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Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide!

General Photography

Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide!

Posted by: trickletreat on Mon Jan 30, 2012 07:35   (5157 Reads)
Article originally posted by trickletreat on Sunday, January 29, 2012 (19:08:37) as a forum post - promoted by layingback

A bit about me first, and it’s irrelevance to how I have been approaching strangers. I say irrelevance, as I do not think that my working life and any training received has strongly helped or overly influenced the way I approach people now or compared to how I would speak to people as a boy.

Throughout school, early jobs, university and career I have always had to be out going. This may have shown itself as confidence to those I know or have met. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whenever I have spoken to new people, or strangers, I feel a sense of heightened awareness, faster pulse, dry mouth and a fear or flight responses to some degree.
Being self aware I knew that this must be hidden to succeed, also coffee doesn’t help! I also spent many years on horseback, if you ever watch a horse you will see it twitch as a fly lands on its skin, so a racing pulse would be instantly transmitted to the animal and it would react accordingly. Fortunately I have always been able to control my inner feelings, so that they would not be transmitted to man or beast.

Before this becomes a ramble, what I am trying to say is, when dealing with people try to appear to be confident and smile.

I ventured into digital dslr photography briefly in the early part of 2010, having had a couple or three decades of doing nothing too creative with a camera since my early teenage years with my self funded Ricoh XR1 and fast 50mm prime. The main concentration of my efforts was on family and macro, specifically photographing watches. So no approaching strangers.

As a family we became friends with another family through our daughters while camping. The guy was a keen amateur, so on our joint visits to places of interest, we both carried our cameras. I found that one can only take so many pictures of your kids at play and started to look for other photographic models. Here is one of the first candid shots I took, it was at the Botanical gardens, and the guy was engaged in handing out balloons. I was quiet happy with the result.

We then visited The Black Country Museum, lots of people in period dress, willing to share a story and to be photographed in the setting. So really not to big a leap to take pictures candidly or after a polite request...they expected you to do it. I was again pleased with the results and the interaction that had occurred.

I decided that “all the gear” was getting in the way, and luckily at this time, early 2011, the Fuji X100 appeared. I secured one, and from a forum I frequented, discovered the idea of shooting strangers, candidly or otherwise was very popular amongst togs. So the first day out that’s what I intended to do. I was out and actively looking for people who had something interesting about them. I had not thought about how I would approach them, and if I would shoot candidly or not.

I saw a group of ladies with dogs, and thought there was a picture, but walked past! I had a little chat with myself, as having seen the picture and then walked past I knew that that was just no good . Having identified something worth shooting, walking away was just daft.
So I turned and walked back to them, “Hi, are you all having a good walk, I hope you don’t mind, but I have a new camera and want to try taking some pet portraits. would that be okay?”

Banter ensued re not being made-up, or in the wrong wellies. But the first hurdle, although swaying, had been negotiated.

I carried on my way and the adrenalin rush subsided. I was then attracted, like a moth to the flame, by the colours in Lush. “ Hi, I hope you don’t mind, but would it be okay to take some pictures of the lovely colours and shapes in your display. I understand if it is not allowed.”
The reply, “You can take a few of me as well if you want”

What followed was a short love affair with the X100, well two actually, but they both broke. I was shooting candidly and openly in France with friends and at our “street party”, each in turn giving confidence to point a camera in an environment that held no risks.

Then came the investment in a K5, plus a smattering of LBA! What followed was a period of shooting friends, family, neighbours and the send off and goodbyes after my sons’ wedding. Some candids, and some posed...again safe environments. What I didn’t get was any sort of buzz or excitement, and all very mundane images.

So a sunny September and off into town. Approached the street flower seller, a captive audience or victim, “ Hi chap, can I just get a few shots of your hands working with the flowers?” Followed up by a quick chat with a busker, and donation. So the results were a mixture of portrait and street.

I knew by now that I was enjoying taking pictures of people, out and about, candid or posed. So I ventured into Brum, where the streets would be paved with subjects. Shot candidly, or played it safe and spoke to buskers.

The dull and grey winter was fast approaching, so unless I took some pictures then I would have nothing to play with on the computer. ...and so the German Market came to town.

I approached a lady who was having a chat with another stall holder,” Hi, I’m Nigel and I am trying to put a few pictures together of people working and having fun at the look like you are happy in your work, can you pose like a model?” A bit of laughter and chat, and I took this.

At this and every stage I could easily bottle it and walk away, but as soon as I sense that I am bailing out, I stop myself and make the approach.

Now to test myself, I wanted a picture of a hand raised to say stop, with the background out of focus. I spotted a security guard, “Hi chap, you busy or just cold? he laughed, and body language showed that he was willing. I showed him the pictures I had been taking and the effect I was after. He was more than willing to be posed, showed him what I had taken, gave him a contact and sent him the final images. He always gives me a shout now when he sees me.

I will try not to make this picture heavy and keep on track. Long story short, by shooting at the German market, I discovered a cafe where a group of photographers meet for informal projects, workshops and talks. There is no membership or agenda that I can see, but good conversation and inspiration. This is how I heard about shoot ten strangers.
I decided to go out and practice before hand and have posted some of the results.

The big day came, nervous as hell...only to be met by at least a dozen people feeling the same. It was good to have the pressure of a task and the companionship of the others. I went into overdrive. So much so that I sat up all night cropping and sorting the pics. Again you have seen some of the results, and here is a link to a larger selection.


On the day, I had very few refusals, and have met up with some that I photographed to share the images.

