Avoiding photographing people
My dad had a lovely Zeiss camera. The kind with bellows that folded up into a compact unit. It took 120 roll film. I used this camera to photograph my brother’s band, playing an outdoor gig when I was 17. These 12 exposures filled my first roll of film.
Photography became my passion. Having a camera in my hand excited me and taught me to view the world around me in new ways. I would visualize and compose photos in my imagination even when I didn’t have my camera with me.
I photographed old rusty things, beaches, skies, mountains, and flowers, among other subjects – but never people.
People were well outside of my comfort zone – especially strangers.
Dealing with that uncomfortable feeling
“I don’t want to impose on others.”
This is the most common reason I hear from photographers about why they don’t photograph people.
Overcoming the fear of imposing, and settling the butterflies in your stomach is possible. Focused effort is required, but the results are well worth it.
The purpose of this Ultimate Guide is to teach you practical methods for photographing people, no matter how shy you are.
Photography is so much more than choosing the best lens and camera settings. Connecting with your subject is vital, particularly when you’re photographing people. If this is challenging for you, digging deep is essential – deep into your feelings of fear that invade your mind when you want to make a portrait.
Concentrate on the positive. Focus in on what’s attracted you. Why do you want to make that person’s portrait? Before you even approach someone or put your camera to your eye, clear your mind of doubt. Settle your thoughts and have a positive attitude towards what you are doing. Training your mind to think like this you will in time be able to control the feelings of self-doubt and fear of imposing.
Learn to recognize your negative thoughts that disrupt your intentions. Jump on them fast. The more consistently you can do this, the more successful you will be.
Only entertain your positive thoughts. As you do, your actions become automatic and relaxed. You will find it’s not stressful to approach people and to photograph them.
The more you do anything, the easier it becomes.
Practice training your mind to replace the fear of imposing with positive thoughts. Think about having a pleasant interaction with your subject. Reinforce your initial ideas of why you’ve chosen to photograph them. Let your mind fill with the intent to succeed.
Make yourself concentrate on the photo you are planning to make. Zone in on your composition, lighting, exposure, and timing. When you do this, the rest of the world disappears for a while. Be in your own creative space in your head and heart, and nothing else will matter.
This may sound a little abstract and not what you’re used to reading in a photography article, but I assure you, as you focus your mind and practice these techniques, you will become a better photographer.
Start with your camera
Knowing how to use your camera with confidence is your first step. If you’re not comfortable using your camera you’re not likely to enjoy photographing people.
Use your camera every day. Make a habit of taking at least one or two photos a day. You’ll find it’s addictive in the very best ways. Having a creative release is good for your soul. Your creative imagination will develop as you use it. The more you practice, the more your artistic style will begin to emerge.
Frequent contact is key. Have your camera in your hands at least once a day. You will become intimate with it. Your fingers and thumbs will feel the shapes of the dials and buttons. You will develop your subconscious memory of where each control is. As you learned fast enough where the on/off switch is, you’ll be able to find all the essential camera controls before long.
Pick a time each day to use your camera. I am sure if you think about it you will fit in ten or twenty minutes to be creative. Perhaps when you commute to work or school, during your lunch break or before dinner. Making it the same time each day helps you to form this good habit. Routine, especially at first, is helpful. I know if you work at this, by the end of the first month you will have a good foundation to build on. You will have developed a positive new habit. Moreover, you will see the quality of your photography improve.
The subject matter is not as relevant at first. Don’t even think about photographing people. Your goal in taking photos every day is to learn to love your camera and use it with confidence.
Experiment. Imagine. Express what you see. This will become a natural time of learning and growth. Sometimes you may feel frustrated at not being able to create the image that’s in your head. This is the time to learn more about controlling your camera so you can make it do what you want it to. Use various lens focal lengths. Choose different angles and composition techniques.
Combining some photography study often will result in more rapid growth. There are so many books, magazines, websites, and courses you can learn from. Find a way of learning that you’re comfortable with and set to study a little and often.
