The essence of street photography is photographing strangers. How you go about doing this is debated among photographers around the world. There are various different approaches to doing this.
In this article you’ll see the techniques the professionals use, along with each method’s merits. As a new photographer you might find the idea of approaching a stranger to take their photo intimidating. After reading this article you’ll approach that stranger with the confidence that comes with knowing your craft.
Asking permission to take a photo requires confidence. This can shine through in the photo, when you capture their personality well.
Photographing strangers can be divided into two areas. These are when the stranger is aware you’re taking the photo, and when the stranger is unaware you’re taking the photo. There are merits to both approaches, so let’s look at these more closely.
Photographing Strangers Without Them Knowing
Here we have the white lie of photography, the ‘what they don’t know won’t hurt them’ approach. The great thing about this is that your photo will look natural. The downside is you’ll likely need to take the photo from a distance, or in a clandestine way. You have a few options should you wish to try this.
The Hip Photographer
This doesn’t mean you have to be a hipster to take this kind of photo! So what is it? Well hip photography basically means taking the photo from your hip, as opposed to bringing the camera up to your eye. The following is a quick guide to this technique
- Use a wide angle lens so you can capture a wide area. This will allow you to crop your photo as necessary in post processing.
- Use a small aperture, f16 or smaller. The aim is to ensure the image is focused, and this will be easier without a shallow depth of field provided by a larger aperture.
- Use a high ISO of 1000 or above. This is to counter the small aperture, so you still retain a fast shutter speed for your photo.
- Focus your camera on a point between five and ten metres ahead of you. Turn the camera to manual so the lens keeps this focus distance.
- Walk towards places of photographic interest. When you see an interesting scene turn the camera towards it and take your photo. Avoid tilting the camera too much, as this will mean more work in post processing.
Street photography often requires quick wits. Getting photos like this one is almost impossible if you need to ask permission first
The Undercover Photographer
The next approach involves the use of a longer focal length lens. In this case you are counting on the stranger not noticing you, as you are a little distance away. However, any photographer with a large lens will eventually begin to attract attention. This means you will need to see your photo, take it as quickly as you can, and then move on.
What if you get noticed taking the photo? This can go two ways. They may either just carry on what their doing, or you could be faced with a confrontation. If you are faced with a confrontation the best thing to do is be polite, and withdraw as quickly as you can.
Going unnoticed while people go about their daily lives is the essence of street photography.
The Photographer Who Blends In
A final approach is to attempt to blend in, and become part of the scenery. The type of lens you us is up to you, though as you are likely to still be some distance away from your main subject, a longer focal length might be better. In this case you just want to find a quiet corner, near to the place you wish to photograph.
Now sit down, read a book, drink a coffee, and just disappear from people’s awareness. After a while nobody will be paying attention to you, and at this point it’s time to take some photos. Take a few photos, and then get back to your book, then take a few more. Once you have blended in, you don’t want to be taking so many photos that people begin to notice you again.
Other elements in the frame can give context to the photo. Here you can see this is a market on a train track, and the tracks frame the person nicely.
When the Stranger Knows Their Portrait Is Being Taken
Allowing the subject of your street photo to know their photo is taken will often mean asking permission. This takes confidence. You also have the problem that the photo is now staged, even if you tell the stranger to “act natural”. So what possible solutions are there to these problems? Well it’s best to take a step by step approach to this.
Gaining the Confidence to Ask
Building up the confidence for photographing strangers isn’t easy, especially if you’re new to street photography. There are a number of sensible steps you can take that will help you though, so let’s run through these.
- Technique – Being totally confident in your portrait taking technique will give you more confidence to photograph a stranger. Try practising some portraits with a friend. When you feel ready, begin approaching strangers.
- Gentle approach – Build a friendship with the people you wish to photograph. This might mean leaving the camera at home the first few times. When you feel confident around the people you wish to photograph, bring your camera and broach the subject.
- Stay local – You’ll always be more confident in an area you know. So start photographing strangers in an area that isn’t strange to you!
- Experience – If you know someone who is good at street photography, ask if you can come with them the next time they take photos. Watch what they do, the techniques they employ. This should make it easier for you, as you will have seen how to approach someone successfully. You can then try those ideas yourself!
In this photo I like the gentleman’s hat. I told him this when he asked why I wanted to take his photo, and then he agreed to let me take this image.
Building a Rapport With Your Stranger
Once you have agreement from a stranger to take their photo the next step is to get that image. The best way to begin this is to find out a bit about them. This serves two purposes, it makes them more relaxed, and it will inform you about the style of photo that will best fit their personality.
How about when you are in a country where you don’t speak the language? Admittedly, you’re unlikely to find out too much about them, but non-verbal cues can go a long way. You might be able to use your finger as a place for them to look, as this may lead to better light on their face.
