boy and mother Guatemala

Responses to “The Art of Photographing Strangers”

Blogging, Street Photography
boy and mother Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

Ethics. Shyness. Anxiety Disorders. Religious Discrimination. Confrontation. Fear. Self-Confidence. These were some of the topics discussed in the comments section on this blog over the last two weeks, which you might think is strange for a blog about travel and photography.

One of my posts, The Art of Photographing Strangers, was featured on Freshly Pressed, and it generated many thoughtful and interesting comments. In the post, I talked about how I go about taking photos of strangers on the street. In general, I find it best to ask permission, engage, and get in the middle of the action, however, at times I try to blend in and get candid shots.

Here is a look at some of the interesting comments, suggestions and takeaways.

Fear and Desire of Photographing Strangers

One thing that really surprised me about the comments is that there is a strong desire among travels and photographers to take pictures of people, however, most people feel too shy, nervous or imposing to do it.

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Street photography poll

I used to feel the same way – and I still get nervous photographing strangers – but capturing the culture and people are a big reason why I travel and take pictures. As I’ve said before, the people I meet and those interactions I have while traveling are unique. If I lost my camera, I could always Google images of the places I’ve seen, but those people photos would be lost forever.

On Being Nice, or Not Being a Jerk

Street Photography Comments

Bama said it best. Be nice and respectful and things should work out. If you respect the people you photograph and smile, they will respect you.

On Empathy

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James makes a great point – how would you feel on the other side of the camera?

I never try to take a disrespectful photo of someone and I’d certainly not post it on my blog, with one exception: If a person wears a speedo, aka banana hammock, grape smuggler, scrote tote, sausage sling, ouch pouch, Nantucket nad bucket, ad infinitum, and if there is a bride posing nearby, then they are fair game. You have been warned.


On Trust, Smiling and Body Language

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A few readers commented on trust, which I think is key in getting compelling images, and not getting beaten up by paranoid people. If a person notices that I took their photo, I’ll acknowledge it with a smile and small wave of the camera. In the photo below, I snapped a few photos of these boys as they approached, and smiled and waved at them when they noticed me. The boy on the back gave me a high five as they went by. Almost always, people don’t seem to care or smile back if they catch me taking their photo.

Two boys on a bike

Fight or Flight, or Group Therapy

Some people confessed to running away after taking photos of people, others confessed to having anxiety disorders. Jeff Bell, M.D., group therapy sessions by appointment only.

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These very honest comments by Chiradeep and Erin show a natural inclination to run away from awkward situations. To prevent this, I’d try one of two methods:

1. The “Because…” Method – Before you ask for the photo, have a because on the tip of your tongue. If a person asks why you want their photo, tell them you want it because they look interesting, because you are a tourist, because you like their style, because you are stalking them, etc.

2. Ice Breaker Method – Before you ask for the photo, break the ice with a compliment or a question. “You have really great style/I am a tourist/I am stalking you. Would you mind if I took your photo?

On Cultural Differences in Street Photography

Two of the most interesting comments came from Rezwena, a Muslim girl who lives in New York City, and Adaku, a girl living in Nigeria.

Muslim hijab street photography

Rezweena’s comment saddened me a bit, but I can understand it. I am sure some people in NYC might be bothered by a Muslim person taking their photo. Rezweena may have to smile bigger, and be more open and friendly to get photos.

Adaku, in response to my post, wrote on her blog about going to a market in Nigeria and asking for photos. She got a lot of nos.

“Someone told me something about people believing that you could take their spirits with their photographs.
I laughed and told him he couldn’t be serious.”

In some cultures I have visited, in particular the indigenous communities in Central and South America, photographing strangers is taboo. Adaku may find more resistance and have to be more charming and out going to get photos of strangers in her culture.

On Being a Tourist

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 9.00.11 PMA few readers expressed self-consciousness at being a tourist and photographing locals. For me, being a tourist is my biggest asset, if done right. I can be the affable, curious tourist and this breaks the ice. However, I have seen tourists shoot locals like they are in a zoo and that is different. There is a fine line, but I think engagement and respect are the keys.

Comments in a foreign tongue

I have no idea what some of my readers are saying. Street Photography in Bahasa Indonesia
Jihadi messagesCandid Photography, Keeping it Real

Several commenters opined about staying a bit hidden and getting candid photos. When people sense the presence of a photographer, they tighten up or change their ways.

