How to Photograph Strangers: The 100 Strangers Project

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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  • Charles

    Thanks for this very interesting post ! Especially for kind of shy photographers ! and some good tips as well.

  • randomstranger

    Inspiring read. Do you ask for a release to be able to publish the Photographs here? I imagine this to be a pretty hefty buzzkill for most strangers.

  • parkylondon

    I’ve been looking for a personal project for some time. A “365” never appealed but this… oh yes… thank you.

  • Pedram

    this is awesome. i’ve been absolutely terrified of doing this despite wanting to very badly. nice to see you had those same fears, makes it easier to jump in.

  • LLB

    Thanks for the inspiration! I’m going to try this!

  • sbuent

    I would so love to do this, but I’m wondering if you carry a business card, etc., for suspicious strangers. Also, do you send them a copy of the photos?

  • WaltB

    Great job, no doubt about it, but personally I prefer subject not looking at the camera, it don’t give natural expression.

  • Raghavendra

    This is good for photographers who are a bit of shy, they can open up. As well as fun, experimenting and gratitude 🙂

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/

  • niteshbhatia008

    amazing project! very inspiring… I’m also trying to do the same but in a different manner and posted a few short stories on my blog – http://www.dangling-thoughts.com

  • rrosen1

    I worked on a 100 stranger a few years. Here are some of my strangers all were interviewed a lot were homeless.
    http://www.appleledgephotography.smugmug.com/streetphotography

  • Steven J Parkes

    Distortion at 50mm? There is no distortion at 50mm on a 50mm lens …..

  • Dave

    Thank you for this article. I found it very helpful and well written. Again thanks.

  • alfkro

    You’re on the street, a public place. You don’t need releases for that. Unless you are in France or Quebec or if you are going to use it to advertise soap powder.

  • alf

    I find a business card useful to feel a bit more ‘legitimate’.
    Just my name, e-mail, flickr account and the 100 strangers group address.
    I don’t ask for or give phone numbers.
    I don’t protect my photo’s on flickr so they can download a high resolution file and then can get it printed themselves.

  • This is an excellent post Matt. I think I might do something similar but capture people that wear sports attire. For one, I think it would be easier to strike up conversation and two team spirit.

  • alf

    Very good article. Exactly my experience.

    Usually you only get a couple of minutes to get your shot so I mostly keep my camera on aperture priority. That way worries about exposure settings don’t distract me.
    Also, from personal experience I would recommend to start at no more than f2.8.
    Otherwise, if you are only a bit nervous, you can lose a lot of frames to mis-focus and as I mentioned, you may only have time to get a few shots in before your subject gets impatient and wants to move on.

  • howard

    wow what a cool idea, I would like to start this , I live in a rural area but I am going to visit as many places as I can, thanks for the idea

  • Matt John Robinson

    Hi everybody, I’m so glad some of you found the post to be
    inspiring. If you decide to pick up the project, please do consinder joining us over at the Flickr group. We are a very supportive community and you will find lots of
    encouragement, and advice if you ask for it. We’re always super happy to have
    new photographers join us!

    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.

    RE Steven J Parkes: Well, there may be variation between
    50mm lenses of course, but yes actually, the vast majority (if not all) 50mm
    lenses do show some distortion. This distortion is more apparent as focus
    distance decreases (the closer you are to your subject, the more you will see
    the distortion). You can look up lab tests on any 50mm lens and look at the
    distortion results. Here is a “real life” example from the 100 Strangers
    Project: http://www.flickr.com/photos/barbasboth/10091500965/sizes/s/
    If that photo had been cropped in about 50% more to have Ryan’s face mostly fill the frame (in-camera of course), that the distortion would be apparent in his facial features.

    RE business cards: I do not, at this point, hand out any
    cards. I do verbally give the strangers my information and those who are
    interested enough record it in their mobile phone or write it down. I happily
    send the photos to those who contact me. I do have business cards for my actual
    photography business but would not feel right handing those out—I’m not trying
    to network or ask for the stranger’s future business. This is an entirely
    separate endeavor. I have been meaning to put together my own “100 Strangers”
    card though and hand that out at least. I think it’s a great idea to give a
    card that is specifically for the project, I just haven’t got there yet!

