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Tips for Photographing Strangers Comfortably

Worried about getting a collection of creeped-out-looking portraits? These tips for photographing strangers will help you out.

To begin this story, I'm going to explain what happens when you don't learn good tips for photographing strangers. 

Back when I was in middle school, I went on a museum trip with the rest of my class. We were under the watchful eye of a teacher we will call Mrs. Lendel—perhaps one of the most awful-looking teachers with one of the most awful-sounding voices I've ever seen. 

She was 450 pounds of trouble who would occasionally get stuck in the door, all while screaming at students she hated for breathing air or existing near her. Along with being extremely obese, she had bluish-hued skin, was around 70 years old, and had a short, grey curly hair that resembled corkscrews. 

Well, during this museum trip, Mrs. Lendel was in charge of bringing the class troublemakers on the trip. More specifically, it was me and three other kids who would constantly get detention for getting into fights. We had to get into an elevator at the museum. 

A guy with a camera joined us in this huge elevator. The doors closed, he pointed a camera at Mrs. Lendel and for reasons unbeknownst to any of us, snapped a picture of her. 

All hell broke loose. Her already harpy-like voice started screeching at him in an earsplitting volume and he immediately took the next elevator stop out. She tried to grab him, but failed. He ran away, all while she bellowed obscenities and waddled after him. 

This could be you, if you don't know how to approach strangers and ask for a photo. Here are the best tips for photographing strangers, getting a great shot, and also ensuring that you have a marketable photo set afterward.  

First things first, prep for shooting strangers.

Before we get into tips for photographing strangers you meet, we need to talk about supplies. There are a few things serious professional photographers should always bring when they decide to look for random strangers on the street. 

More specifically, you should bring business cards that mark you as a professional and give them a way to contact you. You also should bring model releases so that you can legally get their permission to take their photo, as well as a pen to sign. 

Legally speaking, this is the equipment you need to prevent being sued if you choose to use or sell your photos for cash. Got your supplies ready? Then you're good to go and can start reading some better tips for photographing strangers on the street. 

Choose your subject wisely.

A large part of reducing awkwardness when you're photographing a stranger is choosing the right subject. People who have withdrawn or fearful body language are not good subjects, nor are people who have aggressive body language. 

Obviously, if you're worried about people running off with your photography equipment or luxury camera travel bags, you shouldn't go near them. They may be good subjects, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're worth the hassle. 

Ask yourself who you'd approach to chat as a friend—and approach that person or group of people. Approaching people will always be a bit awkward at first, but if you choose the right folks, you'll find a lot of the problems just go away. 

That being said, standard photography model practices still apply. So, make sure that the people you approach will mesh with the project you're trying to undertake. 

Don't take creepshots unless you want to get your lights knocked out and the police called.

I feel like I shouldn't have to include this on a list of tips for photographing strangers, but because I've seen it happen so frequently, I know I have to. Sad, right? 

Taking someone's photo without permission is bad and possibly even illegal, depending on where your jurisdiction is. Even if you think you're slick, you're not. People do notice when this happens. 

I've personally seen a would-be "street photographer" get his lights knocked out by the irate boyfriend of the target he took an unsolicited shot. I can't blame him. It's a violation of personal space to have that happen. 

If a victim of this form of harassment finds your photos being sold, guess what—you will probably get sued or charged with revenge porn. 

Introduce yourself confidently with a business card in hand, then explain what you're doing and why they're great for the role.

This is one of the simplest tips for photographing strangers in the street. Just like with picking up someone at the bar, approaching people in the street is something that often requires confidence. If you don't have confidence, up your confidence game before you go out. 

People tend to mirror the energy that you put out, and this can lead to a lot more people agreeing to be photographed. This is a pretty easy way to increase the number of models you get. 

For example, a good way to approach most people is to go up to them and say, "Hi, I'm [your name], I'm a photographer who's currently looking for the hottest street fashion in NYC. Here's my card. I love your outfit and would really like it in my new series. Can we make this happen?"

You'd feel comfortable working with someone like that, right? Of course! They presented themselves professionally and showed that they are the real deal immediately. 

On the other hand, a bad example of what to do when you want to take a stranger's photo would be to stare at them for five minute, stammer out an apology, and say, "Hey, yeah, I'm sorry to bother you, I'm not a creep. You look good, can I please take your photo?"

This would creep out anyone, right? So, don't do it. 

Don't be afraid to guide your subjects on how to pose.

This may seem awkward, but it's not. Speaking as someone who's been behind the camera, this is one of the most useful tips for photographing strangers and models alike. We don't know what we look like on camera when we pose, so we always could use some help. 

People who are getting their pictures taken are much more interested in having a flattering photo than to worry about egos being bruised over posing advice. 

More often than not, gentle and tactful advice on posing will be taken gracefully. Just make sure you encourage your subject to have fun, and tell them that they look great. The more fun your subject has, the better the photos tend to be. 

Go over the photos with your subject and hear their input before you get them to sign the waiver.

While a lot of tips for photographing strangers might be about getting them to pose well and feel comfortable, this one's not necessarily about that. This tip is more about professionalism than anything else. 

This helps them understand what you've captured, shows them what they should expect to have published, and also makes them more willing to sign the model release form. It just helps wrap everything up nicely and professionally, no matter who you're working with. 

Don't guide your subject too far away from where you first meet them.

Okay, let's get back to tips for photographing strangers without creeping them out. A lot of people do not want to follow a stranger into a dark alley for any reason, especially if it's a rando with a camera. 

So, even if it's a great shoot concept, do not guide them too far away. It may make them uncomfortable. Instead, try to keep them working around 30 feet or so from where you first spotted them. 

Street photography is all about getting people in their natural urban setting. Unless you found them in a dark alley, don't shoot them in a dark alley. It will make them uncomfortable and that will show on camera. 

If you're literally just taking a snapshot of a crowd or looking for a mood rather than anything else, don't worry about stopping people—just get a bunch of shots.

Let's say that you're not doing fashion, or are trying to get an artistic-looking photo of life in the city. Shoot from the hip, shoot quickly, and take a ton of photos. More often than not, the perfect city scene is one that happens in a flash of a second. 

Generally speaking, taking photographs of life in the city passing by is not considered to be an infringement of a person's space or imagery. However, if you have someone in a closeup focus, that may be considered a creepshot. 

One of the better tips for photographing strangers in a cityscape? Pretend you're a tourist and use zone focus. 

Use a wide-angle lens.

This is one of the better tips for photographing strangers that beginners need to know. A wide-angle lens is almost universally flattering, which means you get a better shot with just about everyone.

In terms of lighting, shooting strangers at night under city lights can make for some seriously dramatic looks. Daytime street photography tends to be more "upbeat and wholesome" in terms of mood... unless it's in black and white, of course. 

Or, if all else fails, set up a station on the street and let subjects come to you.

This is one of those tips for photographing strangers that's virtually foolproof. If you are super-shy and just don't know how to approach people, let the people approach you instead!

People love getting their picture taken. So, give them the opportunity to get that 15 minutes of fame in. 

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Tips for Photographing Strangers Comfortably
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