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10 Photography Tips to Shoot Strangers


When you practice street photography, you will quickly come across one of the main difficulties encountered by photographers who do not shoot in studio conditions: photographing strangers. I think people who do street photography have a particular attraction to people and humanity in general. On the other hand, photographing a stranger is always a delicate situation and can be the source of a deep fear that can inhibit the photographic process. So how can we get rid of this embarrassment, free ourselves from our fears, in order to let our creativity fully express itself? I have already explained in previous articles the irrational mechanisms at work in the fear of photographing the other. I give you here some tips to finally dare to take pictures of people without batting an eyelid. However, I prefer to warn you right away: it is difficult to completely get rid of the fear of the reaction of the other, but I think that this element of the unknown is a major part in the practice of street photography: there is a minimal risk so that the photo takes all its meaning and all its interest. I invite you to read or listen to the interviews of other photographers, it is very rare that even the greatest have one day totally dispensed with this part of anxiety when they are brought to photograph strangers, outside of an event where they were assigned. So put it into perspective. All of these tips come together in a package that should allow you to shoot pretty much anyone you want and anyone who wants to.

Ask Permission

There are several ways to photograph strangers on the street. Some prefer direct methods, others prefer to be as discreet as possible. It all depends on your sensitivity, your personality, but also on the result you want to obtain. Difficult to obtain a so-called "candid" result, that is to say on the spot, unforeseen, uncontrolled and stealthy, if you ask the permission of the person to be able to photograph it. However, this method allows you to become familiar with strangers, to start to dare and therefore to disinhibit you in the face of your fears. You can get fantastic results by asking for permission. No need to make 1000 detours, sometimes there is no need to even use the words: lift your camera with a questioning gaze. If the person isn't paying attention to you, you have their consent. For those looking for a little more conversation, explain why you want to take the person's picture. Be honest without dwelling too much "I like your hat" or "the light is beautiful here" ... etc. On the other hand, do not take the person's picture if they refuse! Asking for permission is also taking the risk of not being granted it. So stick to it if you choose this method. You will often get "posed" photos that lack naturalness. At the beginning you will not dare to direct your subject, but with time and having built your confidence, you will be able to give him some indications "act as if I was not there, continue what you were doing" for example.

Use tilting screen

For those who wish to be more stealthy, more discreet, blend in without being noticed, modern cameras are more and more often equipped with a tilting screen. This is actually nothing new because there were already cameras in the film era that could do exactly the same thing. These were for example rolleiflex type cameras, used in particular by Robert Doisneau. Beyond the more discreet posture, it can also be an aesthetic choice to photograph at chest or hip level. The photos have more depth, the perspectives are different, people look taller and are enhanced, especially the point of view which becomes unusual and sharpens the interest of the future viewer. Attach a strap around your camera and wrap it around your neck. Adjust it to a level that suits you and stabilize your camera with your hands. Orient your screen parallel to the ground and frame directly using the screen. People will not see that you are photographing them because your gaze will be drawn to the ground. You will therefore have more opportunity to photograph candid moments using this technique. For those who can: Modern cameras have touch screens that allow you to focus and release the shutter with a single tap on the screen. This technique, added to that of the adjustable screen, is absolutely excellent and should be recommended in street photography to capture spontaneous moments.

Be who you wanna be

Often, the street photographer's fear of photographing strangers is based on the fear of being judged unfairly. Because the street photographer is an important person: he makes it possible to archive life, at a period in history, to give a report on reality to his contemporaries, but also to the people who will look at his photos in the future. In fact, you are doing a service when you do street photography. Beyond that, I have always advised to define more precisely and individually the reasons which pushed you to take street photography, this to be more comfortable with your practice and to be able to explain it easily to strangers who would ask you the question. However, and for those who have not yet had the time to define what caused their desire in photography, know that no one knows you on the street. In reality, you can be whoever you want to be, as long as you are comfortable with it and it allows you to do your job better. So invest yourself with a mission, put yourself in someone else's shoes: a journalist who has been entrusted with a job, the author of a book about the inhabitants of a city, a tourist although you have lived in this city for many years. The point of this is to force you to do what you are doing from a different point of view: it is easier to photograph strangers if you feel invested with a professional task, it is easier to take a new look to your city if you feel like a tourist. It's easier to give credit to your work when a stranger asks you why you are taking their picture if you are editing a book about the townspeople. So, on the street, be who you want to be.

Set a challenge, build your confidence

The best way to easily take pictures of strangers is to practice. You have to get into the habit of photographing people so that this situation is no longer exceptional but that you are experienced in this field. As if photographing a stranger was a formality. It's like everything in life, difficult tasks become less and less difficult with the force of training and perseverance. This necessarily includes positive experiences, victories, but also negative experiences, failures. So don't take refusals as failures, but more as a further step towards building your self-confidence as a photographer. It is part of the normal course to have refusals, everyone has been there, the "no" can be even more formative than the "yes", and they are especially much rarer (there are many more people who agree to be photographed rather than the other way around!). My advice is that you build a habit, first by forcing yourself a little in a playful way. During your next photographic outings, set yourself some challenges: "today, I photograph 1 stranger, tomorrow I will photograph 2, then 3 ... etc". After a while, you will have forgotten the challenge and will take pictures without asking yourself too many questions.

