Tips for Photographing Strangers

Anyone who ventures into the world with a camera in hand knows that, at some point, they will face the challenge of photographing someone they don’t know. Being photographed, depending on your disposition, can be a relaxing, fun, expressive opportunity, or if you are like me, can be a truly awkward experience. Photographing strangers can be a complex dance of psychology, body-language, dialogue, and luck, but there are several tricks that might help you with the process.

  1. Act like you belong. Your body language can easily be read by those in your environment, and someone who is acting overtly shy or as if they don’t belong in a specific place or situation doesn’t inspire much trust. This doesn’t mean acting tough or act out of character. It simply means acting like you are there for a specific reason and that you are looking for specific images.
  2. Talk to people. I live in a touristy area, and it pains me to see photographers on one side of the street secretly taking photographs of someone on the other side of the street. Move your feet, summon your nerve and go talk to people. You will be amazed how accommodating most individuals are when you explain what you are doing and how important photography is to you. Just know that not everyone will say “Yes.”
  3. Explain yourself. Prepare to hear “No, you can’t take my photograph.” Hearing “No,” always hurts, even after all these years, but you have to respect this reply. One thing I’ve learned is that often times when someone says “no,” they may or may not know the entire story, so explaining yourself is a must. I’ve had more than a few strangers eventually say “Okay, you can photograph now.”
  4. Language Matters. Something else to keep in mind is your vocabulary. I never ask “Can I take your picture?” I always ask “May I make your portrait.” Using this dialogue implies that I’m not attempting a quick image-grab, but entering into a two-way, visual conversation. Using the word “portrait” also speaks to a very specific style of image.

Tips for Photographing Strangers

Okay, how about a bonus point? Carry a small book of your work or previous portraits. This provides instant street cred and proves you take your work seriously. Over time, you’ll find what works for you. The key is to get out there, work through some trial and error, and aim for visual collaboration and conversation.

Tips for Photographing Strangers


Have any tips for what has worked for you? Share them in the comments below!

Dan Milnor

Daniel Milnor once worked as both a fragrance model and a hot tub installer but is better known as a reformed-journalist, photographer and writer who is now, once again, performing these duties in his role as Creative Evangelist for Blurb Inc., the world’s premiere indie publishing platform. He splits his time between Los Angeles and Santa Fe. He dreams of downsizing, writing something memorable and living somewhere in Latin America.

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