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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Conclusion

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?

Written by: Tony


As a designer by trade and a former professional photographer, there isn't much in the world of visual communication that I haven't worked on. From web projects, to museum interiors, to weddings and portraits, my career to this point has run the gamut of visual media. Born and raised in a sleepy town in southeast Minnesota, I moved to Nashville to pursue my education. I ended up meeting the love of my life and adopting the two best dogs this side of the Mason-Dixon line. I love two-wheeled transport, trying new food and am a bit of a gadget freak. I love a good book, and have music playing almost constantly. After over a decade in the same city, I'm quickly getting used to the idea of having no fixed address, and hope all of you enjoy my ramblings about our ramblings.

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Read comments (28)

  1. November 4, 2013 at 7:58 am
    Nov. 4, '13

    This is definitely something I struggle with. A set of pictures without people in them is missing the critical element of a place and yet I am SO nervous asking. Thanks for the tips Tony!
    Gillian @GlobalBookshelf recently posted..Turning Travel Memories Into Books For Kids

    • November 18, 2013 at 10:19 pm
      Nov. 18, '13

      Thanks, and I hope they help! Like I said, the hardest part is taking that first step and asking, everything else is gravy!

  2. November 4, 2013 at 9:02 am
    Nov. 4, '13

    This is such a helpful blog! Looking through my photos now I realize I don’t have a single photo of a stranger. Definitely going to make it a goal to take a least one photo a day of a local person in whatever place I find myself. Thanks…and your photos are really beautiful!
    Rochelle Comeaux recently posted..The Mountains Are Calling

    • November 18, 2013 at 10:21 pm
      Nov. 18, '13

      Thanks! Taking photos of people is a great way to connect with them. Sometimes you won’t leave with a photo of a stranger… It’s a great way to make new friends too! I think taking photos of people is one of the hardest aspects of photography, so don’t feel too bad about not attempting it yet, practice is the only way to go!

  3. November 4, 2013 at 10:39 am
    Nov. 4, '13

    Tony, Great Job on this Topic! There is so much of photography to learn and this covers that “Stranger” conundrum very well. As a fellow traveler who’s depended on my zoom forever, I really can’t see the argument against them. One lens, one large zoom range, nirvana! For the traveler it’s less weight and you’re always ready for wherever your subject happens to be.

    Looking forward to seeing your collection of sketches and photos when you get back to “civilization” from Trekking. It’s November and I think you’ve picked the best time for the Himalayas. Take your time, we can wait!

    • November 18, 2013 at 10:25 pm
      Nov. 18, '13

      Thanks Steve! The zoom has long been the go to for serious photographers, and I’ve always wondered about the people who feel they need to be standing on the feet of whoever they photograph. Getting a little distance between you and your subject is critical, whether they know you’re there or not! Glad you enjoyed the post! Our Himalayas stuff will be forthcoming at some point… we have a lot of catching up to do. Check out our facebook, it will definitely be more up to date than anything else!

  4. November 4, 2013 at 12:17 pm
    Nov. 4, '13

    Wow, great tips and gorgeous photos, Tony! I’m really shy about taking photos of people, though I’ve been trying to push myself recently because I love travel portraits. The ‘tourist fatigue’ thing is a really interesting point and it makes sense, though sadly, I’m usually much less at ease taking pictures of people in less-touristed areas. I find comfort in all the other cameras and I’m less likely to take my camera out when I’m the only tourist around! Sigh… 🙁
    Cassie recently posted..Mono Lake: A Sunrise Walk on the Moon

    • November 18, 2013 at 10:29 pm
      Nov. 18, '13

      Thanks! I can understand what you’re saying about the non-tourist areas… Sometimes you get a feeling when people don’t want their photo taken, and it’s best to respect that feeling. If you’re always trying to take photos without anyone noticing, or in a place where most people don’t want the photo taken, your images will reflect that. Then there are the other times, when you’re in a friendly place where they don’t get many visitors, and they really want to know about you. I always have my camera out, and usually hold it, or take photos of other things, so people understand what I’m up to and don’t feel ambushed. It’s worked well so far! Good luck!

  5. November 4, 2013 at 1:48 pm
    Nov. 4, '13

    What a fantastic post! I’m really scared about asking people for a photograph – it just seems odd to me. But seeing your results and knowing that some people like it gives me a prod in the right direction. I may just try it next time I go away.

    • November 18, 2013 at 10:31 pm
      Nov. 18, '13

      Thanks! I hope you do! It’s such a great way to interact with people, and it starts to feel a lot less weird the more you do it! You’ve got nothing to lose, and lots to gain! I hope you give it a shot (see what I did there?).