Use a wide angle lens

This will certainly seem contradictory to you, especially for those who are particularly anxious about photographing strangers. It is quite possible to do street photography with a telephoto lens. The results can be very interesting from the moment they are part of an artistic process (compressing telephoto lenses can allow you to play with perspectives, for example). For others, I do not recommend the use of a telephoto lens. Because you have this type of material, not only will you look like a paparazzi and therefore be much more conspicuous, which you want to avoid in your practice, but in addition you will avoid the encounter with the other by being several tens of meters away, which for me is totally opposed to the philosophy inherent in street photography. I advise instead to take a wide angle lens which will force you to get closer to people. You will have to make the effort to explain your approach but will also make wonderful encounters. Your photographs will appear more immersive, the compositions will be more interesting, more complex. In addition, wide-angle lenses allow you to photograph people up close without having to point the lens directly at them, which is the best solution to get spotted. Imagine yourself in the street with a photographer pointing his Zoom straight in your face. Aim in a neutral direction, place your subject in one-third of the photo, and the subject will think you are shooting behind them.

Be smiling and open-minded

It goes without saying, when you are in the street and photographing foreigners you must have a sociable, reassuring attitude that inspires confidence. It is for this reason that you must be comfortable with what you are doing, otherwise it will affect those around you. When you are anxious you are closed, you have a body language that does not invite intercations but rather the reverse, you make others want to flee. Be smiling, people will answer you the same way. Say hello, make eye contact. Be "friendly". Do not be elusive about what you do, be frank and people will feel that you do not take their picture for obscure reasons (espionage, voyeurism ... etc.).

Share your work

When you are smiling, sociable, open, when you are in contact with people (using a wide angle lens in particular) ... etc. Sometimes you will feel the need to show the photo you just took to the person you just shot. This approach seems sane to me insofar as it is a question of returning to people something that you have just, in a certain way, taken from them. It is an exchange of good process that is not necessary in all situations. You may feel the need, or the person in front of you may feel the need. To avoid having the impression of "stealing" an image, I invite you to always show your photos on the back of your camera to people who ask you to. If you feel that they appreciate what you have just taken, you can even contact them (email for example) in order to send it to them later. You can also spontaneously offer it to certain people. Be careful not to do it systematically or you may find yourself in embarrassing situations where the person does not like the photo and asks you to delete it ...just feel it! This tip will allow you to build a likeable reputation. People will talk about you, and this may open doors for you later to photograph other people.

Shoot as if you were filming

Simple trick that a lot of people don't think of. Mirrorless cameras allow you to preview the image you are going to take live, directly on your screen. More and more people are using this type of camera to take videos. It is difficult to understand but it is often much easier to make videos of strangers rather than photos. This is certainly due to the fact that in the video you don't capture a particular thing, you don't freeze a moment, so it is certainly less annoying for the subject, perceived as "less compromising" in certain situations. In a video, the subjects have the impression of being a detail in a whole, therefore of less importance. Enjoy this by holding your camera in front of you, looking at the screen as if you are filming. Even when you have passed the person you are photographing, continue to hold your camera in this manner to dispel all suspicion. There are also cameras that can extract high quality photos from a video. This is not the technique I use but if you are comfortable with it please do not hesitate.

Stick your eye into the viewfinder

In a bizarrely very different way, sometimes it is very easy to photograph strangers with your eye perpetually glued to your viewfinder. You will certainly look like an idiot trying to find the right settings for a camera you don't know how to handle, and people will take no interest in you, which can be to your advantage in the practice of shooting street photography and the search for candid moments. It is especially the stealthy eye contact after triggering that can be a problem for you because you will be embarrassed about having stolen a photo and the person will be able to smell it. So keep your eye glued to your viewfinder even after passing the person you want to photograph.

Just talk to people without shooting

Finally, and this is part of the same approach as setting challenges for yourself in order to build your confidence. Get in the habit of talking to people, even when you don't have your camera around. In your life in general, apart from photo trips, be sociable, have conversations, take an interest in others, be curious. Ultimately there is nothing fundamental that distinguishes a spontaneous discussion from a spontaneous photo. Getting into the habit of talking to people is to play down the moment of meeting the unknown. In addition, when you discuss without "idea behind the head", without specific will to take a picture, it seems easier to you. So start by engaging in simple discussions with strangers and ... who knows, maybe this will allow you to get a successful photograph at the end ...

Bonus tip: use camera remote app

As a bonus, and for the more discreet among you, did you know that many manufacturers now offer to use your mobile phone, via a specialized app, as a remote screen to trigger your camera? It is very common to see people in the street leaning over their phones. It doesn't attract any attention at all (that's why many street photographer take photos with their smartphones). Strap your device around your neck and connect your phone's application to have a live view. One hand on your camera at hip level to frame and the other hand holding your phone, gazing down at your phone. You will be completely transparent.

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