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How to Photograph Strangers

(Street Photography)


When teaching at a workshop, two photographers discussed their styles of photographing people.

Charles Gatewood, whose work includes a series on Wall Street and an ongoing series on Mardi Gras in New Orleans, told a story of being chased down the street by a Hell's Angel member.

Getting the photograph is paramount for Gatewood.

He is at one end of the how-to-photograph-strangers spectrum.

Bruce Davidson, whose work includes East 100th Street and Subway, is at the other end of the spectrum.

Davidson always asks for permission.

He said that after a bit, his subjects go back to where they were before he asked.

Davidson also brings along examples of the current project, and offers to send the person a print.

Where are you on the spectrum?

Here are some tips to help you to find out.

Getting Started

1) Photograph where there are other people taking photographs, such as a tourist location, parade, and the like.

2) Be there first.

Then, the strangers are coming into "your" area.

3) Ask permission before taking a photograph, especially the parents or guardians of children.

Have a reason in mind before you ask, such as, "It's for my photography class."

4) Flattery is helpful.

A student, Hector, went out with a friend of his to photograph.

He noticed how readily people said yes, because the friend remarked about something about the subject.

Hector started doing the same and got many excellent photographs.

5) Don't photograph children.

6) Be cautious when following someone.

You may be waiting for the person you're following to have a better background, for example.

But, if he or she notices you, you're now a stalker.


1) The best way to get over fear of photographing strangers is do it.

Go with someone else, to a safe location, and to ask people for their permission.

2) When you're scared to ask someone if you can photograph them, that person may read your dread as your being threatening.

So, pretend not to be afraid.

Soon, photographing strangers becomes easier.

3) A few people will say no.

Practice ahead of time what you'll say, and how you'll act.

Plan on continuing to ask others afterwards.

Don't stop and go home.


If you're shooting willy-nilly, directionless, you're not hungry for the photograph.

If you are working on a project, the empty portfolio pages in your mind's eye will make you hungrier.

Your desire to have the photograph in your portfolio will be stronger than any apprehension about asking the person.

And, you can show people a portfolio of small prints of your efforts so far.

Sex & Age

Women and older people are deemed less threatening than a man.

If you're a man, go out to photograph with a woman or a dog.

You'll be considered less threatening.

Groups of photographers are also less threatening because people assume the group members are students or tourists.


1) If you use a small camera, people may be more willing to be photographed.

2) Use a camera that's quiet.

Digital SLR cameras have noisy shutters and mirrors.

3) Cheating!

Paul Strand, Helen Levitt, and other street photographers used a mirror lens adapter called an angle scope.

They're facing one way, and the lens is facing sideways.

You can do the same with a LCD screen that tilts.

Walker Evans photographed on the NYC subways with his camera inside his coat.

A student did the same with her fur coat in a NYC department store.


You can be yourself, or you can take on a personality.

Some photographers become bumbling or mildly eccentric in appearance and behavior.

Others become irritated when someone (the subject) gets in the way of their photograph of the building or whatever.


1) Smile.

2) Don't look through your camera—shoot from the hip.

3) Use a wide focal length.

The camera will not be directly pointing at the subject.

4) You can use telephoto focal lengths, but the results lack vitality.

In order to make a good photograph, you have to be there.

With a telephoto focal length, you're not there.

Use them for wildlife and sports, not people.

4) People are used to having one photograph taken of them at a time.

So, if the first snap goes over well, ask the person if you can take more.


1) Give the person a business card with your e-mail address.

Use a unique e-mail address for your street photography.

2) Offer to send the person a print if they e-mail you.

3) When traveling, learn about the local attitude toward being photographed by strangers.


Download lawyer Bert Krages' The Photographer's Right - A Downloadable Flyer.

Street Photographers

Philip-Lorca diCorcia

William Klein

Helen Levitt

Jeff Mermelstein

Vivian Maier

Joel Meyerowitz

Gary Winogrand