Candid street photography comments

I got these photos by blending in on Khao San Road in Bangkok. My wife and I were chilling at a cafe, watching the world go by, and I doubt anyone saw me snapping these photos, which allowed me to get some fun, candid shots.

Tourist eating scorpion on Khao San Road Khao San Road magic

Cool dude with dreds and tats

The Use of Telephoto Lenses or Hiding

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To me, blending in/shooting with a short lens and hiding/shooting with a long lens are different for one major reason: you can get compelling images by blending in and getting close; you will end up deleting those images you take with a telephoto lens or by hiding. Quite simply, you have to get closer to get great people photos.

Something tells me that had Sue gotten out of the car and snapped photos of the wedding, one of four things would have happened:

  1. They would have asked her to stop – a slightly negative response
  2. No one would have noticed – a positive response
  3. They’d have encouraged her to take photos and been happy about it – a very positive response
  4. They’d have invited her to the wedding! – a kick ass response

But I don’t criticize what Sue did at the wedding. I have done the same thing –  it can be terrifying and intimidating to photograph strangers.

On Getting Drunk and Street Photography

Drunk Photography

This made me laugh, and I actually think it is terrific advice. Having a couple of drinks leaves you less inhibited. Even better, photograph drunk people. I walked up on the scene below while in Greece and just started snapping away. Everyone was so drunk I think they were oblivious that I was there.

Symi Greece Plate Smashing

Shaping the Minds of the Future

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Street Photography Student

The Planet Bell Blog – shaping the minds of the world’s youth since 2015, for better or worse.

Relax, Be Confident and Have Fun

I will leave you with a video featuring Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind Humans of New York. This video is a bit long at 15 minutes, but it shows how he not only gets candid photos of strangers, but gets them to talk about personal issues. I think this is a must view for anyone interested in street photography.

If you have any more comments or thoughts on Street Photography or Photographing Strangers, I’d love to hear them. 


Posted by

Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~

31 thoughts on “Responses to “The Art of Photographing Strangers””

  1. Adventures in Kevin's World says:

    My best example of why you shouldn’t be afraid to take photos of people was during my 2013 Ecuador trip. I saw an American kid shooting photos of some musicians, and when they signaled it was OK, I joined in. The leader invited me to his house afterward, and the family basically adopted me over the next 2 weeks, even taking me to visit relatives in another city for 2 nights. We are still friends.

    Problem is, I’m usually too intimidated to do it the way I think we all should!

    • That is so cool. Musicians, especially if they are playing, are fair game I think. Shoot away! But yes, it can be very hard. I have to be in the right mood for sure. Thanks for sharing.

  2. that traveling nurse says:

    Ah, I love street photography but like most of the rest of the people who commented on your first post, I, too am bashful when it comes to approaching strangers. I usually just take random street shots with tiny people in it going about their business or sometimes I act like paparazzi and snap away and pretend like I just didn’t do it. Or hold my camera by the waist and shoot randomly. The only time I asked “permission” was from this kid at the Dominican Republic. I decided I wanted to practice my people skills on this boy! Easy enough, he gave me this big cute smile. Thanks for the tips!

    • Hopefully this might help in the future. You are like most people who commented – you are interested but shy. No harm in that though. Thanks for sharing.

  3. After traveling for almost three months in Indonesia now I learned that in some areas it is the people who ask you to take photos of them. Some expect you to give a small amount of money in return, while most are genuinely eager to have a stranger taking pictures of them. When you show them the photos they usually giggle.

    • Very true. Indonesia and India are the top two countries for this I think. Although you don’t get a candid shot when they rush up to you, they usually go back to what they were doing and you are free to shoot away. I bet you have some awesome photos of your trip so far.

  4. Great post Jeff. I think I’ve done just about everything – engaged with the people and asked, hidden and used a long lens, hidden and looked down at the LCD screen rather than use the view finder which is less obvious, quickly and obviously taken a pic without engaging or asking permission, felt shy, felt guilty, felt joy, photographed people who were angry about it, and photographed people who were delighted. None of it stops me, but it’s not always easy. Just yesterday in a village in Turkey I photographed a woman as I was quickly passing by and she was very angry about it. Oh well. I send prayers for peace for her and forgiveness for me. I’ll not publish the photo.

    • I can totally relate on everything you said. I’ve been all over the spectrum of techniques and emotions and that is part of what makes it fun. What part of Turkey were you in?