    Edit: woah, didn’t realize that the picture I linked to in reference to 50mm barrel distortion was going to actually shot up in the comments. It is not my picture–copyright Barbara Asboth!!

  • This is very true Alf–for beginners it’s probably best to start with a smaller aperture, and work wider as you become more comfortable with it. I absolutely did that myself (began shooting around 2.8 and now almost always shoot 1.6 or lower). Would have been nice for me to mention that, thank you for pointing that out!

  • quimby

    thats a great work,its really nice

  • Janie

    I LOVE this project and your images are wonderful, thanks for the inspiration!

  • Zafar

    Great post Matt! I have been following your project on DPS Forums and love what you do.

  • Vidhyaa Kris

    Excellent post mate, I m starting today …..

  • Barzune

    Suggesting a focal length is meaningless unless you relate it to a frame format. Are you suggesting an 85mm for a 4/3, or a DX, or a 6X7 RB?

  • Fatima

    thanks! i sooo Want to do this!!

  • Vanessa Sarges

    I fell in love with the 100 Strangers Project the moment I found it on Flickr. Being extremely introverted, and needing to get more people photography experience, I felt that it was a project that I just HAD to try out. I got some cards printed up with my Flickr information on them and read up on lots of articles like yours.
    I have yet to take my first stranger photo. I’m terrified. I keep trying to formulate the right approach and everything seems awkward to me. I am not going to be able to be concerned about background and perfecting their poses – I’ll be happy just to end up with them in focus.
    I will maybe get out this weekend and give it a try.

  • ArturoMM

    Great article and that smile of the girl with the tattoo looks so natural it makes her look so beautiful.

  • Leo Naves

    Good to know more, better for me because I work to do events…

  • Tom W. Andrews

    I had earlier this year, traveled to Alaska. The Anchorage Museum featured photographer Clark James Mishler. Mr. Mishler captured one portrait a day, 365 day for the Faces Of Alaska. It was a moving exhibit. I have decided to try something like it. I will capture a single portrait every Saturday in 2014. I hope I can pull it off.

  • Ross Brown

    What an awesome project! I’m inspired to do a 365-day project on this theme. Great photos!

  • Kerry Carloy

    I’ve actually been shooting strangers in the past few months before I got into the project (too bad about the archived photos stipulation!). I either make the subjects aware of how to access their photo on Flickr for download, or in the case of my work in NM, I’ve gotten addresses and mailed the subjects prints from Texas!

  • Sorry you found that to be confusing Barzune. Generally, when speaking of focal lengths without referencing a specific format, a normal 35mm sensor (full frame) is assumed. Thus when we refer to “crop factors” or “focal length multipliers,” a 35mm sensor is the standard to which the given focal length on a different sized sensor is compared.

  • EKeller

    I did the same thing and I’m the same (extremely introverted)! Got all excited, got some cards printed in hopes that having that to hand them would help ease my nervousness about what they might think of me asking, etc. This was many months ago…..it took “forever” to find the courage (& only with the help of my husband and an adult beverage) and I’ve only done 4 so far (first 3 were all together that I shot separately…I feel they just really count as 1!), right at the beginning, so months ago. I’ve stalled out, fear is back….but it’s so exciting, I HAVE to do this!

  • The minute you said you preferred 85mm I knew you were working full frame, because I have an 85mm and it’s always too far for head shots on my crop sensor. I walk around with a 50mm on my camera almost 100% of the time, because I love portraits so much. The only issue becomes when I’m out somewhere and people request a group photo and I can’t oblige without my other lenses. They get so confused 🙂

  • Brandi Mahon

    I’m new to photography and wonder if you can share any photo releases you might use when doing a project like this with your subjects…?

  • Richard Jones

    I totally get it! It’s already become addictive for me. A couple of links for you. The Santa shot was the first ever with my Pentax 645D with a twenty year old 2.8 75mm lens off my old 645 film camera, the shot was full length then macro cropped.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/aeros4/8365751193/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/aeros4/8480400158/#comment72157632779615215

  • Tatyana Astanovsky

    wow,its very insiring and a great challenge for me,I think I’m going to start my 100 strangers project too.Thanks a lot!!!

  • Rick Watts

    Nice!

