FAQ: How do you photograph people? How do you approach them?

FAQ: How do you photograph people? How do you approach them?

Relax and engage with your subject.

Today I thought I would do something a little different and answer a readers question online. The reason is his question is probably the most common question I get asked by other photographers; “How do you photograph people? How do you approach them?” I get this from newbie and veteran professionals alike.  Here is the question as posed by James:

Hi Matt,
I recently came across your website and am really impressed with the environmental portraits you’re creating. As a college student in the States, I’m planning a trip in the next six months to Egypt and will be photographing anything and everything in sight while I’m there. I’m hoping that this will include some of the memorable people I come across. I have a fair amount of confidence in my technical ability, but psychologically I feel like I have some sort of block when it comes to taking pictures of strangers. Do you ever have any issues with this? How do you generally approach people to take their pictures without upsetting them or freaking them out? Also, I read that you speak three languages so this probably isn’t as much of an issue with you, but have you ever traveled to a country whose language you don’t speak and photographed people? If so, do you have any tips for crossing the language barrier? Any advice at all would be greatly appreciated. I’m not sure what makes me so nervous about doing this, but it just seems people are inherently distrustful of a guy with a camera in his hands.

Best,
James

 

Dear James,
Thanks for dropping by my site. I wish I had a complex technique to tell you to do like, take two steps forward and then one step back turn and shoot. But I just don’t. That is not to say there are not things you can do to improve your image whilst shooting. But in general, the short and sweet answer is boiled down to simply be bolder and take risks, be polite and be ready for the moment.

The most difficult of this list is the first one. Most of us have fears of approaching people and asking them if we can take their photograph. I am not sure why that is. Maybe it is the insecure inner self that fears rejection. Psychobabble aside! Whatever the reason, we need to get over it if we want to take a good picture. What is the worst that can happen? The subject will say, “no.” I have news for you; if you are shooting in Asia the chances are they will smile and nod their head with a yes, and you are good to go. One easy way to approach people is to first start a quick conversation. I don’t mean looking them in the eyes and try to have an intimate conversation for 30 minute. What I mean is simply connect with them. Try observing their environment and comment on it. “So how long have you been making this …” or “I bet this takes a lot of talent to stitch this…” The idea is to engage them. Treat them as people not like a tourist attraction. So what happens if I don’t know the language? Then communicate the same kind of interest but with a smile, a nod and gestures. Believe, you will be surprised how easy it works. I shoot in Thailand a lot, yet my Thai (isn’t that a drink?) is limited to hello and thank you. But I always seem to come back with a few decent images.

Be polite. out of a full day of shooting I think over half of the people I photograph I will have had some sort of interaction and that leads to me asking them either verbally or with a point to my camera if I can shoot their image. It is good to clarify here that I don’t ask everyone. If there is a man running a printing press or digging a ditch, I want that action. But, if I stop his work to engage him and get his permission, I have stopped the action and changed the scene and thus lost the shot. In this situation I shoot first then smile and if they seem to smile back I might hover about and shoot some more and explore the angles and the light. But if I get a disapproving look or an outright no, be it verbally or with a gesture I respect that and move on.  I believe strongly that I am the guest and I must respect the subject in every way I can.

The last thing (and I am sure there other points I just cant think of them at this moment) is be ready for the moment. You have to be something of a sociologist and observe human behavior and patterns. When I look at a scene I can guess where someone is going to walk and be ready for them. I can watch someone talking and know their might be a gesture on the way and be ready for it. I know if I squat down with my 5D with a 70-200 white monster on it I am going to change the moment and it will be lost quickly, so I want to have my settings ready. My aperture, my AF point predetermined and my composition already figured out in my head. Then I move in. I take the shot and smile. You have to know your camera and how it works. It is that whole Zen thing that Michael Freeman writes about in The Photographer’s Eye. ((Freeman, Michael The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos Focal Press, 2007: 164)) You need to know your gear and then forget all you know and make it second nature. Have your gear ready and anticipate the gesture.

So this is about all there is. It is not rocket science. It is 70% guts, 20% knowing people and anticipating the gesture and 10% knowing your gear and being ready. Do these simple things and you will be amazed at the quality of images you will capture.

I hope this helps you James, and have a great trip.

Matt

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19 Comments

  1. Heimana

    Hi Matt,
    Thank you for your always helpfull advices…
    I also have this time to time: difficulty to socialize! So I have to shoot anything for a moment, and when I’m “heated” up, it’s getting easier. Other times, I just go with a big smile and look the people straight in, show up my camera to have their tacit ok. I love shooting people and street photography, so as you say, it’s not always easy/possible to ask before, without breaking/missing the situation you wanted to catch.

