Apr 122013

Can I Take Your Picture

How to talk to strangers

Our mother’s taught us,

don’t talk to strangers. Maybe

that’s why so many photographers

struggle to get close to their

subjects. During a chance

the NYC participants saw

that people appreciate when

you take the time to talk

to them.


How do we get them to turn around and still get a decent photo? Matera [ I T A L Y ] © Adam Marelli

No Pictures, No Pictures

Photographing strangers can be a daunting proposition.  It was one of the focuses of our NYC Workshop this past summer.  What if they get mad, what if they yell at me, or what if they go completely psycho on me?  Odds are, most people will simply say no pictures.  Even the school of Bruce Gilden photographers have hardly been bothered with their “mugging style portrait.”  For all the threats I read on websites, no one has punched out Charlie Kirk or Eric Kim.  Keyboard warriors are much more violent than the real thing.  This is not to say there are some certifiable lunatics out there, but the odds are pretty slim that someone will do anything more than turn away or say “don’t take my picture.”

The world is more interested when its looking you in the face. Matera [ I T A L Y ] © Adam Marelli

Be Honest

What do you do if there is a picture you would like to take, but the person does not want to allow it?  Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Am I really interested in this person, or are the just a odd looking person?
  2. If they want a copy will I give them one?
  3. Would I talk to them if I did not have a camera?


If you answered no to any of those three questions, I would not take the picture.

Many situations seem scarier than they really are…This was a peaceful meeting of Tannese elders. Tanna [ V A N U A T U ] © Adam Marelli

How to overcome the fear of photographing strangers

When a photographer says to me that they have trouble shooting strangers, the first thing I look at is how they interact with other people.  Most photographers who say they struggle with the confidence to shoot people, don’t actually have a photography problem.  They usually have a people problem.  The idea of talking to strangers is the bigger issue.  If we want to get really psycho-analytical, the fact that they are considered “strangers” and not “people” is probably a bigger problem.

If talking to a new person is a tough, then photographing them will be even tougher.  It leads to foolish ideas like hip shooting and 400mm lenses on the sidewalk.  If you see someone doing this tell them, ” Don’t be a pervert or a creep…it gives the rest of us a bad name.”

Malia, a new mom, was happy to show off her new treasure Kennedy in Tanna. Tanna [ V A N U A T U ] © Adam Marelli

Feminine Energy

Photography, for better or worse, is a male dominated field ( I would argue for worse).  One (of the many) lesson that men can learn from women is how to approach people.  Women have a much easier time with street portraits.  They can photograph children without being a pedophile, they can photograph another women without being perverted, and they can photograph the most menacing subjects in the world because they are not threatening.  They can put their subjects at ease and have the potential for a much greater level of intimacy because of their approach.  Men can learn a lot from this.

Richard was not about to have his picture taken, until I took the time to chat with him about his hometown and a few other gripes he has with NYC. © Adam Marelli

On the Bench

During the NYC workshop, three of the female participants walked by an older gentleman sitting on a bench in Nolita.  As they lifted their cameras he said, “Don’t take my picture!”  It was the beginning and end of that shoot.  I was walking a few steps behind them.  Sitting next to the gentleman was a young woman who was was just getting up.


When he saw my camera he told me, “No pictures for you either.”

I said, “Sure thing, mind if I sit down?”

“If you want.” he said.


We struck up a simple conversation.  I asked him where he was from, he asked me if I was from the C.I.A.? He revealed that he grew up in Paterson New Jersey, I confessed, much to his disappointment, that I was not in the C.I.A. but rather the Secret Service.  The obvious lie broke the ice and we started talking about Paterson, which has a very interesting building history.  Paterson NJ, birth place of my grandfather used to be the stain glass, tin, and brick making hub for New York City.  Almost all of the tin stamped ceilings you see in Soho lofts came out of Paterson.  Also, many of the older residential buildings in the city are made from the sand of the Passaic River that cuts through Paterson.  Bricks used to come in endless shapes and sizes that architects and masons would specify for project.  Paterson used to be a serious place for manufacturing but fell on to hard times after WW2.

