Shooting strangers

If you are involved in street, journalistic and other genres of photography with a “human interest,” you have probably wondered how to take an expressive picture of someone you do not know without the end result looking dull and yourself getting in trouble. In this piece I want to share my thoughts and experience about shooting strangers.


Is it okay to take pictures of strangers?
Staged or spontaneous?
Spontaneous images
The target and the backdrop — combining them
Plowing over
Deconcentration, or the art of woolgathering
The Eye in the Gut
The Fake Video Shoot
The Selfie
The Front Man
The Surprise
The Provocation
“No pictures!”
Befriending Characters
Into the Home
By way of a conclusion


Getting a bit ahead of myself here, I must say that sometimes there will be trouble anyway, and there are ethical issues to sort out with oneself, not to mention legal. Is it okay to take pictures of strangers, anyway? Is that not an invasion of privacy? What do Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and people from other confessions think about it? Is it all right to shoot… take pictures of policemen? In airports, railroad stations, subways? How about supermarkets and private stores? What restrictions do different countries have in place? …There are lots of questions when it comes to shooting strangers, and few of them have definite answers.

Is it okay to take pictures of strangers?

I will bypass legal issues in this article, I lack expertise. But here are some basics I have learned when talking to lawyers. In short, in most civilized countries in public places you may take pictures of anyone and anything you want. Sneaking inside someone’s house may land you in jail, but in public places you have, in principle, a free hand. If someone does not want other people to see his face, figure or something he is carrying, then it is his responsibility to conceal them. (If you do not want to be photographed in underwear in public, get some pants on.) So, for example, those Muslim women who want to hide their features from strangers can make use of a veil. Of course, in reality there are more complications, but in general and on average the situation worldwide is as described.

Let us imagine that in a public place a woman’s skirt flew up, flashing panties. Someone snapped a picture. May he publish it? There is no definite answer to this, and the country’s laws and customs will apply. But in most cases the woman’s say, yes or no, is going to matter a great deal.

Suppose further that the woman noticed being caught at her indecent and demanded that the photographer delete the picture or expose the film. Must he obey? In this case the answer is certain — the woman has no right to make such a demand. But there are also legal issues with publication. Supposing that anything and anyone may be photographed, a great many subjects may not be shown to the public, and then not to every purpose. For instance, there are usually special limitations on the use of pictures with human subjects in advertising.

Suppose now that in the country where you took the picture of the woman and plan to publish it the law is on your side. You are entitled to publication, but you know for a fact that the model would object. What to do? This is a question of ethics rather than law, so you have to make your own decision.

Alexander Petrosyan, St. Petersburg, 2011

Keeping in mind creative objectives of street, spontaneous-art, journalistic (call the genres what you like) photography, I prefer not to aggravate people. In other words, if I by accident make an interesting shot of a woman with her skirt up, I will at least point to the camera and gesticulate to let her know. And if she looks unhappy, I probably will not use the shot. Then again, if the picture turns out very expressive, I may have trouble discarding it and may step over my earlier commitment. Even then I will try to get in touch with the model and explain to her why the image deserves to be published.

There is a bit of subtle point here: woman often not only have nothing against a picture of them wearing panties, but obviously want it. Which is why, in my opinion, it is best to clear up the situation, at least with gestures, right after the fact.

Staged or spontaneous?

So then, we are on the whole agreed that strangers in public places are legitimate subjects. But how do you prevent them from posing on camera? Or should you let them? Again there is no decisive answer. There are plenty of interesting pictures with strangers letting themselves be photographed, just as many where they seem not to notice the author; and sometimes it really just “seems” that way. The truth is, whether they are aware or not is irrelevant. From the photographic point of view all that matters is the final result, an expressive picture. What is more, whether a picture is staged or spontaneous is also unimportant. Although many street photographers insist on spontaneity, I am all right with a staged scene.

I remember the reaction of an Introduction to Composition student when she found out that her favorite image, Robert Doisneau’s “Kiss at the Hôtel de Ville,” which she had thought a pinnacle of spontaneously captured sensuality, was in fact a set-up. The student burst into tears on discovering the “lie,” as she said. The world had turned upside down in her eyes, nothing was true anymore. An experienced teacher was able to convince her that the picture, although staged, retained aesthetic value.