Now focus on your subject
Building proficiency using your camera will often prepare you to photograph people. You need to be comfortable and confident you have the settings right.
Concentrating on your camera more than your subject is a common mistake. It’s easy to be distracted by your camera, especially for shy people. Not engaging with someone when you want to make their portrait leads to a disconnect. This is often noticeable in the resulting portrait.
You don’t want to leave the person looking at the top of your head as you peer down at your camera as you make adjustments.
Set your camera as much as possible before you engage with your subject. Then you will be giving them your attention without distraction. Don’t make your camera an excuse not to communicate. It’s not there to shield you from the world. Use it as a bridge to help you connect with your subjects.
How to overcome your insecurities
“One of the easiest ways to overcome shyness is to become a photographer.” – David Hurn, photographer
Years ago, I heard an interview with a photographer saying they thought shy people make the best portrait photographers. This was because the resulting photo will be more about the subject than about the photographer. As a shy person who liked photography, this interested me. It challenged me.
British photographer, David Hurn, talks about being shy in this interview with Huck magazine.
“I’m incredibly shy. Photography is the best thing for shy people because you have something to hide behind. The problem with shy people is that you don’t want to be rejected. So your safeguard is that you go into yourself. But with a camera, you have an excuse to be somewhere. So when you’re walking down the street and looking in a doorway at a whole load of people, being tattooed or something, with a camera, you can walk in and suddenly say, ‘Do you mind if I shoot some pictures?’ And if you show a genuine interest in what people are doing, I have never known anyone to say no. People love you being interested in them. The camera gives you that excuse to be there. It breaks through that barrier.”
Why do you think David Hurn never had anyone say no to him? I believe it’s because of his approach. He has determination and a gentle manner.
He knows what he wants to achieve and the photos he wants to capture. Concentrating on his goal, he uses the camera as his reason to step into people’s situations, and into their lives. He is sure about what he wants, and he works with focused confidence to do it.
Having purpose will push you further, faster, in anything you want to achieve in life. It is no different for photography. If you have a well-defined purpose for what you want to accomplish, it can become a reality. If you drift about without direction, it takes a long time to achieve anything.
Take your time
Taking your time is not a bad thing. If you’re worried you will miss the photo, it means you haven’t started your preparation soon enough. Every genre of photography requires patience and anticipation. The better you know your camera, the faster you’ll have it set and ready in any circumstance. Take time to learn manual mode. This will not only give you more control of your exposures, but it will also help you see life at a different pace.
It is true that automatic settings on your camera can help you take photos faster. You may be able to capture the action, but not the mood. Slow down and take notice of more than your camera settings. This is how you will learn to capture atmosphere.
Don’t think you always have to be fast with your camera. Doing so can be a distraction from truly experiencing photography.
Some of the best street photography appears to have happened in a snap, but this is rarely so. Planning and preparation. Choice of light and location. Waiting. These qualities factor into more great street photos than sheer speed. Those fleeting moments when all the elements align in the viewfinder are anticipated.
Your camera will help overcome your reluctance
Your camera is your bridge to the other side of shyness. It allows you to traverse the distance between your intention to photograph someone and the actual portrait. It not only makes the picture, but it connects you with your subject.
Speaking to a stranger for no particular reason is very difficult for many people. Having a camera in your hands is a wonderful reason to speak with someone. Your camera is the solution to your problem of not wanting to approach people. When you come to realize this and learn to use your camera as a bridge, you will cross over into a whole new world of wonderful, creative experience.
Photographing people when your mind is focused on them, and not on your camera, transforms the experience.
My camera gets me to the other side, away from my insecure thoughts and into a conversation with the person. It is a reason for me to be where I am and to start conversations.
Use your camera as a means to introduce yourself and begin an interesting discussion. Don’t hide behind your camera fiddling with its controls. Be prepared and bold with it. Your camera will fulfill your purpose.
Express your intention to take a photograph with an appropriate amount of confidence. Doing this will open the way for you. Focus on your subject and their response to you.