Richard was surprised by my interest in the city and we spent the next ten minutes exchanging stories about Paterson and New York.  At the end of our conversation I said, “So what about that portrait?”

He said, “Sure, can you mail me a copy?”

In spite of his rough approach, I could see in his eyes there was something softer that wanted to come out. © Adam Marelli

Richard gave me his address and the rest is history.  While he started off by saying “No pictures,” what he really meant was that he did not want to be passing fodor for a bunch of photographers.  But if I was willing to chat with him, he would be willing to sit for me.

People don’t want to feel like a piece of meat.  The hit and run style of street shooting leaves people with a bad taste in their mouth.  It gives off the impression that you really are taking something from them, instead of having a meaningful exchange.  If you are going to take their picture, spend a little time getting to know them.  All to often, I see photographers hurry through scenes only to come out the other end with images that feel like they were taken in passing.

The next time you are out shooting, if you are not already in the habit of meeting someone new, strike up a conversation with a new face.  It could be a taxi driver or security guard or a random guy on a bench.  When mom told us not to talk to strangers she only wanted to protect us.  But as photographers, the more strangers we talk to the better.  Because eventually they stop being strangers are just become people other than ourselves.  The barrier that exists between two people is only an illusion.  Once it is removed, the worlds mix and we discover that even in the most remote places, humans are more alike than we might like to admit.

Remember to smile.



  43 Responses to “Can I Take Your Picture”

  1. Very opportune post, I was thinking my self about this topic…

  2. The smile helps a lot! Yes I still struggle with talking to strangers when I am out photographing. I want to give in and go back to the 135mm lens. Sometimes I do and fell really bad because I have been taught better and I know better. The barrier between people is mental and it is a constant struggle I have inside myself. I just need to do it more and more to “get over it.” Also experienced photographers can look at your picture and usually tell if it is a forced perspective that the 135mm lens offers up. Be a part of your environment is what Bresson said and it is true! Funny thing is I have seen a video of him standing on his tip toes sneaking a picture really quick. Also I believe in his most famous picture he was hiding behind the fence with the lens poked through a knot hole.

    • Hi Gary,

      There are rare moments where we need to get in and out without disturbing the scene too much, but it is rare.

      I see this trend in street work of these “drive by” style shots. Aside from the fact that the hit rate is really low, the so called keepers are still pretty lame.

      If you want to go with the 135mm as a starting point, its not a bad idea. Every few months drop a focal length from 135 to 90 to 75 until you hit 50 and 35.

      Cartier-Bresson lived in a different era. And most of his “famous” pictures are usually not the good ones. That fence picture was a happy accident that deserves no more than a by line in an introduction essay about his career. I dont get the sense he was really proud of that, but he was not going to turn away the attention. His really good stuff he was present for. Look at the work in Mexico with the hookers and tranny’s. He was definitely talking with them.

      Give it a go, bring a smile and if you get into a bind offer to buy them a drink.


  3. This is something I really need to work on and it has nothing to do with a camera. I’m reluctant to strike up conversations with strangers and by not doing so I look back and know I’ve missed many experiences I could have learned a lot from. Now that you’ve brought it to the forefront I will begin to look at these opportunities more often now and make it a new challenge to improve my friendliness.

    • Duane,

      You are right on. I say this in workshops all the time. Most photographers do not have a “photography problem, they have a people problem.”

      Not everyone is going to want to chat and be friendly, but if you never reach out, there will be tons of opportunities missed.

      I recommend putting the camera down when you walk up to people. Tell them about your photography first. If they like what you say, most will ask you to take their picture. When they are done posing, then you will have your shot.


