11 Tips for Photographing Strangers
1. Photograph the first person you see
Going out with the intention of photographing strangers is a lot like going to the swimming pool for a swim. You can either jump straight in the pool, which is a little aggressive but will ultimately warm up your body as quickly as possible; or, you can wade in step by step, which somehow feels safer but will only prolong the warming up process.
When I go out to photograph strangers, I prefer the jump-straight-in-the-pool method. I walk up to the first person I see and take their picture, even if I know it’s not going to be a good image. The point here isn’t to take a good picture, but if you get one, even better! Once I get that first one out of my system, my adrenaline kicks in and I get into the zone much quicker than if I spend the first 30 minutes walking around looking for an interesting subject.
Once I establish that momentum, I maintain it by taking pictures regularly. I find that if I wait too long in between pictures, I just cool back down and start to think too much. The goal is to get out of your head and to react on instinct, so I periodically take pictures of people - even if they aren’t that interesting - to stay warm and ready for when I do see a photo-worthy moment. For me, this is the most important point on this list.
2. Wear headphones
This is something I recently started practicing, and I can’t believe I didn’t figure it out sooner. Listening to music as I walk around the streets taking pictures helps me stay out of my head and in the zone. Plus, it makes me look like I have somewhere to be, and I think people pay me less attention because of it. I just use the Apple headphones that came with my phone. I probably wouldn’t use anything much bulkier than these as I like to draw as little attention to myself as possible.
3. Know the difference between discreet and creepy
The last thing you want to do when taking pictures of strangers is act creepy. The creepier you act, the more suspicious of your intensions people will be. For example, If you see somebody interesting sitting on a bench, don’t peek through the bushes and photograph them. This just makes it look like you are up to no good; and if they notice you peeking at them, you probably won’t get a great reaction.
That being said, I think it’s OK to be discreet. For example, if you have your camera around your neck and you walk by somebody and “shoot from the hip,” so to speak, I think that is perfectly fine. Or if you point your camera in somebody’s direction and act like you are photographing something else when really you are taking a picture of them, I think that’s fine, too. It’s hard to define where being discreet ends and being creepy begins, but I think a good rule of thumb is to just act on your intuition. If you feel like you are being creepy, you probably are.
My advice is to just carry your camera out in the open so people know what you are doing. Don’t hide behind things or disguise your camera, because then you just look like you are doing something wrong. People are friendlier than you think, and if they recognize you as a photographer, they will more than likely just ignore you. People aren’t that interested in you anyway.
4. Compliment people often
This is something I do all the time. People love to be complimented. If you take a picture of somebody and then tell them why you find them interesting (for example, maybe you liked the shoes they were wearing. Or maybe they have a cool haircut) they’ll probably be flattered. And if they aren’t flattered, they’ll probably just ignore you. Either way, complimenting somebody will rarely cause a violent reaction. It just can’t hurt.
5. Blend in
This one should speak for itself. Leave your neon orange and yellow jogging shirts at home. When you are out photographing people, you want to draw as little attention to yourself as possible. It helps you remain discreet and can be the difference between capturing that candid moment and alerting the whole world of your presence.
6. Use your best judgment when photographing children
Taking pictures of children is always a touchy subject, especially for male photographers. But you can’t just avoid taking pictures of children altogether, because kids are always doing funny things. And that often leads to great images.
When taking pictures of children, I usually just feel out the situation. This last weekend I was walking around Lake Eola here in Orlando, and I saw this little girl feeding a swan that was as tall, if not taller, than her. It was just a nice little moment. Her father was standing right behind her, so I just walked up to where they both could see me, knelt down and took the picture. I made sure the father saw me. He seemed OK with it, as he just continued watching his daughter and smiling, so I took a couple more images and moved on.
Since I like to capture candid moments, I don’t usually ask for permission. By the time you walk up to the parent and ask permission, the moment is long gone. However, I try to make sure the parents see me and I try to judge their reactions. If they seem OK, I keep shooting. If they don’t (you will usually know pretty quickly) just move on. Even though you have the right to take pictures in a public space, it doesn’t always mean it’s a good decision.
If you are trying to photograph portraits of children, then it’s almost always a good idea to first ask the parent.
7. Make conversation
There’s no rule that says you can’t talk to people. If you want to take someone’s portrait but you are afraid of just walking up and taking it, then go up to them, explain who you are and what you are doing, and ask for permission. They’ll most likely let you. If you are after candid moments, then you probably don’t want to do this, as the moment will be gone. It really all just depends on your style of shooting and what you are after. But regardless of whether you are asking for permission for a portrait, explaining to somebody what you are doing or even just complimenting somebody after taking a picture, keep in mind that it is OK to talk to people. Sometimes talking to somebody will get you in the door to an even more photo-worthy opportunity. You never know.
8. Practice zone focusing
This mainly applies to film photographers and people who are using manual focus lenses. Zone focusing, which I won’t get into in great detail for the sake of staying on track, is basically a method of pre-focusing your lens to a certain distance so that when you see a moment, you can just react to it without hesitation. It’s a great way to keep you in the moment rather than worrying about your camera settings. And the more reactive you can become in street photography, the fewer shots you will miss.
OK, so this is more of a general street photography tip than an overcoming-your-fear-of-photographing-strangers tip. But I think it can also help with photographing strangers, because when you are quick with your camera, most people won’t even notice you. Zone focusing essentially helps you become more discreet.
9. Never engage in violent confrontations
I have never encountered a violent or dangerous situation while photographing strangers, but the slight possibility is always there. If this does happen, do not engage. Simply walk away if you can, or do whatever is necessary to defuse the situation. Keep in mind that just because you have the right to photograph people on public property does not mean somebody won’t attack you if they are having a bad day. The consequences of our actions are independent of our rights as photographers, so just keep that in mind. That being said, the probability of a situation actually turning violent is very low. If you are kind to people and treat them with respect, then you will most likely never run into a situation like this.
10. Just do it
Not to rip off Nike, but there’s no better way to put it. No matter how much you read up on photographing people, there is no substitute for just going out there and doing it. The more you practice pointing your camera at strangers, the better you will get and the easier it will become. Trust your judgement, know your rights as a photographer, be kind to people and treat them with respect, and you’ll find out pretty quickly that people are nicer than you think. Taking pictures of strangers is not as hard as it sounds.
All right everyone, I hope these tips help. Just remember that everyone has a different approach to taking pictures of strangers, and while these tips work for me, they might not work for you. But it's important to keep shooting and keep practicing so you can find your own approach. I promise you that the more you overcome that fear of pointing your camera at people, the easier it will become. You just have to do it!
If you have any techniques you'd like to share, please post them in the comments below. I'm always trying to learn, and I'd love to hear your suggestions.
Thanks for reading and happy shooting!