Photographing a stranger is something that is intimidating to a lot of photographers, and it’s completely understandable why. We are injecting ourselves into another persons life, and they might or might not be willing to let us photograph them. We might get turned down or forced to be in an awkward situation. But this struggle is something that is really fascinating because in a few short moments you can go from barely knowing someone, to creating an image with them that captures their true personality in photographic form. The photo captures automatically a little splinter of this persons existence, but a strong photo captures so much more.
Photographing strangers has always been a passion of mine from the first time I did it on the streets of Seattle until just yesterday while driving home in the Columbia River Gorge, and I am sure it will remain on my favorite thing to do list for a long, long time. I just turned 21, but I’ve been photographing strangers for years, it’s made me an animal. There’s some rules to this game, I wrote a manual. These four steps are what I use every time I want to photograph a stranger, and work well to both get the stranger to let you photograph them, and create a strong photograph in the process.
The Idea of Photographing Strangers
You see a interesting person on the side of the road, before you stop the car, you must have an idea of the shot you want to create of this person. What will they be doing, how will they be posed, what will be in the background, what will the image represent etc. You need an idea before you commit to stopping this person and requiring time out of their day.
Be confident, not just in your speaking skills, but in body language and overall presence. Be careful not to be too intimidating, and for sure not too afraid. You have to realize that they are going to be equally intimidated by your presence most of the time, if not more because you have a camera. So make the stranger feel comfortable, but feel you are a confident, successful, photographer, and they should be honored you want to create a frame with them. Start with a simple greeting, introduce yourself to them and mention why you want to photograph them. Some time people will be amazed that you noticed something unique about them, other times they will be somewhat smug and understand that they look “cool”. A simply opener I use is
“Hi, my name is Jimmy Hickey and I am a photographer based out of Portland Oregon. I’m working on a project photographing interesting people I meet no my travels. I noticed you biking on the side of the road and immediately thought I needed to photograph you. Would you mind if we talked for a little bit and I took a few photos of you? It should only take a few minutes then you’ll be on your way”
Obviously there is a lot of room to add in your own story and ideas, but that line has led to the majority of my shoots with strangers. The approach is intimidating at first, but does get better over time. You will only get better if you practice. Practice often, take photos of as many different strangers as you can and slowly you will get better and better at it. In regard to the time of the shoot, be sure to always mention that the shoot will only take a few minutes, you don’t know this persons schedule and they could be busy. But when you mention that it will only take a few minutes people are a lot more open to the scenario. If the location you are in isn’t ideal, suggest a quick move to a better shooting spot, but never more then a 10-30 yards, any more than that is a bit much. Plan your approach according to where you want to shoot them if possible. If the stranger says “no”, thank them for their time and send them on their way.
The best part! The actual creation of photographic images! This parts simple, TALK. Just ask them questions, get them talking about themselves. Ask questions relative to what they are wearing or where they are going or what they are doing. Ask them to expand on ideas and concepts. Just be a good listener, and be sure to ask relevant questions so they know you are paying attention. You need to make your subject feel comfortable. A photo of someone who is not at ease in front of the camera is going to be a bad photo. Keep the conversation positive and the shoot will go in a good direction. While all this is going on, study your subject, take some frames and just figure out the best way to capture them. Do not hide behind your camera, be sure to put the camera down (if they are not in a mega hurry) and talk for a few seconds before raising it back up. Once you have figured how to create the best image with them, don’t be afraid to ask them to pose a certain way or do a certain thing with their face at this time. Then simply take the best shot of your subject you possible can.
After creating some gold, time to wrap her up! Show them an image, they will hopefully be excited about it. Thank them for their time, give them your business card or some way to contact you to see the photos. Ask if they would like a copy sent to them and if so SEND IT! Model releases are good ideas, and something I didn’t do originally with my strangers. Immediately write down any important details so you do not forget them over time. Do a write up if it was an interesting experience asap.
That simple! It’s an intimidating process, but can be used to create some really strong photographs that would not have been created otherwise.
One of my favorite stranger encounters:
This image represents everything I love about photography.
I traveled to Northern California, checked in to our motel room and no more than five minutes after getting settled in I saw this man getting out of his truck. Shirt off, cowboy hat, sweet beard, big belt buckle…having been busy this past month with paid work, I really haven’t had the time to dedicate the personal work I love to create.
I grabbed my camera, took my shirt off to fit in, and headed in his direction. I saw his Marine sticker on his rig and thanked him for his service. From there our conversation branched in to all subjects of life. The Cowboy, who’s name he wished to remain anonymous (but he did consider himself a cowboy and his nick name includes Cowboy), owns a horse ranch in Northern California as well as around 70 peacocks. He served in Vietnam and is currently taking the stock market for all it’s worth. He has survived multiple heart attacks and open heart surgery. To top it off, he is a bounty hunter for some pretty serious clients and wanted people. 95% of all money made through that goes into his foundation (again that I can’t name it, however it basically makes the world a better place)
We spoke for an hour about all sorts of things. There was never a dull moment. It was a extremely insightful and beautiful conversation. Despite the 97 degree heat beating down on my back.
Towards the end of the conversation I mentioned my love for capturing interesting people in photographs, and said I would be honored if I could take his portrait. He agreed under the condition that I kept his name private. We walked 10 feet away from where we were standing and created this frame.
I only shot for about 2 minutes, I knew the image I wanted in the location we had. He finished our conversation about a story from his experience in Vietnam.
He was assigned to take care of a small village. While there he handed out supplies to the people there. When he gave a small girl a wrapped bar of soap, she took it, and began eating it. At this point in the story, the hardened cowboy started to cry. This image was only captured by my eyes and only stored in my brain.
Traveling speaking, learning, befriending and capturing complete strangers. Every one of these encounters is an experience I take something important from, more than just an image. The worlds an amazing place and I am humbled by some of the people that inhabit this place.
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