  4. Adam,
    Thanks for your post. There is a fine line between voyeurism and connecting with those we photograph.
    I think it’s human nature to be fearful. from both sides of the lens. Travel, be it far or around home, can connect us and break those barriers with just a bit of interest and empathy for those we choose to photograph. I agree, a smile, body language, and conversation can open up a subject, even if for the time it takes to trip the shutter.

    • Hi Warren,

      Happy the post hit home for you. It sounds like you are well on your way. Enjoy yourself and all the wonderful people (and animals) you will meet. I meet lots of nice cats and dogs too.


  5. Another incisive post. You’ve described my issue down to a T and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I certainly will put your ideas to work.

    • Hi Ron,

      Give it a go. Do you drink? It may sound silly and certainly something they would NEVER recommend in school, but it works. Have a drink, let down the guard a little. People will really respond well. Try not to be too over served. It can have many hazards. I dont think its an accident that there are scores of photographers who are love booze and cocaine. Have you ever seen a coke-head who has trouble talking to anyone? They can chat up a fire hydrant.

      If not, maybe a cup of tea will do.


  6. I really enjoyed this post. I’m in a photography class and we’ve discussed this very topic. Thank you for writing this!

  7. Very strong and powerful post Adam, thanks. Well written too, as always :-) , I particularly like the second to last paragraph, do you mind if I use that in a FB post?

    All the best,


    • Hi Vincent,

      Sure you can repost the paragraph, just drop in a link to the post for me.

      Glad you enjoyed the thought on the matter.


  8. Hi Adam,

    I really enjoyed reading your post (also enjoyed your post on using Leica via Eric Kim) and I think you really hit the nail on the head. I really do need to get out and practice photographing ‘strangers’ and thought of starting a “100 Strangers” project. I’m in NYC in September for a holiday so will have lots of opportunity to practice :-)


    • Hi Dave,

      Thank you for the kind words…the 100 Strangers sounds like a fun project. I bet you will walk away with some incredible stories.

      Keep us posted.


  9. Your second picture of Richard reveals the true reason for the questions – if all are answered yes, then there is respect. And that comes across in this photograph. A respect, by the way, that goes both ways.

    • Hey Ben,

      When I sat down with Richard, he and I both had our doubts on whether we had anything in common. But as it turns out, the conversation moved along easily.

      Photography is funny that way…sometimes you only meet people for a few minutes, but the pictures and the memories stay for a very long time. Maybe the camera is just the excuse to let down our guards and see what the world has in store for us.


  10. Hi Adam,

    I really enjoyed your post! Specially this quote “The barrier that exists between two people is only an illusion”
    Thanks for sharing this! :)


    • Hi Simon,

      Illusions are all around us. My time with monks has taught me that no matter how steadfast something seems, the odds are its all in my head. One day, when I grow up, the veil might be lifted and it will all fit together. Until then, the good days and the bad days still amaze me.

      Glad you enjoyed the article.


  11. Great post, absolutely true. You just have to start practicing, then it becomes more and more easy and natural.

  12. Hi Adam,
    Thanks for another insightful article….your line that we have an issue not about the photography but rather the approaching, engaging & talking to people encapsulates it neatly. For a lot of us inhibited folks the answer really is that you have to get out there and force yourself to engage more with people.

    P.S – are there any plans for a San Francisco workshop?

    • Hey Rao,

      Thanks for the kind words on the article.

      Photography seems to attract a shy crowd. But the more approachable we are, they greater our possibility for connecting with our subjects.

      At the moment there are no plans for a San Francisco workshop. For some reason I have been enjoying travels abroad more than in the US…but we will see what happens.


  13. Nicely stated, Adam. Your points are ones I’ve seen for myself (although it’s an ongoing effort to enact them, it seems).
    A bit of sincere conversation and a smiling attitude is the way to do it.

    • Hey Colin,

      Im sure you find this too…there are a lot of people who are really intrigued by photographers. They want to know what you shoot, why you shoot it, and how they fit into the mix. Sure, not everyone is into it, but it happens.