“Kiss at the Hôtel de Ville”, Robert Doisneau, 1950

The set-up was discovered in the 90s. Doisneau had seen the couple before, they studied in an acting school nearby. He needed a photo to go with LIFE magazine’s article about a romance in Paris. So he just asked the student actors to pose for him. Later on, discovering that Doisneau had become a celebrity and made lots of money off this picture, they tried to sue for a share of the profits, but that is another story (the suit failed, if memory serves).

Spontaneous images

It is very difficult to draw a line between staged and spontaneous images. Here is the story behind this picture from Ruth Orkin’s series “An American Girl in Italy, Florence.”

An American Girl in Italy, Florence, 1951. Ruth Orkin

Ruth was in Florence in the early 1950s. There she met Jinx Allen and asked her to model for a photo to go to “The Herald Tribune.” In the process Ruth noticed the lustful way Italians were staring after Jinx and asked her to stroll again. The result was the same — young guys disregarded the photographer and kept their eyes on the hotness.

When a well-known photographer Steve McCarthy is asked “Is that picture staged?”, he says “Of course not! I only asked them to step closer.”

Steve McCurry

The target and the backdrop — combining them

The classic way of shooting strangers was adopted probably around the time of Henri Cartier-Bresson and obviously because of him. The method is to find an expressive “backdrop” like some geometrically intricate street turns plus unusual lighting and combine it with an equally expressive “target,” usually a person or a group.

The backdrop and the target more or less correspond to the back- and foreground, but the target, the subject of the image, may actually be removed from the camera any distance. What is important is to have some living thing in planned (arranged) static framework. Usually photographers first look for a nice backdrop and lie in ambush for the right target. Some pictures of Cartier-Bresson himself are classic examples.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Other photographers first single out an expressive target in the crowd, then chase after the victim waiting for an attractive wall to do him against. We cannot be entirely sure this picture of Alex Webb was so composed, but the odd character in it suggests it.

Alex Webb

This approach is still common, not only in street but in journalistic photography. It is a good idea to master classic techniques, but remember, they are a rather easy way to take pictures of strangers. Sometimes they work, but usually produce fairly unremarkable and dull pictures, a man walks by a dirty wall or something. The world is changing, and we, photographers, need to keep up and invent new ways of interacting with it, I would even say, knowing it.

Plowing over

Street photographers often come across some interesting place such as a crossroads, an underpass or some store windows with original lighting. Passing through such a site, we react to the composition of lights and shadows, shapes (geometric contours and such), distribution of objects (people, animals) and feel that interesting things may happen here and an unusual picture might be made. Standing guard for a few minutes the photographer usually gets his awaited situation or view angle. Beginners then usually run off, happy, on their way. More experienced photographers often stay to plow over the scene until its potential runs out, that is, lighting or people’s behavior changes. This may easily take 20-30 minutes or even 2-3 hours, and the photographer walks away with several hundred pictures to sift through for just one prize shot, or, rarely, a few if they make a series.

There are many examples of well-known photographers plowing over their territory, often with great care. This is how may takes Elliott Erwitt had to make for this famous photo:

I could elaborate on this or similar example from someone else’s portfolio, but there is no telling with certainty how long a photographer had to work over a subject or why. So here is an instance from my own practice.

It took me about 20 minutes with about 70 snapshots to make this picture. Discarding technically flawed stuff, I had 59 files to choose from.

You may think the Muslim women in the foreground are turning away from the camera. Not so. In the beginning I was attracted by the curious shape and lighting of this “backdrop” in the courtyard of Istanbul’s New Mosque. I came close and waited, pretending to shoot the architecture. People swarmed, and I felt that pretty soon someone was bound to come and sit on this baluster. And they did in a few minutes. Two Muslim women at once walked over and sat on both sides of the pillar. They barely paid any attention to me, because I did not come over to them. It was they who had wandered into my viewfinder. The first couple of minutes they still peeked at the strange guy, but then decided to ignore me, even though I stood only a meter and a half from them. Over the next 15 minutes I remained almost still and snapped up people passing through the better lit sections of the place.

