing strangers I would start with this type of photography. You need to work up the nerve to ask the person but once you have their permission, you won’t have that fear of them noticing you and smashing your camera (that’s a fear by the way, very rarely a reality even for hardcore street photographers). So you get to relax and then work on composing your shot.
I usually smile at someone I want to photograph If they seem welcoming I will approach them, tell them what I am doing and ask if I can photograph them. I try to say something about why I want to photograph them – “You look like you have an awesome belly! I love your hair!”
Although it’s hard not be scared, I think it’s important to seem fairly confident so that people trust you. Taking things slowly, being relaxed, not rushing – are all ways to imbue your approach with confidence.
From my project Paris at Dawn. Which is also a book.
I came across the above scene in Paris and was mesmerised. I was super quick (you are not setting up a tripod for this kind of shot). Now, what would have happened if the man had turned and seen me? I would have smiled and gestured ‘OK?’
If he wasn’t happy I would have apologised and walked away. That simple. At the very worse you can always show them the photo and delete it if they are truly unhappy (although this was shot on my still amazing Hasselblad on film, I presume most folks in this modern age are, you know, shooting digital :))
So if you are scared of doing anonymous portraits like this, or street photography, think what’s the worse that can happen? And then work out what you would do if that were to happen.
Elliott Erwitt is an endless source of inspiration for me. I love what he says:
“It’s about reacting to what you see, hopefully without preconception. You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organising them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.”
I often come across a ready made amazing shot with people in it. But I know that if I just snapped they could notice, and it would be weird. Can you imagine me coming across these two lovers lying on this empty bridge and chatting, then putting up my tripod and taking a photo? Weird! So of course I just asked them.
Now you will notice that this photo is in Paris. I don’t speak French. So if there is a language barrier (I admit I do just break into English), I just point to my camera and smile. Again you would be astounded by how most people are perfectly happy to be photographed if you are warm and friendly.
Even in such an intimate moment as this. I sent the couple in this photo a copy and they were both very appreciative.
Now a few other thoughts / ideas / tips:
Attitude is everything. Being friendly, open, polite and relaxed is the best thing to focus on when you are out taking photos.
Don’t hide your camera. I know quite a few street photographers who advocate hiding your camera (and many who suggest otherwise – but that just feels really creepy to me). Be honest. Be human.
Have a few lines prepared. Sounds strange, but have a few lines prepared for people you’ll talk to, like: “Do you mind if I take your photo? I’m working on a photo project about fur coats.” Then when you are out and about you’ll be less likely to stumble over your words.
Have a purpose: If I could sum up my purpose as a photographer I think it is ‘beauty in the every day’. I think my purpose is to show people the incredible beauty of what’s right here on our doorstep which I hope will lead you to feeling more connected to this wonderful world, and loving it more.
I have always been fascinated by light, I’m a bit of a loner, I love empty/quiet places and I love nature. So that’s what you see when you look at my work. My passions and my personality shining through.
That’s when you know you have really got somewhere as a photographer, when people can look at your work and see your personality.
I recently came across the photographer Ruddy Roye and I love his work. He calls himself a ‘Humanist/Activist Photographer’ and has found fame by shooting what he is most passionate about: people who are usually ‘unseen’ (he has an amazingInstagram account).
In this great interview on Longreads he said he thought about something that Eugene Smith said, and that propelled him to focus his photography in a different way:
“You know, there are enough photographers photographing the pretty things, and not enough photographing the things that aren’t as pretty.”
He then decided that “I want to introduce white America to people who they might never have met, and I want them to fall in love too.”
From my project East London at Dawn.
In the interview he also talks about how he engages with his subjects. He’ll often chat to them and get to know them before he shoots them. Sometimes he finds a subject and ends up not photographing them, just chatting. Just being human.
And that’s something we photographers sometimes forget. Humans love connecting, so just be human.
When you have a purpose photographing strangers on the street is much easier. It’s easier to talk to people, to communicate to them why you want to photograph them.
It doesn’t have to be something really epic like Roye, it can simply be that you find people interesting, you want to show people your vision of the world, that you care about people being seen in an engaging, interesting, compelling way.
And this is where ethics comes in again. I think people can feel your purpose, they can sense if you are a genuine person and you have their best interests at heart (unlike the rather misguided photographer who was shooting my daughter).
Deciding on your purpose before you go out helps set you up for when you start shooting.
All of this advice is rubbish though…if you don’t practice, practice, practice. By doing it over and over you will find your style, what you are comfortable with, how you like to photograph strangers, what attracts you and what doesn’t.
I promise it gets easier and easier every time you do it. There are endless opportunities out there for you so just try, fail, try and fail, try and end up with something really special and completely unique that you created.
- Be polite and friendly
- Remember most people like being noticed for their uniqueness – and will welcome you photographing them
- If someone isn’t happy to be snapped, just apologise and walk away
- A smile and a relaxed attitude will take you far
- Remember your humanity
- Have a purpose
- Have fun!
And after all that…STOP thinking. Once you have thought all of these things through, and done some mental preparation, then just forget it all and get on with it. And again I use this Picasso quote “To draw, you must close your eyes and sing”.
Anthony and Diana
PS a note about usage and permission
In most countries you only need people’s permission if you are going to sell the photos or use them for commercial gain. Photos for art and editorial usage usually don’t require individuals’ permission (but there are exceptions – like Hungary! Where it’s now illegal to photograph anyone without their permission).
There are exceptions, particularly for children, so always check out the law in the country you’re in. I have yet to find a website that covers all countries – here is one for the UK to get you started, and remember laws change all of the time
Plus, when you are travelling it’s important to be aware of cultural sensitivities before you blaze out there, camera in hand. There is a tonne of info out there on the web. Load up on knowledge and that will also help you feel confident as you go out to shoot.
My ultimate guide to travel photography – Cities at Dawn
08/11/2017 @ 10:22 AM
[…] How to Photograph Strangers […]
28/01/2017 @ 5:04 AM
I have been doing Street Photography for about 5 years – mostly in Australia & a little in Turkey & Russia. I have come across only a very few hostile people & when I explain my interest in street life they invite to take their photograph. Not speaking the same language is no barrier – a smile speaks all languages! Thanks for a great blog.
14/04/2016 @ 12:49 PM
Apart from telling you that I love the shot titled “From London at Dawn”, just above the section on Posed Portraits.
Putting that to one side, your opening paragraph makes me feel a whole heap better about a similar episode in my own life. I was faced the a dilemma – in front of me, there was a once in a lifetime shot, a brilliant opportunity to take a photo worthy of the cover of National Geographic. I had the camera there, ready. It was all so easy. And yet . . . I found myself torn, by the moral issue – was it right, to intrude like that into someone else’s space, someone else’s life? After driving myself nuts, I decided it would be the wrong thing to do – so I left the restaurant and instead of that photo, I treasure the memory. Sigh – I can’t share it – but at least I have it.
(Asking might have been an option – except there was a language barrier and in any case, asking would have destroyed a fundamental aspect of the image).
18/04/2016 @ 3:39 PM
Moments like that still happen to me. Just not as often anymore. Also, there is something to be said about treasured memories. Priceless!