Photographing people you don't know


TPF Noob!
Nov 28, 2007
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Something I've found I really like to photograph is people I don't know doing whatever it is they happen to be doing, like this or this.

I find it a bit awkward, though, to just point a camera at someone... I usually find ways to be a bit sneaky about it (which maybe I enjoy), and take the picture as fast as I can, but I'm sure this affects my shots' quality.

I sometimes see great pictures of people in their environments and wonder how the photographer got it... Did he or she ask or just take the picture? Have a huge zoom?

What are your techniques for taking pictures of people you don't know?
Talk to them, explain, communication is the name of this game, without it your not going to go far, some people object but I find most strangers are flattered you'd want to shoot them, say its for a project and you need them in their work/play/rest environment. H
Most of the strangers I like photographing are kids (I love kids) and in that instance it's best to ask the parents if they mind if I take a picture of their kid, he/shes so cute doing x. Some parents are extreamly protective of their kid and can get very upset if some random strange person is taking pictures of them.
Adults can be more lenient, if they are engrossed in something you can snap a picture without them knowing, and many are simply not very observant but there are still potential issues if you then post that around, you never know who is not wanting to be seen by someone (abusive spouse, affair, etc) and you never know who will just be surfing the net and happen across your picture of someone that should not have been captured.
I had to shoot kids for a photography assignemtn and at first i found it pretty awkward to walk up to random parents and be like," Hi, I got to school at *insert school name here* and i have to take photos of kids. Would you mind if i took a couple photos of your kids, while they are playing?" but after awhile it got easier. In a couple weeks in New york I am going to talk to a homeless person and try to get a few shots of them. :D

BUt yeah i agree communication is key. Most poeple don't miond and all, and the worst they can say is no.
With adults, I generally just shoot and if they look at me I show them the pictures and tell them who I am. (I've had people even buy them from me!!) I've noticed that a lot of people will get goofy if you train your camera on them... like this guy hehe
(my daughter walked in front :( But I still keep it because he was fun :) )

This guy.. was really not angry:

And this lady and her companion both wanted me to email copies (I offered)

Once you start doing it more, you'll get more confident with it. I felt strange about it at first too. I find if you ask first, sometimes they end up seeming too posed because they know their photo is being taken. I'm careful with kids though. As a parent myself, I wouldn't want someone just taking photo's of my kids without my permission (I'd want to know what the heck they'd be using them for!!)

Confidence and a professional attitude go a long way. If shooting the public in public I just go about my business, have fun and do it.
I find if you ask first, sometimes they end up seeming too posed because they know their photo is being taken.

This is something that I think about... If I see someone doing something great, I want to just snap it real quick while it's natural, not ask them and get them to try to do it again.

I can understand it is something that gets easier as a photographer builds confidence & gains experience.

On a lighter note, my 50mm f1.4 arrived today and it's beautiful.
Just take the picture. If someone asks or has a comment, just start blathering a lot of artsy stuff about lines and the convergence of color, and how it all works as a metaphor for God's Love, and they'll leave you alone.

Heck, when I do, I usually even mean what I say, which just makes it seem all the weirder....
As a worse case scenario if they complain and get aggressive about it, just show them the act of you deleting the picture and apologize.

This will not happen that often. I do a lot of my best practice time on city streets and places where a lot of people congregate. I've yet to be asked to delete a picture, but a couple of times people did display annoyance and spoke to me... when I answered politely and said that they just happened to be in an area that I waned a picture of, and asked if they would want me to delete the pic, they laughed or chuckled or just walked away.

I always also offer to email them the picture, and I make it a point that when they do give me an email, I offer them the courtesy of being honest and emailing it to them, in the email just asking for a return confirmation that they did indeed receive it.
I am going to play the devils advocate here... Do you all carry model releases with you and have them sign? I rarely do myself shooting some random stranger but when I do, I always put a card in their hand and ask them for a release. Anyone else do this?

The reason I asked is because the last time I did some PJ through the neighborhood, the police were called on me. It was a funny story tho: I show the cop my ID, cave him a business card and offered to let him pat me down and toss me in the back of the car so that it looked good to the neighbors. He laughed and went on his way. BTW: I found the person (actually the business) that called and gave them a card. The next week, I shot some exteriors of their business and did a family portrait setting of them. I have a model's portfolio to shoot for them after the first of the year.

Below are some photos of that outing:


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dpolston talked about model releases... just wondering if you were to do street photography and get the person "in the moment" would you then go up afterwards explain your self and say "can you sign this" so that you can "legally" display the picture?
dpolston talked about model releases... just wondering if you were to do street photography and get the person "in the moment" would you then go up afterwards explain your self and say "can you sign this" so that you can "legally" display the picture?

Most definitely! This way it legitimizes my work by showing them the photo and offering to scroll down a few shots to see that there's no hidden meaning behind it. Also, it is a great way to network and get your name out there by offering them a (low resolution) email copy of it and offering to sell them prints. And who knows... it might lead somewhere.

By the way. I usually approach people by putting a card in their hand first. Then I say something like "I'm David and I am taking some photos in the area today for my private collection (or name the assignment if your on one) and I just took this of you. Would you please give me your permission to consider exhibiting this image?" The reason I use the word "consider" is to open more dialog with them by saying that I shoot hundreds of photos and this "may or may not" be used, but it allows me to keep the file.

As others have said, they either say yes or no. You either ask them or not. But what you will do with the image might just deal with what your conscious dictates to you. Something else to think about is your level of photography intentions (I can't think of exactally the right term). If you use photography to generate income albeit very part time or semi-pro (as I consider myself to be; as I do make a steady part time salary with it) I would think about the legal things more (copyright, model releases, equipment insurances etc.). But if I just liked taking photos more or less for the heck of it, I'd relax some and use the "hey, I'm new to this... I didn't know better" card.
I'm not a pro, get no income from it and do not display any pictures of people that I shoot in such a manner, publically, so I do not have any kind of a release bceuase I do not feel I need one, legally or morally.
dpolston talked about model releases... just wondering if you were to do street photography and get the person "in the moment" would you then go up afterwards explain your self and say "can you sign this" so that you can "legally" display the picture?


There's plenty of other threads on this already, and plenty of websites discussing it (My favourite for Australians -

My understanding of Australian, US, and in fact most other western countries is that you can take a photograph of whoever you like, child or adult [1], whenever you like, IN A PUBLIC PLACE, and LEGALLY display and / or sell the photo wherever you like, as long as it's non-commercial use. Commercial use is where that person is appearing to endorse a product, nothing more, nothing less. You can sell copies of the photo, you can display it in galleries and charge an entry fee, put it in a magazine which gets sold - None of that is commercial use, as the person is not endorsing a product.

There's a lot of confusion out there, a lot of myths, and a lot of people who get their knickers in a knot over it, when it's really NOT that hard a concept to grasp :meh:

[1] - I think there's some protection orders and the like which can prevent adults and children having their photo taken due to things like witness protection, child protection etc...

[edit] - Nice summary of commercial vs Non-Commercial use...

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