The Art of Photographing Strangers

Chess Players in Havana
Delhi mother and baby

Dehli, India

Street photography is difficult, maybe the most challenging and intimidating genre of photography. Standing on a busy street and trying to get compelling photos of strangers, without being rude or obtrusive or feeling self-conscious, is an art.

Although I am a naturally shy person, I really enjoy street photography. People are fascinating, and when I see fascinating things, I want to photograph it. Over the years, I have gotten better and more comfortable with taking photos of strangers on the street (although I am by no means an expert). I don’t want to shove my camera in the face of a person who is simply going about their day, but it is hard to get captivating street photos without getting close to the subject.

I use a few strategies for taking street photos that use opposing, contradictory methods. Although I think method A in each example below is the best, sometimes it pays off to adjust your style and be flexible. Read on and you will see.

Contradictory Street Photography Tips

1a. Ask People for Their Photo

The simplest way to get a photo is to ask. I’ve asked hundreds of people for their photo and I can count on one hand the number of rejections I’ve received. In the photo below, I saw these guys playing chess on the streets of Havana and I wanted to capture the moment. I started talking to them and after a minute, I asked if I could snap some pictures. “OF COURSE,” they said. Actually they said “!POR SUPUESTO!,” but, you get it.

Chess Players in Havana

Havana, Cuba

Usually, if you ask for a photo, people agree then settle into going about their normal routine. I took the below photo at a funeral ceremony on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Everyone knew I was taking photos, and after a series of posed shots, everyone relaxed and no one paid attention to me. Asking was the key that allowed me to get started.

Tana Toraja Funeral

Tana Toraja, Indonesia

1b. Don’t Ask

Sometimes asking ruins the moment, like in the photo below. These people didn’t seem to care that a gringo was taking their photo and I captured a candid moment that would have been ruined by asking.

Women playing basketball in Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

2a. Get in the Middle of the Action

Have you ever noticed how wedding and sports photographers are usually right in the action? The best way to get great photos is to get right in the middle of it all. In the photo below at the Navratri festival in Jodhpur, the locals saw me taking photos and placed me in this spot. It was a little scary with motorcycles whizzing by, but worth it.

Indian Festival in BW

Jodhpur, India

2b.  Blend In and be Invisible

On busy streets, festivals, or tourist sites where there is a lot of activity, it can be easy to blend in. I will often find a street corner and wait. People sort of forget you are there, and people passing by take no notice of you. By blending in it is easy to get candid photos. In the photo below taken on the Ganges, I was able to get this shot of the two boys by staying in the same spot and waiting.

Boys on the Ganges

Varanasi, India

3a. Engage

Smile. Talk to people. Have welcoming body language. Engaging with locals on the street is a great way to get photos. Smiles are disarming and if you take a candid photo of a person and they catch you in the act, smile at them – 99% of the time they won’t mind. In places like India when people see you smiling and taking photos, often times they will pose for you.

India Children

Pushkar, India

Street portrait India

Pushkar, India street portrait

Purists of street photography will argue that posed photos are no good, but many times posed photos of locals are fun and a great way to meet people. These kids ran up to me in Africa and posed like this spontaneously and it was one of my favorite photos from Malawi.

Likoma Island Kids posing for a photo

Likoma Island, Malawi

3b. Stand back

Sometimes, in order to get an overview of the scene and to avoid offending the locals, it is best to stand back. Take the photo below as an example. By standing back, I got a long line of boys queuing up for alms. Getting closer would have been rude and wouldn’t have captured the moment as well.

Luang Prabang Alms

Luang Prabang, Laos

In summary: If you want to take photos of strangers, I think the best method is to ask, engage and get in the middle of the action. Although this can be intimidating at first, you are rewarded with great photos and interactions with the locals. Alternatively, sometimes it is better to be invisible. Use both methods to get the best results.

 

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Do you have any street photo tips to share?

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Click below to see more of my street photos from around the world.

Planet Bell street photography

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Related Links from Around the Web:

Eric Kim Photography – the best collection of street photography tips and advice on the web

How to shoot street portraits – Danny Santos

Take better travel photos – Tim Allen (Human Planet photographer)

439 Comments on “The Art of Photographing Strangers

  1. Absolutely great photos! I love taking photos of strangers, but it can be so awkward sometimes. Thanks for the article, it was very useful

  2. Thank you for tips that are actually practical and helpful!! I’ve been finding myself drawn more and more to this kind of photography lately, but it’s just so awkward when you’re first trying it out!

    • I agree that it can be very awkward at first. I think the best way is to dive in and do it! Yesterday I took a ton of photos in Mexico City and several people caught me taking their photos. I ended up stopping and talking to many of them and it was always a positive experience.

  3. I feel you. It makes you one of them. The most beautiful picture is taken when they don’t even noticing it at all. It becomes more natural and no pretensions!

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