When you approach someone in a self-assured way, it will be evident. If you appear to be unsure of yourself, your subject will often reflect this behavior back to you.
Self-assured communication with your subjects is important. It is as necessary as being confident with the technical aspects of photography.
Choose who you want to photograph based on how receptive they will be
Stepping into the street to photograph strangers for the first time is a daunting prospect. It is not something many people find particularly easy. Don’t start there. Begin photographing someone you know and who appreciates what you are doing.
Friends or family members can be your best option. Someone you know and who enjoys having their photograph taken. People who like seeing their image are always the easiest to make portraits of. They are relaxed in front of the camera and are more likely to give you expressive feedback on your photos.
Finding someone you can photograph on a number of different occasions will help you learn. You will connect with them more each time you meet for a photo session. As you grow in confidence using your camera, you will find it becomes more natural to connect with people.
Take your camera to social gatherings – birthdays and other celebrations. Weddings, graduations, parties, church barbecues or the pub. Whatever social activities you engage in. Over time, you will begin to get more of a feel for the people who are easy to photograph.
Take your time. Make a start. Remain determined and practice as often as you can. Repetition will build your camera and your communication skills.
As you practice, be aware of how you are connecting, and the types of response people give you. Learn to read and understand the social dynamic having your camera in hand creates. Naturally, people will respond to you differently than if you are only having a conversation. Developing your perception of people’s reactions to your camera will help you when you come to photograph strangers.
Communicating your desire to photograph someone in an apt manner is imperative. This is a point of failure for many people. I cringe when I hear photographers speak inappropriately to the people they are photographing. Your portrait depends so much on the relationship you have with your subject. Even if that relationship only lasts a minute or two.
Being pleasant is vital to becoming a good people photographer – particularly if you want to become a wedding and portrait photographer. The way you communicate, your manner, and even your body language are important. Your clients notice these things. If they are comfortable with you, they respond well. Their body language and facial expressions will reflect this back to you.
Your manner of communication depends on your state of mind. When you are worried about camera settings and the lighting, you are not so likely to communicate best. Put the technical thoughts aside before you start to engage with the people you want to photograph.
People love it when you show an interest in who they are and what they love to do. Genuine curiosity is natural in photographers, and you are best to develop this as much as you can. Make this aspect of your shyness work for you. Being keen, but yet a little reserved will endear you to people much more than being too bold will.
Develop your camera skills with a project
Once you commit to a photography project, you have a theme or concept to work on. Sticking to your chosen topic and building a body of photographs allows you to track your development. Choosing to photograph a people project helps you build your confidence too.
Working on a long term project, you will experiment more with your camera and photography techniques. Push the boundaries and explore camera settings you don’t often use. This will allow you to produce a more diverse and interesting series of photographs.
As you build up a collection of images, you’ll be able to review and compare them. This will identify the skills you need to work on. It will also encourage you to see the areas where you are improving.
Over time, you will build up a significant collection of photos, both good and bad. Mostly bad. Don’t beat yourself up about this. It happens to every photographer. The more bad photos you take, the more good ones you will also create. Scrutinizing your photos over an extended period allows you to chart your progress.
Keep everything. Do not delete images in camera. The key is being organized. If you dump them all in a folder on your computer, this will not help. You’ll not be able to discern the nature of your progress.
Each time you work on your project, load the photos onto your computer and separate the top 10%-20% of the photos – the ones you are most happy with. Then separate into another folder, the ones you recognize as having potential and that you’d like to work on. Making notes for yourself during this process will help keep you on track and make it more beneficial.
Reviewing and comparing your photos like this can be challenging. You need to acknowledge the areas of weakness. Your photos will show you this. Having a more experienced photographer, someone who can mentor you through this process will be a huge advantage. They will be able to point out to you aspects of your work you may not be able to see so clearly.
Develop your relational skills
As you spend time with the same people, the relationship develops. Committing to a photography project involving the same people, you will build a closer relationship. This is true if you are photographing a family member or people at your local market.
Building relationships takes time. With a photography project, you will have to make time for it to be effective. Returning to photograph the same people and/or the same location a familiarity will develop.
