How to Photograph Strangers – Step by Step
Oh, that moment when you come across a stranger with that special something… But does the idea of actually asking a stranger for a photo slightly (or massively) freak you out? This article will give you some of the best tips to get started and photograph strangers without fear.
While I was traveling in Thailand, I reached a small town that just had a magical vibe about it. The people there radiated something that made me fall in love with wandering the streets and looking for interesting faces and characters.
For the first time in my life, I decided to gather all my courage and stop strangers on the street to ask whether I could take a portrait of them. And every time they said yes, my heart buzzed out of pure happiness.
Back then, my photography skills were not as excellent (so excuse the image quality of these examples), but I learned a lot about how to gather the courage to approach strangers.
Next time you think of approaching a stranger you’d love to photograph, don’t hesitate. It is a beautiful experience.
Read on to learn how to best talk to strangers on the street, asking if you could take their portrait – and get a ‘yes’ for an answer.
n finding the courage to photograph strangers
Here are two things you need to know before you photograph a stranger:
You’re more likely to succeed than you think
When I approached the first few strangers in the streets of the Thai village, I thought they would all say no. Can you imagine how surprised I was that they all said yes?!
Maybe you won’t be as lucky to have a 100% success rate, but generally speaking, few people decline.
Most people feel quite flattered to learn that you see something so special in them that makes you want to photograph them.
Some may try to deny it. I remember approaching a beautiful middle-aged woman who just kept repeating she’s ‘not beautiful enough.’ I convinced her that she was.
The worst that can happen is that they say no. But then at least you asked. That is a million times better than letting the moment pass by.
To me, it is so important to follow the first impulse you have to ask for a photograph.
Otherwise, you’ll most likely start overthinking the whole thing and possibly never ask. Or make it way more awkward than it needed to be.
I’m pretty sure I awkwardly followed a stranger around, trying to build the necessary courage while slowly dying on the inside. Gosh. It only gets worse from there.
So when you see someone you’d love to portray, don’t do this to yourself. Act, and act quickly.
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Which gear should you use to photograph strangers?
Let’s keep it simple: The best gear to take portraits of strangers is the one you already have.
If I could choose, though, I would go for a nice fixed lens like an 85mm (on a full-frame camera). This also allows you to move away a bit further from your subject which can feel less intimate (and hence less intimidating) for the stranger. Yet, you will still get a beautiful close-up shot.
Good portrait lenses are for example:
- For Sony cameras: Sony SEL-85F18
- For Canon cameras: Canon 85mm F/1.8 USM
- For Nikon cameras: Nikon NIKKOR 85mm F/1.8
If you’re interested in capturing several frames, like a portrait and full body shot, a versatile zoom lens might be a good choice for you.
These are some fantastic zoom lenses:
- For Sony cameras: Tamron 28-75mm F/2.8
- For Canon cameras: Canon 24-70mm F/2.8
- For Nikon cameras: Nikon NIKKOR 24-70mm F/2.8
One thing all of these have in common is the low open aperture – which brings two benefits when photographing strangers.
First, an aperture like f/2.8, f/1.8, or even lower allows you to capture sharp portraits even in low-light situations. And second, it creates that beautiful background blur that makes the person in front of your camera really stand out.
8 Tips to Start a Conversation and Photograph a Stranger
1. Introduce yourself – nicely
It all starts with a simple ‘hello’ – but what next?
What not to do when approaching a stranger:
Lately, I’ve seen a lot of videos of male photographers filming how they approach strangers on the streets for a photo. Some of them, when talking to women, start the conversation with “hey, you’re really beautiful”. PLEASE, do not do this. This can make a woman very uncomfortable and let them think you’re hitting on them. Some of the girls in the videos were noticeably uneasy.
What to do instead:
Get to the point quickly and say right away you’d like to take their photograph. Otherwise, people may get a bit suspicious – is he/she trying to sell me something? Hit on me? Rob my phone? Or worse, steal my time?
Then try to build trust. Maybe you want to tell them your name, what your photo project is about, or something you have in common that allows you to build connection. If you want to give them a compliment, talk about their style or their radiance, but again, don’t be creepy about it.
It’s a bit more difficult when you don’t speak each other’s language, but even then, there are ways to explain what you’re trying to do. Also, be sensitive to the other person’s behavior. If they seem in a hurry, keep it short and simple.
