Last Updated on 05/24/2013 by Chris Gampat
Approaching strangers to make their photographs is something I’m often asked about. There is a lot of curiosity about how to ask someone you don’t know to make their photograph.
Some believe there is some big secret, but there actually isn’t. The biggest challenge is not about how to ask, but rather getting past one’s own fear of rejection. But in my experience the great majority of people that I approach are willing to be photographed, because they are rather flattered by the attention.
If you exhibit good positive energy and are sincere in your approach, even with little more than a warm smile and a gesture, you’ll be surprised as what can happen. Here are seven suggestions that I hope you’ll find helpful for photographing strangers.
Start with a Compliment
When I see someone that I want to photograph, I often identify something about them that stands out for me, which can be the foundation of a compliment. It could be the hat they are wearing, the dog they’re walking or their hairstyle. This provides me a starting point for a conversation. People rarely receive compliments from strangers and it can serve as a great icebreaker.
It’s also beneficial because it explains to the subject, why you are interested in them as a subject. So, when the idea of a photograph is brought up, they have an understanding of why you want to photograph them.
More often than not, I am able to gauge a person’s openness to being photographed just by their reaction to the compliment.
Sometimes, people will initially say no, but it’s a good idea to keep talking to them.
If someone says no initially, I will continue to ask them about that thing about him or her that I found interesting. It helps to demonstrate that my interest in them was sincere.
Sometimes, the subject will actually change their mind and allow me to photograph them because they’ve had the chance to get to know me a little better and assess my intentions. I will sometimes ask again at the end of the interaction if they don’t offer and about half the time, I come away with a photograph.
Find a Setting
Every time I find a subject, I am simultaneously looking for somewhere to move them in order to make a portrait. Usually, the spot where I found them doesn’t offer the best quality of light or background. So, even before approaching the subject, I’ve already determined where to place them should they answer yes to my request.
I’ll often be looking for a clean and simple background to reduce the potential for distractions. I also look for a location where the light is good, which is often an area of open shade, which helps minimize the presence of harsh shadows across the face and body.
Have the Camera Ready
When you are making a portrait of anyone, it’s important to have your camera ready. Your attention has to be on the person, rather than the camera settings. You don’t have much time when photographing a stranger and you don’t want to lose a good opportunity fumbling with your camera.
So, I will already have my camera set for Aperture Priority or Manual mode so that I have control over my aperture and my depth of field. I will even have my camera set for a moderate aperture such as f4 of f5.6.
When I have identified a location where I think I might want to move my subject, I’ll also adjust my ISO so that I am using a reasonable shutter speed, which will ensure a sharp photography. Lastly, I’ll adjust my white balance to match the type of light that I will be shooting under. This takes only a few seconds and I’m ready to spend my time fully engaged with my subject.
It’s important to not feel anxious and rushed when making a photograph. It’s easy to rush things, because you don’t want to take too much of your subject’s time. However, such feelings can result in you producing a lackluster result.
If your subject is agreeing to be photographed, it’s the photographer’s responsibility to do as good a job as possible. So make a careful assessment of everything in the frame to ensure that you don’t have any distraction within the frame and that you are producing as good a composition as possible.
Take the time to make several shots including a headshot, full body shot, verticals and horizontals.
Remember, that if the subject is willing to pose for you, they are willing to collaborate with you to produce a good result and so make use of that generosity.
Let the Subject be Themselves
Don’t try to pose your subject. More often than not, the subject will find their own natural body language that will be better than anything you could impose on them. Make some small suggestions such as the tilt of the head or the placement of the hand to improve on what they’ve given you.
Often people will automatically smile, but don’t hesitate to ask them not to smile and to just relax. This can often result in a much more natural and relaxed expression.
If you are continue to engage the subject and they laugh at something you say, you will likely get a much more authentic smile and expression, which is always much more desirable.
Every photographer who photographs strangers has their own unique approach, which is developed with practice. You will likely find something that fits your particularly style and personality. But you’ll only discover what that is, by going out and doing it.
The resulting images would provide you more than enough inspiration keep doing it over and over again.
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