How to Photograph Strangers: The 100 Strangers Project

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How to Photograph Strangers: The 100 Strangers Project

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A Guest submission by Matt John Robinson

Liz

The First Stranger

Taking the portrait of a person whom you’ve just met moments before is one of the most exciting—and in the beginning, unnerving—experiences you can have as a photographer. It’s also one of the most rewarding.

The 100 Strangers Project sounded simple enough: gather 100 portraits of complete strangers after getting their consent. For my mostly introverted self, this meant more precisely: interact with 100 human beings I would otherwise never interact with…AND take their photograph.

Jimmy

The prospect seemed filled with anxiety. Yet the intrigue and amazing possibilities that gathered vaguely in my mind were becoming too palpable to resist. I had seen and greatly admired many 100 Strangers photos by Chris Camino, an online photography contact who was working on the project (known on dPS and Flickr as Paco X).

When I realized that a few of his portraits had been taken only an hour away from me, I had to know more. “How does he do it? How does he interrupt people during their daily routine and so boldly ask for their picture? How do they react, and why would they ever say yes?” Chris was happy to share his process and agreed to have me tag along during his next stop in Philadelphia.

He was honest. He was direct. Chris would see something in a stranger and would stop them, letting them know exactly what he admired and why he wanted to take their picture. The stranger, more often than not, would agree! They might even ask how he’d like them to pose; they might even walk to a more appealing background; they might even glow with the flattery of somebody wishing to take their picture. These strangers, for however brief the encounter, would connect with this photographer. They would trust him.

Allen

It was a rush just watching it unfold before me. I knew I wanted to feel the excitement of photographing a stranger myself. I saw a few interesting strangers and would point them out to Chris, secretly hoping that he would goad me into taking their picture myself. And he would. But I wouldn’t. My courage would build up—almost to the point—and a wave of nerves would wash it all away. What if they refused? What if they thought I was just a creep?

Chris spotted another stranger walking across the street with a friend, and I ambled after him. His stranger agreed very kindly after he introduced himself and me. The woman and her friend were both lovely and seemed like very warm and open people. It occurred to me that this was the perfect opportunity: I had already half-met this “stranger,” the woman’s friend, and judging from her personality she was likely to agree.

While Chris was busy shooting, I walked over to his stranger’s friend with as much an air of confidence as I could muster. I told her that I very much wanted to start the same photography project and wondered if she was willing to be my very first stranger. Not only did she agree to have her portrait taken, but she was flattered to be the start of the project. After the shoot, as she started to walk away, she turned and called back with her bright smile, “Thank you for your kindness.” Thank you for my kindness!

Unknown Stranger 1

I was blown away. So blown away and filled with excitement over my first ever street portrait that I forgot the young woman’s name. But I am oh-so-grateful to have met my unnamed Stranger #1 in her Philly’s ball cap. She opened my eyes to how easy and instantaneous it can be to connect with people you’ve never met, and how truly kind a complete stranger can be.

And the greatest revelation: I, as a photographer, have the power to capture the beautiful qualities of anybody I pass by. Or I can at least make the attempt. And anybody with a camera has that power. It might seem silly to photographers who’ve been doing this for ages, but I really think it’s something a lot of photographers haven’t thought about. I certainly hadn’t.

Emily

It was addicting. A piercing set of eyes, an awesome sense of style, or just a charismatic air—it’s all gloriously walking on the street and waiting to be captured by a camera. I returned to Philadelphia several times and also shot at a few places more locally.

I’m a little over halfway through my project now. No matter where I go, though, it’s all the same. I wait until I find somebody with some quality that I want to capture and then simply walk up to them and introduce myself and the project. Often I will let them know what caught my eye. And the majority of the time these strangers agree… and then it’s time to think about the photo.

Marcy

How to: the Posed Street Portrait

The technical considerations I make for posed street portraits are identical to any that you might make when taking any sort of outdoor portrait. You just have to figure it out a little more quickly.

I almost always make an attempt at carefully pairing my strangers with their backgrounds.

