How To Photograph Strangers While Travelling

Portrait of a taxi driver at rest in the back streets of Kolkata, India

When approaching strangers, with the notion of getting permission to make their photo, 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.

Here's three common reasons someone may not wish to be photographed

  • Business is bad
  • They are unwell
  • They may have had an argument with their partner

Alternatively, they may never have had the good fortune of being photographed in such a way to produce a pleasing likeness.

How would you feel and respond in similar circumstances?

Asking Permission to Photograph a Stranger

Firstly, accept the mindset that, once contact is made, neither you nor the person you’ve approached are strangers to each other. Now, simply speak openly and honestly to them and, almost always, you’ll be rewarded for doing so.

When approaching strangers it’s important, except in the case of cultural sensitivities (where, for example, direct eye contact may be considered rude), 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. It’s usually a good idea to include a compliment as part of your 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 love to make a beautiful/really great photo of you.

Another approach might be along the lines of Hi, my name’s Jenny. I’m a student photographer studying at the Glennie Guy Institute of Photography 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 be really grateful if you’d allow me to photograph you with one of your paintings.

There are so many versions on the theme and so many approaches you can take, depending upon the situation and your own, personal circumstances. Just ensure you’re honest, open and that you’re not over promoting yourself or over promising on what you can do or where the photo will appear. In fact it’s almost always best to downplay who you are, what you do and how good at it you are. Singing your own praises will, often than not, make folks suspicious or nervous.


Black and white portrait of a man visiting the Kali temple in Chennai, India.


What’s In It For Your Subject?

Of course there has to be something in it for the subject. But that shouldn’t be a concern as you’ve already downplayed your importance (e.g., student or amateur photographer) and the potential usage of the photos you produce.

The subject should now not be concerned about their image appearing in print 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, assuming there is no chance you will be publishing the image for profit. If there is a chance you’ll be making money from the image, particularly if it’s used to advertise a product or service, you would be wise to secure permission to reproduce their likeness through a formal model release.

Sometimes I like to reward folks for helping me to make a beautiful photo. Showing them the image on the back of your camera’s LCD screen is usually enough. Sometimes I’II offer to send it to them via email. However, rather than giving them my address, I ask them to contact me through my website. I feel this helps legitimize what I’m all about and should make the subject more relaxed about the making of the photograph.

If they’re under 18 years of age I would suggest that one of their parents makes contact with me, via my website. My view is that, while I can be trusted, I wouldn’t want to set up a pattern of behavior that might put the person in question in contact with someone who’s motivates might be less pure at some future date.

Once contact has been made on line it’s easy for me to send them a copy of the finished (i.e., post processed) image via email.

A casual portrait of a group of young women, in traditional dress, in rural Bali, Indonesia.

Be Confident In Your Own Beauty

Let me conclude by saying that none of us should exclude our own attractiveness to those we wish to photograph. It’s my contention that, as the maker of the image, you are just as interesting, beautiful or exotic as the people you wish to photograph. I’ve found this belief tremendously empowering in my own photographic endeavors. 

Imagine meeting me, I’m hilarious. And I mean that in a somewhat self-effacing manner. My appearance, often loaded down with camera equipment, has provided local folk, whether in an Asian village or an exclusive Melbourne club or restaurant, with a fun and interesting diversion.

I believe that, by creating a photography event, I am bringing into their lives something greater than what they would otherwise be experiencing. Why wouldn’t they want to meet me and have their picture made? And if this mindset works for me, why would it not work for you?

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru