Photographing Strangers with Respect: What (Not) To Do in 8 Steps5 min read

I’m sure you’ve encountered a situation like this while you were travelling abroad or simply strolling around your hometown. You spot a fantastic scene in the streets or want to capture a particularly charismatic stranger, but you’re not sure how to approach the situation. Do you just click and secure that photo, risking a very awkward encounter, or do you approach the strangers you want to capture with your lens? I’ve experienced many moments like this myself. And I’ve made mistakes. But that means that over the past few years, I’ve also managed to learn a few lessons. There’s definitely a few factors to take into account if you want to treat your ‘subjects’ with respect. In eight steps, here’s what (not) to do when photographing strangers.

A Guide to Photographing Strangers With Respect

The traditional Indonesian dance group Sangar Sa’Haluan

1. Talk to them first, introduce yourself and ask for their name(s)

This might be a bit of a challenge if you’re shy or introverted, but it’s the most important step in the process: if you see someone or a group of people that you would like to capture, talk to them first. Introduce yourself and tell them why you would like to take a photo of them. This way, you transform yourself from a complete stranger into a person with a name. It only takes a few seconds and it works like magic! What’s even better is to ask for their names and note them down in your notebook or phone. If you’re planning on writing something along with your photos, this can make your story much more personal as well.

Verbal permission from your subject is always best. But sometimes, when you might not speak the same language, body language can be a good indicator. Point to your camera and if the person smiles and/or nods, you can usually go ahead with your shot.

Ice cream shop in Krakow
Since these young women in Krakow were the main subjects of my photo, I asked them for permission

When Should You Ask for Permission?

And if you’re wondering about when you should go up to a person to ask for permission, ask yourself these questions: will the person be fully recognisable in my shot? Will that person be (one of the) the main subjects in your shot? Could this shot be embarrassing or compromising for the person in any way? These three questions as a quick ‘test’ should make photographing strangers much more straight-forward than you may have expected. If the stranger is only a background figure or silhouette in your shot, you can generally go ahead with taking a photo.

I will show you two examples below, one where you DO have to ask (left) and one where asking for permission is not necessary (right):

2. Don’t hide your camera when photographing strangers

I understand taking photos of strangers can be a bit awkward or scary, but trust me: just be up-front about it. Let people see your camera and be confident about it. If you yourself seem unsure about what you want to do with that camera, others aren’t going to get excited about it either. The worst thing you could do is hide your camera or even secretly take shots of strangers. It can be very disrespectful and if they see you, they will instantly distrust you.

Don’t forget that if you want to photograph strangers, you are asking them to put themselves in a vulnerable position. Look at it from their perspective. They are ‘exposing’ themselves to be captured by a camera and who knows what a stranger may do with that photo? Trust is the single most important element in these situations.

Jorge Santos Luiz in his painting studio in Covilhã, Portugal
Bebe poses with his mural in Lajatico
Bebe poses with his very own mural in Lajatico, Italy

3. Make them feel comfortable

If you do encounter a friendly stranger who is willing to be in your photo, make sure to make them feel as comfortable as possible. Show them a smile and let them know that they look amazing! There must be a reason why you wanted to capture this stranger, so it shouldn’t be hard. Sure, you can try to give them a few instructions if you want to (although that usually makes things look less ‘natural’). But DON’T give them a million commands about how they should pose or what facial expression they should wear. Why on Earth should a stranger model for you for free? Be grateful that they agreed in the first place. Often, it’s best to just let them know you will take a few photos while they keep on doing their thing.

I emailed this shot to Markus and Floris, who both work at the Haarlem market, Holland

4. Show the photo to the stranger (and offer to email it to them)

Once you’ve taken your shots and are happy with the results, show the photos to the person you’ve photographed as well. This, again, is about basic trust and respect. Think about it: wouldn’t you hate not knowing what you looked like in the photos? You would want to know what kind of image will be released into the world, especially in today’s digital age. By showing the photo, you involve your subject(s) and make them feel more in control and part of the process.

Sometimes I also offer to email the photo to the stranger I’ve photographed (for personal use), especially if it’s someone that may not necessarily have easy access to high-quality photos of themselves. Some photographers may disagree, but it’s a fair exchange from an ethical point of view. The stranger has helped you by agreeing to be in your photo. And sure, it may be a flattering experience for them, but what else do they get out of your photo shoot?

An Indonesian family in Wakatobi poses for my photo

5. Be careful when taking photos of children

So far, I’ve shared all these steps while assuming that you’re taking photos of adult subjects. When it comes to children, or minors I should say, you have to be very careful. Young children sometimes aren’t capable of fully understanding the situation and can’t always give proper consent for a photo. It might be better to ask the parents for permission. Just think of all the consequences when Steve McCurry’s published that famous photo of Sharbat Gula, only a child at the time.

Personal Use or Commercial Use?

I’ve also assumed that you’re photographing strangers for personal motivations and not ‘commercial use’ (a.k.a. using/selling the photos in any way to make profit). Make sure to be especially respectful when it comes to kids. Even if you’re not planning on ever using your photos commercially, never distribute a photo of an identifiable child (or humans of any age, for that matter) to promote things without written permission from your subjects.

Again, children can’t give you proper consent. Remember: as the photographer alone, you are incapable of giving others full permission to use your shots (commercially or not). You also have to ask permission from the subject. If the subject is a child, the parents also need to agree.

When photographing strangers, street performers are 'easy targets', but make sure to give them a few coins in return

6. How to treat street performers with respect

Another interesting situation may arise when taking photos of street performers. Obviously, they are there to be seen, but that doesn’t mean you can just take photos and do whatever you want with them. Yes, street musicians or dancers are performing in public space and you are technically free to take a photo. Still, they are usually there to earn a living (or at least some pocket money). If you want to take photos of street performers, give them a few coins as a fair exchange. In my experience, this will create a friendly atmosphere and any street performer will let you take as many photos or videos as you want.

7. No means no

Importantly, I do want to remind you that there will be some situations where a stranger doesn’t want to be in your photo. And that’s OK. Don’t force it, because no means no. You have to let go of that shot, because what’s more important in the end? Spoiler alert: it’s not your photo or the number of likes you expect to accumulate on Instagram. Even if you took a shot before you asked, be respectful and don’t use that photo. Be mindful of people’s personal boundaries and privacy. That’s just part of being a decent human.

Photographing strangers: I asked Ummahan for permission, a Turkish woman who creates traditional Turkish carpets
Ummahan makes traditional Turkish carpets
A man prepares a crêpe and smiles at my camera
I asked for a photo after I ordered a crêpe au chocolat from this Parisian crêpier

8. Don’t forget to say thank you

Thankfully though, photographing strangers is usually a very enjoyable experience. You will find that plenty of strangers will agree and would actually love to be photographed. And when you do, don’t forget to thank them after you’ve taken your shots. If you’ve followed all the previous steps, you will have surely created a friendly, positive setting. Thanking your subject will help transform this encounter into a wonderful memory for both you and the person you’ve photographed.

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