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How to Take Pictures of Strangers

By Michelle Ecker on February 07, 2017


The New York Institute of Photography is one of the world’s largest photography schools and because we are, we often publish fun and useful photography lessons on our photography blog. Please enjoy!

How to Take Pictures of Strangers

If you love taking portraits of people but you’re somewhat shy, you surely understand the frustrating feeling of allowing nervousness to ruin an opportunity to photograph a unique looking stranger.

Next time you’re in public and you see someone you’d like to photograph, here are a few things to remember:

  • Don’t be shy- Approaching someone you don’t know is a daunting task for many people. Asking someone you don’t know if you can take a picture of them, for many, significantly intensifies this unease. You might feel worried about seeming intrusive or creepy, but our best advice would be to remind yourself that in the absolute worst case scenario, the subject could say no. We recommend simply explaining that you’re a portrait photographer getting some practice for the day and asking if they’d like to be a subject. If they seem uneasy or say no, don’t ask again or try to convince them. Move on. What we tend to find instead however, is that most people are excited for the change to participate and flattered that you found them interesting enough to want to include in your portfolio.
  • Be ready- If you’re planning to spend the day in a public place like a park or subway platform creating a series of portraiture shots, it might be wise to determine one specific distance at which you’ll be taking them all. That way, you can come up with a consistent series of camera settings that work for the look you’re trying to achieve, and every time you stop a subject with your request, they won’t have to wait while you fumble with your camera.
  • Be respectful- Let’s say you see someone interesting in the train station, you tell them you’d like to take their picture, and they agree. This person was clearly otherwise on their way somewhere but has decided to delay their trip in order to accommodate your request. As we mentioned above, if you’re taking portraits from a given, constant distance for the day, your camera settings should already be good to go for the sake of saving time. But let’s say you take the first shot and there’s a distraction in the background. So you ask to take a second shot, but the subject blinks. Consider thanking him or her and cutting your losses, depending on their apparent mood. If they seem to be itching to go, be respectful and don’t take up any more of their time. If they seem excited to be working with you and seemingly wanting to stick around, feel free to take a few more. Just be sure to check with them. Say something like, “I don’t want to make you late,” or “I don’t want to hold you up,” to be sure you’re not inconveniencing anyone.
  • Be smart- Maybe the person you want to take a picture of is on the go, like a jogger in the park wearing bright yellow pants that stand out on an otherwise dreary winter day. In this case, you don’t have to stop him or her and ask permission, you just have to make some smart technical adjustments on the fly. Depending on the speed of the runner, check out our cheat sheet to find out the best shutter speed to use for moving people.

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