Time and again I hear other travelers bemoan their lack of confidence when it comes to taking pictures of people they meet along the way. Finding the courage to break that barrier and get a really great shot of a stranger is one of the hardest parts of photography, but also one of the most rewarding. Many times I’ve found that a place is really interesting not due to any intrinsic qualities it may posses, but because of the people who live and work there, so being able to photograph them is critical to capturing the “feel” of a location.
Much of our time spent traveling is composed of a myriad of little interactions with local people (and often other travelers) and those people often become inseparable from the places we’ve visited. Not being able to capture that is frustrating and disappointing, so I’m going to outline some strategies that I have learned over the years that have helped me get more of the shots I want. I’m mainly going to talk about the mental game involved in photographing strangers, as your equipment doesn’t matter much if you don’t have a strategy to use it.
You’ll never see them again.
This is all the reason you need to try and get that shot. If you ask, and they refuse, oh well, you’ll never see them again. They won’t hate you for asking, and even if they do, refer to the title of this paragraph. After all, if you never try to get the shot, well, it’s gone. You won’t get that opportunity again. It’s better to try and get the shot than to kick yourself for not bothering. Numbers will work in your favor, and while you won’t get every shot you try for, you’ll get some, and that’s better than none. The more you try, the better your odds.
Spend time just watching people.
Sit somewhere and watch how people behave. Not only is it fascinating, but it will help in another, important, way: it will help you anticipate shots. When you know how people behave in certain situations, like a market, or a busy square or a narrow laneway, you can learn how to be ready for a shot before it happens. If you see someone round a corner, and they have that certain “something,” as a trained people-watcher you’ll have the foresight to get your camera ready and get in the right spot to get the shot when it happens. Naturally, part of this is patience, and sitting somewhere with no agenda, just watching people, is a great way to gain the patience you need to wait out that perfect shot. Being a keen student of whatever it is you want to photograph will only make your photos stronger, because that passion and knowledge always shows in the end product.
Smile. A lot. Make eye contact.
Smile at everyone who meets your eye. Nod your head in a friendly way. Don’t worry about getting a photo at first, just smile. Not only will it make your day a little brighter (they usually smile back, even if they start off looking grim), but it will get you used to interacting with strangers. Once you aren’t afraid to smile and make eye contact, you’re only a small step away from asking for a shot. If they have smiled back, it’s usually enough to hold your camera up, do some pointing and nod your head. If they say yes, you’re in, but if it’s a no, respect that and move on. Don’t take the shot anyway; it’s important to be a good ambassador for all the other street photographers out there. If they ask for a “tip” that’s your call. If you decide to tip, it doesn’t need to be much, and don’t let them pressure you into giving more.
Baby steps: Kids are easy subjects.
A good way to build confidence is to take pictures of children. You can get used to talking to strangers by asking their parents for permission, and you’ll find they almost always say yes. Kids are easy subjects; they like to have their picture taken and are always excited by the results. I have kids ask me to take their photo all the time, and it’s always a lot of fun. Nothing builds confidence like a willing subject!
Be ready for the shot. Don’t rush.
Have your camera set, so that once you turn it on (or wake it up) you are ready to take a shot that is correctly exposed and in focus. If you changed the settings from your usual, change them back when you’re done. It’s a good idea to use an automatic mode—the all-manual mode is just a slower way of doing what the camera does in auto mode already. Make sure you can operate your camera by feel alone, because fumbling with settings is a sure way to miss a shot. Once your subject is ready, get settled, double-check your focus and fire two, maybe three shots. If that’s not enough to get a shot, you were never going to get it anyway. Don’t take up more of their time than you need to, but remember that the 5 or 10 seconds it might take to photograph them properly isn’t much time at all, so don’t feel pressured to move too fast. The best idea is to have a plan before you ask for the shot, so you know what to do and how to shoot before you begin. This will keep your nerves from spoiling the shot and keep your subject from getting impatient.
Use your zoom lens.
