Portrait of a man on Chitemba Beach in Malawi.

Photographing People Part II: It’s All in the Approach

In my first post on photographing people I discussed what kind of lens I usually use and what my general philosophy is on approaching strangers. Today I’ll cover when I ask for permission, how to communicate with body language, and the approach.

To Ask or Not to Ask….Permission

In most situations where I’m photographing people, if possible I prefer to ask permission (verbally or non verbally). Now this doesn’t mean I stop everybody who passes in front of my lens, but it is useful when I know I want to spend time making pictures of somebody. And of course there are moments that would be missed if I stopped to ask permission, so I take the picture! Then if I’d like to continue to shoot, I’ll ask permission.

People will occasionally tell me no, which is always disappointing, but I move on. I figure that if someone isn’t up for it, I won’t make a good picture anyway.

Two couples outside of a crepe stand in Paris

When I walked pass this crepe stand in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, I had to click my shutter immediately or the moment between the couple on the right would’ve vanished.

Body Language

Permission doesn’t need to be verbal and in fact, it can’t be if there isn’t a shared language. This is where a simple smile or a point to the camera works wonders. Or I’ll start shooting, as with the situation in the photo above, and when I’m noticed I lower my camera and give a smile or wave. I’ve gotten very few ambiguous answers with these techniques. It is usually as clear as night and day whether somebody is keen for their photo to be taken.

Krista Rossow and South African women on beach in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Although we didn’t share a language in this “discussion,” these South African women understood that I wanted to take their photos while I was on assignment in Kwa-Zulu Natal and later delighted in hamming in front of my lens. Photo by George W. Stone.

The Approach

I find that if I go into a situation nervous and unsure, people can sense the unease in my approach and will react similarly. I’m not always in the right state when approaching strangers, so I might need to give myself a pep talk. It is uncanny how people pick up on unspoken cues.

Portrait of a young monk studying at a monastery in Myanmar.

While photographing at this monastery in the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, I moved quietly, watched with interest, made eye contact, and exchanged smiles.

In the upcoming posts I’ll cover putting your subject at ease, model releases and paying for photographs, lens choice, and much more. Please leave your own tips on photographing people in the comments below.