It may be hard not to let come across your nervousness the first time, but try to bring positive energy into the conversation. Gift them a smile. Look them into the eyes. To me, that’s the best way to make a connection – words are barely relevant, what matters is how you approach another human being.
2. Don’t freak people out
You may be familiar with the work of Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind Humans of New York. In this talk at University Collegee Dublin, he explains how he goes about photographing strangers.
He, too, says that it’s all about the energy you show up with – and comedically points out that the number one rule is to never approach people from behind.
Fair point, running after people and scaring the hell out of them mayyy not be the best strategy.
Think about how you would want to feel if someone randomly stopped you on the streets. What makes you trust a person?
Let yourself be seen and approach people with openness, friendliness, and respect.
3. Explain why you want to photograph a stranger
If they have a moment to listen to you, explain why you would like to take their photograph.
I think this is the most important part of the entire conversation. People might be a little suspicious at first, but the best way to turn this around is to give them an honest compliment.
What made you stop? What is it about them that caught your eye? Try to express it as openly as you can.
Whether it is their aura of peace, their way of dressing, or their face that looks like it has a million stories to tell – let them know!
Your words can make a person feel seen, and whether they enjoy being photographed or not, we all long to be seen.
4. Help them to feel comfortable in front of your camera
For some people, it may be difficult to be photographed, especially unexpectedly and through the lens of a stranger.
If you’re taking photos of strangers in the street, use your words to guide them into the experience. Of course, it depends on what you want to capture.
Do you want them to pose a certain way? Do you want them to look into the camera? Will you take only one photo or several photos?
Explain your process as you go about – this will help people to know what is happening and what is expected (or not) of them.
5. Know your gear
Sometimes you only get one shot. Someone may agree to be photographed, but then hurry on with their lives.
That’s why it’s vital to know your gear. Have the right lens on as you wander the streets, even if photographing strangers is not actively on your mind, and know how to get the focus right when you need to.
People are giving you their precious time and you don’t want to waste it by first having to play with the settings for minutes.
So it’s best to come prepared – have your camera ready and know what you’re doing.
Ok, maybe it is not always possible to be perfectly prepared. But you know, we can at least try.
6. Explain how you plan to use the photograph
After you’ve taken your shot, it can be good to share how you plan on using the photograph. Will you publish it on social media? Your website? Do you intend to use them for a book project?
I think it’s fair to let people know where their photos will go and let them decide whether they agree with your intended use.
Sometimes, your conversation may not even be long enough to explain all those things. But when you can, do so.
Back then, I didn’t tell people more than that it was for an art project because social media was not as big of a thing as it is now and I didn’t plan on sharing the photos much. (It was more of a challenge to myself to approach strangers).
However, it’s good to give them some agency over how their image is being used. Especially if you already know you’re pursuing a bigger project and many people will potentially see the photograph.
7. Leave your contact details when you photograph strangers
Some people care about where their photos end up, others not at all. In any case, it’s a nice gesture to let people know how they can reach you.
They might have second thoughts about their photo being published or they simply may want to see it on your page.
If you have business cards, that’s a perfect way to quickly share your contact details. If you don’t have any you can offer to write them down on a piece of paper or let them take a note on their phone.
8. Thank the stranger you just photographed
And most importantly – give your stranger a big thank you!
Strangely, you will find that a lot of people may actually try to thank you. A lot of the strangers I photographed gave me hugs, kind words, one even took me to a café to paint a portrait of me in return.
I can’t tell how honored I’ve felt – just by letting me take their photograph they already gave me so much, yet many of them went beyond that.
It really shows what a beautiful moment of connection photographing strangers can be. So don’t be afraid – if you approach the world with kindness, you will receive kindness in return.
The most important tip to photograph strangers
Those were just some general tips on how a conversation with a stranger might go.
Realistically, the most important tip for photographing strangers is: Be sensitive.
Seconds into the conversation, you will feel whether you’re facing a person who enjoys a chat or who wordlessly will allow you to take their photo without the chit-chat.
Try to meet people as they are, read their vibe and stay open to what they’re willing to share.
You may not always be able to go through steps 1 to 8 as if it was a scripted conversation – these are just some things for you to keep in mind.
Everyone will bring their very own magic to the conversation. You are only 50% of it.
People are different and you never know what to expect – but that’s part of the beauty of taking photos of strangers.
P.S.: If you’d like to read more about my trip to Thailand, you can do so here.