To ask or not to ask? Asking permission when photographing strangers is a hot topic of conversation in the world of portrait photography and something we often discuss in our Foto Ruta workshops and tours. Not asking leads to a more documentary and candid photo, yet asking can allow for amazing eye contact and a relationship between subject and viewer.
Deciding to approach, interact, and ultimately photograph a stranger can be a new and sometimes scary experience, yet done right, can be hugely rewarding. Refrain from using the zoom and take the plunge! Also, having asked permission, and receiving a yes, allows you to choose and control (to a certain extent!) backgrounds, angles, facial expressions, eye contact and everything else that makes a great photo.
Here are some of our top tips for instant success:
- Be friendly and smile!
- Approach your chosen subject with a big smile, being open and honest about what you want to do. Remember that not everyone has had their photo taken before, and it might be a first time experience for them.
- We recently saw a great talk from ‘Humans of New York’ Daddy, Brandon Stanton, talking about just this, and our favourite quote was “you will get the energy back that you put out” (Watch it later here)
- Practice makes perfect. The more people you ask the more natural it will feel. Of course being outgoing and friendly helps, but if you come off as confident and like you know what you are doing (even if you don’t!), this will help the stranger to feel at ease too.
- Take your time. Rushing may make them feel uncomfortable, take time to start a conversation (if language permits! more on that in a sec…). This is likely to add a story to your photograph and it may also relax someone who may also feel a little nervous.
- Have settings ready before you even approach your subject. Being ready will help relax you and allows you time to interact with the person and think about the photo you want instead of being busy with your camera’s settings. We also suggest using portrait mode on your compacts as the camera will then know you are photographing a person, and it will make the necessary adjustments for you.
- When approaching strangers in non-English speaking countries, take the time to learn the local language for “hello,” “photo,” “beautiful!,” “thank you,” and “smile.” It is likely to make a real difference to someone’s willingness to participate in your photograph.
- If your chosen character refuses to let you photograph them, take it gracefully and thank them anyway. Some photographers may insist further, and sometimes gradual persuasion can work wonders, but this is of course not always the case. Remember being turned down is unfortunately part of approaching strangers. If they do agree, (which they hopefully will!) remember to show them their picture on the back of the camera, some people may not have been photographed before and it is only fair to share the results! You may even be asked to email or send photos, a nice gesture if you are willing.
- Remember to convey in your photo what made you initially inspired by the person. Consider the following: Can your background tell a part of the story? Move yourself to adjust it accordingly. Are you happy with your lighting? Is the subject in the shade or sunshine? Seek out nice, even lighting and exposure. Can you make your photograph more interesting by changing your angle? Come closer, lower, stand on your tip toes. Angles can make a huge difference to your portraits.
- And finally, an extra bonus tip: enjoy! This will not only come through in your photos, but if your stranger enjoyed the experience they are more likely to say yes in the future to other photographers!
Good luck and let us know how you’re going photographing strangers!