How to Photograph Strangers

As a photographer and photo editor for National Geographic Traveler, people often ask me how I approach strangers when I want to take their picture — especially when there’s a language barrier. Here are my thoughts:

Taking a photograph of someone you don’t know is one of the most difficult things to do for many beginning photographers. Although many people think of the National Geographic Society as being home to wonderful pictures of wildlife, in truth most of the photos are of what we refer to as pictures of the human condition. Photography is a powerful tool for showing what the world is like on a human level.

So, how do you get comfortable taking pictures of people? The first step is to realize that most people don’t mind being photographed. The simplest thing to do is make up your mind that you are interested in showing people in your photographs and force yourself to go out and meet people with your camera.

Give yourself an assignment — a story that you would like to cover. This story idea will go a long way toward making people feel comfortable with you photographing them, providing an answer to the inevitable question they will ask when you make the request: why?

It’s very important to force yourself to interact with people when you want to take their picture. Some people are naturally friendly and enjoy walking up to strangers and introducing themselves. The camera gives you an excuse to become one of those people.

If you see something interesting happening that might change if you stop to introduce yourself, feel free to snap a few frames. Soon, the subject will figure out what’s going on. At that point you’ll want to tell them who you are, what you’re doing and ask them if it’s okay to hang around a bit.

The hanging around part is important because it can take awhile for the situation to return to normal once you’ve had “the conversation.” In fact, sometimes you’ll need to tell people to try and ignore you. The other reason hanging around is important is because you don’t want to have the attitude of being a “taker.” You have entered into a social contract with your subject and you owe them the courtesy of spending some time with them.

I admit that the language barrier can be a problem in the field, but it always helps to practice in a place where you share a common language, so it at least becomes easier to make acquaintances at the drop of a hat. Sometimes in a foreign country the only friendly interaction needed for a successful photograph is a well-timed smile.

Also don’t forget that since you are getting something from this social contract you should try to give something back. For example, that beautiful girl selling lavender at the seaside in Croatia? Buy some of her lavender then stick around a little and get a great photo. Crazy street musician in Rome? Throw a little something in his hat. Amazing-looking barber in Beijing? Maybe it’s time for you to get a haircut. Might not be the best haircut you’ve ever had, but you will get much better photos — and one really great story to tell.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.

Do you have something you want to ask Dan about travel photography? He’ll be answering reader questions periodically on the blog, so be sure to leave a comment.

 

Comments

  1. Marty S
    Poland
    March 15, 2013, 4:38 pm

    I tried this a few times in Poland with people who did not speak English.
    The first was a farmer on market day. I had stopped to look at his products and explained in bad Polish that my grandfather came from the country. After a few minutes, I held up the camera in a questioning gesture and he nodded his head. It is one of my favorite photos from the trip.
    Later, I tried it with a woman inside a chateau where we had lunch. She politely declined and I moved on.

  2. T Lehman
    Seattle, WA
    March 16, 2013, 12:47 am

    I too noticed this as I travel and photograph people. Hanging around helps or asking them to to continue doing what they were doing. Something else I also find I need to do during my photography with babies and children. Kind of the same thing I need to get them comfortable with me being there and then they forget or ignore me and the magic happens!

  3. Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney
    wheresmybackpack.com
    March 16, 2013, 3:16 am

    Love this post, Dan, agree wholeheartedly with every point you make. One other thing I do is to show some of the photographs to my subject during the shoot, it often puts them much more at ease with having me around.

  4. Elizabeth
    Florida
    March 16, 2013, 9:42 pm

    Hi, I’ve always wondered if there are any legal implications that go with photographing strangers, especially if the photos are published. In situations where you photograph passerbys who are unaware of a photo being taken, is there a risk of legal troubles if you publish that photo since it was technically without their consent. So I was just wondering if this has ever been a problem for you and how you can avoid any problems? Thank you!

  5. shirley
    Hanzhou China
    March 17, 2013, 9:21 am

    Amazing-looking barber in Beijing? l want to know what made you thought so .

  6. karia
    Poland
    March 17, 2013, 5:10 pm

    Really useful guide! thanks!

  7. Barbara Gentry
    Jacksonville Florida
    March 18, 2013, 10:20 am

    Thank you so much for your tips. I did a series of the homeless
    People in downtown Jax., and I found that by being friendly with a smile is a great tool! Also got the feeling these people really want their photos taken, one man said to me, made him feel “special”
    Just thought I would share my experience with you.
    Cheers, Barbara

  8. Dave Sheldrake
    Portugal
    March 18, 2013, 10:51 am

    If you know you are shooting strangers print off some little flyers in the local language (Google Translate normal will do). Learn ‘Can I take your Photo please’ in the local language and smile, be friendly. Hand them the flyer to explain if they look unsure. I don’t get many ‘No’s’ doing this and I post all the photos on my FB page so people can see them!

