I’ve had a number of people ask me, "How is it that I can walk up to a stranger and ask for their photograph?" The answer is simple. I just do it. If I’m interested in something, I’m going to do it. However, I know it’s not that simple for everyone. I think what people really are asking is this, “Aren’t you afraid what the stranger may think,” or, “What if they say no?” “What if they reject the notion of you photographing them?”
Rejection. This is what most people are afraid of when propositioning a stranger to take their photograph. According to psychotherapist and psychology instructor, Amy Morin, the fear of rejection is one of the ten fears that hold us back in life. You really have to understand that and be aware of the feeling. If you don’t have the emotional intelligence to deal with this, you will not be successful in this endeavor. Trust me. I know. After you are turned down two or three times consecutively, you start questioning yourself, wondering why in the world you are out here bothering people.
So, to help get you through all of this here are a few tips you can use.
1. Genuinely interested in the person
Ask yourself, “Why do I want to take a picture of this person?” You really need to identify this, because it could make or break your chance of getting a picture. Street portraiture doesn’t work if you are not genuinely interested in the person. I’ve found that most people can sense insincerity, which in turn, causes them to become defensive, ruining your chances of a great image.
2. Walk toward them
I know this may sound really simple, and it may look easy, but it can be the hardest thing you do. Walking up to a complete stranger takes courage. Anything that has any value requires effort, even if it is in the form of gumption.
3. Set your camera
Ok, so you’ve built up your nerve. Start walking...and set up your camera. How are you going to shoot this? shallow depth of field? Lots of depth? How dark is it? Will the subject likely be moving?
These are all questions that you need to answer pretty quickly, but don’t over think them. Set your camera and go for it. If I’m walking on the sidewalk, I’ll point my camera to the ground and meter the concrete to get an exposure. If you don’t know what spot metering is, check out this video.
4. Greet the person and smile
You’ve made it. Great! Now what do you say? Here’s a hint. Don’t try to be the guy you’ve seen on YouTube. Be yourself. Remember, people can see through insincerity pretty quickly.
Although my conversations often start with me complimenting my subject, sometimes they don’t. However, every conversation start with a warm smile. I need them to know that I’m harmless and interested in them. Smile with your eyes.
5. Talk honestly
When I started this I would try to come up with something to tell the person I would be interacting with. My introduction was too long and unsure. I would say something like this:
“Hey, how are you? I was just in the area taking some pictures. I’m actually working on a project about photographing people in Columbia. I’ve been working on it for about….” Yeah. By the time I’d finished that spiel, my potential subject was either halfway sleep or uninterested.
Start honestly. I hear many street photographers suggest that you compliment the person. I do that as well, but sometimes it doesn’t work. Here’s what I propose, which is more of a question:
If you don’t know why you want to make the image, why make the image? In other words, wait until you find someone more interesting to photograph.
6. Listen and watch
You will find that some people just want to talk (that happened yesterday). So, don’t be rude, but listen. As they talk, keep watching for the light and look for things about them that interest you (clothes, hair, glasses, etc.). You’ll find opportunities to take more than one picture which will help you tell a more complete story about the experience.
7. Be light-aware
If you haven’t gotten your portrait by now, go ahead and get it. You should have analyzed your scene by now and figured out where the light is coming from (direction of light). Being mindful of the light and the background, move your subject where you want them and make the photograph.
8. Get closer
Robert Capa once said, "If your photographs aren't good enough, you aren't close enough." Get in there and get the shot. The closer you get, the more intriguing photograph you will likely get.
9. Thank them
After you’re finished, thank them. If they would like to see it later, email it to them or let them know where it may be posted. It needs to be a good experience for both. I’ve done this so many times, and every experience is different.
I’ve photographed portraits with small mirrorless camera
I’ve photographed portraits with a 645 medium format camera
I’ve made photographs of men and women
I’ve photographed early in the morning
I’ve photographed late at night
I’ve had conversations for over an hour
I’ve had conversations for about twenty seconds
The point is that it doesn’t matter. Use these tips as a guide, not as a rule. Make this your own. Deal with the emotions that come with this. Own your communication style. Make a great photograph. Share the photograph….which is the last tip.
10. Share the image
This is something I’m learning to do more. Once I’ve made the image, I’m taking a special effort to either email it or make a print at the local drug store. Although it’s been said many time and many ways, there is not a substitute for the printed image. So, when someone request’s a print it’s not too much to ask, especially when they gave me something first, their attention and permission to take the photograph.
If you’ve made a photograph of a stranger, feel free to share your story or photograph below!