How to approach strangers on the street to shoot portraits or video

Mar 21, 2018

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

How to approach strangers on the street to shoot portraits or video

Mar 21, 2018

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Street photography is a weird genre of photography. So many want to try it, but they’re afraid. Afraid of rejection and potentially hostile reactions. There are two schools of thought when photographing people in the street. The first is to just shoot, and worry about consequences later. Legally, that’s fine in many parts of the world. The latter is to obtain permission first and then shoot the photo.

There is the argument that asking takes away the spontaneity. What you saw and wanted to photograph ceases to exist. But it becomes something else. A street portrait. That, too, can be a great thing. In this video, photographer Jim Rogalski shows us how he approaches strangers in the street, even in other countries where there are significant language problems.

YouTube video

The video comes in response to a question he was asked by a viewer who sent him a video. She wanted to know how he approaches strangers in the street to be able to photograph them. The techniques also work when shooting video, too. From my own experience, the vast majority of people don’t mind. Many are even quite flattered that you want to photograph them.

Be obvious about what you’re doing

To some, this will seem like common sense. For others, it will be counterintuitive. After all, for general street photography, the photographer doesn’t want to be noticed. As soon as you’re spotted, your subject’s whole demeanour changes. But whichever you’re doing, being open and confident about what you’re doing is the first step to reading the scene and figuring out who might even want to be photographed. Those who don’t will make it obvious before you’ve even pointed the camera in their direction.

As Jim mentions in the video, it can even cause some people to come and approach you. I’ve experienced this myself when out vlogging and shooting video with my cameras in more populated areas. I regularly have people coming up to me to chat, simply curious about what I’m doing, and they’re usually more than happy to get in front of the camera and be involved.

Smile and appear friendly

Smiling and appearing friendly is always good. It will squash many potential confrontations and issues before they even arise. The eye contact thing… Well, that depends on how you interpret it and how you do it. But, again, you want to do it in a friendly way, not a confrontational way. In some parts of the world, eye contact can be seen as challenging or just flat out creepy. So, just be careful of that.

Take pictures of things first

Don’t just rock up in a new part of town and immediately start photographing people. Photograph interesting things in the environment. This goes back to the first point about being obvious about what you’re doing. You’re shooting photos, and you’re not just focusing on people. So, it puts people at ease about you being there and doing your thing. Doing this also gives you time to judge the reactions of those around you to your actions. It lets you get some idea of who you may be able to approach and who you should steer clear of.

Respect peoples wishes

There are those that will object to this one as it’s their “right” to photograph anybody on a public street, and rights trump everything. But Jim suggests not being an asshole, and I tend to go the same way. If somebody objects to my having shot a candid photo of them, I’ll delete it (assuming I’m not shooting film). I may try and talk them out of their initial response, but ultimately, if they want it deleted it gets deleted.

Sometimes, just being nice is worth more than a photo.

Jim also shows some actual time on the street photographing people and talks about what’s happening and some of his experiences engaging with strangers. So it’s well worth watching the whole video. Jim talks about more of the subtleties that are difficult to get across in text.

It’s a difficult one for many people to wrap their head around and work up the courage to get through that fear. It was for me in the beginning, too. But it’s so worth it. It gives you a lot more confidence about your photography in general, you get more comfortable, and ultimately it shows through in all of your images, not just those of random strangers on the street.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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5 responses to “How to approach strangers on the street to shoot portraits or video”

  1. Marko Avatar
    Marko

    Appear friendly or be friendly :-)

    1. Matthias Avatar
      Matthias

      I think the idea is that no matter how friendly you are, in that context it won’t help you if it doesn’t show :)

    2. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      There are a lot of people out there who are definitely friendly, but don’t appear to be. :)

      1. Marko Avatar
        Marko

        It is difficult to see when I am not friendly :-) And the opposite is true too…But I know what you mean.

  2. Vincent Avatar
    Vincent

    I try to express what i like about them, usually a clothing accessory. Then i ask them what they were doing. I ask if i can take a shot of them doing whatever it is they were doing. I then show them the picture on the back of my screen to get closer. Now that they are engaged, i ask if i can shoot a portrait which turns out to be a close up. and show again. if they like it, i can also send it to them via email. If they want to know what i do with the picture, i show them my portrait gallery http://www.instagram.com/photimpression/
    but before shooting i always ask, and if they don’t want to be photographed, i thank them and waive them good bye with a smile. no hard feelings. In Europe, about 2-3 people out of 10 denied me the right to shoot a portrait of them. Majority of parents will also be defensive about their children. But sometimes simply by playing with the kid sitting in front of you in the bus parent will take part and be curious. In most parts of the Asia, it’s usually fairly easy. But said in the article, you will know when they refuse.