It isn't easy for many of us. Certainly it wasn't for me. I dreaded walking up to people to ask for a photograph. I just knew they were going to scream, grab their keychain mace and fry my eyes with liquid pepper at the mere mention of a photograph.
Evan Romine and I went to Mill Ave in Tempe one late summers day. We were packing a ring light and a card.
One of us would hold the card behind the subject and the other would make the shot. In a little over an hour and a half we shot about 60 portraits of people walking up Mill. It was really fun.
But you know what? Never happened.
Oh, I have been told no plenty of time. That's OK. I don't want to intrude, that is not my style. I just want to engage someone for a moment and grab a photograph that makes me smile. Have some fun and create an image.
The Friends, Superior, AZ
I saw this group of young people and asked for a picture. They said sure, so I had a flash and backlit them on a bridge over the '60' for this shot. I took about 6 or 7 before I got what I wanted.
I have a few guidelines for shooting strangers that I will share with you:
Watch for body language that lets you know they are most definitely NOT interested. This can be a non-engaged physical stance like keeping their back to you, or simply not engaging you with their eyes when you try to make eye contact. While this isn't foolproof, many times these people just want to be left alone.
Fisherman, Cortez, Florida
He had been left without a day of fishing due to storms on the ocean and a cold, stiff wind. So he set up camp on the corner of the dock and had a few beers. I asked if it was OK to make some photographs and he smiled and said yep! We took a few minutes and chatted about the sea and fishing while also putting a couple of flashes up with softboxes.
Are they busy or otherwise engaged with someone in a very intimate, personal way. Huddled around a laptop or fiercely discussing something over a table. These people have something very important going on and you may be ready to break their concentration. Again, it is not a definite NO, but in many cases it will turn out to be.
People who are in a hurry. You can tell... they are going somewhere fast, gait is large, eyes firmly in front of them.
I look for people that are interesting to me and are seemingly more relaxed. I smile and say hi, and if they say hi back, I may stop and chat for a moment. Their town, street, weather, hat... whatever, I find something to engage with them on. If they seem willing to chat, they will probably be willing to have their photograph made.
Relaxing While Walking the Dog, Rocky Point, Mexico
He was watching us shoot nearby, and when I approached him for a photograph, he was all too happy to oblige. We did about 5 frames before the dog decided we had overstayed our welcome.
I work fast. If someone says yes, that does not mean we have another hour together to have me fiddle with lights and find out all the different permutations of my speedlights. Get the shot.
I promise a photograph... and I deliver. I will ALWAYS make sure they get their photograph. Always. And in a timely manner. Sure, I may not have to – after all, I many never be back to that town – but the Karma catches up. Promises made are kept.
Bandana Man, Miami, AZ
It was pretty warm, but this guy was kinda cool while he waited for someone to pick him up on the corner there in Miami. I approached and smiled at him and he smiled back...
great. I asked for a picture and he simply nodded. I got three frames before his friends drove up and he simply walked away.
Keep them engaged by talking not only about the photograph but also about their surroundings. Focus in on them. People are flattered that you want to take their picture, now keep them happy by keeping the focus on them. (No pun intended, but what the heck... that was pretty good!)
Take a few shots, change lenses – get a few more. Then let it go. Under certain circumstances it may be OK to extend the shoot a bit. You'll know if they are still interested, and you can keep shooting.
Woman and Car, Granite Falls, WA
She was walking up the street while I was taking a photograph of the door with the car painted on it. "That was my car", she said, "I was a young girl when they painted that on the door." I thought that was a cool story, so I asked for a photograph. She went right over to the door and I fired off a few frames. Perfect.
If you are shooting with a flash, let them know that you will be 'lighting them up' when the camera fires. It can be a little distressing when the flash goes off and they were not expecting it.
Share you best shots with them... keep them interested in the shots you are doing. Tell them how much you are enjoying shooting and they will be more inclined to continue. If you are silently clicking away... they can get bored. I know I would.
Fence Mending in Granite Falls, WA
We happened onto this guy fixing his fence and I simply asked to make a photograph. He said sure. I made three. He went back to working on the fence and I went back to walking up the road.
Breaking out and making shots of total strangers can be a blast. You will meet new people, make interesting portraits, learn something about people you never thought you would ever know... and along the way, learn something about yourself as well.
Everybody has their favorite places to shoot strangers. Some prefer the bustle of city life, with shop-keepers, business folk and the lively street people scene. Others prefer the rural areas with characters large and small, and environments that are unique, from grand to intimate. I prefer the latter. Big cities are fun – lots of fun – but I love going into the small rural towns and meeting and photographing the people who live there.
"The Guy," Bradenton Beach, FL
We were shooting in a Jamaican restaurant in Florida when this guy came in to see what was going on. I asked if he would mind being the subject of a few photographs and he was really into it. I got a few, and the students all got a bunch of pretty cool shots.
I find their stories uniquely American. And they have some wonderful stories.
So take a few hours this weekend to walk around your neighborhood, city, town or rural road, and make some friends while making some wonderful portraits.
© Don Giannatti