Asking Strangers to Star in Your Candid Photos

When taking photos of strangers you should always ask permission. With the right attitude and a few crafty tips you'll soon have models lining up.

People are endlessly varied, and you can hardly walk down the street without seeing someone who would make the perfect subject for a portrait photograph. From wizened war veterans to street musicians to playful children, every face tells a story and conveys a different personality.

However, snapping these people isn't always easy. It's tempting to try sneaking a subtle shot through a crowd, with a long lens, while the subject isn't looking. Unsurprisingly these photos usually turn out pretty underwhelming and capture very little of what made the person appear interesting in the first place.

Candid portrait photography doesn't have to be so difficult though. With the right attitude and a bit of preparation you'll find that most people are happy to be photographed, and these candid shots can end up being among the most fascinating pictures you'll take.

Be Open About What You're Doing

The biggest no-no when taking candid photos is to try to hide what you're doing. If you creep around trying to cover up your camera and take pictures on the sly you'll just end up looking shifty, making people much more likely to think you're up to something and confront you.

Chinese woman carrying her grandson

Be confident and honest and people will treat you with much less suspicion. Image by Thomas F. Peng.

Instead, be bold and confident - you aren't doing anything wrong, so don't act like you are. If anyone confronts you, just calmly explain what you're doing and why. You can even let them see your photos to show you've got nothing to hide.

Strike Up a Conversation

The best way to photograph a stranger is to just ask their permission outright. I know this sounds obvious, but it's amazing how few people actually take that advice to heart.

Portrait of a stranger

Many strangers are more than happy to have their photo taken. Image by Ben Raynal.

I've done this countless times and most people are more than happy to pose for me. It's a good idea to pay them a small compliment before asking, to butter them up and show that you're not interested in them because they look so weird (even if that is the case!). Keep it simple; something like this works well:

"Hi, my name's Pete and I'm a keen amateur photographer. I love your hair, would you mind if I took a photo of you?"

If you're in a foreign country and don't speak the language, simply catch their eye, smile, and point at your camera with a questioning face; they'll understand what you mean.

When asking someone if you can photograph them, be prepared for them to say no. If they do, you need to respect that, no matter how disappointing it might be. Simply smile, thank them, and move on. Whatever you do, don't them try to take a sneaky shot of them - if they notice they won't be pleased!

Make the Most of Show-offs

There are plenty of people around who crave attention, and they're usually more than happy for you to photograph them. Street performers, speakers at pubilc events, rock bands, and sports fans will usually go out of their way to strike a good pose for you, making your job that bit easier.

Old man playing the accordion

Some people are naturally outgoing and love posing for photos. Image by By Mariusz Olszewski.

Finding a show-off is easier than you'd think. How many times have you got your camera out to take a shot only to be confronted by a complete stranger waving and pulling faces in the middle of your scene? Take advantage of this - rather than shooting them an icy glare, laugh and ask if they'd like to be in your photo. If they say yes then you've got a willing model, and if they say no then they're likely to leave the scene sharpish - either way you win.

Work Quickly

Once you've got someone to agree to be in your photograph, don't waste their time by asking them to try out different poses or taking hundreds of images in burst mode. This is likely to freak them out a bit - after all, they're not a trained model, they're just an ordinary member of the public.

Instead, snap one or two quick shots and then leave it at that. Don't rush and end up with a blurry, badly-composed shot, but don't take too long either.

Once you've got your photos, it's polite to show the person how they've turned out. If they seem pleased with the results, offer to send them a print or email them a copy out of courtesy. Then just thank them, wish them well, and leave them alone.

Photographing strangers can be a daunting prospect, but the more you do it the less it will bother you. Before long you'll find that it can actually be very enjoyable, and you'll often meet people whose personalities are at least as interesting as their faces.