by • February 17, 2016 • Photography, Street Comments626

Photographing strangers

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Kids wirth needs marathon
Virginia Beach, VA

The shift from receptive observer to active participant can sometimes be awkward and difficult for both the potential subject and the photographer. These feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment or even hostility may arise out of the subject’s confusion or misinterpretation over the intent or motive behind the photographer’s actions. The photographer’s awkwardness or reticence to connect often comes from the fear of rejection.

Making a connection The initial connection with the subject is crucial for a successful environmental portrait. If the photographer is taking images at an event or activity the photographer must be very aware when someone within the frame makes eye contact with the camera. At this decisive moment the posture and facial expression usually remains unchanged from where the subject’s attention was previously engaged. The photographer should be able to capture a single frame at this moment before lowering the camera. There is no time for re-focusing, re-framing and adjusting exposure. The camera should be lowered and a friendly and open response offered by the photographer. If the photographer continues to observe the subject after having been noticed the subject’s sense of privacy can be invaded and the photographer’s chance for an amicable contact can be lost. Most people will gladly co-operate if a friendly connection has first been established.

Fellow photographer Nashville, TN

Fellow photographer
Nashville, TN

Contact The first verbal connection with the subject should be considered carefully. Asking people for their permission to be photographed requires a considered response on the subject’s behalf (‘what are they selling?’ and ‘who will see the picture?’ etc.). Unsure of the implications of consenting to be photographed many people will refuse their permission. Once refused it is not always possible to persuade someone that their acceptance to be photographed would have no further implications, i.e. they would not be required to purchase the photograph, give consent for publication, etc. The first verbal connection should simply be who you are. Many photographers will arrange a preliminary visit to a location if there is time available. This will afford individuals present at the location to get used to the photographer’s presence and feel comfortable being photographed. This is especially useful at small or enclosed events, as it may be difficult for the photographer to work unnoticed. If introductions haven’t first been made the photographer may cause some disruption at the event or activity. Successful environmental portraits are often dependent on the initial interactions the photographer has with the potential subject.


Doug Fritz

Interaction Putting a subject at ease in front of the camera is dependent on two main factors.

1. The subject is clear about the photographer’s motives.
2. The subject sees value in the photographs being made.

Motive – many people view an unknown photographer with curiosity or suspicion. Who is the photographer and why are they taking photographs? It is essential that the photographer learns to have empathy with the people he/she intends to photograph. A brief explanation is therefore necessary to help people understand that the photographer’s intentions are harmless.
Value – many people see the activity or job that they are doing as uninteresting or mundane. They may view their physical appearance as non photogenic. The photographer needs to explain to the subject what it is that he/she finds interesting or of value and why. If the activity the subject has been engaged in appears difficult or demanding and requires skill, patience or physical effort, the photographer should put this view forward.

Group of people at bar Franklin, TN

Group of people at bar
Franklin, TN

The photographer should continue to ask questions whilst photographing so that the subject is reassured that the interest is genuine.
Direction The photographer should display an air of confidence and friendliness whilst directing subjects. Subjects will feel more comfortable if the photographer clearly indicates what is expected of them. There can be a tendency for inexperienced photographers to rush an environmental portrait.

Apryl Renee Desper Bartender Sidelines

Apryl Renee Desper
Bartender Sidelines

The photographer may feel embarrassed, or feel that the subject is being inconvenienced by being asked to pose. The photographer should clarify that the subject does have time for the photograph to be made and indicate that it may involve more than one image being created. A subject may hear the camera shutter and presume that one image is all that is required. Passive subject Subjects should be directed to pause from the activity that they were engaged in. The photographer can remain receptive to the potential photographic opportunities by keeping the conversation focused on the subject and not oneself.
Expression and posture Often a subject will need reminding that a smile may not be necessary. Subjects may need guidance on how to sit or stand, what they should do with their hands and where to look. It may be a simple case of just reminding them how they were standing or sitting when you first observed them.
Shooting decisively As a photographer takes longer to take the picture the subject will often feel more and more uncomfortable about their expression and posture. To freeze human expression is essentially an unnatural act. Exposure, framing and focus should all be considered before raising the camera to the eye.

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