  • Thanks Walt 🙂 For the vast majority of my Stranger portraits I prefer to have the connection you get when a subject looks directly at the viewer. Sometimes I do love what I get when I have the subject look out of frame though, and you can see a couple portraits like that in my project. But whether the subject is looking at the camera or not, you are no longer capturing a “natural” pose or expression (i.e. one you would get if the subject were unaware of photo being taken) as these are not candid portraits… For me, it doesn’t matter whether the subject has their guard up or down: the portrait captures the nature of the interaction between photographer and subject, and in that sense it is still very real–or “natural.”

  • IngeM

    Rome – bug’s eye

  • Richard Jones

    Thanks Rick, please stay in touch, I would like to get out this winter to Elk Island and do some winter shooting with you.

  • Hi Brandi. RE model releases: I don’t ask for them. I do not sell thephotos 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.

  • Megal

    I have been a professional for over 40 years and there is one rule when photographing young girls and women. Never, I say never take a picture of a woman posed in any way showing the inside thigh. That goes for under 18 cheerleader pictures as well. It is unprofessional and not proper. I also agree with WaltB. Most people would like to see themselves as others see them, not looking right at the camera. My most successful shots and sales are totally candid shots. Especially journalism style weddings.

  • Well I do hope none of my images offended you. However, I’ll kindly continue to photograph people, including women, with my own artistic vision. That is to say, I’ll throw your rule out the window and disregard your unprofessional remark 🙂 Also, candid shots are terrific, no doubt, but they often lack the spark that “eye contact” gives. Why do you think magazine covers are all plastered with pictures of the subject gazing at the viewer? The viewer is sucked in–there’s an emotional response when gazing into another’s eyes, whether in real life or a photograph.

  • Richard Jones

    I dislike the term “Professional” especially when it is used by a photographer to describe their professional rank. I have have been shooting for fifty years and still think of myself as a work in progress as this photography thing is more than ever, a faster moving target.

    Here’s hoping I never get to “Know it all” as I would feel lost as to what to do with myself and start calling myself a “Professional” BTW my last print sale was a landscape that sold for $1200.00 Can. Can anyone tell me if I should call (or have the right to) myself a professional ‘cos my prints sell? As for the recent remarks re: looking at the lens or not, I mostly agree with Matt, but as you can see from the two shots I posted, I go with whatever works for the moment.

  • @thevacawanderer

    I actually attempted this when in the Dominican Republic. I was walking along the beach toward sundown and I noticed this man and woman I recognized visiting the resort from Italy and they were photographing this young, stunning, “bella donna” who was in a bikini and posing herself on the trunk of a bent palm tree. I explained they might get better lighting if they photographed her from another side. They, including the woman posing, thanked me and that was when I asked them if I might photograph her as well. I saw the woman was flattered and she allowed me too. Yes, was very unnerving because I happened to be alone at the resort and didn’t want them to think who is this pervert. But! Being friendly Italians, they accepted my request. So now I have a lovely frozen moment of my trip. 🙂

  • @thevacawanderer

    They say if you get paid for what you do, you have then achieved the rank of professional. 🙂 I like candids as well and the Italian woman I mentioned above looked away and was giggling as I took her picture, yet I still captured the moment and I like it. Hopefully when I share it others will too. 🙂

  • @thevacawanderer

    It is terrifying at first for some,,.. 🙂 I have been there. Yet, it’s so much fun when they say yes. I have done this with the Italian woman mentioned above in comments and also an Asian couple I saw sitting at a high end hotel in Oahu, Hawaii, and were in their wedding garb. The woman asked me if I did this professionally and I told her I have a website and my photography just adds to it. They graciously let me take their picture as well. So, it can be fun and don’t be discouraged if someone tells you “no” like the old woman I saw in Milan, Italy feeding a pack of stray cats while wearing a mink coat. She freaked out, yelled something in Italian, and turned her back to me. LOL Was an interesting encounter. 🙂

  • Tebello Mahamo

    I like the idea of a portrait every Saturday. It sounds manageable… I’ll also strive for a portrait once a week as well.

  • Lesley Lee

    If you wanted to do a collection as a book, it would be the same, no release needed is my understanding. Opinions?

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