  9. Andy Bitterer
    Germany
    March 18, 2013, 11:17 am

    Interesting article. So I thought considering that “Dan Westergren is the senior photo editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren.” was a good idea. Then I realized that Dan’s tweet count is 0. I must be missing something. :)

  10. Charlene McIntosh
    Toronto, ON
    March 18, 2013, 1:00 pm

    Hi Dan,
    I have gotten comfortable in my own city with asking people if I can take their picture and I find that most of the time the answer is yes. What I would like to know is what if you are a freelance photographer looking to sell some of the photos? When would I need a signed release and when can I get away without one? If I am writing a story with the photos to sell to a magazine would I need a release?

  11. Garfield Stone
    St. John's, NL Canada
    March 18, 2013, 7:15 pm

    A very good article – I am almost pathologically shy, but this has given me a bit of confidence to perhaps try it. Good comments too. When I travel I spend a lot of time walking around with my camera, sometimes with a destination but sometimes randomly, and I try to go to places that aren’t on the tourist route. This raises one slight concern: are there resources that can help you identify places in various cities or countries where perhaps you shouldn’t go?

  12. Jenn
    Cincinnati
    March 21, 2013, 4:00 pm

    I am a professional photographer so I had to get used to this really quickly . . . I do a lot of media/photojournalism work. The more you do it the less you care . . . . Sometimes I have to hit a quota of 75 photos of different groups of people. So yes I am pretty much fearless at this point but I most definitely didn’t start there.

  13. Ann
    Germany
    March 21, 2013, 8:15 pm

    I also am very interested in the part when it comes to ask for a signed release. These people must be looking pretty interesting (why would you ask them to take a picture?) so you might at least like to share the photo with your Facebook-friends or even publish it. In my hometown right now there is a photo competition: Portraits. It is easy to find the most stunning people, even to make me take a photo, but what is the best way to make them allowing me to submit the photo to the competition?

  14. Kilaheem
    March 21, 2013, 11:14 pm

    good article

  15. Deana
    Costa Rica
    March 22, 2013, 10:58 am

    Great Post! Whenever I go somewhere I love getting variety in the pictures I take. Every photograph should mean something to you and make you remember why you took it in the first place. It is important to give and take when it comes to any interaction, and you never lose anything with asking my mom always tells me. I prefer a thousand times more someone asking to take a photograph than me finding out about it later in an embarrassing or awkward moment so I always try to afford the same courtesy to others. I’ll definitely try some of these tips the next time I travel. After all, some of the best memories you get however come from unexpected moments or meeting the most unexpected individuals. :)

  16. Taran Morgan
    March 22, 2013, 1:38 pm

    LOL, are you serious? Proof that NG photographers have been buying photos for years…

    “For example, that beautiful girl selling lavender at the seaside in Croatia? Buy some of her lavender then stick around a little and get a great photo. Crazy street musician in Rome? Throw a little something in his hat. Amazing-looking barber in Beijing? Maybe it’s time for you to get a haircut.”

    I think we are all out to get great photos on when traveling, but to hear a NG photographer espouse this kind of quid pro quo philosophy just reinforces my opinion that NG photographers are donkeys. Further, the next person who comes along trying to take a picture is now going to get harangued to buy from a street vendor who expects monetary compensation for his/her portrait, a dangerous precedent, and antithetical to my personal philosophy.

    Please folks, don’t do this.

  17. Lew Lorton
    United States
    March 22, 2013, 1:53 pm

    I do quite a bit of street and travel photography and while I agree with the ‘hanging around’ part but I would never ‘pay’ for a picture.
    Ever
    Ever
    What you get is fake ‘poses’.
    Hang around long enough to take a picture as a new friend and if you can’t do that, pass on.

  18. Dan Westergren
    United States
    April 10, 2013, 5:07 pm

    @Taran Morgan and Lew Lorton.
    I’m afraid you missed my point. To me there is a huge difference between “Buying photos..” and showing someone you appreciate their presence in a place and would like to take their photograph. I’m not suggesting you should give the street musician a $20 bill and ask them to pose. I put change in the hat for almost every street musician I see even when I’m not carrying a camera.

    The camera is a great tool for experiencing the world, meeting people and making friends. The last thing I would want is to be considered a “taker.” So, it’s my responsibility to give something back, even though most of the time it’s just a nod or smile.

