This won’t be a treatise on the subject — nor will it be authoritative. These are just some ideas and practices I’ve developed over the years. And…I’ve yet to be attacked.
Sometimes I have just felt compelled to make a total stranger’s portrait. Beautiful, cute, full of character: They almost command you to photograph them. But, unless you are naturally pushy (I’m not), there are a whole bunch of barriers that must be overcome.
For starters, it takes a measure of nerve to invite yourself into another’s world. (And, in my opinion, you should never forget that is their world.) Unless you are sneaking the portrait — a practice I am not totally against — you will have to make an overture of some kind. My advice: Do it. I can’t say that you will ever be completely comfortable approaching someone for their portrait but, I have found, it does get easier with time and practice.
There was a strikingly beautiful woman walking with her husband and child in a public garden in France. Without much forethought I stopped them and asked if I could make a photograph of her. She blushed but nodded agreement. The fact that The Bride was with me may have helped.
On another occasion we were waiting in line to gain access to an archeological site in Ireland when a woman and two beautiful, red haired young girls joined us. In less than a minute I had the mom’s permission and I was making pictures of the Irish lasses.
I’m reminded of another situation: Two elderly ladies enjoying a sunny day on the streets of a city in southern China. Neither could speak English so I pointed to my camera and then to them. One of them answered in Chinese and gave a slight bow. My son, who speaks Chinese, determined that the other lady was totally blind.
My camera is a boat anchor. It’s size is impressive and, I think, gives me a bit of officialdom that I might not get with a small
point-and-shoot. On one occasion I was allowed behind a barricade (with the Italian Carabinieri) during a demonstration in front of a government building in Rome. I can only credit my big Nikon with getting me in position to make the portrait of the demonstrator.
Some other tips: You might want to carry some business cards even though they say only “John Doe, Photographer” with your contact information. And don’t forget the power of engaging your subject in conversation before asking for permission to shoot them.
So…there are a lot of ways to gain permission. Just remember that you may not always get it. In this case smile, fold your tent, and move on.
But there are some no-no’s — at least in my opinion. I never photograph children without the approval of a parent and I will not make photographs of the downtrodden (street people) without their permission. A little more about that: I have asked street people if I can make their portrait. The answer is always yes. Why is that? Could it be that my asking is, at least, a modicum of recognition? Might it be a connection when everyone else seems not to see them?
OK. Photographing strangers can certainly get your anxiety up but don’t forget the technical part. There are others but I try to remember these three things while out in the field: Focus on the eyes, try to stay in soft light, and dial in a shallow depth of field if you want to minimize the importance of the background.
Shooting strangers is nerve wracking and can be intimidating. But it is rewarding!
Try it. It might open a new area of photography for you.