Fear of Photographing Strangers
Fear of photographing strangers is probably the #1 thing that holds people back when it comes to Street Photography.
That fear of a negative reaction can:
- Keep you from getting close enough and taking the shot you want
- Cause you to rush and not focus on the shot
- Keep you from taking the photo at all
Nothing else can improve your Street Photography instantly like overcoming this fear. Unfortunately, simply ignoring this fear is easier said than done for most people. So the next best thing is learning how to overcome it. And the best way to overcome a fear is by confronting it repeatedly.
One of the most effective ways to do this is to take on a personal “Shooting Strangers” project.
What is a Shooting Strangers project?
Everyone is probably familiar with the Humans of New York photos by now, but they didn’t really do anything new. They organized and marketed it well with personal excerpts from the people, but street portraits of strangers has been done many times by many people. Danny Santos’ “Portraits of Strangers” is probably my favorite of these.
Even if you only want to take candid street portraits, it’s still a good idea to try a project like this where you ask the people first. This way it forces you to confront people and deal with all reactions. This will help you get more comfortable with photographing strangers and not worry about negative reactions as much in the future, even if the shot is candid.
A couple of years ago I decided to take on a shooting strangers project myself to get more comfortable approaching people in the street to take their photo. I was living in Miami at the time and I’d go up and down Lincoln Road approaching people who caught my eye and ask them if I could take their photo. I’d also ask them to not smile and act natural so they wouldn’t pose.
Lincoln Road is a pedestrian only street in Miami Beach lined with shopping, restaurants, cafes, bars and more. It’s also the best place for people watching as it is always packed with both tourists and locals.
Usually I would look for striking eyes. For me eyes are everything. It sounds cliché, but the eyes really are how you see into a person. Other features like style, personality and character are important too so I’d look for anything and anyone that stood out. Once I saw someone who I wanted to photograph, I would walk up to them and ask if I could take their photo.
It was all pretty simple and something that probably helped me get past any fears and feel comfortable photographing strangers more than any one thing I’ve done before.
It was also a fun experience meeting so many people and I can still remember each person from their photos. It’s something I recommend for every Street Photographer to try.
8 Steps to Starting Your Own Shooting Strangers Project
1. Choose a camera and lens
You will want to pick one camera/lens combination to use for all your shots. This helps make the project look cohesive when finished and keeps your equipment minimal so nothing gets in the way of focusing on the project.
2. Pick a place
Find a place that you like that is close to you and always has a good amount of people around. This will make it easier for you to work on the project regularly and will give you plenty of opportunities to ask people.
3. Be prepared
Make sure you have what you need with you, including a fully charged battery and extra memory or film. Nothing is worse than running out of either for frustration. Also, make sure you know what to say when people ask you why and what you’re doing (they will). If you’re ready for this, then you’ll be much more comfortable when it happens.
4. Observe and Ask
Look around and observe your surroundings. Look for people who you find interesting. You can pick a spot with a good view and stay there or you can walk around looking for people. Many people like to just pick a spot, wait and watch, but others might find that boring at times so walking around might help. Do whichever you prefer.
5. Relax and have fun
Try not to take it too seriously. Some days will be better than others. You might go through a whole day where you only see a couple of people you find interesting or you might have that day where it seems like everyone says no. Don’t be too hard on yourself, that’s the way it can go for anybody. If you stick with it, you’ll also have those days that go perfectly.
6. Make it consistent and regular
You want to confront your fears and get past them so only taking a few shots every couple of weeks would end up being pointless. Try to make a schedule of going out there at least a few times a week when you know you’ll have some free time.
7. Don’t quit
Stick with it. Don’t give up after the first few days don’t go well. Depending on your fear, it might not be so easy at first. You might only get the courage up a few times that first day, but if you keep going out there, it will get better.
8. Edit the same
Once you feel you’ve made some real progress in feeling comfortable shooting strangers and you’ve gotten enough decent shots, it’s time to do something with them. When doing a project like this where you’re basically shooting the same thing, you want to make sure you edit them the same way too so they all go together. Frame them all the same and give them a similar look so they flow together as one.
How Smoothly Will it Go?: The Truth on Reactions
During my Miami Faces project, there were a variety of reactions.
Most of the time, people said yes, usually after asking what it was for and why.
Sometimes they reacted a little reluctantly like they thought it was a little strange, but after putting them at ease, that reaction would turn to amusement and fascination most of the time.
And yes, sometimes they would say no too.
But 90% of those no’s were very friendly no’s. They usually came from a place of shyness and being self-conscious about taking a photo.
The other 10% of the no’s weren’t as friendly and I will admit there were times they could affect my mood and confidence. Most just didn’t want to be bothered, but a few reacted like I was some weirdo. It’s good to go through the negative reactions, though, as they affect you less and less each time.
You realize most negative reactions only come from a place of not understanding your motives. Nothing bad ever happened, though. Both my camera and I made it out alive without a scratch.
5 Tips For Your First Shooting Strangers Project
1. Bring Business Cards or Make Your Own
If you don’t have business cards, you can buy a pack of index cards for a few bucks and make your own. Just write down your name, email and website/online portfolio. This will reassure them that you are legit and also gives a way for them to connect to your work.
2. Be Forgetful
If you ever have a negative reaction, try to forget it by immediately focusing on the next shot. Don’t let it ruin your mood or the rest of your photos for the day.
3. Don’t Cherry pick
Don’t only go up to people who look friendly to you. Try going up to people who you find interesting, even if their appearance might intimidate you. Not only does this confront your fears, but it will teach you that valuable lesson, don’t judge a book by its cover (you’ll soon find out how misleading appearance can really be).
4. Offer to Email the Photo to Them Once You’re Done
Many people will want to see their photo. Getting their email address so you can send it to them will not only be appreciated, but gives you a chance to give a link to your work and the finished project.
Be friendly and respectful. This will go a long way to keeping negative reactions from happening. It also helps them feel more comfortable and natural in front of the camera.
Will This Cure Your Fear?
Repeatedly facing your fear head on like this is the most effective way to overcome it. Another benefit of doing your own Shooting Strangers project is that it lets you know how people actually react.
If fear has stopped you, it’s probably because you feel there’s a good chance of a negative reaction. Maybe you’re even worried about a physical reaction.
After completing a project like this, those fears should be put at ease. Yes, you might get a negative reaction here and there, but it should be rare and violence should never happen. The overall positivity of the reactions might even surprise you.
Will all your fears of photographing people completely disappear as soon as you’re done? I can’t guarantee that, I just know they will be much more manageable at the very least.
I can’t say I never ever feel anything before approaching a stranger for a shot now. It’s not a real fear anymore, but sometimes I can feel a little apprehensive from time to time, especially for the first shot of the day. After I take that first shot, though, any jitters go away.
So if you’ve had any problems photographing strangers, go out and start a project like this yourself. Give yourself freedom to shoot it however you want and be sure to send me a link to the finished product when you’re done!
If you would to like to see more of the photos I made a couple of years ago for my “Finding Faces: Miami” project, I still have them up on my portfolio website here.
Also, if you have any more questions for starting your own Shooting Strangers project, ask me in the comments below!