Some street photographers prefer to use only a wide-angle lens. I’ve even heard people say that your street photos aren’t “legit” (whatever that means) if you shot them from far away and your subjects didn’t even know you took the shot. Here’s the thing: I use a zoom lens all the time. Sometimes it is so I can get my sneaky shots from far away, and sometimes it’s because I like how blurry my background gets with the zoom when I am close to my subjects. If you’re shy about approaching strangers, then try starting from farther away and building your confidence that way. Truth be told, the worst shot is the one you don’t take, so if using a lot of zoom and taking stealth shots of people from far away gets you results you’re happy with, then I say run with it.
See it from their perspective.
Try to understand when getting a shot might bother the person you’re photographing. If you can unobtrusively capture them going about their business, all the better. You don’t always need to (or want to) get permission for a shot, especially if the shot you want involves your subject being unaware of you. If you want a portrait where they acknowledge the camera, try to pick someone who isn’t in the middle of something, and try to stay out of the way of people who are. Always offer to show them the photo afterwards, and if you can, learn the word for “handsome,” “beautiful,” or at least “good.” A little flattery can go a long way! And remember: try not to make them feel like a zoo animal. They’re not here solely so you can photograph them; they are just normal people living their lives and your behavior should convey an acknowledgement of that truth. Even though people are out in public, certain activities, especially in Asia, come with an expectation of privacy, such as using a communal bath, and that should be respected.
Learn to blend in.
If you want a formal portrait of someone, it’s best to be direct and just ask them straight away. However, sometimes you want a shot of someone, and you don’t want them to seem aware of you in the shot. Of course, as the camera-toting foreigner you’ll never be truly invisible (especially true for me in Asia, as a giant, fair-skinned, red-haired man), but you can disappear a little. The best strategy for this is to move slowly, look at everything, and take a lot of unrelated photos (sometimes these end up being great too!). Make the person you want a photo of bored with you. Let them get used to your presence. Eventually they’ll get tired of looking at you and forget you’re there, at least for a moment. Be ready for that moment and take advantage of it.
Go where others don’t. Beat tourist fatigue by avoiding it.
The best way to get candid photos of people is to go where the local people aren’t tired of having cameras stuck in their face, or constantly dealing with drunken holiday makers. Go to the local market that doesn’t get any tourist traffic. Get up early and meet the people who pack up before most other tourists get out of bed. Go to the little town, or city where there isn’t anything to do, and other tourists only pass through on their way to somewhere else, if they pass through at all. Go where the locals are curious about you, and amaze at how they open up and are willing, even insistent, to interact with you.
We went to Surabaya on eastern Java in Indonesia, and spent a wonderful week in a city which most guidebooks essentially tell you has nothing to do and no attractions. We walked through an amazing Chinatown and Muslim district brimming with fascinating people who insisted I take photos of them, or their friend, or their child, or a random sign. People stopped us in the street everywhere we went and asked us to take a photo of them. They wanted nothing more, and they thanked me for taking their picture. It was a street photographer’s dream. The same went for northern Vietnam; Muar, Ipoh and Kuching in Malaysia (all upcoming in greater detail on the site); pretty much everywhere in the Philippines; and Trang, Ban Song, and Ayutthaya in Thailand. Even in a city like Bangkok, if you wander off the Lonely Planet trail, you’ll find people are so much more receptive, and it’s a great way to raise your confidence. Tourist fatigue is a hard thing to overcome, and it can feel like you’re spinning your wheels trying to get through to people, when it really has nothing to do with you. So, don’t try to beat tourist fatigue when it’s so much more rewarding to simply avoid it.
Hopefully these tips will help you get in the right frame of mind to capture great photos of people you meet on the road. Ultimately, there is no magic bullet, and you’ll just have to push through your fear or awkwardness and understand that if you want results, you have to chase them. There is no tip that will make you less afraid to approach a stranger, but realize that the stakes are shockingly low (maybe they’ll look annoyed at the very worst) and the rewards vastly outweigh any momentary discomfort you might experience. Time and again our favorite photos are the ones that simply capture people we’ve met along the way, so hopefully the tips I’ve shared will help you start taking these shots too!
Now it’s your turn: Do you have any tips, tricks or questions when it comes to photographing strangers?