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Photographing People in Public Places

For years, I was too shy to ask to take a stranger’s picture. Normally, I’m not at all shy. I’ll talk to anyone. But stick a camera in my hand and I would become horribly self-conscious. I thought it a bit presumptuous to ask to take someone’s picture. After all, I wasn’t a “real” photographer but only a hobbyist.

ballerina

I did take photographs of people who were unaware. Some were interesting pictures, I thought, that captured moments or moods. They were small slices of real, unrehearsed and unself-conscious life. I think such pictures have an important place in any photographer’s repertoire, but I am not discussing those here.

Then I read up on various ways that street photographers took pictures without being noticed. These surreptitious shots did not appeal to me, though, because they seemed a bit sneaky. I wanted either pictures of people completely unaware, or pictures of people who were totally aware. I did not want to furtively snap images of people who did not want their pictures taken.

support local blues musicians
I wanted to learn how to take direct photos of strangers. Such photos often capture something totally different than images of people who are unaware. So I started asking other photographers what they did, and I started reading what others suggested. What startled me was that practically all of them said the same thing: create a relationship.

Start by just talking to someone. Be genuine and mention something about what attracted you to the situation or person. One older couple, for instance, attracted my notice because they were holding hands. When I said how nice it was to see two adult people hold hands in public, the man leaned over and said, “We’ve had lots of practice.” This opened the way for a brief chat.

Create some sort of friendly dialogue with your subjects and make sure your camera is visible. If you have a small camera, hold it in your hand. A larger camera should be around your neck or otherwise in plain sight. Often, the people will ask about the camera and you can then explain that you’re a hobbyist or freelancer and show them a few of your pictures. Then ask to take a shot of them.

cycle guy grin

I tried this a few weeks ago, when I attended a street fair. The results were heartening. Every single person I spoke to said “Sure, go ahead!” after I asked for a picture. Although some shots were better than others, I liked them all, because they captured a momentary relationship as well as a face. Every image was direct, human, and appealing.

Later, I worried that perhaps the street fair was the magic element rather than the brief conversation. So I tried again, in a whole different situation, and was rewarded with the same response. I am convinced that this method works, at least most of the time. So I encourage all you closet street photographers to try this technique yourself. Even if you do not get great shots, you will certainly have some fun.

Elizabeth West

I'm a person who loves both words and images. A writer by profession, I'm a passionate photographer in my free time. I do not see the arts as a competitive activity, since no two people would ever create the same work even if they had the same subject. I welcome comments and suggestions from all.
  • I have a feeling this might be easier to do when you’re holding a big, professional-looking DSLR in your hands. People will think you’re working for a magazine or newspaper. When I’m out and about with my tiny point-and-shoot, it’s obvious that I’m just an amateur.

  • I find that people are sometimes intimidated by big DSLRs and more relaxed in front of smaller cameras. Also, many people fear having their pictures published and visibly relax when I say that I’m NOT working for a magazine but just taking pictures for pleasure.

  • “I did take photographs of people who were unaware. Some were interesting pictures, I thought, that captured moments or moods. They were small slices of real, unrehearsed and unself-conscious life.”

    In our part of the world if you ask most people will happily pose for you. In fact, some even come up to you and ask to be photographed. I paint and I’m always looking for references of those “unaware, unrehearsed, unselfconscious life” Any tips on how you achieve this. The minute people on the roads see me with a camera they’re getting ready to pose for you or they get very self conscious.

    I would love to get some suggestions. Thank you.

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  • Stew

    This is a *very* timely article for me, as I was just discussing this very thing with a friend on Flickr.
    I experienced the exact situation that Ujwala commented on, with the same, positive result.

    I created the composite photo below to show the benefit of asking people for permission to take their photo, rather than just snapping a shot.

    I took these two shots one after the other, both show this woman’s sweet face, who I’d never met. In the first, she knew I was there, waiting to take her photo. After I took that shot, I realized she was a little nervous about me being there. So I chatted with her, and asked if I could photograph her painting the boy’s face. She said sure, then settled back into her work.