When shooting this way, the first pictures are often the best. But not always — think back on the previous example. In any case, if you have thoroughly plowed over a scene and then picked the first images, you can be sure they really are the best.

Deconcentration, or the art of woolgathering

Plowing over has its drawbacks. When we glimpse something interesting and make the first snapshots, we are usually moved by feeling rather than logical thinking. After we have rooted down to exhume a scene for everything it is worth, logical considerations begin to prescribe our vision. This may dangerously impoverish and simplify a picture’s emotional content, even if it becomes more complicated formally, in composition or geometry.

One of the best-known Russian photographers, Georgy Pinkhasov, has told me (not an exact quote):

“The ability to deconcentrate is very important to a photographer. They don’t teach it at schools, they teach how to focus…. But we can make a really good picture just when we’re woolgathering, when rational perception is off and only emotional perception is active.”

The most curious aspect is that when we are “woolgathering,” that is, surprise ourselves by turning aside and making some “accidental” shots, then come back to the main subject, strangers around are also surprised, relax and quit posing.

Here is another example from my own practice, because here, too, it is important to look inside the process. Not long ago I was shooting in Georgia and I really liked children jumping off ships in the Batumi harbour. I spent 1 hour and 40 minutes on them, made around 350 pictures, 242 without the trash. And of all those pictures I only more or less liked this one:

While that was going on, I suddenly turned around and saw other kids watching. A few of them had also been jumping and were now resting up. For some strange reason there was a little boy in a wheelchair there. Later on I figured he was somebody’s brother. With no special expectations I snapped a few pictures just to register the scene or, more likely, out of habit, and turned back to the divers.

Afterwards, looking through the trophies, I saw that one of these “random” snapshots was the prize picture in that almost 2 hour-long photo session. It was the best in expression, in lighting, in people’s behavior, which is to say, they were not obviously reacting to the camera. Here it is:

The Eye in the Gut

Let us consider a few common tricks for shooting strangers without attracting notice (not for you to play the paparazzi but for them to act natural). If successful, the image may give the viewer an intimate sense of being-there.

A very simple trick is to avoid raising the viewfinder or the camera screen to the eye. Press the button on a camera hanging from your neck or held down in the hand.

Because it is hard to control visual composition or technical settings such as focus in this case, the result is often surprising. Usually surprisingly bad, but sometimes curious. The point of view close to the ground is also unusual.

Again, there is no certainty, but judging by the angle and composition David Alan Harvey might have made this picture just so.

David Alan Harvey

Thanks to Sergey Maximishin, people talk about an Eye in the Gut in both literal sense and metaphorical: Sergey at his workshops teaches taking pictures from “the gut,” from feeling and intuition, and turning off “the head” with its intellect.

The Fake Video Shoot

I have come up with this trick myself, but I am sure many have thought of it. It has long been my experience that people on the street often tolerate video recording better than snapshot photography. After all, videos are commonly made for showing in the home, as mementos of a trip. Even if a large professional snapshot camera is doing the recording, people think they have run into an amateur, because most associate professionalism with huge specialized cameras, heavy tripods, a headphoned cameraman, a mike and all that.

So if you are interested in something but wish to stay discreet, here is what you can do. This works particularly well in wide open spaces. Turn away from the subject, switch the camera to Live View (screen focus and crop), then with the camera in outstretched arms begin a slow rotation back to the point of interest. You are displaying utter absorption in smooth panning, while in fact you are just waiting to hone in for a series of snapshots. Put up the mirror beforehand to avoid suspicious sounds, or use small mirrorless cameras like Sony Nex-7 or Fujifilm xPro-1. They look even less professional and make less noise, too.

The Selfie

Pretending to be making a selfie is another way to keep your picture-taking unnoticed. Of course, you must stand with your back to the actual subject of interest. Then, posing this way and that as if uncertain, you make surreptitious taps on shutter to capture not yourself but the subject matter.

This is how you do it.

Artyom Zhitenev

And the result looks something like this.

