observed by Diane » photo journal for those who enjoy vignettes of an ordinary life

Photographers: How to Approach Strangers

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The first time I pointed my camera at a stranger and clicked the shutter, I simultaneously began to perspire and a feeling of near-panic came over me. I wondered if the person would stomp over and smash my camera, or scream at me, or who-knows-what. Well none of those things happened and I’m now more comfortable when photographing strangers. I do suggest being prepared with what to say to them and armed with some model releases, if you intend on using those photos. I’ll share a few tips here for those of you who are feeling the same way I was that first time.

Before I get started, I think there is a distinct difference between taking shots of children and those of adults. If you’re going to be taking photos of children you really don’t want parents or their guardians looking askance thinking you’re some weirdo. If you’re going to take photos of children you don’t know, I highly recommend walking over and asking their parents (or guardian) before you do so. Above all, be honest. Let them know what you’re doing and why. Put them at ease right away — and smile. Smiles go a long way with strangers. Flatter the parent by saying their child really stood out “with her playful spirit”, “he’s so neatly dressed”, “those eyes are so beautiful” or whatever — but remember, be genuine. Also, if the parent knows you are trying to practice your photography skills capturing children at play, to photograph children in natural light, or maybe you’re working on a project photographing sibling interaction (or whatever it is), they are more likely to believe that your intentions are harmless.

The Approach: Although I like to keep my posts brief, this post has a variety of steps and considerations so let’s get to the meat of the matter. Here are the steps that work for me in approaching strangers.

  • Try an opening line that flatters the person (or their child if it’s the child you wish to photograph). Follow that up with a reason for the photo. Be genuine and don’t make things up — and avoid gushing (it’s that old balance issue again). Something like this, “Excuse me (smiling), I’m sorry for staring but I’m drawn to the great lines in your face. I’m an amateur photographer working on a project photographing interesting people in Old Strathcona. I’d love to take your picture.” Keep your opening line(s) as short and to the point as possible. Here’s another example, “Excuse me (smiling), I’ve been watching how wonderfully you interact with your dog. I’m an amateur photographer practicing my skills on portraits of people and their pets. I’d be very grateful if you’d allow me to take a photo of you and your dog.”
  • Promise to provide the stranger with a print from the photos you take. I don’t always blurt this out until they have either agreed or if they show they are hesitant, it’s usually a clincher. In this age of digital cameras and so many people being on email, I like to offer a print by email — that way it costs me nothing yet there is something in it for them. More on that below.
  • Use the brief opportunity to practice your  networking and photo session skills. Talk to the person! Make them feel comfortable and perhaps ask a question or two, “I see from your T-shirt you’ve attended Edmonton’s Folk Music Festival. What was the best part of the festival for you? (or I might ask who their favourite performer was)” This shows your genuine interest in the person and gets them talking about themselves, which is something most people like to do. 🙂 You get the idea. It’ll put you at ease too. And don’t stop at one photo; take advantage and get multiple shots from different angles.

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Photos are Taken, Now What?

  • Thank the person for their patience and agreeing to do this. If they ask to see the images, let them peek at your screen.
  • Remind them that you’ll email the best one to them, as agreed upon.
  • Now you need to pull out your standard model release. The one I use for strangers is really stripped down and basic. I also found this difficult to do the first time I pulled out my model release — talk about a case of nerves. But it’s all in how you introduce it I have found. Let them know this is a standard release so you can use the best images of them for your portfolio or to use in a gallery project (you never know!) and that you need their full name and address to make this a legal document. As you’re handing them the pen, remind them to print their email address carefully so their photo won’t get lost in cyberspace. I have found few people even bother to read the model release, a few do, and no one has ever refused me. Besides, what is the worst thing that can happen if they do refuse to sign it? The worst thing is that you can’t use their image in publications — no big deal, right?
  • A note about model releases: if you are taking photos of children, you need the child’s name plus the name of the parent or legal guardian plus their signature. In the case of a model release for dogs/pets you need a brief description of the dog (Collie cross, German Shepherd, or whatever), the dog’s name, and then the name and signature of the owner.
  • I always have business cards with me and this is one of those times when I hand one to the person (well usually two) saying, “This is who I am so you know I’m legitimate or if you wish to contact me for any reason.”
  • Let them know you’re really pleased and end the ‘session’ with a smile and move along.

Avoid This:

  • Don’t use this opportunity to soft sell. Don’t let the person know you sell your photos and don’t hint that they could buy some extra prints for their mother, father, spouse, or best friend.
  • The same principle applies about not trying to book them for a photo session. (you’ll see below a better way of doing this).
  • Don’t procrastinate and hold off on sending the image to the stranger for a long time afterwards. Get it done as soon as possible — within a day or two.

Sending the Print:

  • As soon as possible after the day of taking the image, send the best one to the person as agreed. There’s no reason to delay since it wasn’t a paid or lengthy photo session where you need to sort, post process and spend hours on preparation.
  • I watermark these ones though I don’t make it huge or intrusive (like those I do here in my photo journal); I want the watermark quietly sitting in the corner so anyone seeing it knows who created the image.
  • When you email the image, be sure to say something in your email. You could start with something like “Hi Alex, as promised here is a print from those photos you kindly allowed me to take the other day. It turned out well and I hope you like it. Thanks again so much — it was great chatting with you.” … or something like that — let your personality come out in the email but make it brief.
  • This part is important: be sure you have an automated signature in your email and that your name, contact information, and website (or photoblog if you don’t have a website yet) are included. After all, this is the part where if they want to get in touch with you, or hire you, or tell their friends about your photography, they are reminded how easy it is to get in touch. You want the door open and the sign lit (so to speak).