Sometimes I will find a background first, and I’ll wait for a serendipitous stranger to happen upon me. Other times I’ll come upon a stranger without having the time to consider a background before addressing them. In that case, I will always ask if they mind if we continue to walk in the direction they were headed until a suitable background catches my eye (it’s amazing how accommodating the strangers usually are).

It’s just my own personal style to really “create” the portrait. Other street portrait photographers take the opposite approach and prefer to photograph their subject exactly where they found them. The hugely popular Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton asks, “Can I take your picture, just like that, right where you are?”

William

100% of my backgrounds are in the shade. I like soft, even lighting, as most portrait photographers do. Working with shade also gives you the ability to shoot any time of day, and midday is actually quite nice. While cloudy skies are appealing because of the ability to shoot out in the open, bright sunny skies make for beautiful shade.

However, not all shade is equal. Sometimes the shadows can still be too heavy depending on how far you are from the open sunlight. For instance, if you’re in the shade of a building, yet there is open sky above you and all around, the lighting may very well be ideal on its own. However, if you’re under the shade of a tree, or on a street surrounded by shade with tall buildings on each side and only a thin strip of open sky, a reflector is usually going to help a lot.

Aside from what’s above you, what the stranger is facing is also important when considering the lighting. If you’re in the shade of a building, and your subject is facing other buildings in the shade, there is hardly any light being reflected sideways and up, so the eyes are going to appear very dark. On the other hand, if the subject is facing buildings/sidewalks/streets that are brightly lit by the sun, their eyes will be nicely illuminated by the reflected light, and you’ll capture a nice catch-light.

For those times when there’s not much open sky or bright surroundings outside the shade, carrying around a collapsible reflector is extremely helpful. You can expand it and have the subject hold it themselves around waist or chest height, depending on the framing, angling it slightly toward their face. This works well when the light is still generally coming from above.

Sometimes, depending on the structures around you and the time of day, the light mostly comes from the side. In this case it is helpful to have somebody hold the reflector on the opposite side the light is coming from (the subject is unable to do this without getting the reflector in the frame), bouncing back the light onto the shadowed side of the face. The strangers I stop often have friends along with them, and they’ve always been happy to assist with the reflector. As soon as the reflector is busted out, the stranger is likely going to ask how you want them to look/stand/pose.

Christian

Posing the stranger can be the second hardest part for a lot of people just getting started, right after the approach. The simplest way, and the way I still use sometimes, is to not even bother with a specific “pose.”

I’ll just ask them, “Ok, let’s get a few straight-faced shots—no smile.” And then after a few frames, warm them up with a joke or two and try to get them smiling (or just ask them to smile).

The way they are standing and holding their arms isn’t important if you’re just shooting head shots. The pose matters when moving out from the head shot, and for that, I’ve done all sorts of things.

You can just start backing up and capture their natural pose while they’re not fully aware that you’re actually capturing the entire body (this is all assuming you’re shooting with a prime—zooming out from the head shot and continuing to fire away would work great as well).

One of my personal favorites is to have the stranger sit down in a specific location that I think will work well with them. I’ll sit down myself exactly where I want them to sit and show them generally how I would like them pose. The stranger will follow suit with their interpretation and usually ask for more direction. I’ll follow with something like, “However your body feels comfortable,” and then start taking photos. At that point I’m looking through the viewfinder and beginning to frame my subject.

Ben Sarah

When it comes to composition, I am a heavy “rule of thirds” guy, especially with the eyes. The rule of thirds isn’t as much a “rule” as it is a way that our visual system scans the frame. For whatever reason, placing key points of the photograph on the thirds lines, or at their intersection, really focuses our attention during visual processing. This is dramatically true for portraits especially.

Placing the subject’s eyes on (or above) the upper third line gives them a much larger impact (try it yourself: on the same image with two different crops, place the eyes on the middle horizontal line and then place it side by side with the eyes on the upper third line).

I also avoid the “floating head.” That is, I almost never frame the subject from just their neck up, leaving their face to be the only thing in the frame. Including a good part of the shoulders in a headshot is key in grounding the subject within the frame and giving them their proper space. It’s a similar element to not cropping the subject at the knees or elbows.