      You have great people photos on your blog. I really love those photos from the festival in Oaxaca, but people at festivals expect and want to be photographed.

      Thanks for sharing.

      • Jordan, pound for pound, is my favorite country in the world. Other countries like Egypt, India, Greece and Indonesia rank up there, but they are much larger. Have you been before?

      • You’ll love it. Aside from the awesome sites, you’ll encounter nice people and great food. We were there in 2008 when Obama got elected and there was a lot of goodwill and hope for improvement. Since then, things have changed considerably there. I will be interested to see how you find the mood of the people. I can’t wait to read about it.

  5. Thanks for the inclusion in this post Jeff and congrats on the Freshly Pressed. This is obviously a topic that lots of folks are interested in, and have different opinions on. The only problem with asking permission is that most people (me included) if asked permission, feel the need to pose – and there goes the spontaneity. Once in the Tokyo airport these three cute teenage girls asked if I would pose with them in a photo. I’m over 6 ft and the tallest of them was about 4ft 6in. I’m convinced they thought it would be cool to have a photo with Sasquatch on their bedroom wall. ~James

    • James, you are right about the pose. Also, it seems like most Westerners smile and many people from Asia make a stern, blank face. You certainly lose that by asking. For me, I find that if I’m at a market or on a street corner and take some posed shots, others around realize I’m harmless and stop paying attention to me and it leads to other photos down the road. Trickle-down photography, I guess.

      When we travel, people always want to pose with my blonde wife and not me. That makes me sad. But, I do get photos of them that way.

      Did you get a copy of the photo with the girls?

  6. I have found that often the comments on my blog are fascinating. What a great idea to include them in your post. Congrats again on being Freshly Pressed. Well deserved!

  7. J.T. Hendrix says:

    Jeff, I really enjoyed this article–related to just about every bit of it as a photographer myself and lover of the documentary style. I had a zoom lens for my Pentax that I never used because I fell in love with my 50mm lens!

    I started out very timid about photographing strangers, and people I knew even. Ha! However, when I pushed through all of the timidity like you encourage in this article–close up, blending in, and being in the middle of it, make is hard to photograph any other way.

    A very joyful congratulations to you on being Freshly Pressed, dude! Mondo love!

    • I fell in love with my 50mm also. I recently bought a Fuji mirrors camera with a fixed 22mm lens, so I’ll have to get close to use it. I’m looking forward to trying.

      Thanks for your comments.

      • J.T. Hendrix says:

        A friend of mine recently gave me a Nikon S3100. I miss the view finder though, ha! I want to eventually get a DSLR Pentax–something about Pentax for me.

        I shot with Fuji film but do not know much about their cameras. I love their film though. Maybe when you get some shots up using the Fuji, you can let us know?

        Thanks for replying, Jeff.

  8. You are right- I should have gotten out of the car! I also only had my phone so that didn’t help. I think people are more likely to be ok with a photo taken with a “real” camera and not a smart phone because so many people use their phones to take photos and post them with derogatory comments. So lesson 246.7 – always bring my DSLR!

    • You make a great point – if people think you have bad intentions they will be against you taking their photo. If you are open and friendly and appear to have good intentions, 99% of the time they will be fine with it.

  9. Congrats on the Freshly Pressed! It’s not easy for me to take pictures of strangers on the streets, unless there were special street parties or events 🙂 By far – in my experience, Asian countries are the friendliest for taking street the Netherlands, hm, privacy does matters here. I witnessed few incidents when people yelled at street photographers in action.. 😦 Great tips and would love to try it out here someday 😉 good for the next photography project.

    • Agreed – Asian countries are the friendliest. However, those same people in Holland are recorded on security cameras approximately 200 times per day, so there is that. 🙂

  10. Jeff, marvelous post, love the idea of including those marvelous replies. And congrats on the Freshly Pressed…isn’t that two now? I’ve been photographing people for a long time now, and for me, it just does not get any easier. I’ve tried all the tricks, but sometimes there are times when you can’t use any of them, and the shot escapes. I have many shots that escaped. Years ago when people used film, I saw a lens that looked like a telephoto and took the picture out one side, so it looked like you were pointing the camera in one direction, but taking the photo in another. Many times, I wished I’d bought that thing.

  11. Pingback: Responses to “The Art of Photographing Strangers” | Elzee Media Concept

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