If you smile, they’ll likely respond with a smile, and you can use this non-verbal communication to build a good rapport.
Getting permission is not always easy, especially in foreign countries. A smile and being polite can go a long way.
How to Retain a Natural Photo
The worst photo in the world after getting permission is the big grin, and the V for victory sign! Well it’s not victory for your photo, unless you feel this goes with the persons personality.
So how to go about making the photo more natural? The truth is sometimes it’s not possible, and a well staged photo can look great. Those that are looking for the more natural look have two main options.
- Short and sweet – Time is of the essence and you’re unlikely to meet this person again. Your best bet is to ask them to continue what they were doing before. Perhaps they were cooking something, so ask them to simply continue doing that. Alternatively you might be able to have them use a prop, though this is much more likely to also look staged.
- The long game – Those that have time, and this means considerable time, can build up a friendship with the person. This will mean the person is no longer a stranger, but your photos of them can now be taken in a much more relaxed way and will be natural.
There are times when you don’t want to disturb the person to get the photo.
Use Your Common Sense
At the end of the day the choice to photograph a stranger is a judgement call. Although you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, this is often what you have to do when deciding whether to approach someone. Is this person homeless, is it ethically right to take their photo? Is the person you want to photograph with friends, and you’d be interrupting them if you approached?
You need to approach at the right moment, and in the right way, as once someone has said no that very often is the end of the conversation. When you have gained permission the next step should be asking for a model release, though you might decide this is too heavy handed for a street photo. Nevertheless some street photos might involve you giving money to gain permission, in this case pursue the model release.
Getting the Best out of Your Street Photography
Gaining the trust of a stranger can be tricky, though having a plan and good technique will help a lot. Beyond photographing strangers, also think about the following with your work.
Have a Theme
All photography benefits from having a cohesive theme that binds it together. Telling the stranger about your project will make them feel like they’re part of something, and this might make them more likely to agree to having their photo taken. There are many themes you might choose to use, the following is a guideline.
- Place – Your theme could be about a specific place. Projects like Humans of New York uses this concept. In your case it could be a local market, or perhaps a railway station theme!
- Composition – You may choose to frame your photos in a certain way. Perhaps all of the photos could show half of the person’s face in your composition.
- Prop – Giving a person a prop to interact with will change the style of photo you produce. One possibility is giving them a crystal ball which they can look into!
Public transport can be a great theme for your photography.
Be Aware of the Background
The background is an important element in every photo. This is certainly true in street photography, where careful selection of the background can make your photo. How does your background relate to the person you are photographing? Is there potential for interaction between your subject and the background, perhaps there is some street art?
The background of your photo should be kept simple yet striking. This could be in the form of a wall with strong colour, or you might use a lens with large aperture to blur it out and create bokeh. Never forget that after the main subject of your photo, the stranger you are photographing, the next most important element is the background.
Control the background, and control the photo.
How to Make People Comfortable
The longer your interaction with the stranger you want to photograph is, the more comfortable they’re likely to be. But the quality of that interaction must be good. A little bit of time just asking about the person’s day can go a long way to breaking down barriers, and giving you a better photo.
You must also be aware that interacting with a lens is not the most comfortable thing for many people. Once you begin to take photos, allow your subject a little time to get used to the situation. If possible suggest they ignore you for a moment, and go back to what they were doing before you approached them.
In general, just be as warm and genuine as you can be, and this will go a long way to better results when photographing strangers.
Waiting for the moment of capture, this scene was lent context by the drapes to the right.
The Legal Side of Street Photography
Now a note of caution, as there are some legal ramifications to photographing strangers. In some countries it’s now illegal to photograph strangers in a public place. For many photographers, France is where a lot of street photography started, but you could get in trouble for photographing strangers in France today.
Now, if you approach the stranger, and gain their permission to take the photo, you won’t have a problem. Those photos where you wish to get a moment of capture, and you let your subject know after the fact are where you could be in for trouble.
The legal side is also where that model release comes in. Any photo that will be used in a commercial or promotional way will need this release.
This was a photo of a stranger, but the setup is staged.
Your Turn to Try Photographing Strangers
Now you’re ready to begin taking portraits of strangers, and armed with all the knowledge you need to do so. There are of course psychological barriers to get over, and confidence to improve. These things will come naturally to you with time and practice, and you will begin to get amazing natural street photos.
What has been your experience of gaining the confidence to approach strangers to take their photo? Do you have some example photos that you can share with the community? We’d love to see your photos, and read your comments. So please share your street photography with us!
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
Thank you for reading...
if you want to capture breathtaking images, without the frustration of a complicated camera.
It's my training video that will walk you how to use your camera's functions in just 10 minutes - for free!
I also offer video courses and ebooks covering the following subjects:
You could be just a few days away from finally understanding how to use your camera to take great photos!
Thanks again for reading our articles!