3 Tips for Photographing Strangers
The question I get asked more often than any other from my students is “How can I approach a stranger for a photo?” For starters, I’m glad they are aware that approaching their subject is required. When I was in college, I shot a series of homeless African American men in People’s Park in Berkeley. I made the mistake of shooting with a long lens… a 70-200mm… and standing at some distance from my subjects, thereby removing any chance of making a connection. The series was a failure, but I learned a lot about making images of people whom I have never met.
First off, ditch the long lens. Try a 24, a 50 or an 85 (depending on your camera’s crop factor and your portrait goals) and get close to your subject. If connection comes through the eyes, then you must get close enough to let the eyes draw the viewer in. This is not to say that there is never place for a longer lens, but be aware that they can put distance, real and metaphorical, between you and your subject.
Be respectful of your subject. Always ask permission, or at the very least, keep your camera in plain sight so no one is surprised or confused by what you are there to do. Even if you are traveling and language is a barrier, you can find a way to communicate with a nod of the head and a smile. As you are shooting, your subject may want to pose or smile for the photo. Let them be themselves and get that shot, but if the shot you envision involves a more serious expression, you must become director, if only for a short time.
After the shoot, remember to say thank you. You subject is giving you a gift, so be courteous. And if you tell them you will send prints or files, follow through on that promise.
Finally, don’t be attached to an outcome. Enjoy the opportunity you have created to make a connection or have a conversation with another human being. If you get a great shot, all the better. But don’t be so attached that you forget to appreciate the moment.