There are of course exceptions to both of these compositional guidelines (you can see them in my own portraits), but they are a great place to start and it’s hard to go wrong when following them.

Katelyn

And finally, the lens and camera settings. Choosing the lens greatly depends on how much of your subject you’re really aiming to capture.

I focus primarily on head shots because of the intimacy it provides through a strong connection with the eyes. Because my primary goal is to come away with a good head shot, I always shoot street portraits with my 85mm f/1.2 lens.

I love the 85mm focal length for several reasons. For one, there is no distortion. Shooting a headshot with a 50mm or wider is going to make the center of the face appear subtly bulbous (and super bulbous if you’re down in wide angle territory). This can be mostly corrected in post, but why not get it right in camera?

More importantly, the 85mm gives you perfect working distance, which is especially important when working with strangers. Standing two feet in front of a stranger with a 50mm lens to get a head shot can feel pretty “in your face” for them. With the 85mm, you’re a bit further back, yet you’re close enough to easily continue communication—to continue chatting and helping them to feel comfortable.

Conversely, if you’re shooting a 200mm, you’re going to be pretty far away, and may have to raise your voice a good bit. You begin to lose your subject’s connection to the camera. And in a street setting, you really might not have enough room to back up, especially if you’d like the option to capture a full length.

I almost always shoot with a very large aperture for head shots in order to isolate the subject through a shallow depth of field as much as possible. For my personal tastes, I don’t mind having the ears and tip of the nose blurred. In my opinion it just places even more emphasis on the eyes, and well, I am in love with a good pair of eyes. It also naturally softens the skin of the forehead and cheeks, which is an added bonus.

I shoot in manual, choosing my aperture and then adjusting my shutter speed to properly expose. I won’t shoot an SS below 1/100 and will boost my ISO if needed from there.

Christina

I hope this post was helpful for anybody interested in outdoor portraiture, and especially those who might be interested in starting this amazing street photography project. It’s a no-brainer that my people skills have improved and I’m a lot more comfortable interacting with complete strangers. And of course, my portrait photography has improved a great deal. All the while, it has been so much fun. If you’re interested in the project, check out our Flickr group for the 100 Strangers Project.

Matt John Robinson is a portrait photographer from Allentown, Pennsylvania. See more of his work at www.mattjohnrobinson.com and connect with him on Facebook and Flickr.

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  • Lesley Lee

    I’ve only been ‘scolded’ once, but a gentleman in Xiamen, China. I was most interested in his old sewing machine which he was using to mend a backpack. He was not at all pleased when I approached him so I just apologised and moved on. Most people are lovely and more than happy to be photographed like this dumpling maker in Shanghai.

  • Tony B

    Thanks. I loved the article and the photos. I tried to do this a couple of months ago but couldn’t pluck up the courage to ask people.

    I’ll try again soon…you’ve given me inspiration.

  • Amanda

    I scanned the comments and didn’t see this question so hopefully this isn’t a duplicate. You mentioned getting permission. For entering contests for example we need model releases. I know you don’t really need a release just to take a shot for personal use but did you get releases for all 100 strangers?

  • Saveena

    This was on my mind too, so I would love to know the answer to this question! I know that getting someone to sign a release is one of the things that holds me back.

  • Hi guys, glad to hear you are interested in the project. There have been a number of questions about that, comments are pretty far down at this point though:

    RE model releases: I don’t ask for them. I do not sell the photos nor do I use them for advertising purposes. You don’t need a model
    release to simply share the photos on the internet. It is a “requirement” for
    the Flickr group, though, that you let the stranger know you will be sharing
    their photo online for the project. I do let every single stranger know that
    aspect, and sometimes when that bit is brought up they refuse (usually the
    older folks who are more wary of the internet). This is just a common courtesy and there’s nothing legal about it. Getty has asked me to license many photos from my 100 Strangers Project but without the release I am unable to do that. I don’t photograph strangers to make a buck though, it’s all for fun.

  • Thanks so much for sharing that Tom. I looked up Clark James Mishler and came across a number of articles on his Portrait Alaska project as well as his website. It is gorgeous work and incredibly inspiring. Thank s again for sharing. I suggest everybody else look him up too!