On the street
Stand on the same busy street corner and photograph people enough, and you will begin to build some form of relationship. You’ll become familiar with the feel of the place.
Learn to anticipate what’s happening and see the rhythm. Picking the same time of day when the light is right, you will start to see the same people passing by during their daily routines. They may start to notice you. If they see you often enough, they will not likely pay you any attention, unless you want it.
All it takes, when you catch someone’s eye who has become a little familiar to you, is to smile. They will probably return one to you. Next time they see you, they may show interest and inquire what you are doing.
Connecting with people on the streets becomes more natural when they see you with your camera often. Some won’t show interest, but many will. The locals, the regulars, people who frequent the same location, are the most obvious ones to connect with.
These are the ones you can begin building a relationship with. Tell them you’re working on a photography project documenting your local neighborhood (or whatever your theme is). This will endear them because people like to feel included. We are designed to communicate with one another.
Even if you are a shy person, you can learn to use your camera as a bridge to achieve your purpose.
With a friend or family member
Photographing a friend or family member as a project, you will also develop your relationship with them. However they respond to you first, and how you relate to each other will change subtly each time you get together.
Show them some of your photos on your phone. They will be more confident when they can see the photos you’ve already taken. Don’t talk too long about what you’re doing; you want the attention to be on them.
You are best to have set your camera as much as possible before you meet with the person. If that’s not possible, ask them to give you a few minutes to set up. Doing this gives you space to scope out good light and background and to make the necessary camera tweaks.
Once you are happy with the light, background and your camera settings, it’s time to give most of your attention to your subject. Straighten their clothes a little, or get them to fix their hair, (unless it’s already perfect). Giving them this attention will help them feel better about themselves and build their confidence in you.
If it’s someone you don’t know well, ask them open-ended questions about themselves. Get to know them a little more. Make sure you start them talking.
If they are extroverts, they will love talking about themselves.
If they are introverts, you can help them get started, and they will feel more comfortable.
Focus on asking questions that a simple yes or no won’t answer. Pay attention to what they are telling you. Do not be looking down at your camera. Focus on their story. Show them you’re interested.
Compliment what they are wearing or something else about the way they look. Aim to build up a positive atmosphere, especially if you sense they are feeling uneasy. Many people do not feel self-assured when being photographed. It’s an important part of your job to help them relax. The better they feel the more attractive they will look in the photos you take.
Initially, they may be shy also and feel awkward in front of your camera. Don’t worry about this. Make a bunch of photos and concentrate on relating to them. If you screw up and don’t get any decent images, use this as a lesson. Show them. Let them see what you are doing right and wrong.
Include them in your project, make it a team effort. The more they feel part of what you are doing the better photos you’ll end up taking. If you’ve messed up your settings, show them the photos and explain a little about what happened. Then make the same series of photos again.
Learning to communicate in such a manner that you help people enjoy the process of being photographed will benefit you and your subjects. Everybody enjoys seeing themselves looking good. Their feeling must precede their looks in your photos. If they don’t feel good about themselves, it’s likely they will not appreciate the photos you make of them.
At times your subject will be too uncomfortable. You won’t manage to make a flattering photo of them because of their tension. Show them the photos. Explain that the tension shows on their face and if they relax, they will like the photos you make of them.
People don’t usually look nervous when they view themselves in the bathroom mirror each morning. So when they see photos of themselves looking tense, it’s very unnatural to them. They do not perceive the image as a good likeness of who they are.
Working like this and showing off less than your best photos may be challenging, but it will help you grow.
Photograph at social gatherings
Take your camera along to birthday parties, drinks after work, your kid’s sports events, or any place where people socialize. Doing so provides wonderful opportunities for people photography. When you can mix with the same people regularly, they will become accustomed to you being there with your camera.
For many people, this may seem a huge challenge. Think positively about it. Approach the situation and the people with a constructive attitude and with reasonable expectations. You will most likely find people will enjoy what you are doing, particularly when you start sharing your photos with them.
