HOW TO TAKE PICTURES OF STRANGERS

Photo by Max Nayman on Unsplash

I thought this subject was interesting. I am going to put this under the title:

HOW TO DO “STREET PHOTOGRAPHY”

There are a few tips that you need to do, to be a good “street photographer”, or take pictures of Strangers. Let’s get to it:

First of all, I have a very good friend in France who is a master of Street Photography. She has won awards for her work, and I am always amazed when I see her photos. She is really, really good. Her name is Elisabeth Engels, and I will use mostly her photos.

First of all, I want to point out that taking pictures of strangers faces is against the law, unless you get permission from the stranger to do so.

We will go into the techniques photographers use to take facial pictures of strangers. But first, let’s get into the tips of taking pictures on the street, or where strangers usually are.

  1. Use a wide angle lens to get a picture of a very wide area. That way when you do post processing, you can crop into the area that you want in your photo:
The big goal in doing street photography, is to see people in their environment. What are their lives like. Can you put in to words what it’s like to be downtown in a busy city if you have never been there. Show the environment of the people you photograph.

2- Use a small aperture, say F16 or higher. This way you get more in to your depth of focus. Generally you would take these kind of pictures during the day. Street photography is something you can do at night, but using F16 or F22 at night is not easy to do to capture people in action.

Notice that this photo was shot with a high aperture….. everything seems to be well focused.

3- Use a high ISO setting to get the fast speed you may want from someone in action:

A high ISO setting will allow you to freeze action on subjects that are moving.

4- This is a trick that is very fun to try, but, don’t expect perfect results all the time. But, Focus your lens (manually of course) to about 5 to 10 meters away from you, so if you want to do closer photos, you can snap the photo without anyone knowing, and keep the camera about waist level if possible.

The perfect distance to get a good photo of people, and to fill your frame.

5- Walk towards places of photographic interest. When you see an interesting scene turn the camera towards it and take your photo. Avoid tilting the camera too much, as this will mean more work in post processing.

There’s a perfect distance to be if you just want to quickly snap a photo. Try the 5 to 10 meter rule on this.

The Undercover Photographer

The next approach involves the use of a longer focal length lens. In this case you are counting on the stranger not noticing you, as you are a little distance away. However, any photographer with a large lens will eventually begin to attract attention. This means you will need to see your photo, take it as quickly as you can, and then move on.
What if you get noticed taking the photo? This can go two ways. They may either just carry on what their doing, or you could be faced with a confrontation. If you are faced with a confrontation the best thing to do is be polite, and withdraw as quickly as you can.

Taking photos of people or things from a distance will get you photos that are just that much more amazing. If you have a big lens, try getting things you wouldn’t normally get.

All the above photos are courtesy of Elisabeth Engels. Copyright permission granted by photographer.

The Photographer Who Blends In

A final approach is to attempt to blend in, and become part of the scenery. The type of lens you us is up to you, though as you are likely to still be some distance away from your main subject, a longer focal length might be better. In this case you just want to find a quiet corner, near to the place you wish to photograph.
Now sit down, read a book, drink a coffee, and just disappear from people’s awareness. After a while nobody will be paying attention to you, and at this point it’s time to take some photos. Take a few photos, and then get back to your book, then take a few more. Once you have blended in, you don’t want to be taking so many photos that people begin to notice you again.

All the photos below were courtesy of Simon Bond, and his text is also used. This comes from the article he wrote: https://expertphotography.com/street-photography-how-to-take-pictures-of-strangers/

fish market scene, a man sits between train tracks with a basket of fish in front of him. street photography
Other elements in the frame can give context to the photo. Here you can see this is a market on a train track, and the tracks frame the person nicely.

When the Stranger Knows Their Portrait Is Being Taken

Allowing the subject of your street photo to know their photo is taken will often mean asking permission. This takes confidence. You also have the problem that the photo is now staged, even if you tell the stranger to “act natural”.  So what possible solutions are there to these problems? Well it’s best to take a step by step approach to this.

Gaining the Confidence to Ask

Building up the confidence for photographing strangers isn’t easy, especially if you’re new to street photography. There are a number of sensible steps you can take that will help you though, so let’s run through these.

  • Technique – Being totally confident in your portrait taking technique will give you more confidence to photograph a stranger. Try practising some portraits with a friend. When you feel ready, begin approaching strangers.
  • Gentle approach – Build a friendship with the people you wish to photograph. This might mean leaving the camera at home the first few times. When you feel confident around the people you wish to photograph, bring your camera and broach the subject.
  • Stay local – You’ll always be more confident in an area you know. So start photographing strangers in an area that isn’t strange to you!
  • Experience – If you know someone who is good at street photography, ask if you can come with them the next time they take photos. Watch what they do, the techniques they employ. This should make it easier for you, as you will have seen how to approach someone successfully. You can then try those ideas yourself!
Street photography portrait of a man in a dark peaked capped and yellow scarf, looking at the camera
In this photo I like the gentleman’s hat. I told him this when he asked why I wanted to take his photo, and then he agreed to let me take this image.

Building a Rapport With Your Stranger

Once you have agreement from a stranger to take their photo the next step is to get that image. The best way to begin this is to find out a bit about them. This serves two purposes, it makes them more relaxed, and it will inform you about the style of photo that will best fit their personality.


How about when you are in a country where you don’t speak the language? Admittedly, you’re unlikely to find out too much about them, but non-verbal cues can go a long way. You might be able to use your finger as a place for them to look, as this may lead to better light on their face.


If you smile, they’ll likely respond with a smile, and you can use this non-verbal communication to build a good rapport.

Close up street photography portrait of a man with white beard and hat in a market
Getting permission is not always easy, especially in foreign countries. A smile and being polite can go a long way.

Conclusion:

As a street photographer, or one who wants to take pictures of strangers, make sure you never take their privacy away. Ask a person, if you have any of their face in the picture. Try taking photos that show the scenery they are in. You will have less problem with copyright or anything that could get you into legal trouble. But, have fun.

Published by 123photogo

I have been a photographer for many years. Worked in retail selling cameras and accessories for over 20 years. Taught many photo classes, and have even been a judge in several county fairs. Now, I want to share photo instructions and entertainment with all other photographers around the world.

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