  14. finally some common sense!! I like the “feminine” suggestion. It’s really all about empathy, courtesy and politeness…and also non aggression. Too much male energy and aggression in street photography. Either asking or not asking this attitude works. People can “pick up” on the vibe, on your attitude…nobody’s punched me either and maybe four or five times in five years has someone said “no pictures” and that includes when I’ve photographed children. I have had parents thank me for taking their kids’ photo and asked for copies..which I always send of course!

  15. Great article Adam. I really struggle with the confidence to do this, which is odd as I’m quite an outgoing person who easily makes friends with new people. I suppose it’s just a mindset shift, focusing on the “subjects” as potential friends too.

    • Hi Paul,

      You said it right, its just a shift in mindset. If you are outgoing it should be a pretty smooth transition.

      Have at it! I bet it will go just fine.


  16. This article was interesting.

    I find however, that for me, many of the photos that I take need to be where the person is engaging in life, undisturbed me me, or anyone else. The energy of the moment for them (and me) is gone, and they have gone to “posing” mode rather then simply being.

    Oh sure, there are times that you would have great benefit for a posed photo. But I would not call that street photography, or social documentary. I would call that what it is, a portrait session.

    I do not get in peoples way, or upset them like some of the ambushers do. I simply blend in, and feel whats going on, and go with it. If I feel there is going to be a problem, not violence, rather, the moment has been corrupted, I take a pass.

    I have however gotten an idea based on your article on a idea for a portrait project. ITs kind of been in my head, and it just kind of formed reading what you had to say, Thanks for that.

    We each have out methods. We each have our goals in what we are looking for. I follow the law, and I try not to harass anyone, or stalk them. I simple take whats there before its gone. (the moment)

    Thanks again,


    • Hi Rob!

      I see and respect your point about not interacting in order to not alter the energy of the moment.

      I just take the freedom to come with a well meant comment (perhaps even a suggstion, if you’d accept it): interacting with the subjects while they are doing their thing (ex. selling stuff on a street market, unloading fish from a boat, whatever), does not necessarily mean altering the scene, missing its energy. In the two examples I just mentioned, I’d for instance talk to them “between customers” or while they’re taking a cigarette break, showing interest for what they’re doing and their lives, and most likely that would have them accept that I take photos while they keep doing their thing. You’d be surprised how much more meaningful and yet still authentic such photos can be ;-)

    • Hey Rob,

      Over the years it appears to me there are two ways to be invisible. The first is by trying to shoot undetected and the other is allowing people to see what you are doing, until they no longer care. Then they go back to life as usual. Warhol used to say “Great art is happening around us all the time, we’re just missing it.” He’s right. There are no shortage of moments. Its more about our sensitivity to it.

      This article was intended to address one of many scenarios. If photographers want to shoot people, in any setting I encourage them to try street, studio, portraiture, and more event based shooting. By absorbing a well rounded set of options “people work” in every form becomes easier.

      You are right, sometimes it better for us not to disturb the scene. Maybe that will be the next post.


  17. Well thought and written, Adam!

    If I look at my people shots, the “stolen shot” type and the ones interacting with subjects are maybe 50 – 50, but there is no doubt that the latter are way bettr photos and mean much more to me.

    Now, for me it’s fine that each photographer does it the way they like it (the result). However, I’m afraid that many try to convince themselves that they really like hip shots of by-passers just to cover they own fear to approach people. In this respect, any good article like yours may be a great help and encouragement.

    The worst thing is som photographer’s claim that it ain’t SP if the subjects are intracting with you or just aware of the camera. IMO, this myth does more harm than good to good photography (and social relations). Keep on the good work!

    • Hi Andrea,

      I am right there with you. Hip shooting, in 99% of the cases, is a happy accident at best. If putting the camera to one’s eye kills the moment, then the photographer needs to improve their approach. There is a certain skill to putting a camera up to the eye without disrupting the scene.