Be determined to work through your feelings of discomfort. Your first experience taking photos at a social gathering might be very difficult. Most of your uneasiness will be in your mind. If you give up after your first attempt, you will not know success. The more often you are present with your camera, the more confident you will become and the better photographs you will make.
Become a volunteer photographer
Do you go to church, a temple or a mosque? Are you or your kids a member of a sports club? Do you help out at a local animal shelter or participate in community events? All of these provide a fabulous opportunity to offer your services as a photographer.
Every group or organization loves to have good photographs. Putting yourself forward as a volunteer photographer can be a great experience. Here your camera really is your bridge.
Providing photos for a group or organization can be one of the best ways to build your confidence. Your commitment is greater because other people are relying on you.
Making it clear you are still learning is important. So long as they know this then you have the opportunity to improve over time. In the future, you will be producing wonderful photographs for the community you are volunteering for.
Travel portrait projects
I teach many people who mainly take photographs when they travel. They join our workshops, and many are too timid to photograph people. Or they prefer to stand well back and take candid pictures with a long lens.
Don’t be concerned if you can’t speak the language. Often this can be to your advantage. Use your camera as a bridge. When people see the smile on your face and even a slight gesture with your camera, they will know your intention. Hopefully, they will return your smile. This is permission to photograph them.
Non-verbal communication like this requires that you watch facial expression and body language. Some cultures may smile and mean ‘no.’ So long as you are observant and polite, you will be okay.
The candid option
Certain situations are best photographed without communicating with a person. Candid photography definitely has its place.
Choosing to stand back with a long lens attached to your camera and making candid images is okay when the circumstances are right. The photos you create using this technique will usually be void of subject/photographer connection.
Disturbing people who are engrossed in a conversation or their work breaks the natural flow of life. A candid photo will be more suitable than interrupting.
Artists and craftspeople at work are subjects best left to their creative endeavors. They are focused and passionate about what they are doing. A quick recognition and acknowledgment from them that they are comfortable with you photographing are best. A nod and a smile from you and their smile in return will not break their workflow or concentration. So long as you are not disrupting them, you will be able to capture intriguing portraits of them.
Choosing to work candidly should be a conscious decision because it’s going to produce the best photographs. Opting to capture images of people stealthily because you are too shy to communicate is never the best option.
Those not really candid photographs
At times you’ll find yourself in situations where you want candid photographs, but it’s just not possible. When people know you are there with your camera, truly-candid cannot happen. Capturing natural-looking photos of people in these circumstances is challenging, but not impossible.
When you are ‘the’ photographer
Weddings, portrait sessions, and similar situations do not allow for real candid photos. You have to be able to communicate well and arrange candid-looking images.
Most people like natural-looking photos. The skill is in controlling the circumstances so you get the results you want. This means you must know what you want and be able to relate your ideas clearly to the people you are photographing.
With couples, it’s easy. Just get them talking to each other. Encourage them to forget you’re there and then offer them a conversation starter. Ask them to recall the first time they met, or when they proposed to each other. If you want to lighten the mood and capture some laughter and smiles, ask them something fun.
Once you have them talking, don’t hold back on the photos. You are going to need to take a lot of pictures. What’s happening is more unpredictable, so you need the quantity to get enough quality photos.
You will throw most of them out, but the ones you keep will be relaxed, natural, and vibrant. I used this technique whenever I photographed weddings. It helped produce the most interesting, un-posed photos.
I would use a longer lens, often my 180mm, so I could stay at a bit of a distance, but not too far away. That way, I could still talk with the couple but be far enough back so as not to be in their personal space.
Another wedding technique I used for semi-candid portraits was to get the groom to stand behind me and off to one side. While photographing the bride, I would get them to look at each other and have a conversation. If the groom was somehow stuck for things to say I would make suggestions, often a little rude. This worked well for getting fun, relaxed facial expressions. Then I would swap the bride and groom, and photograph him while they continued their conversation.