  19. Gari Vibber
    United States
    April 13, 2013, 9:11 am

    Thank You Dan for taking the time to respond to Taran and Lew. I agree with your philosophy, it is easy to be a taker. When I “trade” a little money for an improved photographer/subject relationship, I am giving something of little value for a moment of someone’s life.

  20. Mariana Warner
    United States
    April 13, 2013, 10:15 am

    Thank you, Dan Westeren, for those tips. I agree with you about not wanting to be a “taker,” as a photographer of strangers. Also, as the occasional unwilling subject of a photographer acquaintance who wants candid photos, I don’t appreciate having my photo taken against my wishes, if I have made it clear that I don’t want to be photographed. I consider that a gross intrusion. I like your thoughtful approach.

  21. Dave, the lazy photographer
    Toronto, Canada
    April 13, 2013, 11:34 am

    If I’m shooting a street performer or someone like that I’ll sometimes just tap my camera lens and point to the person and nod.

    If I really want something candid, I’ll set my aperture to F8 to get a wider depth of field and up my ISO to get a fast shutter speed, then shoot from the hip. I’ve captured some of my favourite photos this way.

    http://www.LazyPhotographer.ca

  22. Kelly Nutty
    USA
    April 13, 2013, 12:19 pm

    Absolutely a huge difference between buying a photo and appreciating the experience. The former is my trip to Peru. Locals in Pisac and Cusco walked around in “traditional dress” with their baby critters in a basket and practically took the money from my pocket so I could get an “authentic” picture. I declined. Which made them very unhappy.

    The latter is my trip to Paris. A local violinist was playing at the Sacre Coeur. My friend and I rested right near him and basically got serenaded by him. We took some photos of and with him and wanted to express our appreciation for his talent and attention.

  23. Gary Parton
    Cleveland, Tennessee
    April 13, 2013, 8:22 pm

    Good article Dan. This is something I really want to get into.

  24. Jerry Jordan
    Texas
    April 13, 2013, 10:42 pm

    I was in a bar in the Kakadu area of Australia. I saw a man with a marvelous beard. I went up to him and said, “Sir, you have the best beard that I have seen in Australia, may I take your picture?

    He sort of reared back looking down at me and said, ‘Sir, I don’t believe I know you.”

    I introduced myself and he did likewise and then he responded, “Now that we know each other, yes you may take my picture!”

  25. Paul Stanley
    Getting that release
    April 13, 2013, 11:58 pm

    I still want the straight answer. I have submitted a couple shot to NG for some contests and in the guidelines it says be prepared to furnish a release of a person if you send in a picture of someone.
    What is the truth.

  26. Paul Stanley
    Kino Bay Mex
    April 14, 2013, 12:01 am

    One other comment, most of the subjects in Mex, Tarahumara, Seri, Yaki, and Mexicans, I have difficulty communicating with. I do have some great shots but no release.

  27. Jin wei
    China
    April 14, 2013, 3:08 am

    This article is very good.I like it.

  28. Susan
    South Africa
    April 14, 2013, 10:42 am

    Dan, thank you for the interesting article. I think you have explained it very well and some aspects have been totally misconstrued by some readers.

    I was wondering though about the consent issue. I have no problem with taking photos, as you explained, for one’s travel album. I also understand that if you are out on a project and you know you are going to use the photos for commercial aspects, that you will probably take consent forms with you, but what about the grey area in between? Say, for example, after a few months you want to use one of your travel photos (where no formal consent was obtained from the person photographed) for illustration with an article you’re writing, or you want to enter it into a competition. In your experience, what would you advise one to do in such a situation? What do photographers in general do in similar situations?

  29. Linda Peterson
    United States
    April 14, 2013, 4:16 pm

    I love the way you gave plenty of lead-in to your advice, and the examples you provided. I am a gregarious person who loves to talk to strangers, but when there’s a language barrier, I know my smile will help break the ice. Showing interest in the person you want to photograph is a perfect way to win their trust remove barriers.

  30. Carrie
    Arizona
    April 14, 2013, 5:26 pm

    Thank you Dan!
    I have been wanting to do a project and saw your post. It’s been several years since I took pictures of strangers. They make some of the best photos. Negative Nelly’s aside, I feel encouraged to go out and get my project done.

  31. Ingrid Wolsk
    Wa.
    April 14, 2013, 6:54 pm

    One answer to your question Garfield Stone is do not photograph people in Jewish quarters of any city. It is a
    religious issue with them.

  32. Pamela Dumas
    Connecticut
    April 15, 2013, 1:18 pm

    I have just returned from Morocco and have very few photos of the local women and men there. You are required to ask their permission before taking a photo and 99% of them said no, so you must move on. You CAN take large panoramic shots of a street scene but you must be careful not to focus on one person or they will get very upset and come after you. While in Israel I was told not to take any photos of the folks in the very religious areas. I have also been told not to take any photos of police in most of the places I have traveled to. Great article.

