How to Photograph Strangers

photograph strangers

By Jonathan Cherry

Friends first

Over the years I have found that some of my favourite photographs of people are of my friends. If you have a desire to photograph people then the best place to start is with your mates. As a teenager I would often take my Pentax PC-100 compact camera around with me to document my weekend antics with friends. Later on I bought into Lomography and used an LCA to photograph all aspects of my life growing up. Throughout my studies and even now I will call up friends and ask if they are free for a portrait because I know that most of them understand that as a photographer, I need people to photograph. Providing people aren’t too busy, they will usually give me the time of day.

photograph strangers

I would also say that you should make it a priority to take your camera with you when you go out on short trips or holidays with friends because it is there that you will have time and space to photograph friends and document your surroundings. Having said all of this, there is still something special about photographing a stranger it’s just that, if you want to photograph people, it’s best to start with your friends. From there…

photograph strangers

Embrace the fear

There will always be an element of fear when photographing a stranger. I see people everyday whom I would love to photograph and more often than not, I will not approach them because the fear in my belly takes over — thoughts that roll around in my head are the following: “they will say no,” “they will be embarrassed,” “what’s the best way to ask?” or “they will say yes but it might not go to plan.”

I have the best luck when I have an excuse to photograph someone. My excuse could be something as simple as I’m doing a project on local people — that is my usual staple saying. Otherwise, if you are a student, just say that you are doing a project for school, college or university — that always gets the sympathetic vote.

photograph strangers

Show your work

A great way for people to understand why you might want to photograph them is to show some of your work. I will always carry a copy of my book Blue Watch to show a potential stranger an example of the kind of images I take. Usually people aren’t even interested in the book but it gives them the impression that you are serious and know what you are doing. It is quite likely that they will then agree to have their photograph taken. If you do not have a photo book to show, maybe get a postcard printed with a portrait on to show. I remember reading that Richard Renaldi would take around a copy of his amazing book Figure and Ground to show people when photographing for his newest book Touching Strangers — this was always set to be a winner as his first book was so good.

photograph strangers

Someone who knows someone

The best way to get a “yes” when looking for strangers to photograph is to find someone who knows someone. Quite recently, I moved house to St. Neots in Cambridgeshire — it’s a new area to me where I don’t really know many people at all. One of my first moves was to “like” the St. Neots Facebook page and put up a few posts.

The mistake some people might make at this point is to generalize what they want to photograph. For example, you might write that you are new to the area and would like to take some people’s portraits. This is likely to get a low response! If you were to write something more specific like you are interested in photographing leisure activities and then show some of your previous portraits, you are more likely to get a way in.

photograph strangers

“A way in” is a great thing because once you have established a connection, you can then be trusted to a degree. You might then take some photographs of a local sporting leisure activity during which you can ask to make some individual portraits. Once you get the ball rolling, it is easy to establish more connections through someone who knows someone.

photograph strangers

Big cameras are better

Taking time over portraits is something I am keen to do. I use a Hasselblad on a tripod most of the time. This allows the subject to relax and often look more natural when I’m shooting. I understand that this isn’t always possible and photographers will always have differences when it comes to equipment. Having read countless interviews with photographers who use 4×5 or 8×10 cameras, it seems that having that time to set up and focus is key when it comes to getting the most out of photographing strangers.

It’s important to ask politely for someone’s portrait and then explain that it will take a few minutes to set up the shot, etc. Do not feel like you need to rush at this point. Almost make a point of taking a little bit of time to get things right. Use your light meter, ask them to move into a space where you see the shot looking strong and then focus and SNAP away. By creating a clear and calm atmosphere you will get good results out of your subject. In the complete opposite nature you could photograph strangers like this.

photograph strangers

Face to face

Everyone is different and every photographer will have a different approach to photographing strangers or people in general. Over the last few years, I have made so many more connections with people by just going into places and asking if I can photograph. Then, after arranging a date to go back in, I have free reign to use my camera and people know that I am there to photograph. It’s important to take in some of your work to show people so they get a good idea of your style and also it just reinforces that you are professional. Don’t waste too much time on the Internet cold-calling people because quite often it just doesn’t work. The way you get into photographing people and places is simply by showing your face.

photograph strangers

photograph strangers

To browse Jonathan Cherry’s photographers of strangers and friends, visit one of his online locations here:

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