  • Saveena

    That is great to know! Thank you!

  • Tony, do what I did… I could never have done it on my own. Go out with somebody, another photographer would be great, but really anybody will be a huge help. Just to provide a little moral support and to make the interaction a little easier because the focus of your stranger’s attention won’t be 100% on you–your companion can bare some of the brunt of that. Whether it’s your spouse/gf/bf or just a friend, just take somebody with you and get out there and do it. The experience is so rewarding in so many different ways, and I can’t urge you enough to get back out there and do it. You already went out once: you can do it again, and this time you will be successful.

  • Vidhyaa Kris

    Hi Matt I have started successfully , you are my inspiration

  • steven Ellingson

    Remember that sensor size makes a big difference here, as does subject distance. A lot of readers here are going to be using ASP-C or M4/3 sensor. I would say you absolutely want to shoot at f/2 or below for those formats.

  • David Weir

    Fantastic article Matt! This perfectly sums up what this great project is all about and you’ve given some wonderful tips for those new to the project.

    I can honestly say this has been one of the most fun projects I’ve ever done myself, and I can highly recommend it to others thinking of starting it for themselves.

    For those looking to start the project on Flickr, feel free to add me ‘theweirdoctor’, or if you have any further questions about the project I’d be glad to help out. My strangers series is over at http://www.weiry.com/100strangers/

  • laura

    what kind of camera do you have?

  • Thank you David! Can’t agree more, it’s a lot of fun.
    And your project is absolutely terrifc–so many awesome shots–but I’ve already told you that 😀

  • Laura, I shoot with a Canon 5D Mk II.

  • Russell Rusty Smith

    I live in Philadelphia. I remember one time while walking down Market Street, I came across a a fire station, and all of the firemen were hanging out on the sidewalk. I asked the group if I could take their picture and they scattered like roaches when a light is turned on.

    Another time, I was photographing the Take Back Philadelphia movement and I asked this one woman if I could take her picture and she said no and held her hands over her face.

    I always ask if the person will be recognized in the photo. But I really like the spontaneous shots when a person doesn’t know that you are taking their picture.

  • Bryce Steiner

    I don’t think the image you have of the young lady is offensive and I believe it looks very respectable.

    Many of your images tend to have very shallow DOF, too shallow for my taste. It wasn’t my taste you were after though.

    I prefer the background a little more to draw the eye to the person. To me it gives more depth and dimension to the photograph and places them in a setting we can relate to, but still gives your eye the place to focus on. That is one of the reasons I prefer the young lady over the pictures.

  • Richard Pérez

    Hello Mat I am so glad to read this story about your 100 Stranger Project.
    I want to share my personal experience with everybody here. I started my 365 back in january 1st. of this year, just to take a photograph of things that involucre my everyday life, day by day. As soon I start with some detail of my personal lifestyle and family stuff, I start to get more and more exciting about this project.

    Then I decide to dedicate more of my project to me, to everything surrounding me and also to my child neighborhood, and there was the big thing, photographing people that I used to see since a kid but never talk to or share with them.

    I start to do portraits of person who work on the street and to do it more challenging every time trying to find the link them and my past, my neighborhood or anything related to me, in result I got such a great and natural portraits and also write their stories they share with in some kind of interview, I hope you have the time to see my project, it will be a great honor for me.

    Keep going, you are doing a great job here.

  • Mark

    I would agree with Matt; though I do not “set out to shoot that”, I’ll retain my own artistic license in how I shoot. I only care that the client likes it.

  • We loved browsing your shots! Thanks for sharing your article!
    http://www.polishmyphoto.com

  • allrite

    I hate shots of people looking at the camera, except for mugs for police
    and obits…..just hate….These photos do not show the face in a good
    manner, in my opinion, and of course are overly posed….I would never
    sign on with a project like this, unless I had the freedom to “pose” them
    in a non-stare camera situation, and maybe get some of the person’s personality..

