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How to photograph people?

Or to be precise: how to photograph strangers in the street? And why would I illustrate this post with an average picture of a sad-looking dog? I’ll explain in a moment.

One of the reasons why I set up this blog is to be able to share with whoever is interested in photography things that I’ve learned myself.

I never had any formal photography training, all I do and all I know I’ve learned myself (and there’s I’m sure a lot more to learn). But in recent years it’s been much easier to find inspiration and sources of knowledge through the internet.

Without photobloggers, without pro photographers sharing their knowledge via podcasts, Twitter, numerous iPhone apps, or micro-blogging sites it would be much harder to learn and compare.

This abundance of various sources of information can be overwhelming, yes, but it’s important to define exactly why you need them and what exactly you want to learn from them.

I’ve got a few photographers I follow, who inspire and encourage me, but that’s probably something for a different post altogether. What I have learned however is this: many photographers, pros and newbies alike, stumble upon the same problems on the long road to being slightly more than just a casual snapper. And one of the most common problems is photographing people. Strangers, to be precise.

How do you do that? Do you ask? Do you sneak up behind them, shoot and run?

I don’t have a definitive answer.  But here’s what I’ve learned so far about photographing strangers:

1. Don’t be shy

This is the number one reason why many of us prefer to take a picture of a building rather than of a person selling popcorn just at the foot of it. If you see someone you want to photograph, come up to them and ask. In 9 cases out of 10 they will agree to have their picture taken.

I took the above picture while walking through New York. I noticed this lady driving the car while holding her dog and thought ‘Damn, that would be a nice picture’. But then immediately I also thought ‘No, no point running after her, she’ll probably say no, it’s embarrassing.” No, it isn’t. Pluck up the courage, go for it. It might be your only chance to capture something unique. I eventually ran after the car when it stopped on red, asked her, and she was more than happy for me to take a picture. It might not be the best one I’ve taken (and in fact it’s probably more about the dog than her face), but for me this was my breakthrough.

2. Be polite, smile

In other words, break the ice. People will warm up to you when they are assured you come with good intentions.

I once photographed a flower seller in Central London and her stand – there were plenty of flowers and leaves on the floor, it was messy, but colourful. She initially didn’t want me to take pictures. Why? I didn’t ask for permission. She thought I was from Westminster council taking pictures of her for some environmental report. A smile, a quick apology and a brief explanation helped diffuse the tension and she was happy for me to carry on photographing her.

3. Show them the result

Quite often when people see the result they are positively surprised and want to pose again. They are also likely to be more relaxed, so grab that opportunity and get some more portraits. If in doubt, see 1 above.

4. Observe local customs

Taking pictures of people in big, cosmopolitan cities like London or New York might be relatively easy. But don’t assume the same rules will apply everywhere else. Particularly in countries which have gone through some sort of  political turmoil people might be more suspicious of someone trying to take a sneaky picture of them in the street.

It pays to do a bit of research beforehand, ask others and use common sense. Don’t insist if you encounter resistance.

5. Share the outcome

Always have a card on you with your website, if you have one, or at least some contact details.


Sometimes, although different photographers will have different opinions on this subject, it’s nice to simply email a jpg to someone you’ve photographed. Just to share it with them. The guy above was photographed last week in Covent Garden, I walked past his shop and wanted to take a picture of the mannequins in the window, but ended up photographing him. Although my partner took a much better picture (see above), which we later emailed to the guy. He was delighetd.

If anything, this will help you promote yourself and your photography.

So that’s it – five simple tips, but really the crucial thing is: don’t be shy, give it a go.

But I’m sure you have your own experiences and advice – I’d love to know what you think.

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