    In Cuba I had this dilemna: most of the people you find in the streets (of Havana) live in poverty, and of course have some dignity as well. Many of them didn’t wanted me to take a picture, and I sometime found me quite a voyeur… Where’s the limit? Maybe should have talk more…

    Also I like to catch spontaneous portraits/situations, and when you ask people, most get straighter, put an freezed smile on their face, and when you show them the pic, they don’t like it. Well, I think I have to work that too 😀
    I think people in Europe are more wary of other people shooting them, comparated to South East Asia… or I don’t have the photographic/reporter look, should buy these pouches and harness, lol! The fact is, I like to wander downtown light and without too many things hanging.

    I like your 70% guts, 20% knowing people and 10% knowing your gear/technic… so true !

    Reply
  2. Ashley

    70% guts..! I have a lot to work on then. 🙂 I do have to say though, that I have progressed tons in my ability to approach people over the last year. It’s gotten better, but as I said, I have much work to do. Thanks for answering James’ question – it was very helpful to me.

    Reply
  3. David duChemin

    It never gets easier. You go somewhere, get up the guts, get into the swing of things, and then next trip or assignment, it starts all over again. Folks, if you’re waiting to become an extravert or for something to throw the magic switch, that’s a long wait for a train don’t come, as Malcolm Reynolds would say (Firefly, Serenity,)

    Approaching people is alot like skydiving for me. Always a rush, always scary, always glad I did it, always a chance of total failure. 🙂 But they remain my best times behind the lens.

    Reply
  4. Roger Madsen

    Thanks for letting everyone read your answer to this question. Great input to this subject and great advice.

    I recently came back from four weeks of travelling in India. I havent been shooting that many portraits before. I mean really close-up portraits with the subject looking into the camera. The kind of portraits you only get when you aks for permission beforehand. But I really wanted to take these kinds of pictures in India.

    It took me at least one week to just get my first really good portrait, to get the guts to actually walk up to a person and ask if I could take a portrait. Then after that it got a bit easier day by day. But in the middle of my trip, after two weeks of travelling, I visited a spice market in Delhi. Somehow it all came clear to me then how it’s done. For some reason I suddenly had no problem at all walking up to people and ask if I can take a portrait. It almost felt natural to me. I got many nice portraits that afternoon that I am very satisfied with. It was the best day of my whole trip! And then I could keep it up for the rest of my trip and got some more nice portraits at other places too.

    So what I’m saying is that you just have to keep pushing yourself. Let it take how ever long time it takes. If this is the kind of pictures you really want to take then you just have to keep pushing yourself and then suddenly one day it will just happen.

    And as already has been said it is actually quite easy to shoot portraits in most coutries in Asia because very few people say no. I spend a lot of time photographing in Copenhagen because I live pretty close to that city and very few people there want to be photographed. When I actually have built up the guts to ask someone and I get rejected (as I do 90% of the time) it feels like I have to start from zeo again, or even below zero sometimes.

    Reply
  5. Vanessa Jackman

    Love it when you guys (Matt and David) post stuff like this- it gives me inspiration to keep on shooting “strangers”. My experience is this: just over a year ago I joined in a project on flickr called “100 Strangers”. The idea of the project is to approach a stranger, explain about the project, find out a little more about the person and then take the photograph. No candids. About 3 months before that I first picked up an old (in digital terms) point and shoot camera and started to care about what I was taking instead of just pressing the button and hoping for the best. However before starting the project I had never taken a portrait of anyone, let alone a stranger. Of course I had taken snaps of my friends at parties (mostly when drunk!) but I had no idea about composition, lighting, the rule of thirds (something from maths 1 in High School perhaps?) etc.
    When I first started the project I was SO terrified. Quite ridiculously so. However it did help to have a purpose and a reason for asking the stranger for a photograph. Because most people in London will ask “why”, “what is the photograph for”, “where will it be shown”. They are curious (as I would be if someone asked me for my photograph).

    As time when on, it got a little easier and I started to think more about composition and how I would like the stranger to be positioned etc. Having other people in the group trying out amazing things such as props, lighting (strobes, umbrellas, reflectors etc) on complete strangers in the middle of London was also encouraging for me and made me push myself that little bit further. I guess it helped that I knew that there were another thousand people around the world participating in the project so if I was struggling then chances are others were too.

    I got my fair share of rejections (and I still do) and I still struggle with approaching people- particularly if I haven’t taken a “stranger” photograph for awhile. But the experiences I have had, the people I have met,the photographs I have taken, the stories that I have been told are, quite frankly, worth every single rejection, every ounce of self doubt and every iota of embarrassment. I have photographed people for the project in Paris,Poland,Copenhagen, France, Italy, Spain and, of course, London. I, much to my shame, only speak English so I find that a big Aussie smile and a hello in the native language go a long way to putting people at ease. After that a bit of sign language, some laughter, showing an interest in whatever the person is doing (as Matt pointed out) and it all just kind of falls into place- or not!

    James, I think that if you have confidence in your technical ability then you are a lot of the way there. You just need to get out there. One of my problems is that I still haven’t mastered my camera the way that I want to…where it becomes an extension of my hand(I progressed to a DSLR in April last year). I am hoping that this will come with time. The photographs that Matt, David (and Gavin Gough) take are the inspiration and the goal.

