One of the most intimidating subjects for many photographers is taking photos of strangers. Will the person get upset? Will I embarrass them or myself? Do I know how to ask permission in their language? When it comes down to it, the worst that can happen is that they simply say “no” or shoo you away, at which time you give thanks anyway and continue on.
In my experiences, I have found that taking photos of strangers, whether it is in Egypt, San Francisco, Spain or anywhere else in the world, can be invigorating. The short conversation, often consisting of around one minute, can be an interesting glimpse into the life of that person. Maybe learning if they’re local or simply their name. In some cases, it can segue into a more in depth conversation with this stranger that I may not have had the opportunity to have if it weren’t for having an interest in taking their photo.
In addition to the conversation that is allowed with this stranger, I am always interested to see how people choose to pose themselves. Apart from requesting that the subject turn so that they are facing the best light, or to repeat some action or gesture that I witnessed them doing, I never pose people in any certain way. It gives the photo a more personal and true impression of the subject if they act in a natural manner. Depending on the situation in which you are shooting, people can have drastically different reactions to a camera. Often times, as soon as I put my camera to my eye, a person’s demeanor changes. Yet, this is not always a bad thing. For example, while shooting at festivals in San Francisco, people sometimes have hilarious poses that I presume they have practiced in the mirror before leaving the house. Once in Egypt, the sight of my camera ensued a swarm of young girls around me, all anxious to have their photo taken.
The initial contact with a stranger can be the most intimidating part of getting the shot you are hoping to get. The most effective strategy that I often practice is to simply start by giving the subject a complement. “Your dress is stunning…,” “I love the way you styled your hair…,” “You look fabulous…” Followed quickly by, “May I take your photo?” At this point I usually have that person’s attention for about ten seconds. This time restraint makes it crucial to be prepared with your camera– meaning having on the correct lens and the correct exposure sorted out before approaching your subject. At this point I try and snap as many shots as I can into a very short period of time. I make sure to get a full body shot, a close-up of their face and a close-up on any interesting elements in their attire–always careful to get both horizontal and vertically framed images. In most cases a sincere thank you, gracias, toda raba, etc. will suffice, but depending on the country in which you find yourself shooting, a small cash tip is respected.
Being a good photographer can sometimes mean putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, yet often times putting yourself in that position can result in a rewarding image. It is often the challenges in photography that yield the greatest results. The practice of taking portraits of strangers can allow a great confidence in communication skills that will inevitably benefit you in other ways as well. So grab your camera and hit the streets!