Chess Players in Havana

The Art of Photographing Strangers

440 comments
Freshly Pressed | Discover, Photo Tips, Photography
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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Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~ planetbell1@gmail.com

440 thoughts on “The Art of Photographing Strangers”

  1. Pingback: Strange faces | The Many Facets

  2. Thanks for the tips! I need to remember these things when I go out. Usually I’m scared to bother people since I don’t like having my own picture taken but you’re right that most people will usually just say yes.

  3. Love every pictures. brilliant. I always want to do exactly like you did but my tongue was tied and my face as hot and red , I started shaking. Too shy I guessed.

    • It is important to be as confident and calm as possible. Try asking a few strangers and even if you get rejected, hopefully you will be more relaxed about doing it! Thanks for commenting.

  4. dezaro says:

    I like all of the tips! I must say trying to photograph someone in public is very tricky because they can either find it offensive or they’ll think that you’re stalking them…when actually you aren’t even doing one of them!

    • Yes, it can be difficult, but I think most of these feelings are on the side of the person taking the photo. Most people won’t even know you took their photo or won’t care, especially if you smile and acknowledge them afterwards. We sometimes project those awkward feelings we have onto the person being photographed. Thanks for reading!

      • dezaro says:

        True true, have to try doing it though just to see how it goes…

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  6. Amazing post! Love your blog ❤️
    And its actually Delhi instead of Dehli 🙂

  7. I agree, sometimes it is difficult to capture strangers especially for portraits! But what I feel is practise is the only key which makes you better. One needs to understand people, their body language. I have realised that before taking a photograph, asking the person to click them makes them conscious and they look directly into the camera (Which is great if you want such pictures) and ruins the feel of candid photography, may be talking with them and becoming friends would help I guess.

    Anyway, Lovely article and interesting captures!
    http://www.snehasharmaphotography.wordpress.com

    • You are right, it depends on what kind of photo you are going for. I think for most beginners, it is easier and better to get permission first. When people notice you have a camera they change, but often times they settle back in to what they were doing. Thank you for the comments!

  8. Pingback: Responses to “The Art of Photographing Strangers” | Planet Bell

      • I would honestly go with shyness/I’ve never been a fan of myself being in photos unknowingly so I assume other people have that view if they become aware of what’s going on. I attempted it recently but at 135mm so still not a success.

  9. thepighasacurlytail says:

    Hmmm… didn’t realize there was an art to it. I guess it would seem rude to point a camera at a stranger and invade their privacy without first asking permission.

  10. I have enjoyed this very much and I will follow your advice,. I’ve done a bit of street photography, and a lot of shots at different festivals, but it is something I want to step up. Thank you

  11. Great blog. I like your tips. As a news photographer I face this everyday. Sometimes it goes very well. Other times people just don’t want a lens pointed at them.

  12. Thank you. This gave me inspiration to start writing some pieces on local characters in my neighborhood. There are interesting stories everywhere, even close to home.

    • Very, very true. Everyone has a story. Let me know when you finish those stories – I’d be interested in reading them. Thanks for the comments and for reading.

  13. Grandtrines says:

    Reblogged this on lostdudeistastrology and commented:
    You forgot to mention the standard catchphrase: “It’s all about the glass.” No way you obtained some of those shots without a VERY wide aperture (and, therefore, expensive lens).

    • I shot a couple of those with a film point and shoot camera. Most of the others were shot with a Canon 50mm f1.8 that I bought for $100 new on Amazon. You don’t need expensive equipment, especially in street photography. In fact, I bought a smaller mirror less for my next trip to be a little more discreet and less intimidating than a DSLR.

  14. Great article!

    Why is it that most street photographers say they are naturally “shy” people? Maybe photography is a bit “geeky”? Not sure, but this thought occurred to me.

    Right after reading “ask for a photo” I thought “not always!”. Good to see you agree.

    Street photography feels weird, and working with a “long” lens might feel more comfortable, but it makes it more “weird”. And you’re right, you need to be in the action!

    Nice post! Keep up the good work.

    Regards,
    Tieme

    • Good question about the shyness and yes, it could be geeky. Maybe people who are interested in photography are interested in art but don’t do drama or dance or more extroverted activities? Great question.

      • I’ve written an article on whether men and women take different photos. And during the little research I did, I came to find men really talk about the technical settings of a photo (aperture, shutter speed, ISO..) and that made me think: Most male photographers I’ve met really were geeks (and so am I 🙂 ).

        I guess you’ve got a point too. Interesting stuff!

