How To Photograph Strangers

A portrait of a young boy with his father watching on in front of their store in Kolkata, India.

When approaching strangers it’s important to accept a refusal for what it is. Not a personal rebuttal, insult or negative reaction to you as a person, but an indication of how your potential subject feels on the day in question.

It may be that business is bad, that they are unwell or that they’ve just had an argument with their partner.

It might be that they’ve never had the good fortune of being photographed in a way that produces a pleasing likeness.

How do you think you would feel and respond in similar circumstances?

 
Devotee Praying in the Hooghly River, Kolkata, India

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When approaching strangers it’s important, except in the case of cultural sensitivities (either yours or theirs), to ask for permission in a clear and straightforward manner.

You may find it helpful to state your name and the reason for wanting to make the picture. I find it helpful to include a compliment as part of the request. For example:

“Hi, my name’s Glenn, I’m on holidays and noticed the wonderful hat you’re wearing. We don’t have anything quite like that where I’m from. I’d really appreciate it if you’d allow me to make a photo.”

Or, alternatively

“Hi, my name’s Jenny, I’m a student photographer studying at The Arcanum and this week’s assignment is to photograph artists and their artwork.”

“I noticed your gallery from across the street and, now that I’ve seen your exhibition, I’d love to photograph you with one of your paintings.”

Portrait of an interested soul in his shop in a local market in Kolkata, India.

The Interaction Needs To Benefit All

If you've introduced yourself properly you would have gained their confidence and, as you’ve already downplayed your importance and the potential usage of the photos you produce, they should not be concerned about inappropriate use of the photos you make of them.

The subject should now not be concerned about their image appearing in a magazine or popular online site and, as a consequence, they are less likely to expect any more from you than your company during the process of making the image.

That is, of course, if there is no chance you will be publishing the image for profit, particularly as an image used in advertising.

If there is a chance of publication you would be wise to secure permission to reproduce their likeness through a formal model release.

So, what's in it for them?

There has to be something in it for the person you're wanting to photograph.

Fortunately you’re able to show them the photos you've made on the back of your digital camera. You might then arrange to forward a copy of the best of those photos via, for example, email.

Great! Now what else can you offer them?

If you place a high enough value on the photos you produce the only other thing you need to give them is your time, in exchange for their own, and the benefit of your friendly and affable nature.

Given that you should be able to introduce yourself; make the photos; exchange email addresses, when appropriate; and be on your way within a few short minutes there's no reason why you would need to do more. That's my view.

 
Children, Nursery, St Thomas Mount, Chennai

I'II Help You Make Better Photos

 

Be Careful Not To Under Value Your Own Worth

We are at least as interesting or exotic to our subjects as they are to us.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

None of us should exclude our own attractiveness to those we wish to photograph. I’ve found this belief tremendously empowering in my own photographic endeavors.

Imagine meeting me, I’m hilarious. My appearance, particularly in days gone by when I was so often loaded down with pretty substantial camera equipment, has provided local folk, whether in an Asian village or an exclusive Melbourne club or restaurant, with a fun and interesting diversion.

Whether you consider yourself attractive, in the traditional sense, or not really isn’t the issue. However, if you can project an aura of confidence and you're able to approach the subject of your photo with enthusiasm and genuine interest you're going to grab their attention.

Who wouldn't want to spend time with a positive and engaging person. It's that approach that will ensure you get a higher rate of acceptance than you might otherwise imagine when photographing strangers.

A beautiful black and white portrait of an elderly man sitting by an open doorway on the outskirts of Chennai, India.

Confidence Is All In The Mind

It helps to believe in yourself and your ability, not just to produce a good photo, but to bring into the lives of those you photograph something greater than what they might otherwise be experiencing.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

Why wouldn’t they want to spend a few moments with you while you make their photo? And if this mindset works for me, why would it not work for you?

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru