How to Photograph Strangers :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph Strangers

by David Peterson 0 comments

There are two kinds of photographers in this world: those who take pictures of people they know, and those who take pictures of people they don't know. Yes, I am aware that this is an oversimplification, but for a lot of people it rings very true. It's really hard to photograph strangers. In fact it's one of those fears that probably ranks right up there with public speaking and death.

[ Top image Stranger #4 Alice by Flickr user kriss_toff]

There's nothing wrong, of course, with just sticking with what you know. Photographing family members and friends is easy, because they know you, and because they're not likely to put their hand over the end of your camera and tell you to go away. Or if they are, it's probably (hopefully) going to be in a good-natured way.

But photographing strangers is a completely different story altogether. When you photograph a stranger, you are taking a risk. I don’t mean the sort of risk that puts your life and camera in danger (although I suppose that depends on what sorts of strangers you're actually trying to photograph), but rather a risk to your ego. Nobody likes to be rebuffed, and nobody likes to anger or upset anybody. Many of us don't even really enjoy being looked at funny. So the first hurdle that nearly everyone needs to overcome is fear. If you can overcome your fear, the rest is easy.

There are a few approaches you can use when photographing strangers, and each one has different levels of risk. First, there’s the stealth approach. Then there’s the “ask permission” approach. Finally, there is the ultimate in stranger-photographing approaches: the “get in their face and get the picture” approach. All three techniques can be successful, but no one approach is going to work in every single situation. If photographing strangers is something you think you might want to pursue on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to become familiar with all three of these techniques, and to understand when and where is the best time for each.

The stealth approach

If you're a beginner, this is probably going to be the best place to start. The stealth approach is great for beginners because it involves the least amount of risk. With stealth methods, you can take photographs on the sly without your subject being aware that he's being photographed, so there is no risk that you'll get rebuked or yelled at or worse.

  • Canon EOS REBEL T1i
  • 400
  • f/5.6
  • 0.005 sec (1/200)
  • 250 mm

Unaware by Flickr user NAV Photography

To start using stealth mode, put away your DSLR and get your smart phone out instead. I know, until now you’ve probably mostly thought of your smart phone camera as primarily a fallback camera, or something you use to take photos whenever you leave your DSLR at home. But smart phones are so ubiquitous in our culture that they’re almost invisible, and that makes them great tools for stealth photography.

The cool thing about smart phone cameras is that they can be used to take a selfie—but that’s not precisely what we’re going to be doing. Instead, we will be merely pretending to take a selfie.

You would be surprised how easy it is to get photographs of people on the sly just based on how popular the selfie is. Most smart phone cameras are reversible, which means that you can use them to easily frame your self-portraits. The great thing about this, of course, is that everybody knows that most smart phone cameras are reversible—which means that if you stand like you're taking a selfie, and you smile like you’re taking a selfie, nobody is going to know that you don’t actually have the screen reversed. That means that you can line any passerby up in the frame and get a good picture of him without him ever suspecting that the camera is actually turned towards him.

You’re not just limited to selfies, of course, you can also pretend to be reading email or playing Angry Birds, or doing whatever it is that you like to do on your smart phone. The key is to make your subject think you're doing something other than taking a photograph of him. To pull this off, you have to be a bit of an actor. You have to be able to put on the “I'm playing Angry Birds” face, for example. You may actually find this easier to do if you have a co-conspirator—try having a friend join you in front of the screen. You could talk and laugh together and pretend like you’re looking at some photos or a You Tube video.

    On a Lunch Break to Havard with Leica DLux 4 on qAF setting (Photo Series) by Flickr user soelin

    Another technique that street photographers commonly use is referred to as "shoot from the hip." This technique is exactly what it sounds like it is. You hang your camera on a strap over your shoulder, so that it is resting against your hip. When somebody interesting crosses your camera’s point of view, you reach down and press the shutter button without ever looking through the viewfinder. Now there are obviously hazards to doing it this way—the most obvious one is that when you can't see what you're taking a picture of, you run the risk of pressing the shutter button at the wrong time and taking a photo of nothing. You can mitigate this risk to some degree by using a wide-angle lens, which will take in more of the scene, thus making it much more likely that you'll get the shot you want. Similarly, you can't focus when you're shooting from the hip, so you need to rely on a small aperture to get the majority of the scene in focus.

    Shooting from the hip is definitely a technique that requires practice, so don't expect to get excellent results right out of the gate. At first, you're probably going to end up with more shots of nothing than you do with shots of something. So try not to get frustrated and just keep trying. Eventually you'll develop a good feel for framing your subject without looking through the viewfinder, and you'll end up with some pretty cool shots, even some unexpectedly cool shots using this technique.

    There are obviously many other ways to shoot stealthily, although I don't recommend hiding in the bushes, because someone is likely to call the police. But you can also use very long telephoto lens, or you can exclusively point the camera at people who aren't looking in your direction, or you can shoot from your car window. Any of these techniques can work, but eventually you're probably going to want to move on to more effective and potentially scarier methods of shooting strangers.

    • Canon EOS 400D Digital
    • 100
    • f/5.6
    • 0.003 sec (1/320)
    • 250 mm

    Unaware by Flickr user David Michael Morris

    The “ask permission” approach

    The “ask permission” technique is not quite as safe as the stealth technique, but it’s really not terribly scary once you get the hang of it. Now if you're extremely shy even the thought of doing this may fill you with terror—if that’s the case, you either need to work on conquering those fears or you probably need to choose a different photography challenge. If you're willing to give it a go, however, I think it will only take a couple of times asking permission before you realize that that most people are not only perfectly fine with you taking their picture, but are probably also flattered by your desire to do so.

    Think of this as a job interview. OK, that thought may or may not be helpful given that so many people are petrified of job interviews, but it is something that almost all of us has to at some point or another in our lives. So imagine yourself introducing yourself to the hiring manager of a company where you'd really like to work. Simply walk up to the person, stick your hand out, and introduce yourself. Then politely ask if you can take their picture. If they want to know why, tell them. "You have an interesting face," or "you look like you have some great stories to tell" are all good answers.

    • Nikon D80
    • 400
    • f/5.6
    • 0.01 sec (1/100)
    • 106.8 mm

    Nadia - stranger #39 and daily photo #78/365 by Flickr user PJMixer

    Once you've taken this step, the rest is relatively simple. But do remember that this person is probably still feeling a little caught off guard, which means that you're going to need to put him at ease before you can start to get compelling photographs of him. So after you've obtained permission, start asking questions. If you wanted to photograph him because he looks like he has an interesting story to tell, ask him to tell that story. Ask what he does for living, what his favorite food is, or whatever you can do to break the ice and get him talking. As soon as you cross that line between “weird person who asked if he could take my picture” to a potential friend, your subject is going to be a lot more photogenic.

    The “get in their face and get the picture” approach

    I know street photographers who swear by this technique. Why be stealthy, why be polite, just get in there, grab the photo and walk away. There are definitely merits to this approach, but it’s not for the faint of heart. You will startle people, and you may even anger them. But for the most part you will find that you can do this with few repercussions, and you may come away from the experience with some pretty amazing images. The photos that you capture with this technique can’t be anything other than genuine, because your subject doesn’t have time to react or to get into character. You’re capturing him just as he is in that moment when you approach him.

    • Canon EOS 7D
    • 320
    • f/4.0
    • 0.003 sec (1/320)
    • 200 mm

    Love at first sight by Flickr user Seif Alaya

    Now the drawback to this type of stranger photography is that there really isn’t going to be much of a connection between you and your subject, so there won’t be much of a connection between your viewer and your subject, either. This is true for stealth images too, of course—any time you don’t engage your subject you can only ever capture him in his own thoughts or when engaged with other people. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but the reason why I don’t think it should be your exclusive way of photographing strangers is because I think that it lacks something. If all of your stranger photos feature people who are disconnected from the camera, then your portfolio is going to be lacking.


    Stranger photography is scary and challenging and for those reasons I absolutely recommend it to everyone who is serious about photography. It requires more courage than other photographic pursuits—maybe even more courage than it takes to shoot from mountain tops or other scary places. If you can master stranger photography, you can almost certainly conquer just about any other subject.

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