How to Take Photos of Strangers - Enlight Leak
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How to Take Photos of Strangers

April 27, 2017

It sounds simple: you go for a walk and shoot your surroundings. There’s so much more to street photography than just taking a stroll, though. You have to be an explorer of daily life, a documenter of details, a thief of the obscure moments that go unnoticed by most. You have to balance your artistic eye and your right to photograph in a public setting with empathy and people skills. Most of all, you have to be brave enough to capture, up close, the meaningful shots that tell a story or showcase raw emotion. Street photography isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you can hone your skills the payoff will be remarkable.

Always Be Ready

On busy city streets, things happen in a split second. You have to always be ready to shoot. Hold onto your phone, keep the camera app open and hover your finger over the shutter release. When something does happen, hold the shutter button down to enable iPhone’s Burst Mode, which will take a series of photos that you can sort through later. To photograph without drawing attention to yourself, practice shooting from the hip. This tactic is precisely what it sounds like: you turn your camera on and hold it near your hip or waist, angling it up or down. If you have an iPhone, plug your earbuds in and use the volume buttons to release the shutter.

Know Your Rights

In the United States, photography in a public place is legal. Unless you’re going to use the image commercially, you don’t need to have releases signed even if the subject’s face is identifiable. There’s an amendment to this rule, though: if you’re in a public place where there is an expectation of privacy, like a restroom or gym locker room, you cannot legally take photographs of people.

Often, the question of legality blends with the consideration of morality. Though you’re protected by the law if you want to photograph a person in a public setting, you may feel that everyone still has a right to their privacy. Decide how you’re going to handle a person who adamantly doesn’t want their photo taken. Will you show them the image and offer to send it to them? Will you delete it? Will you ignore their requests? The choice is entirely yours, but have a game plan before you head out.

Choose Your Persona

There are plenty of well-recognized street photographers who approach their subjects guerilla-style, making enemies along the way but getting intense emotion in their photos. There are also successful street photographers who remain polite and understanding, building a community of people who love to see that camera coming toward them. When starting out, consider being gracious and avoid upsetting the subjects who you need for your composition.

Ask for Portraits…or Don’t

Depending on the type of portrait you’re going for – engaged with the camera or candid – you’ll decide whether you want to directly request a portrait or take one secretly. You’ll be surprised at how many people agree to let you take their photo, but expect a question or two first, like why you’re interested specifically in them or what the image is going to be used for. Once you have their approval, try to move quickly. The longer they have to stand there and wait for you to get your shot, the more unnatural they’ll look.

Sometimes you don’t want to ask permission for a portrait. Instead, you want to capture a candid moment when the person doesn’t even know you’re taking their picture. This is the truest way to catch someone when they are completely, unabashedly themselves. If they look up and notice what you’re doing mid-shot, you may feel uncomfortable but it can also make for a fantastic photo.

Hold Your Head High

The most important element of great street photography is confidence. Behave as though you should be out there with your camera. You’re going to be confronted. You’re going to feel embarrassed and you’re going to embarrass someone else. Remember, though, that you can’t be timid if you want your skills to improve.

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Lindsay Pietroluongo
Lindsay Pietroluongo

Lindsay Pietroluongo is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Mobiography magazine. She has a BA in English: Writing from Marist College and lives in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley.

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