How to Overcome Your Fear of Photographing Strangers

In Photo Basics by Michael Allen

Taking photos of strangers can be weird. No, that’s not strong enough. It can be terrifying. But there are some steps you can take that will help up your street photography game and help you become accustomed to taking photos of people.

The first thing to know is: not everyone will want to have their photo taken. Some may ask you to delete the photo from your camera. Some may yell at you or even get aggressive. Before we get into the habits you can utilize to become a stronger street photographer, please make sure you are making safe decisions.

Next: educate yourself on model releases, and when you do or don’t need one. Jim Harmer wrote a fantastic and easy to understand breakdown of the things you need to know; you can find that article by clicking here, and I recommend reading it before heading out into the wild to photograph.

Okay, so let’s get into the nitty gritty. For this article I spent an afternoon in my little city in the suburbs of Chicago practicing each of these steps intentionally, photographing people, and then approaching them. I had a moderate success rate, because to repeat, not everyone wants to have their photo taken. One of the rules we abide by as Improve Photography writers is that we will not post images that contain people without a model release (even if legally we don’t “need one”). Of my seven images that I will be sharing on social media, five contain people, and at least three of those images contained persons who could be considered easily identifiable. As such I sought releases from each person; for a total of six people, I received three amiable responses with signatures. I would suggest that fifty percent is a high success rate, though there may be those who perform even better. I spent a total of 3 hours out on the street for this particular afternoon. Be ready to get frustrated out there, people!

Now, on to the tips!

Tip #1: Scout the area

This is something I like to do when I first go to an area, no matter how many times I’ve shot there previously. Let your eyes and your camera look for compositionally pleasing elements: geometry, balance, reflections, interesting light play, etc. Spend some time just searching for some areas, snap a photo, and when you look at the back of your camera try and imagine a person in the image. If it seems like it would be a strong composition, get ready to camp out for a while. Eventually you’ll be able to do this without having to snap the photo first, but don’t fret if it takes you several months or seasons to get comfortable with this.

Another benefit to scouting the area is if there are any businesses within your environment, they may take a moment to ask what you’re doing. This allows you not just to present yourself and share your information, so they don’t call police, but an opportunity to network. Why not ask them for a portrait while they’re talking to you?

Tip #2: Talk to people (prior to shooting)

I sometimes do this while scouting, and sometimes before or after scouting an area. One of the hardest parts of photographing strangers is walking up to them after. Allow yourself to tackle your anxiety by approaching people first, separate from taking their pictures, and just engage in small talk. For introverts and those with social anxieties this will be the hardest exercise, but one of the best for loosening up. Extroverts may get stuck on this step without ever moving on to the actual photography portion (guilty!).

Like tip one allowing businesses to know you and see you, this helps some of the people in the area become used to your presence. They expect to see you now, and they stop eyeing you with an air of concern or paranoia. You effectively become part of the landscape, and they are (generally) going to be more at ease, resulting in exceptionally relaxed mannerisms for great looking photos.

Tip #3: Ask People to Take Their Photo FIRST

This is George, stepping outside to enjoy the nice weather on his break at work.

This ends up being (in my opinion) the next logical step after just striking up conversation with someone. It can be an excellent springboard into building your confidence in shooting. For example, this photo of George was my springing off point when I went out shooting. I had been talking to people, smiling, doing street photography with no people, and I started talking to George. Yes, I started with the dreaded “this weather” small talk; I eventually learned about his workplace, commute, and his fiancée (for some photographers that could be a great opportunity to pitch portraits or wedding services; you never know what you’ll find when you talk to people).

From there, I simply asked something akin to “Hey, would you be cool with me taking your photo?” He acquiesced, and then I explained the model release.  Took a total of five minutes from start of conversation to the signing of the contract. But it helped me relax and excited me about continuing to shoot. I’m an extrovert, but I also have social anxiety at unexpected times, so I use these very steps when approaching people I’ve never met before.

Tip #4: Park yourself in a compositionally interesting place

Okay, park may be a slight exaggeration, but only slight. This is a tip I actually learned from listening to the street photographer Ibarionex. During an interview, he spoke of his tendency to camp out on one corner for a while, allowing others to mentally think of his as just another part of the corner. That way, when he’s snapping images, he’s not drawing the attention of those photographers we’ve all been at some point with the big cannon lenses (that’s not a typo, I don’t mean the camera brand) walking around scoping in on people. There is NOTHING wrong with that approach, but it does tend to result in much fewer images of the subject(s) being relaxed.

Here you see an environment that I wanted to utilize to catch a person walking

Remember when you walked around the environment you’re shooting in to find some compositionally interesting moments? This is what that was for. Position yourself interestingly in relation to that moment. For example, I found this great wall with these green doors and a tree. I really wanted to capture a moment with a person walking along the path, balanced out by the scenery, and I did! I loved the photo too, but I’m unable to post it on the blog. Funny story on that later.

 

 

 

Parking yourself in a single spot (or gravitating around a certain spot) allows you to not only try multiple angles of that moment you found photographically interesting, but also allows you the highest chance of discovering interesting moments with people. This may feel counterintuitive when you first think about it – but I promise, since I’ve started shooting this way, I immediately had a higher percentage of photos with people in them. An exception would be in a bustling city where there are people literally everywhere going somewhere (such as New York or Chicago); I would still suggest that you will have a higher success rate by remaining stationary though, even in those busier cities.

Tip #5: Keep an eye on the subject(s) you feel you need releases from

Remember that shot I mentioned a couple paragraphs up with the wall? It was this really need moment of a gentleman in a coat, a fisherman style hat, and pants with frills down the sides. I was kitty-corner from him. I captured the image and proceeded to work on crossing the street one way, then the other, while trying to keep my eyes open for other interesting moments. Once I made it to the corner my subject was on, I had lost him! I checked all the shops along the street, but he had successfully vanished into the daytime. What a bummer!

All that to say, if you take a photo of someone and you think you are really going to like the result based on the preview image on your LCD screen, keep your eyes on the target! Assuming you need a release form, of course. The only reason I would suggest taking your eyes off the subject is because a glint of gloriously beautiful light caught your eye and you needed to capture it.

However, the photo I captured of him was taken kitty-corner from the spot pictured above. It still used the same wall, but the angle had changed. This would have been a great example of what I mean when I say gravitating towards an area, or parking in that area.

Tip #6: When you approach your subject(s), approach them with a smile

I get it. Smiling may not be your natural facial shape. There’s nothing wrong with that. I myself have major angry face when I’m focused and concentrating. I don’t get a furrowed brow, but I certainly don’t smile as I’m focusing. But when we go up to a person we want to stop their day and not just talk to us but sign a contract, you better believe we’re going up with a smile on our face.

In fact, it helps to be excited about the photo you’re going to show them. I usually start with announcing myself: “Good afternoon! My name’s Michael, and I’m a photographer out capturing moments. I took this really cool/pretty/neat/awesome photo that you’re in, could I show you?” You being excited and happy about the photo will make it more difficult for them to say no – they won’t want to let you down.

This is a good time to gauge reactions. If they seem interested, keep the conversation flowing. If they allow you to

These two men, pictured in the full size image at the top of the article, were on a smoke break. I approached them with a smile and they were very patient and willing to sign the releases.

share, but seem disinterested, make sure to not waste their time with idle chit chat. Finally, if they say no, get ornery, or ask you to delete it, try and deescalate them with a “I’m so sorry. I was just really pumped about this photo, are you sure you wouldn’t like to at least see it?”.

If they still brush you off, it’s time to pull an Elsa and let it go. Some people just don’t have an interest in being in photos; it may have been a bad day for them, they may have had a bad experience, they may be playing hooky from work and not want the image to somehow make it to their boss, along with myriad other reasons for their brusqueness. Do not let it discourage you! Simply say okay, sure, no problem (or if you’re from the Midwest, the good old “ope!”) and don’t get their signature.

Now, some photographers will happily delete their photos, and they’ll show the subject to put them at ease. I honestly try and avoid doing that at all costs unless the person really pushes for it. Please use your discretion in regards to this, and only do what you feel comfortable with. I never promise to delete something I’m planning on keeping; I may just apologize and not say I’ll delete it, hoping they don’t ask me to do so. This is a personal preference, and only you can decide what falls within your own boundaries.

Tip #7: Offer them the photo for free!

This is such a great way to get people to sign your contracts/releases. Most people will expect a sales pitch after you show them the photo. Throw them for a loop an offer to send it to them for free! This let’s them know you aren’t trying to sell anything, and you aren’t trying to pull a fast one on them. You want to share their moment with them, not hold it hostage. Sometimes I’ll preface this with “I’m not trying to make a sales pitch, I just want you to have the opportunity to have it”.

If they are willing to give you their email, I try to always assure them I will not give the email out for any reason, and it won’t sign them up for spam. It will only be used to send them the photo. Most people want photos of themselves (especially if it’s a couple, or a family), but their afraid to give out personal information for security/pest related reasons. Be conscientious of these situations, and you’ll be more likely to succeed.

Tip #8: Give yourself a goal

One of the single most useful things you can do to judge whether you are improving with your ability to go up to complete strangers is to create goals for yourself every time you go out. If you’re going out to try some of these for the very first time, because you want to get more people in your photos, start with just a goal of talking to one or two people. Don’t overwhelm yourself on your first few treks out.

After that, any time you go out, change your goal. Move from talking to one or two, to getting one or two yesses to signing the model contract. Then maybe up to four or five. You get the idea. Measurable and realistic goals are the best way to see if you have made improvements.

Tip #9: Fill out as much of the model release for them as you can

I combine this with my previous tip in my personal practice. People don’t want to spend a lot of time filling out forms – nothing will cause a person to change their mind about signing a release like making it a complicated process for them. My personal model release is a slight variation on the release available for download in the Improve Photography Plus materials. When I present them with the paper, the only thing they need to do is sign, print their name, and write their date of birth. All the other information has already been filled in. I’ve managed in the past to leverage this ease of signing to snag a signature I was close to losing.

I combine it with my previous tip by filling out the number of model release forms equal to how many “yes”s I want to achieve on an outing. So if your goal is five, prepare five release forms, and you'll immediately know once you meet your goal!

Tip #10: Give yourself time to warm up

Warming up is generally considered something athletes or fitness buffs do. But warming up your eyes and your confidence takes time as well. I still follow many of these tips in my own life, and it helps me reduce the amount of social anxiety I feel when I’m out shooting. By allowing myself time to progress to the “picture first, permission after” moments, I give my brain and my nerves time to acclimate to the situation I’ve willingly put myself into.

The first few times I went out to shoot street photography with the intent of capturing people, I was out for about two hours, and came home with blurry pictures of shadowy figures because I was so paranoid of people seeing me and getting mad. Now, it takes me around half an hour before I start approaching people, and I’m currently working on developing my ability to stay in one area for a longer period of time. I get antsy, and often find myself moving away from a location only to glance back and see bustling activity. Which leads me to my last tip.

Tip #11: This is a process. Embrace it.

Not everyone is wired to be a street photographer the moment they walk out their door for the first time with a camera. Those that are may not even necessarily be interested in people. When you’re dealing with people, you’re dealing with egos, fears, nerves, bad days, good days, lost jobs, late for works, late for the doctor appointment for their wife’s ultrasounds, and any number of other moments in someone’s life that you’re trying to capture in that release of a shutter.

Let yourself have time to develop these skills. And remember, these are only tips coming from one point of view (with input from a couple other photographers as well) – if you don’t find them to be working for you, mix it up! It doesn’t mean you’re not capable of snagging that beautiful light enveloping the elderly couple sitting close together on the park bench, and then getting them to sign a release. In fact, I’d love to see what other tips and tricks street photographers have for overcoming fear and nerves, so drop a comment below if your process is different.

You’re going to have good days and bad days. That’s okay. When I went out shooting so I could intentionally think about all the things I do that enable me to do what I love, I had a less successful day of running into people. I picked the wrong part of town at the wrong time of day for the activity I was hoping for. But I stuck it through and got some images I’m super excited about. You can too.

The final thought I’ll leave you with is this: always seek feedback on your images. Reach out to the Improve Photography on Facebook, join some photography groups, make some photographer friends (they don’t have to be “professionals”), so that you can get honest and varied feedback on your work. It’s the single best way to improve and develop a thick skin so you’ll be less afraid of someone saying no when you’re out on the street.

I hope these tips have given you some food for thought and some ideas for you to try next time you go out to do some street photography! If you do try, drop some images below or in the Facebook group to show us how your improvement is going, so we can cheer you on! Keep hunting for that light,  and join in the conversation below about your favorite street photography moments!

One final image of a staircase I was really hoping someone was going to use for a smoke break/phone call. Never be afraid of utilizing your environment images as just beautiful street photography!


About the Author

Michael Allen

Michael is a photographer and educator in the suburbs of Chicago. He does event photography - primarily weddings and concerts - but thrives on opportunities to pursue fine art in order to challenge and catalyze thought and conversation with the audience.