    I suspect that the key to all of this is practice. And lots of it.

    Anyway, sorry for the long post.

    Loving your work Matt

    Vanessa

    p.s. I still haven’t finished the project! I have taken a lot more than 100 stranger’s photographs but not all of them are “making the cut”. So I continue!

    Reply
  6. Matt Brandon

    Heimana- I think you are right, Westerners are just not as easy, at least for me, to shoot as Asians. I know this sounds strange and I know what I am about to say is a generalization, but some cultures the people straighten up and pose when you ask to take their photo. Then, people in other cultures, like in India, sort of freeze and keep the pose they were in. So I think you have to read the culture you are in and decide on your approach.

    Vanessa, and others, thanks so much for the post. This is great to get my readers feedback. You have a lot of great ideas and encouragement. I think you all are right, once you stop going up to people it gets harder. But the opposite is true as well, isn’t it? The more you do it the easier it get, at least till you stop for a while. So the moral of the story? Don’t stop! Get out there and shoot!

    BTW, Vanessa, you have come a long way from shooting drunks! I looked at your flickr gallery and you have some brilliant images. Well done, keep it up.

    Reply
  7. David duChemin

    What a cool project, Vanessa. I love it! Keep at it. It is all practice. And to be honest, while it doesn’t get easier, per se, it helps to get rejected enough that you realize it’s no big deal. They say no, you move on undaunted. Keep flashing that aussie smile! 🙂

    Reply
  8. Chase

    I am in U.A.E. this week, where outside of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the culture is quite conservative. Taking photos of people has been rather difficult. However, There have been some folks who are very welcoming and others,though they have not wanted to be photographed, have been very open to visit with me. I have enjoyed this a lot. I took some shots of a religious leader here and had a lovely conversation that followed. Tomorrow I am headed to a local market where I hope the climate is a little more welcoming toward a camera.

    Reply
  9. Matt Brandon

    Chase, Great to hear how it is going with your trip. Sort of “live report” on photographing people. Be sure to share your images with us once your back.

    Reply
  10. Chase

    I will try to do that. THere has been a bright sun. I needto sepnd more on a polarizing filter than I have thus far. I am hoping that an hour I spend this evening, and a couple of hours tomorrow will produce some good opportunities. I miss you guys.

    Reply
  11. Hassan Arshad

    Great advice and I have to completely agree about the Asia comment. People seem much more likely to let you photograph them in Asian countries and in the States.

    Thank you for writing this.

    Reply
  12. Jocelyn

    Love this, great advice and well written. :] Thank you!

    Reply
  13. Dog Breeders

    Great post.
    So this is about all there is. It is not rocket science. It is 70% guts, 20% knowing people and anticipating the gesture and 10% knowing your gear and being ready. Do these simple things and you will be amazed at the quality of images you will capture.
    Thanks.

    Reply
  14. Jeffrey K. Edwards

    Matt –

    Wonderful tips. Thanks so very much for sharing. All common sense, but sometimes that is the best advice there is!

    Reply
  15. Marcus

    Very useful. Thanks.

    I asked my wife only this evening if she thought the people we will see in India must feel like zoo animals with all the Westerners poking cameras at them.
    This bothers me and I don't like to feel that I am intruding – if it worked (and I could carry it!) I'd shoot with a 600mm from 100 metres away!
    I have made a rule for myself that on this trip to India I have to use only my 17-35 for over 50% of my stuff so that I HAVE to get closer.

    Reply
    • Nicolas

      I have been living in Mumbai for about 18 months and enjoyed very much photographing people there. I used a lot a 24mm on an F5, which is not per se a tiny point and shoot camera. There was absolutly no problem with getting close to people and snap their portraits. I have made 1000’s of pictures and there have been only a handful of occasion where with a simple (but genuine) smile, I could not take a picture. Enjoy your trip (if you haven’t already).

      Reply
  16. Matt Brandon

    Marcus, The problem with a long lens is it can create a feel of voyeurism. You become a virtual peeping-tom. Better to spend time with the subject and shoot intimately, nice and close.

    Reply
  17. Emilygoochphotos

    Someone once told me “Just Ask” the most they can do is say no. Don't take it personal… it isn't about you, it's them.I thought it was a great advice. I've been using it ever since…

    Reply
  18. Tobias

    Great tips, thank you Matt!!

    Reply

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  1. Por donde empezar organizando un viaje fotográfico | Deep Wild Photo - [...] interesante en el blog de Neil Wade sobre como hacer retratos durante el viaje. Otro excelente artículo de Matt…
  2. From the Digital Trekker: How Do You Photograph People? How Do You Approach Them? | The On Field Media Project - […] article found on http://http://www.thedigitaltrekker.com/2009/02/faq-how-do-you-photograph-people-how-do-you-approach…  Matt Brandon is founder of OFMP and The Digital […]

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