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Photographing Strangers | The Art Of The Ask

April 16th 2016 8:00 AM

Going against everything your mother ever taught you as a child, being a photographer means that sometimes you need to approach and talk to strangers. Having proper social and people skills are important parts of being a photographer that are oft overlooked. Even as a landscape photographer, you must – though not as often – deal with people. As a portrait photographer, it helps to have the social awareness to know the proper and least creepy way to approach a stranger and ask to take their photograph.

As a female photographer, I think I might have it a little easier than male photographers when approaching strangers and asking for a photograph. I can approach almost anyone and will probably be viewed as unassuming and harmless, whereas a male photographer may have a more difficult time doing so. That doesn’t have to be the case, though. In the following video, an episode in their “These Guys I Know” series, Miguel Quiles and Jeff Rojas share three tips on how to approach a stranger and ask them to take their portrait.

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All three tips are great, but I think the tip on knowing the right situation to approach someone is key and too often not considered. Sometimes, in the mall, I’ll grab my phone just to avoid being accosted by a salesperson from the center kiosks, but many times they don’t get the hint and will approach me even though I’ve made it very obvious that I am busy, not only because I am on my phone but by my body language. When you’re approaching strangers to ask for a portrait, look at their body language first and then assess the situation.

Walking up to someone who is currently yelling at their boyfriend is probably not a good time to ask. Obviously, that is something your common sense should’ve told you intrinsically, but nevertheless, as a photographer, study up on the subtle nuances of body language. It is a skill that will suit you well in.

[REWIND: PHOTOGRAPHER’S ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO BODY LANGUAGE]

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Comments [7]

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  1. Scott Pacaldo

    I used to do these Stranger Portraits thing. I was inspired by Brandon’s Humans of New York and the 100 Strangers Project on Flickr that I decided to do one for my home city in Cebu, Philippines. It was called “Ako Sugboanon” (I’m Cebuano). While doing the project, I found out that giving out a positive vibe while approaching a person will almost certainly give a “yes”. I think that another factor would be the culture. Generally, people here in the Philippines are all smiles and are usually up for it if it’s interesting. Unlike in most western cities where maybe there is a follow up “what’s in it for me?”
    Giving compliments and proper explanation of why you want their photo is key too! but I think the key takeaway is basically to give out a positive vibe. For me, that’s the step 1 for this process. Hope that will also help.

    I didn’t get to my 100th stranger tho but you can check it here:
    http://akosugboanon.tumblr.com
    or @akosugboanon
    Hopefully, I can continue with this sometime soon.

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  2. Carolyn Dingus

    I have a problem with the part about charging for what the subject will assume will be free — you said you wanted to take a photograph, so they’re doing you a favor. I ask people to take street photographs, and I usually begin with a compliment of some sort, and then I tell them why I want to take the picture. Usually the purpose involves some type of project. It works, if you are in the right situation and you are nice about it.

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  3. Jeremy Dulac

    Great post. The only thing i would say about the tips is that it is a bit different than a mechanic noticing you are broke down. He said “i would love to take your photograph”, which in my opinion could absolutely imply it is free. The mechanic isnt going, “i would love to fix your car, here is my card.” He is purely letting you know he could help. Not trying to knock the video at all, i just feel that approching people and saying you would love to take there photo, doesnt imply it costs money..maybe that is just me.

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  4. Tom Walton

    I’m new to photography and this is a technique I started several months ago. I have to say it has provided my best shots. Great article!

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  5. Donna Bader

    I often tell people that I am taking a class and I have been instructed that I must talk to strangers and get photographs for my assignment. I think they feel my discomfort and want to help out. I also give them my card and tell them I will share any photographs I take. That helps to establish me as a “safe” person. (It probably doesn’t hurt that I am an older woman who could be someone’s mother.)

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  6. Tanya Goodall Smith

    I don’t think I’ve ever asked a stranger if I could photograph them, except at events where I’m the photographer. I’ll have to try it. Thanks for the tips.

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    • Hanssie

      I’ve only done it a handful of times and it’s been scary. Haha

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