      There is a big part of photography that is about observation, we are all voyeurs at some level. If not we would be actors. But its not something we should hide behind.

      Candid shots come from many different approaches.


  18. Hi Adam,

    I LOVE this post, I felt like you were talking right to me saying “get over your fear/social anxiety and just TALK to people!” Though I do still have trepidations, especially because I am a woman. Sure, we may seem less creepy and more relatable, but we are also more vulnerable especially when we are alone. I consider myself at least semi-attractive with a big bright smile which I flash often. Often times when I’m shooting on the street with my expensive looking camera, my nice smile and blonde hair I feel like I’m a target for a mugging or something worse. Am I over-reacting?

    • Hi Alix,

      Glad you enjoyed the post and hopefully it gives you a little nudge in a friendly direction. From your comment alone, you sound like an easy person to meet.

      In terms of safety, I would recommend shooting with a friend. Often my girlfriend travels with me and she does not take pictures. She works as a good decoy and diffuses situations where I photography women. Typically if I photograph someone’s wife, sister, grandmother or girlfriend and they can see that “This is my girlfriend,” it makes it all smoother.

      For you, I would suggested that you shoot with someone near by. It could be a girl or a boy, but usually two is a touch safer than one. And while you are getting your feet wet, shooting people, choose places that are not a safety concern at all. This is why we all learn to swim in the baby pool or ocean’s edge.


  19. I don’t shoot street photography and just have an observation to make: your viewpoint is kind and respectful. Your choice of words reminded me of the ” French title, Images à la Sauvette, which can loosely be translated as “images on the run” or “stolen images” “(from Wikepedia), otherwise known as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment,”

  20. Hello there Adam, I just wanted to say that I found your article helpful and enlightening.
    I am not per say new to photography, my father dose more so landscape photography, I have always loved taking photos of people. I’ve only done a very little amount of Street Photography, mainly, I believe, because I am an extremely shy person and meeting new people is hard for me. My goal for this summer, (As I am only 17 years old and will have little else to do.) is to become more comfortable with doing street photography.
    So basically I guess what I’m asking here is do you have any more advise you would be willing to give me?

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read this,

    • Hi Megan,

      I would encourage you to bring a camera to social engagements. Get comfortable hanging out with people and then putting the camera to your face. Its easier to start in friendly environments.

      Over time you will start to feel more at ease shooting friends, then friends of friends, then total strangers. If all else fails…SMILE. It goes a long way.

      On June 10th I will be giving a lecture at BH Photo in NYC. Not sure if you are in the area, but you could join. Its free, only need to register.



  21. Hi Adam,

    I definitely agree with the “ask” approach and have been using it for a couple of years now.

    Interestingly enough just after reading your article I received my worst rejection yet. It was not the NO that bothered me but the comments that were made by the men afterwards. It may have been that my approach was not great – engage in conversation and then asking too soon – but these two fellows seemed to have pre-judged me before we even started.

    So my question is how do we deal with a rejection that attacks our very character? It kind of shook me up a bit and put me on tilt for the rest of the day – missed a lot of potential connections with others as well as some really interesting photographs.

    Kind Regards,

    • Hi Bill,

      When it comes to rejection, its not a matter of IF, but WHEN. Some will be nastier than others. If you try every day and get rejected and granted accesses thousands of times, the rejects get easier.

      Keep in mind, anyone you meet in just a few minutes does not have access to your character. All they can do is guess at it. They rejected your picture, thats all. You just let it go, and keep on working. In the end you will have more checks in the + column than the – column.


  22. Heya i’m for the primary time here. I found this board and I find It really helpful & it helped me out much. I hope to provide one thing again and aid others such as you aided me.

  23. “The idea of talking to strangers is the bigger issue. If we want to get really psycho-analytical, the fact that they are considered “strangers” and not “people” is probably a bigger problem”-I loved this quote. I had never thought it that way and I think nobody has. Everyone is out there shouting “Strangers” “strangers” “Strangers.”

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