  • Amelia Milling

    Great post. I really want to try street photography but my only problem is that I am deaf. I don’t talk. I can lip read pretty good but I don’t talk. I usually use papers and pen or my phone to communicate but that normally makes things more awkward. Many people thinks that deaf people are dumb, which makes it even harder for me to communicate because they are trying to get me to go away. By the way, for those people who thinks that deaf people are stupid…you are stupid for thinking that. We are capable of doing many different things. Anyhoo, back to the point, how can I solve this problem? Thanks.

  • Lyn Hungerford

    Hi Amelia. I understand your difficulties but I think you can do street photography without too many difficulties. It is all about communication.
    I am not deaf, but when I go to a country where I don’t speak the language, I communicate with body language, or hand language, or even simpler with a smile. Everybody understands a smile and when they see you with a camera in your hand it is self explanatory… it is about communicating your intent and if your face says ” is it ok if I take a photograph?” people understand.
    Deaf people communicate very well among deaf people, but we need to break down the barrier of communication between deaf and hearing people. You need to understand that hearing people generally don’t have problems about trying to understand you: but if they are in a hurry to get a train they might not have the time to stop…….. but not just for you, for anybody.
    It might be an idea to prepare a short note “May I take your photo please? I like your expression” or just “May I take your photo please?”
    But I really encourage you just to experiment!
    Ps. My sister is deaf and she has two degrees and my mother, who is not deaf, has spent most of her life working to break down the communication barrier between the deaf and hearing communities.

  • Don

    While I applaud you for taking on this project I would offer a simple critique I think will much-improve your portraits. You need to increase your depth of field. In most of these examples, key elements of the subjects are out of focus. I’m not talking about the Stetson hat which I suppose can be considered an artistic choice. I’m talking about his nose and cheeks. I’m talking about the out-of-focus diamond stud earring in another picture. In the full-screen close-up face portrait of the girl with the scarf around her neck, her nose and parts of her eyebrows are out of focus. Note that you have successfully limited depth of field (as a technique to separate subject and background) in a couple of pics, i.e. the bow-tie guy and the woman and dog. They have enough depth of field because they are slightly farther away – or you used a more appropriate f-stop. Keep going! Cheers!

  • Thanks for the comment Don. If you read the entire article you will find my thoughts regarding your comment exactly (I disagree with you–but it’s all a matter of personal preference).

  • I agree entirely with Lyn! Good luck Amelia!

  • Allen Cook

    Great article, Matt. I’m going to give this project some serious consideration. Thanks.

  • SaraVinklat

    Your article inspired me and I started with the project with the aim of personal development. It is absolutely amazing. Already after 10 photos, I feel I change, my approach to people changes and I discover the beauty of talking to strangers in the street… Thank YOU!
    I shoot with 50mm on canon 60d. And for the first time, I also launched a blog! http://saravinklatphoto.wordpress.com

    Would love to have any feedback…
    Cheers
    Sara

  • Guest

    Beautiful photos! This concept really intrigues me. I have been running low on “muse” lately, and this might just be the cure for that, and my slight social anxiety! I will definitely be bookmarking this article.

  • I’ve been doing it for the last 4 years in Porto, Portugal. I prefer to use a 40mm lens as it gives more space for the city itself.
    Oh, and 100 is a little bit on the low side 🙂

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Most of the photos using widest aperture… ?

  • Michael Owens

    Now, this is a topic worth repeating on twitter, as I’m more confident than I was WITH the camera, so now I’m going to address this 100 Strangers project.

    I might even start it where I currently am, Spain, Andalucia region to be exact and even attempt #1 to be Spainish, really try and coax someone into being my first, even though I don’t speak a word of Spanish!

    Ok, maybe Hola! Is the extent -that’s all I need right? Some gesticulating and a smile? What can go wrong apart from some slight awkwardness on my part?