Photographing individual portraits is more challenging as you can’t draw attention away from yourself so easily. If you have someone else with you, an assistant or friend, you can prime them to be the distraction. Before you begin, let them know they will have a role to play when you want some more candid-looking photos. Coach them a little so that they will be prepared. When you’re ready, direct your subject’s attention and conversation to your helper.
Working alone is when your communication skills are the most important. Your ability to converse and take photos at the same time will be put to the test. You have to give full concentration to both your subject and what you are doing with your camera.
The practice is again the key in learning how to build your communication skill so you can get candid-looking portraits. It takes time and effort. As you try certain techniques and figure out what works and what doesn’t, you will develop your communication skill set. You will become more confident and effective.
Semi-candid street photography
Semi-candid street photos can be made successfully with a short lens and the right technique. You don’t need to keep your distance and remain in the shadows. Get close, be observant, relaxed, and normal.
People at our local markets know me now. They sell me vegetables, and many of them know I will take their photo some days. They might shy away, or they might pose.
I like to create a mixture of candid and posed photos when I am doing street photography. However, being conspicuous means, I have to employ certain techniques so that I am not the center of attention. Often there are not many other foreigners at the markets, so I stand out.
Often I will engage with someone I want to photograph. Generally, they will stop what they are doing, smile, and pose. This is what they perceive I want. I will take their picture anyway. I’ll make sure it’s well exposed, sharp and flattering. Then I will show them on my camera monitor. Most often they are happy, and we’ll chat a little before I move on.
Once I have moved on, I will wait a short time and then head back near to where they are. They will think my focus is elsewhere because I already have their photo.
Hopefully, they will not pay any attention to me. This is when I get the photos I really want.
Over the years, I have listened to and read of many photojournalists who aspire to be as invisible as possible. It can be a valuable skill to develop. You can learn to do it without actually having to hide your camera or stay a long way back from the action.
Remember, your camera is the solution, not the problem. With your camera in hand, you have a purpose for being where you are and a reason to communicate with people.
You are not only taking a photograph but giving an interesting experience. If you are able to share your photos, then you are truly giving something of value to your subject.
Presenting prints to the people you photograph helps shape the way they see you. A set of small-sized prints is inexpensive and will be appreciated by most. If you capture a photo that’s worthy of enlarging this will have even more of an impact. The cost of an enlargement is insignificant compared to the joy it will bring your subject.
Collecting someone’s email or social media connection will also allow you to give back in a meaningful way. Some people may value this even more than prints because they can share a digital file.
Smile and say ‘hello’
I often walk the same way at the markets when teaching our photography workshops. I’d been noticing this one older man. His face was interesting, but he seemed shy and would not make eye contact with me. He had a small stand selling traditional northern Thai sticky rice. I decided I would smile and say hello to him each time I passed with the hope he would become familiar with me.
I did this for a while, and one day when my wife was helping me teach a workshop, I told her what I had been doing. As we approached him, she smiled and asked if we could make his portrait. She had the charm! He placed his hands on the big bowl of sticky rice, pushed his shoulders back, and smiled warmly for us. We made some lovely portraits of him.
Not long after this, I had another lovely encounter with a woman who was selling sticky rice at the same stall. Each time we visited the markets, we’d have a lovely conversation with this woman. She was friendly and relaxed, quite happy to be photographed. Having not seen the man at the stall for a few months, one day I asked her about him.
Her face dropped, and her eyes looked so sad. I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I felt so terrible. The man was her husband. She told me that he’d passed away suddenly. Then a glimmer of hope appeared in her eyes, and she asked me if I’d made his portrait. I assured her I had and would bring her a print.
Normally when we print photos to give out, we get regular size prints. For this lady, we had an enlargement made and had it framed. She was very grateful. The next time I passed by she told me she had hung the portrait of her husband above her bed.
The moral of the story is, you never know how much you might bless someone by being bold enough to make their portrait. Think of what you do in a positive light. Sure, you will come across some people who do not want their photograph taken. As you practice building your confidence, your success rate will increase.
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- The Ultimate Guide to Photographing People for the Shy Photographer
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES