By Roger (5 June 2014)
Many photographers are intimidated by the thought of asking strangers to be in their photos. They're shy or don't want to intrude or some other reason. I find that the worst thing possible in this situation is the person will decline. No one has ever hit me; called the cops; or even threatened me. “No” is not a word that hurts my feelings, so I just look for the next subject. For the record, I usually never hear the word.
If you are one of the more shy variety, there are some things you can do to make the situation easier.
Before you even leave the house, decide on what you will say. You should keep your introduction short and to the point. Always be friendly and polite, using positive words that will encourage them to agree to the photo. “You wouldn't want to be in my photo, would you?” uses negative and hesitant wording: “wouldn't;” “would you?” Ditch this pitch! Give them your name, a genuine smile, and try something like, “I'm working on a photography project and would like to add your photo.” No questions; no negativity; no reason to refuse. My spiel is short enough that I can say it in less than 15 seconds. Again, they almost always (95%) agree.
I met the Teaman at a Farmer's Market in Alexandria. There was a big flag nearby, hanging from a building, so I asked him to pose with it in the background. No problem.
You can make it easier on yourself by going to and photographing at events: weddings; parties; graduations, etc. When I'm at an event, I always talk to the participants. This, immediately, puts them more at ease, and you can get more genuine emotions from them. Of course, don't interrupt them if they are busy; just wait for some down time and ask them questions about what they are doing. When you keep the conversation on them, they will be more interested in participating. It's just human nature.
At events, most people are already aware that there will be a roaming camera here and there. You probably won't stand out in the crowd with yours. Look for people who are not the center of attention and put them in the spotlight. Most people appreciate being noticed. This couple was at a wedding as friends of the groom. They didn't know many of the people and were off to the side, just enjoying the reception. The stairs in the old mansion made a nice background, especially with the candles. The bride and groom were on the dance floor and the other photographer was there. I just grabbed a quick snapshot.
Never miss the opportunity to be helpful. This couple was at a Civil War sesquicentennial event, in full costume. I heard them ask someone to take a photo on their phone, so I walked over and shot a few frames at the same time. I believe I've mentioned before, I give them a card with the time of the photograph. They can email me for a free copy. Less than 50% actually do this, but 100% of the time I have willing subjects. I always send a copy those who email me within 24 hours. Everyone wins.
If the direct approach is too much for you, there are other methods you can try.
You can go to a public event or location and shoot from a distance. This is another place your camera won't seem out of place. Sit at an outside restaurant, with an intriguing background or something of interest nearby, and photograph the scene as it unfolds. This is a good way to capture absolutely unposed photos. You have time to compose the shot and set your exposure while you're waiting to get the photo you want.
I also use this method when I can't get too close or talking to the subject would be an interference. For example, this Swiss guard, near St. Peter's, in Rome. He was directing traffic, so he probably wasn't interested in some American tourist chatting him up. But how can you go to Rome and not take at least one photo of a Swiss guard?
I try not to do this too often because you miss out on meeting someone new. Or, worse, you can make people uneasy. Make sure if people notice what you're doing, you smile and acknowledge what you're doing. Don't give them a reason to question your purpose.
Here are a couple of cautions. Know what is legal for your current location. In the US, photographing people in a public location is completely legal, but, in some other countries, you must ask permission before making a photograph of someone. Don't try to claim your First Amendment rights to a German Polizei. Your candid people photography isn't worth getting harassed or arrested.
One of my favorite subjects is children. Again, use caution. Parents get real edgy about strangers taking snapshots of little Johnny. Why put yourself in that situation? It's just common sense to talk to the parents, even if you're in a public space. Just because something is legal, doesn't mean you should do it.
Often, if I haven't yet identified the parents, I'll make photographs that don't show the child's face, like below. I always make it a point to talk to the parents, showing them the photo and giving them a card. If they are not enthused about their child being in a photo, I quit. Once, I even deleted a photo to show the parent I wasn't some freak. She responded that wasn't necessary, and I photographed him for another 20 minutes, with her looking on – after she looked up the website on my card and was satisfied I was safe. That is the only time I ever had anything close to trouble. Once you know the parents are comfortable, you can get in there for close ups. The kids will quickly forget you're there and act "normally." Your tone and demeanor can diffuse most any situation. If you doubt this, then move along to some other subject.
You can find strangers to photograph every day. It's like we're surrounded by them. Go out and explore. Greet them with a positive, friendly attitude, and you'll have an endless supply of subjects for your photography. Soon, you won't think of them as strangers, but new people to meet with and share a little bit of the day. The practice will keep you moving forward with your photography.