So trying to be forensic...
To obtain the images, I considered the following.
Follow your intuition, if you are attracted to someone, approach them and ask to take the picture.
Be polite, “Hi, I’m Nigel, sorry to take up your time but could I...”
“Excuse me, I have a new camera and I am trying to take portraits of complete strangers....”

Maybe an easy way to begin with is to approach people who are either sat down or doing something. I f they are sat down, then sit by them and review your images and see if they show any interest. If you start a conversation then you can always say that you have set yourself a challenge to take portraits of complete strangers.
If they are doing something then it is easy as well, “excuse me and sorry to interrupt, but may I take a picture of you doing that...”

Smokers are good subjects, as they will be stationary and sometimes relaxed...”Hi, do you mind but I’m trying to get shots of people blowing smoke” “can you blow smoke rings?”

Window shoppers, “ I hope you don’t mind but I’m trying to take pictures of peoples reflections” and if they are happy with it then try and pose them as well.

Once you start to make these approaches you will start to see how willing people are to talk and show interest in what you are doing. Obviously the conversation is not just going to be a one liner, so be prepared to answer questions like “what is it for?”, “where can I see it?”.
Have some stock answers, “I have set myself a challenge to take portraits of strangers passing through different parts of the city”
“The pictures are for me really, so that I can get used to using the camera”
“I post on a photographic forum, and people will view and critique my work, which might make me rich and famous one day”

If they say yes, remember to have you camera ready to shoot. I asked an attractive girl if I could take her picture at the German market, but was so nervous I forgot to set the camera up. However she was interested in what I was doing, did I have a blog?, was I a professional ?etc. As luck would have it she used the cafe where the photography group meet, she saw me and asked how the pictures had turned out.

She then let me try again, and even posted the results on her blog!

Once your confidence grows, and you get used to the fact that people say yes, start to approach people on the move.
A busy dog walk can be a good place to start.
“ Excuse me but your dog is really lovely, I’m trying to take animal portraits would you mind?” You can have a chat and maybe mention that you have set yourself a ‘Ten Strangers” project and see if they will pose.

When approaching people on the move, look to see if they are in a hurry, don’t approach front on and block their way.
Try walking up to them from an angle, from the side, either as you follow them or from the front and to the side. Make sure they can see your camera.
Speak to them from about two meters out to get their attention. It hopefully won’t startle them and gives them time to react to you..SMILE, be polite, if they say no, don’t be upset by it.
So far no one has been rude to me, some people have said no and yet stopped and had a chat about what I am doing and have critiqued my work!

Now once you have their attention, don’t mess up the chance. Maybe ask them to frown, it always seems to make people laugh...shoot on continuous exposure.

I will quiet often ask them if they can see their reflection in the front of the lens, also ask how close is comfortable, and if they want you to back off a bit. once relaxed ask to get closer.

I’m no model photographer and have had no training, this sort of approach just works for me. I know it is evolving and am interested to see where it takes me, and how it changes with experience.

I hope this rambling account fills in a few blanks re how I approach people, as I think you will see from my pictures, I am no expert and I am still learning about composition, exposure etc, but the only way to improve is to have some images to play with, and to keep telling myself not to walk away, people really do like to talk.

I have probably missed a few things, so as I think about situations, I will update this.

SMILE and you might get one back

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First 15 (of 27) Comments     -     See all 27 comments

Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide!   -   Leave a Comment
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide!   -   See entire comment Excellent article (I assume this will get posted as an article) and lots of very good photographs. Inspirational, though I am not sure I have the cujo ...  more
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide! Excellent article! Thanks for posting.
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide!   -   See entire comment I spend (waste?) a lot of time on photographic forums, and by and large it is just chit chat with the occasional nugget of useful information. Once in ...  more
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide! A very fine article, full of first class images. I'm sure it will benefit and inspire many.
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide!   -   See entire comment Superb article trickle!!!

What I like is that you've prepared a theme for most of your encounters. e.g "I'm looking for pictures of people blowing ...  more
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide!   -   See entire comment Smeggypants: "Superb article trickle!!!

What I like is that you've prepared a theme for most of your encounters. e.g "I'm looking for pictur ...  more
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide! Thanks for sharing an informative article along with some great results obtained along the way.
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide!   -   See entire comment I've thoroughly enjoyed this, very inspiring and cracking shots to boot. That pic (colour) of the girl at the German market has really grown on me, v ...  more
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide! Very, very informative dear sir. Thank you so much for writing this. Oh, and your portraiture is really nice!
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide! What a wonderful inspiring article - fantastic shots as well.

Thanks for posting this - lots of food for thought there.
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide!   -   See entire comment That has to be one of the best Articles I have read on a photography forum... ever!

I'm not really into people photography but this was well writte ...  more
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide!   -   See entire comment This is a great article, my approach to capturing strangers is very different in that I rarely ask. I may say a joking "smile please" in passing and c ...  more
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide!   -   See entire comment Deffinately inspiring and I share all the comments made so far. It does give us so many ideas and thoughts. Maybe it will inspire us all to not just ...  more
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide!   -   See entire comment Thanks all for the recent comments and for resurrecting this. I haven't posted for a while and was surprised to see this still going. I have been doin ...  more
Re: Approaching strangers ... An Idiot's Guide!   -   See entire comment I had a good day of candid shooting and interacting with strangers today. It was about 50:50 them coming up to me to ask for their photo to be taken a ...  more
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