        Cheers,
        Tieme

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  16. I have been wanting to photograph strangers for a while to show the local people in my blog, but I am too shy and worried about breaking social norms, because Chechnya has a strict social order. I like, however, the bit of advice about putting yourself in the middle of the action. I plan to take your advice and see how it goes! Thank you!

  17. I personally prefer candid shots. I find that shooting people on the street works best when they are unaware of my presence. Although I don’t spend a great deal of time photographing people, when I do, I always use a smartphone because it isn’t so obvious. People inherently change their demeanor when they discover they are being photographed. To me it takes away the spontaneity of the moment. In fact most of my street photography is done with a smartphone. Not being a big fan of DSLR I shoot film on occasion. Of course my wife the professional photographer is just the opposite. Your article is well written and very informative for anyone who enjoys photography as a hobby or trying to be more serious.

    • Thank you John. There are some serious street photographers who use phones, and a lot of journalists are using them too. People are so used to seeing phones, they don’t think twice about it.

      I agree that I like to get candid shots. For me, asking a few people helps me to get started but I often go for the candid shot when I see it. I bought a mirrorless to use in street photography because I think my DSLR is a bit too intimidating.

      Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comments.

  18. Thank you so much for these advice! I started with street photography this year in summer. Two weeks ago I moved to Jerusalem and now I’m practicing here. But what about taking pictures from clashes between people and military? Greetings from Israel, Lena

    • Clashes between people and military is probably a different genre than street photography, and probably would be journalism or activism. Good luck with that! I am not sure the laws, but that will be a challenge. Those things need to be shown though.

  19. This is something I’ve been to scared to practice, although they are my favourite type of photos. I’m always in awe of those who can capture these moments.

      • Yes, I agree.
        Plus I feel rude just taking pictures, especially when they’ll see me. However, there are moments so intimate, like a cuddle alone on a corner of the park together that look so beautiful and can’t be interrupted to ask.
        Would you take a photo like that? Do you ever feel like you’ve invaded a moment? I do and yet, those are the moments I want to capture the most.

  20. urbanthropia says:

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful photographs and useful tips! Street photography is definenitively the kind of photography that I find most dificult. Not because of the people but because I feel like an intrusive “stealing” photos.. I do try to get rid of the feeling: I go out “practicing” every once in a while. I bring my camera and spend a few hours trying to get some good shots of strangers in the street. I always end up with some good photos, but I usually also come home frustrated with myself for missing out on a whole lot of good photos for being too shy. Do you ever feel like that, and how do you try to work around it? Best!

    • I totally understand how you feel. I often times feel awkward, especially the first few photos that I take on the street. I have to be in the right mood to do it, and I am often mad at myself for not snapping a certain photo.

      For me, it helps to observe for a while and ask a person or two for their photo to get in the mode of taking street photos. Once I get going, I don’t feel as intrusive snapping away on candid shots. I think most of the anxiety is felt by the photographer, not the person being photographed!

  21. 😊 I was a photographer once. Not an ” I have a camera phone!I’m a photographer” neither I was ” I bought a new camera. I’m a photographer” and here they go with Auto click! I was once developing in black and white. That precious dark room and the now “old films”. It was hard the switch from “films” to “Dslr” .
    Street Photography was my favorite. I loved candid portraits. I loved people expressions. I love what I see in your photos…natural gesture of people that don’t pose.
    Leaving the camera,my equipment and much more,it was an hard choice and today,I’m just happy to make memories for myself with my camera’s phone. Do I call myself a photographer? No. Not anymore.
    Good job…I enjoy the photos

  22. Love it!
    I usually try the techiques you mention but sometimes shyness prevails. I think I need to think less and just shoot.
    All the pieces of advice helpful!
    Fenomenal pics!

  23. Thanks a lot for these tips! I also want to start taking pictures of random people, but I have always been very shy about it. Asking seemed to be too weird, and acting without permission could have been too intrusive. Such a dilemma 🙂

    • It is a dilemma!!! I say, ask a few people each time you get started to get your nerve up, then go for the candid shots! Thanks for commenting.

  24. Thank you for your sharing and the article!
    In Hong Kong, people was scared by the internet and the social media now, which they are afraid of becoming “famous” (in a negative way) online. Shooting on street become difficult.

    • That is interesting – I hadn’t heard that. Hong Kong is a great city for street photography with all the neon lights, interesting people and crowds.

  25. benkilsdonk says:

    Great article! I was looking for something interesting tonight and I found it. I always love seeing different and unique forms of art by others. Great pictures and captured moments.

  26. Great post and great advice for shooting tips.You are right!The best way is ask for permission .Sometime they won’t like us to take their photos.Nice to see your post ,I can learn more about shooting from you!Thanks for your lovely post.📷

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