The Secret to Approaching and Photographing Strangers

Taking photos of strangers on the street, doing their everyday things, can be a bit of a challenge. Well, taking the photo is the easy part, getting a stranger to let you take it is the scary part. Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind Humans of New York (HONY), just might be the best in the world at stopping random people on the street and getting them to let him take their photograph. Here’s how he does it:

In 2010, Brandon set out to photograph 10,000 people in the not-always-so-friendly city of New York. His goal was to create a catalogue of New York City’s inhabitants by plotting their photos on a map. But, as he went out every day to photograph these people, he also got to know them a little. Now, Humans of New York is a widely popular photoblog and New York Times bestselling book, offering intimate insights of the people living in the city. (Via PetaPixel)

To date, the blog has over 6,000 photos of New Yorkers alongside inspiring, personal, and often funny quotes and short stories they have shared with Brandon.

photographing strangers

Brandon shares his subjects’ stories and advice on his blog.

Since he has approached over 10,000 people, Brandon has become quite the expert at knowing how to make strangers feel comfortable enough to let him take their photos. Even more challenging, he gets them to open up in short interviews, which are really just brief, natural conversations.

“It’s taking the atmosphere of fear and strangeness and uncomfortableness and turning that into an atmosphere of intimacy where people feel comfortable to disclose in a very short amount of time.”

Brandon figured this out by doing it 10,000 times and getting beaten down. He’s been yelled at many times and has made a lot people very nervous and uncomfortable. As he kept at it, he naturally learned how to make people comfortable when first meeting them.

When he first started HONY, Brandon experimented with wording a lot; he thought about which words would work best to allow him to get this person to take their photograph. He basically had a script, a speech, that he tinkered with constantly, debating between words like portrait or photograph, really trying to make it perfect, to maximize the effectiveness to make people comfortable.

making people comfortable

Sometimes you’ve got to get down to your subject’s level—literally.

He eventually realized that his approach had nothing to do with the words he was saying.

“It’s all about the energy that you’re giving off. It’s just 100 percent energy.”

Brandon says the worst energy you can give off is nervousness. But, it’s almost impossible to not be nervous if you haven’t approached people 10,000 times.

If you walk up to somebody and you’re shifting about, not looking them straight in the eye, they can feel your nervousness and subconsciously react to it, automatically getting nervous themselves.

Tips for Photographing Strangers

The way he does it is just by being as calm and nonthreatening as possible. His tips:

  • It’s easier to approach someone standing alone. People standing with friends or someone they know tend to clam up.
  • Never approach from behind. (Brandon will stealthily make his way to the other end of the street to come from a front approach.)
  • If the person is sitting, crouch down beside them to be on the same level.
  • Just ask if you can take their photograph. “Do you mind if I take your photo?” “Excuse me, is there any way I can take your photograph?”
  • If the person hesitates, and you feel the “no” coming, then explain what you’re doing and why you want their photo.
  • Always take a full body shot first, as it’s less intimate. This will help the person feel more comfortable before moving in for the close-up.

For HONY, because he wants more than just the photo, Brandon also needs to make the person comfortable enough to talk and open up. To do this, he sits down, usually on the ground at their feet, stretches back into an almost lying down position propped up on his elbows. He tries to be as non-threatening as possible. From here, he gets more intimate. He asks questions and tries to find out something about this person that is unique or personal.

meeting strangers to photograph

Connection is the key to getting subjects to open up.

4 Steps to Achieving Intimacy with Street Photography Subjects

The entire path is escalating levels of intimacy:

  1. Can I take your photo?”
  2. Explain your project, your passion, and your reasoning.
  3. Ask them something broad—a starting point to get into a conversation. “What’s your biggest struggle right now?” “Give me one piece of advice.”
  4. Expand on the initial questions to get that one thing that nobody else has told you. For example, if their advice is “take more risks,” ask them to tell you more about a time when they didn’t take a risk and regretted it.

As Brandon says, it’s very safe for someone to give a broad answer, so it’s always an effort to take the very broad and turn it into the very personal.

Your interactions with strangers are all about about open or closed energy. Your energy needs to ease the person into a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere so they open up to you. Only then will you achieve the intimacy necessary for meaningful portraits of strangers.

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