  • Tittan Dropkick Kittelsaa

    I have started my own 100 Strangers project. So far I’ve only got a couple of photos, but there will be more because this is great fun! Truth be told, I’ve spoken with a lot of brilliant people, and have even been photographed myself while lugging my kit around (a flashgun on a stand with an umbrella), and even though a lot of people say they don’t want their photo taken, most of them are encouraging, and interested.
    Oh, and I’m handing out business cards like a mad!

    http://www.kittelsaa.com/100-strangers/

  • Nancy

    This is a really great piece, Matt! Full of technical info, and also generous with revelation about photographing strangers. The 100 Stranger project sounds like a fun challenge. Love the portraits you included – very nice work! You Thanks for the article!

    (Now that I’m ready to post a comment, I see the article was posted at least a year ago….oh well, still helpful!)

  • Stoffers

    Wait wait wait

    “That goes for under 18 cheerleader pictures as well.”

    So you’re saying although it’s definitely inappropriate for women of the legal age, I shouldn’t do it to jailbait?
    Genius I say, genius.

  • thais

    this was great, thank you!

  • FlyingKiwiGirl

    I’ve followed Chris (Paco) from the beginning of his journey- his first 100 strangers, I believe he is onto his 2nd 100 now. He inspired me the whole way, I love the background information of his subjects and the fact that he shared that with us. I’m glad he has inspired you so much too and that now you’ve also shared with us some very helpful tips & hints. I still haven’t plucked up the courage to attempt a 100 Stranger project but I’m working on it. Thanks for sharing your journey with us. Cheers FlyingKiwiGirl

  • Aussie Phil of philsgood photo

    do you use a flash in any of your photos for difficult light conditions, great photos mate

  • Lorena Vangjeli

    i just started doing it. it’s cool 🙂 do you recommend blogging everytime you go out and post the new pictures of the day?

  • jobu/

    So, since these photos are on this page…
    …that has all of this advertising around…

    …uh, what, again are the requirements??
    …since someone is OBVIOUSLY making money on their likenesses…

  • Stephen Williams

    I’ve just recently found out about this project on Flickr and took my 1st and 2nd stranger photos last weekend. So daunting but looking forward to photographing some interesting people and getting out of my comfort zone. You can see it here http://www.swjphotography.co.uk/100Strangers as well as on my flickr page

  • David W. Danz

    I read this article in 2014 and decided the “100 Strangers Project” was going to be my 2015 photography project. I’m strictly an amateur…I don’t aspire to do photography for anything other than the love of the art. I began the project in January, and I’m not over 1/4th of the way through it. I’ve intentionally “paced” myself so that the project will take me most of the year. Well, the experience of approaching a total stranger on the street, introducing myself, getting permission to photograph them, and then shooting them has been nothing short of awesome! It turns out, the project has much more to do about social skills than photography skills. Sure, I’ve learned about having my camera “at the ready” and how to adjust my settings very quickly so my subject doesn’t get bored…..but the biggest take-away for me has been the FABULOUS experience of getting out of my comfort zone and meeting people!! LOVE LOVE LOVE this project. In case you are interested, one of the places I record my project is on Pinterest. Here is a link: https://www.pinterest.com/davedanz/100-strangers-project/

  • I started last weekend. i wasn’t quite sure how to start, but got the ball rolling by helping a family take a portrait of themselves. I took it with my camera and gave them a link where they could pick up the photo. I carry a small card with a QR code to my Flickr page. it also has my email address for contact. This was easier than ‘cold turkey’ with a stranger since I was helping them, not myself. It wasn’t so bad speaking to these strangers. Number 2 was much easier. Looking forward to doing some more as soon as possible!

  • The use of these photographs falls under the “editorial” category–they are used for education purposes. If you just Google “photography licensing,” you will find plenty of information explaining the difference (be sure to read about US licensing).

  • allritemom

    oh stfu

  • Pardika

    You wasted your time in 40 years as professional if you still speaking about “rule” in photography.

  • Fritolays

    Very cool article. I feel inspired to give it a shot. No pun intended.

  • Peter Schwalm

    I would also like to try this! How about pay it forward and show me the ropes. I live an hour from LV and Philly.

  • Friend2303

    The 100 Strangers Project this January is undoubtedly is one of the best decisions I took as a aspiring photographer (am at 71 right now) – here’s a link to my project – https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1587650664822202.1073741835.1553583181562284&type=3

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