So what if you don’t ever plan on using your photos of strangers in any publication, on your website/blog, in your portfolio, or in a project? Well, you could still take photos of strangers and not ask for their permission. I do this too. But those photos are pretty much just practice. In fact, if that’s all you really want to do and you maybe don’t want people knowing you are pointing your camera at them, have I got something to tell you about! Over at PhotoJojo (and no I don’t get any kickbacks) they have an amazing lens & adapter known as a Super-Secret Spy Lens intended specifically for taking photos of strangers. Head over and watch their brief video demonstrating a photographer using it to take photos of unsuspecting people.

Hopefully, I’ve remembered all the important tips that I use. If you have more tips to share or great opening lines, please include them in the comments. As you all know, I always respond directly to each person who leaves a comment so if you have a question instead, please let me know!

This article and photographs are Copyright © Diane M. Schuller. All Rights Reserved. It is illegal to copy or use any part of these contents without the express written permission of the author. You are welcome to link to this article but you may not copy or download any part thereof.

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Diane is an on-location lifestyle photographer based in Grande Prairie serving northern Alberta/BC and Edmonton. Visit Diane Schuller Photography.

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Allyn - June 12, 2009 - 4:21 pm

Thanks for this article and the tips you offer. I’ll be trying them soon.

Jamie - June 12, 2009 - 4:58 pm

Great article! This is something that has always bugged me.. I’m yet to approach a complete stranger with my camera, but I think your tips will make it a bit less nervy!!

Susan from Food Blogga - June 12, 2009 - 5:37 pm

Thanks for the excellent tips, Diane. I sometimes hesitate in approaching people, so I’ll use some of these tips next time.

Liss - June 12, 2009 - 8:33 pm

This is some great advice. I love giving my photos to people. It’s just a nice feeling to do something nice for someone. I am a little slow something in handing them over. I must get better at this.

shelli - mama of letters - June 12, 2009 - 9:46 pm

Wonderful tips! I think I’d still be scared to death to approach someone. However, once I asked a woman making baskets in Charleston, SC if I could take her photo…she said if I bought one of her baskets! Ha ha. I think I said, “Fair enough!” However, I couldn’t spend $75+ on a little basket.

romine - June 13, 2009 - 3:03 am

very educative reading once again. and the photos you have chosen for exemplification are excellent portraits. thanks for sharing

Marc Engels - June 13, 2009 - 3:26 am

Thanks for the very useful tips Diane.

Marc

[…] How to approach strangers […]

Roberta - June 13, 2009 - 10:10 pm

Good tips Diane. Thanks for posting this. I’ll be making calls next week to people in the western images asking if they’ll sign releases. I know I’ll be a bucket of nerves on the first few calls.

Toni - June 13, 2009 - 11:22 pm

Great article, Diane. I think approaching strangers is one of the hardest things to do. This will be helpful for a lot of people.

Patti - June 14, 2009 - 5:55 am

I nodded my head all the way through your great post Diane. Sitting down and engaging mother and child really works well. I’ve had great feedback from parents when they see photos I’ve taken. As time goes on, the easier it becomes to approach strangers. The worst they can say is no.

georgia - June 14, 2009 - 1:38 pm

these are some good tips to know. i rarely attempt to shoot strangers, but when i do, i get that same anxiety you spoke of.

what is the rule of thumb for when you have to tell them and when you don’t. is there a certain distance that makes it okay to not have to approach them and to use the photo? i always wondered that.

Kathy in NH - June 14, 2009 - 11:22 pm

Diane, thanks for the wonderful tips with strangers. I don’t usually have a problem speaking to strangers, they are usually very accomodating, but I love some of your ideas and will try some of them.

sherri - June 16, 2009 - 7:40 pm

Really nice collection here. I particularly like the top one. I always like seeing people making music. Interesting thoughts.

[…] read a great post over at Diane Schuller’s blog. In the post she discusses strategies for approaching strangers when you want to photograph them. […]

Angela2932 - June 23, 2009 - 9:39 am

I really like your first photo! These are good tips, but most importantly, great encouragement to just get out there and ask!

Edward Keating - September 6, 2009 - 10:45 am

As a street photographer, I appreciate your comments very much and agree that being as open and as friendly is the always the most successful approach, especially with children. There is a universal fear these days of stalkers, lurkers and child molesters and one needs to factor this in.

What isn’t mentioned, however, is the candid photograph and how to get the picture when the action is unfolding, when there is no time for introductions, explanations, permissions, etc., which is the stock-in-trade of the street photographer. In all my years I am no better now than I was at the beginning in being able to gauge someone’s reaction so I just have to do it simply wait to see what happens. And how about photographing police or other types who can be very intimidating, when the law is almost always on the side of the photographer? Your advise works after the fact, as well, sometimes but not always. Just as often as not, the photographer is going to leave some disgruntled people in his/her wake, but that’s the price one has to pay. Whatever people say, the photographer should know that it is legal to photograph virtually everything/anything/anyone in public WITHOUT any kind of permission or consent and any suggestion to the contrary has no basis in fact or law.

kalavinka - October 18, 2011 - 2:51 pm

Very good advice. I have been taking photography classes and photographing strangers is incredibly difficult for me. I also feel like they will say no or smash my camera. I can’t even get the nerve to ask yet but reading this gave me confidence. Everything made perfect sense.