Artyom Zhitenev

In my experience this is rather ineffective, because I prefer wide-angle pictures with a foreground focus. In this case, squirm as you might, the foreground is going to be occupied by your moonlike mug, so the actual subject must fit in a corner for cropping. Still, this method can be useful, especially if the camera is equipped with a middle or long-focus lens.

The Front Man

Using a front man is a trick worth learning. The photographer brings along someone he pretends to take pictures of, or really does take them, in this way combining staged and spontaneous work. The model distracts the rest of the people around, and it is something they can understand. Simply shooting strangers inevitably invokes questions: “Why are you taking the pictures?”, “Who is this for?”, “Where will these pictures be published?” and so on. Ordinary people rarely can believe that someone might take pictures just for oneself, as an art form, rather than for mass media or news agencies.

With a front man they believe they understand what is going on and calm down. The photographer can move the camera fairly freely to point it at subjects and situations he really wants to capture.

I was able to make the following picture this way:

I was really shooting a model, a Spanish girl. We found an interesting location and I asked her to run past me a few times. At some point a picturesque Hindu came from behind a corner. He did not try to dodge the camera, because he saw that I was shooting someone else. But, of course, I did not fail to snap the shutter as soon as he was near. The girl model at the time was going behind my back for another take.

In some situations this trick can be very useful, in others it is an absolute must. For example, there is practically no way to take pictures in a public bath without a front man, because the bathers get way too bothered. So much that taking out a camera even in the locker is a difficult proposition.

Tripoli, Lybia, Turkish baths. Alexander Zhelezniak is my front man.


Another photographer can front just as well. This is why double-teaming is often very effective. If the partner is a kindred spirit, ready to sacrifice some of his pictures for better expression in yours, and if you are ready to do the same for him, then the two of you are likely not only to end up with interesting pictures but to have lots of fun working together.

Apparently, Cartier-Bresson already knew this trick.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Here is what I was able to get double-teaming with Andrey Zeigarnik:

We stood for thirty minutes by the market gate in Vietnamese town Cao Bang, trying to catch shadows from motorcycles’ front lights and people passing in the foreground. We would have attracted too much attention separately, because we looked very strange to the locals, hung over with cameras, and we were almost in their way, not the best spot for standing. But we joked, laughed in a nonchalant way and generally looked like tourists waiting for someone. So the market goers ignored us and walked right before our cameras, giving us just what we needed.

The Surprise

A classic way to shoot strangers is to catch them by surprise. The photographer approaches the person or group he is interested in without seeming to pay them any special attention, but keeping them in the corner of his eye. Then, in a decisive moment when he is close enough, the lighting, the situation are all perfect, he strikes — throws up the camera and takes a series of pictures. The more unpredictable the photographer’s creeping course, the closer he may get.

It should be understood that the photographer’s sudden up-periscope may produce extravagant reactions. Some people, even those with athletes’ steeled nerves, may respond to a photo explosion in the face in a way no one, even themselves, could have predicted, perhaps with a punch to the camera. If you use surprise, expect to be surprised.

Artyom Zhitenev a few years ago used a surprise tactic for his video recording, which led to intense arguments over whether it is all right to pounce on people with a camera. The answer to that is always individual and depends on every photographer’s objectives. But remember, unusual pictures of any kind often require daring, in the better sense of the word.

Direct link to the video (in Russian):

I like this quote from the clip:

“You have to be open to the world. If you hide somewhere, behind some door or window, and try to take pictures from there, it’s not gonna work. You have to be in the thick of things, together with these people, and then you’ll know.”

It is true, beginner photographers often make the mistake of using telephoto lens for pictures with strangers. Telephoto delivers and keeps you incognito, but such pictures are very rarely expressive. First, the long focus is very limited in terms of foreground and background manipulation and angle choice. Second, it is difficult to get an impression of being-there, commonality, at long range. Scenes captured from far away feel just that, distant. Third, subjects’ reaction to the photographer is often very important to the expressive quality photographers look for.

The Provocation

Up to now we have been talking mostly about shooting strangers in ways that keep them unaware of being photographed. But often it is just their reaction to the photographer that brings out new meanings.