  33. Pablo E. Negri
    Santiago, Chile
    April 17, 2013, 6:00 pm

    Great piece! Them, reading most of what’s posted above, I ended up in Pamela Dumas note. She’s 100% right; there’s almost no way for getting shots of people in most of the muslim countries. I’ve been there many times, and that’s the way it is. However Pamela, there’s a trick that works there. If traveling two, get an agreement with your pal/gal so to feature him/her in the planned photo. However, when shooting move the camera a bit – this doesn’t work if needing a big different angle – to closer to those you want to capture, and click. You wont get too much many times, but you will for sure. Bracketing is mandatory. I’ve got quite great shots, exactly in Marrakech as well as in other Moroccan cities. Even in those difficult “hairy” areas. Yes, I do some pro-photography. Good luck! And again… great article!

  34. Vineeta Yashswi
    Nainital, India
    May 8, 2013, 7:04 am

    Very useful information for people like me who loves street photography…Thanks for shearing…

  35. Atul Poddar
    India
    June 5, 2013, 3:29 am

    I have realy interested to photography , so before I will begging my carrier I want to learn any type of problem of photography. And this page properly help me to the undrstand how can we take a street photo without problem….

  36. Ged Simblet
    United Kingdom
    June 12, 2013, 6:42 am
  37. Mitch Bahr
    Austin Texas
    June 19, 2013, 7:50 pm

    Hey Dan. I just read your article on flipbook and was wondering if there was anyone you could hook me up with to do work for Nat Geo. I’ve been a photographer/ Videographer for about 8 years now and have worked as a Camera Assistant on Law and Order SVU and also a DP for a bunch of Kenneth Cole projects. You can see my work on my website: http://www.thebounceproductions.com/#!the-bounce I’m working as a DJ at the moment here in Austin which is great but in the next few years I’d really like to get in the field and do still work again. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Also check out Laars Diego on my magazine. Pretty funny stuff:
    http://www.thebouncemagazine.com/laars-diego-mein-klub-3/

    Take care amigo,
    Mitch

  38. Annette
    USA
    June 23, 2013, 4:02 pm

    Thanks for this article. I would like to know the answer to both Susan’s and Elizabeth’s questions re: legal issues, etc.

  39. Flerida B. Bael
    Philippines
    July 3, 2013, 5:47 pm

    Thank you for this article. It gives a good insight for budding photographers like me.

  40. Robert
    Rotterdam, The Netherlands
    July 15, 2013, 7:43 pm

    Great article! Thank you for sharing your experience with us.
    Capturing strangers during vacation always delivered me the best shots. Much better than pictures of the highlights of the city e.g. The Eiffel tower, London Bridge or a temple in Thailand.

    Last year I was in Zambia and Botswana. Locals told me that most people don’t like to be photographed, because you might “steal their soul” when taking a picture unannounced. Be aware for legal issues, like taking photos of police, or government, or army people won’t like it either.
    In Japan people don’t mind is my experience, if you ask or smile for permission, also after pressing the shutter button.

    A friendly smile like you suggested mostly work for me, if they smile back its ok, if their not, respect that.

  41. Regina
    Belgium
    July 21, 2013, 5:55 pm

    My job currently exists out of photographing families in a swimming pool and after that selling the pictures. Laws can be binding where you need permission to make a photograph, but this was interesting to read as I too notice asking if they want photos isn’t usually working.
    To find a connection with people and respect their privacy, find the link that holds them in that place and talk about that works. In my job this includes playing with children, giving them little directions especially with body gestures to have them smile in the wicked devilish manner children do and capture that moment. Even if parents don’t like to be on a photo in their bikini just asking the children to go give mommy a biiiig kiss always works and then showing the photo (usually close up) where you can’t see much of their bikini makes them allow for more photos. Especially letting people know their photos aren’t getting published anywhere without their permission is enough.

  42. Taulos Mphalasa
    Blantyre-Malawi
    August 12, 2013, 6:06 am

    I have really enjoyed the tip and will make use of it. But how I approach other people who are well known in the area eg politicians or business gurus. Some of these people always have security personnel who always blocks your way and are not friendly at all?

    Taulos

  43. Dev
    Trichy, India
    October 15, 2013, 6:41 am

    Very useful tips.

  44. Lebron James
    USA
    October 31, 2013, 8:32 am

    Good job. Really Descriptive.

  45. YISHAY SABAN
    Israel
    January 8, 4:17 am

    The best way is making them know you. As they say – ‘don’t be a stranger’…