Photographing a Stranger Is Easy: Here's How
The thought of just stopping someone previously unknown and asking to shoot their photograph can be daunting to even the most experienced of photographers. And yet, as a travel and documentary photographer, some of my most successful portraits have been of people I met only a few moments before. Over the years, I have captured the portraits of hundreds if not thousands of total strangers all over the world. What that experience has taught me is the success of a street portrait comes down to three things: preparation, selection, and approach.
There is no way around this. The first time you walk up to a total stranger in the street and ask to take their photograph, you are going to be nervous. That happens to everyone. The good news is, once you discover how easy it is to photograph someone you have only just met, the nerves become much easier to handle.
The key to that success is your approach, providing three essential pieces of information:
Since I started offering this information, I can honestly say almost everyone I have asked to photograph has agreed. So, let's take a look at these three steps in a little more detail.
Introduction: It's a simple fact that people generally won't allow a total stranger to take their photograph. So, the easiest way to tackle this is to cease being a stranger. Introducing yourself with a smile immediately creates a more personal connection between you and your subject.
Explanation: Equally, someone isn't going to let you take their photo if they don't know why you want it. By providing a reasonable explanation of what you are doing, that person is far more likely to want to get involved.
Request: Even if your subject is willing to get involved until they know exactly what you want of them, they are unlikely to agree.
Your approach doesn't need to be drawn out. In fact, the shorter, the better, something like:
"Hello. My name is Paul. I am currently travelling around the world taking photographs of interesting people I meet for a travel book I am working on. Would you mind standing in front of this building while I take your portrait?”
Simple as that.
Often I will also quickly show examples of other photographs I have taken, to give an idea of the style and look of the portrait I will capture. Most times, though, I don't even need to show examples, as many people will agree straight away.
Of course, agreeing to a photograph is only half of the process. You have to actually take the portrait, and for that, preparation is the key. While your subject may be willing to let you take their photograph, that will usually mean just that; a photograph, perhaps two. Generally, you will be pushing your luck to ask for a third. And they definitely aren't going to stand around while you go digging in your camera bag, looking for a fresh battery or a different lens.
This means you likely have less than a minute to set up, compose your shot, and capture the shot. Getting so much done, in such a short time frame, required efficiency, and a lot of time can be saved by being prepared.
Before you even introduce yourself, you should already have set up your camera for the correct exposure. You should have planned where you will shoot the portrait, and have a rough composition in mind. Finally, you should have your example photographs ready to show, just in case. All this will save precious moments, giving you more time to get your shot.
Selecting Your Subject
The successful choice of who to approach for a photograph will often come down to experience and instinct. Over time, you will learn to use all sorts of clues to help you select those people, but more often than not, it will be common sense which guides you most.
Someone who appears to be taking their time is more likely to be amenable than someone in a hurry. Weather and location will also play a big part in the success of your shot. If it is wintertime in a cold region of the world, most people will be wearing bulky coats, which generally don't look pleasing in portraits. And if you are in some sort of city centre, people may well be carrying shopping or other bags. Most people will be uncomfortable leaving their coats and bags by the side of the road while you shoot their portrait and will be less likely to agree.
These factors don't by themselves mean it is not possible to shoot in these conditions, but they do require consideration. During a recent trip to London in the winter, I ran into just such challenges. The solution I discovered was talking to people who were working in local shops and businesses, asking them to come outside quickly to shoot a portrait. They didn't have a coat on, as they were inside when I met them, and they didn't have any bags, because they were at work at the time. Simply thinking through the challenges of the particular location you wish to shoot in can often go a long way in overcoming them.
Taking a portrait of a stranger is no different to taking a portrait of someone you know. It requires a connection between the photographer and their subject. Providing a simple introduction, explanation, and a clear request will go a long way in creating that connection.
Be prepared, be friendly, and you may well discover that most people are actually quite happy to have their photograph taken.