How To Take Photos Of Strangers

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If you were to ask me a year ago how to take good people photos whilst traveling I wouldn’t have a single clue. At that time I was in awe of photographers who could walk up to anyone on the street and take a photo of them.

I was terrified to approach anyone. If I did, I either made the mistake of hesitating for way too long, or felt super awkward when I took a ‘candid’ shot. So I just never did it. However this completely changed, when I traveled to Myanmar for the New Year of 2017 and just couldn’t stop taking photos of people throughout the entire trip. So what changed?

Taking photos of strangers can be intimidating, but also fun if done right

I made the first step and kept practicing until it wasn’t such an effort anymore.

The friendliness of the people in Myanmar was a major reason and proved to me that it wasn’t so difficult after all. But the main thing I have learned, throughout the time I spent in Myanmar and practiced people photography, is that I unconsciously developed a three-step technique, that I swear others must have discovered as well (so I am not claiming it as my own). Only after many readers have asked me how I go about taking photos of people, I realized that I followed the same technique to get both good posed and candid shots:

1. Always ask for permission

For me its so important to feel at ease when taking photos, especially if you take photos of people. I am all about being respectful. Taking sneaky candid shots, especially when the person you’re taking photos of might spot you, fills me with dread. So instead I always ask for permission, if I see someone I find interesting. Not only does it make you feel better, it also opens you up to interesting conversations and enriches your experience of traveling. It’s a matter of establishing eye contact, pointing at the camera and then at them. This is universally understood, even if the other person does not speak your language at all. This is what I call the ‘First Shot’ and I always show them this photo. The act of walking up to the person and showing them that you have taken a nice shot of them, usually breaks the ice and puts them at ease. The worst case scenario is that the person will say no and this happens maybe 20% of the time.

My friend Lea showing photos she has taken to a man on Yangon’s Circle Train

2. Take a posed shot

After showing them the ‘First Shot’, I always go and ask for a second photo. This one is the ‘Posed Shot’ where you can direct the person and play the ‘professional photographer’ with them. This might not be a single photo, but a series of shots. It is very important to keep showing them the results to keep them relaxed and engaged. Try to continually communicate with them, by showing them other photos you took on the camera as a way to keep the conversation going. This is where I get to understand the person and their story, and often gain an insight into their life and culture. I always say ‘thank you’ or ‘great’ in the local language, to show my appreciation and say goodbye with a big smile once I am done.

A Burmese woman posing for the camera in Hpa An

3. Take a candid shot

The most interesting and precious shots I got, is the ‘Third Shot’. Now that you have established a personal connection and made the person, as well as yourself feel at ease, it is very easy to get a candid shot. Most of the time the person will resume their activity and return to the same pose that first got your attention. Now that they know you and don’t suspect any foul play, they usually let you get on with the photography. This time you feel good about it, knowing that you got their permission and made a ‘human’ contact with the person, you are taking photos of.

I asked this monk for a photo, this is the posed shot I took of him
I followed up with this when he went back into his original pose

If they do look back at you, just give them a smile or a thumbs up. And if it’s a really good shot, show it to them again and the people around them. This always guarantees a great atmosphere and other subjects keen to have their photos taken.

Sometimes taking a candid shot is the only way to capture the moment, but remember to always be respectful

So next time you go out there, try this three-step technique and let me know how it went! You can find more photos of Myanmar here: Faces of Myanmar