  6. November 4, 2013 at 4:19 pm
    Nov. 4, '13

    Fantastic tips I wish I took into consideration during my trip through India! Better late than never 😉
    Jessica Wray recently posted..A Food Intervention with Madrid Food Tours

    • November 18, 2013 at 10:33 pm
      Nov. 18, '13

      Yep! You have a lifetime of photos ahead of you, it’s never too late to start trying to get the shots you want! Glad you liked the article!

  7. November 4, 2013 at 5:25 pm
    Nov. 4, '13

    This is such a great post – tons of great tips and stunning photographs! Very inspiring – thank you for sharing!

    • November 18, 2013 at 10:42 pm
      Nov. 18, '13

      You’re welcome! I hope it helped!

  8. November 6, 2013 at 1:07 am
    Nov. 6, '13

    Amazing photos and inspiring tips! I think I’ve commented before that we always feel most hesitant photographing strangers. Like you said though, I think smiling and being friendly really goes a long way.
    Casey @ A Cruising Couple recently posted..La Fortuna Waterfall: A Journey of Three Horses

    • November 18, 2013 at 10:46 pm
      Nov. 18, '13

      Thanks! A smile really does make all the difference. If you can show them that you’re just a friendly stranger who is interested in them, their lives, whatever, that’s all you need to be successful!

  9. November 6, 2013 at 3:55 am
    Nov. 6, '13

    Great tips Tony!! We were recently in Myanmar and the people there love having their photos taken. They are so happy that you have decided to travel through their country. It was also very easy to break the ice because they were all so fascinated with our tattoos so they would want photos with us 🙂

    I am starting to get better at taking peoples photos…I mean what’s the worst that can happen…They say no. 🙂

    • November 18, 2013 at 10:48 pm
      Nov. 18, '13

      Exactly! The stakes are so low, why not try? It’s always the best when the people you meet are just as interested in you as you are in them. Sometimes the photo is a great ice breaker and everyone leaves feeling good. That’s the kind of thing I love! Thanks for the kind words!

  10. November 7, 2013 at 3:46 am
    Nov. 7, '13

    These are such great tips; I’ve often wondered how you get such amazing people pictures (I love the one of the monk above). I’m always a bit nervous about asking people for photos and tend to feel bad about covertly snapping away but this advice has made me think twice; as you point out, what’s the worst that can happen?
    Amy recently posted..Our Thai Zip Lining Tour and Safety Standards Abroad

    • November 18, 2013 at 10:49 pm
      Nov. 18, '13

      Thanks! I’m glad that I might have helped you out! It’s hard to beat those initial jitters, but it gets easier every time you do it!

  11. November 10, 2013 at 6:54 am
    Nov. 10, '13

    These are some great tips, Tony. Thanks for sharing.
    Carmel recently posted..FINDING PEACE IN SEOUL

    • November 18, 2013 at 10:51 pm
      Nov. 18, '13

      You’re welcome! I hope they help!

  12. November 11, 2013 at 5:59 am
    Nov. 11, '13

    Tony, Tony, Tony. You are my photography guru, forever guiding and inspiring me. Love the shots you take, love your technique.
    Dale recently posted..Five Tips and Pics for Berlin

    • November 18, 2013 at 10:52 pm
      Nov. 18, '13

      Thank you sir! Glad to see your photography is back on track! It’s no fun wandering the world without a camera, that’s for sure!

  13. November 18, 2013 at 8:55 pm
    Nov. 18, '13

    These are fabulous tips, but the thought of following some of them still makes my palms sweat! I’ll start off with a smile and some sneaky shots and see how it goes from there.
    Heather recently posted..Apple Picking, Apple Cake and Apple Cider Donuts

    • November 18, 2013 at 10:58 pm
      Nov. 18, '13

      Thanks! Do your best, as always! The more you get out there and try, the better your results will be! It doesn’t matter if it takes you a while to get there, one day you will and you’ll wonder why you were ever so nervous!

  14. November 20, 2013 at 9:51 am
    Nov. 20, '13

    I love this post Tony — I still struggle with having the confidence to ask strangers if I can take their photo (partly because I don’t like when strangers take one of me, so I feel hypocritical asking for one!), so I shoot from the hip a lot when it comes to my people shots. Maybe that’s why I take so many food photos, food never lets me down….
    Edna recently posted..The 5 best things I ate in Paris: Extended Edition

    • November 21, 2013 at 4:09 am
      Nov. 21, '13

      Food photography is hard too! It’s okay to feel shy about having your own photo taken, but still find others interesting. Photographers are almost always my worst subjects, they rarely like to be in front of the camera, for any reason. You’d only be a hypocrite if you told other people not to take photos of strangers and then did it yourself! 🙂

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