Some photographers make a point of shooting their characters in a glaringly obvious way. This is rather unsafe, but can produce some unusual and expressive results. The St. Petersburg photographer Alexander Petrosian is a master of creative provocation. Here is what he says about his picture taken on the Red Square during a vintage car show:

(written from memory of A. Petrosian’s workshop in Moscow)

“I saw this man and came really close to him. Whipped up my camera and made a picture almost in his face. He was so taken aback, he was stunned for a few seconds. He didn’t know what to do, punch me or turn away. Then he asked me: “What did you do that for?” A decisive moment for me, otherwise I stood a really good chance of being slapped around. I don’t know why, but instead of running away, I put my face almost next to his and said in a voice of iron: “Duty!” And walked off. That left him stunned for the second time.”

“No pictures!”

Even photos where people’s reaction is obviously “No pictures!” may be very interesting.

Harry Gruyaert, Morocco

Artyom Zhitenev

Befriending the Characters

The most non-trivial way to shoot strangers is get to know them. This is closer to journalistic picture-taking than to street photography, but genre boundaries are blurry and methods cross over. Besides, here we are discussing shooting strangers, not genre definitions.

For an example I put in here several pictures from David Alan Harvey’s series “Living Proof.” The pictures in the series were taken in different places, mostly in 2006. They show many people from closed communities, hard even to meet, not to mention take snapshots of: gangsters, rappers, drug addicts and so on. The author first had to find inroads to various ghettos, use acquaintances, even accidental meetings. This is a fairly original and risky way to strangers’ lives.

David Alan Harvey
USA. South Bronx, New York. 2006. “Grillz,” corner hangout.

David Alan Harvey
USA. Los Angeles, California. 2006. Young Dre with friends…

David Alan Harvey
FRANCE. Paris. 2006. Rappers in North Paris.

Into the Home

To go on with the subject of getting to know strangers, socializing with more ordinary people also needs to be mentioned here. It is interesting from more than the photographic point of view.

You may be surprised how often people like seeing new faces, inviting strangers over, asking about their life and telling about their own. I have been to more than 30 countries and almost everywhere ordinary folk, those not involved with the hospitality business, have welcomed me with open hearts and without any ulterior motives.

If you are not aggressive, if you are friendly, polite, sincerely care to know about people’s living, with a sense of humor, you will probably have no problem getting in beyond street encounters and public places. You will have an opportunity to take intimate pictures off limits to the uncurious, discover family histories and traditions, see interesting homes and friendly people.

Usually you begin these encounters by trading a few words with, say, a home owner who is standing and smoking by the door or leaning against a fence. Hello! Hi. Nice house you have there, you built it yourself. Nah, it’s from my dad. You like it? Looks unusual. Where are you from? From Moscow. Walking around, looking how you live here. Like what you see? Sure! The people are nice, the girls are pretty, the guys look fun. And we like taking pictures of good people… One thing leads to another, and you are already invited for tea and to meet the family.

Forget about the camera for the first half an hour. They still do not know who you are, and they may get tense seeing photo equipment. Some are just uncomfortable and others are still unsure they were right to let you into the house. It was sincere hospitality that moved them, and if you get straight to business, they may feel used.

On the other hand, do not mislead your new acquaintances either. Do not hide the cameras, instead try to show from the beginning that you are a photographer. But after you are inside, forget the cameras for half an hour at least. Then, after you have found common ground with the hosts, do a face palm and say that oh, you almost forgot, you have a camera here, and can you take a few pictures for the album, because when will you ever see another house like that?

Anzor Bukharsky, an Uzbek photographer fond of country work, has mastered this approach. Here are some of his pictures.

Remember to get your hosts’ address so you can send them the results later. And if you come again, make sure to bring a little present.

By way of a conclusion

There are plenty of issues, big and diverse, in human interest photography in general and shooting strangers in special. I could not hope to fit all the answers in one article, much less make them objective. Every photographer and every case is different. Still, I hope you find these thoughts and my experience useful. Share yours. I welcome any feedback and advice. Thanks!

© Original post in Russian:
23 July 2012

“LIFELIKE: A Book on Color in Digital Photography”


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