    I greatly prefer the second shot, because she seems more relaxed to me, intent on her painting instead of worrying if she looks okay in the photo.

    I need to do this more often.

    Hopefully the image and link above will get posted?

    If not, here’s a link to the image I’m talking about. Photodoto has my permission to attach it to the comment (with the link to Flickr) if it didn’t make it.

    http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1015/1433172771_1c6147d65b_o.jpg

  • Ujwala, I think to catch people unaware you have to just wander around quietly and watch for a while. Then be prepared to shoot quickly before someone notices you. Often, shooting a picture from the side is easier to do than one face to face.

  • Larry Grubbs

    I’ve gotten pretty brave about asking people if I can photograph them and/or their children and have found that it’s pretty easy. One day in a local park I saw a little boy with his father playing. I just had to get a picture of the child. I eased into a conversation with him and told him that I was a photographer and frequented this park with my grandson who also happened to be standing next to me at the time. I eventually asked his Dad if I could take a picture of his son and he immediately shot back, “You’re not going to put it on a porn site on the internet or something are you?” I felt like I was just handed a guilty verdict for commiting a crime I didn’t do and told him no, of course not. He said okay. I took one picture and immediately erased it. It took some time before I ever asked anyone again but since that time I can’t help but feel a little creepy whenever I do ask.

  • Oh goody! A discussion on my favourite photography topic!

    I’ve done both in the past – shooting after making contact, and also candid and it’s hard to know which I prefer. Candid street photography is much easier to get snapshots and the occasional lucky strikes, but when you interact you can get a pretty decent portrait, and it’s easier to get a good composition.

    Larry – that hasn’t happened to me yet thankfully. Get some moo.com business cards with your website on one side and a photo from your portfolio on the other. They’re a great way of connecting and people love the small size factor! Whenever I do talk to people on the street I generally hand out a couple of them.
    Here are all my street shots so far, hopefully they might inspire someone to try their hand at this street thing we love! http://inphotos.org/tag/street/

  • Alexander

    Elizabeth,

    I find that having a relationship with somebody makes them pose for me rather than be natural. This is different for different people of course but generally it is so.

    It may be easier and more fun that way, but for me it doesn’t make for good photographs.

    I usually try to show that I’m going to take photographs but still keep a distance. Then people who’re ok with having their photograph taken will ignore me and those who might object with either show it or leave the scene. Those who stay may still react on me, but they are more natural. or at least that’s how I think about it:

    http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=4621610

    Another way is to talk to people about taking their picture, but then let people go on with what they’ve been doing for some time, so that they forget about you being there. Imaging going to a factory, asking permission from a manager and then telling people you’ll be taking photographs of them working. Then you spend a day there, and by the end hardly anybody pays you any attention.

    This is best, but it takes a lot of time, so I think it’s the way for professionals, not for us hobbyists.

  • I think for street shooting, it has to be more photojournalistic rather than asking the street people to pose for your camera. However, the pictures with the street people posing for us make great ebvironmental portraiture. :)

  • Thank you Elizabeth and Alexander. I’m going to try both ways, be a bit inconspicuous and also try asking for permission and then wait for a while before taking the photograph I want.

  • I think Alexander comes closest to what I aspire to in general…taking unposed photos of people who have consented to be photographed. I think street shooting is a genre unto itself, and I agree that photojournalism is done spontaneously, without stopping to ask. (By asking, the photographer would change the event.)

    I am delighted to read all the comments and reflect on the various aspects of shooting people in public. I’m grateful to all of you who wrote.

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  • Ro

    Sounds good,but does one then whip out a model release form and discuss possible future payment to the ‘model’ if at some time in the future, a situation scould arise and THAT shot could win you a prize in a comp?.. what does one say to the person about this possibility?

  • I would say that no 2 situations are the same. So much depends on how your demeanor is and how you look.

    I generally ask parents first if I’m going to take a picture of their kids.

    Here’s my take:
    http://peterphun.com/blog/2008/09/07/street-or-candid-photography/

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