5 Top Tips for Photographing People in the Street

Some of the most powerful images in the world have been captured by street photographers.


Street Photography is a lose term that can become a part of many different genres of photography from artistic and abstract photos to journalistic images, and architectural photography to portraiture. It’s extremely common to incorporate a human element into street photography; whether intended as the main subject and focus of the image or simply to aid in creating a better idea of perspective, scale or atmosphere for the viewer.


Photographing people that you don’t know in the street can be a daunting prospect for many photographers and it can be hard to know where to start. Regardless of your photographic style, my top tips for photographing people in the street could help you take this form of shooting in your stride and increase your chances of capturing mesmerising images.


Here are my 5 Top Tips for Photographing People in the Street…


#1. Be Open and Be Friendly


Possibly one of the most important things I’m going to tell you – be open and be friendly! The absolute worst thing you can do is try to take your shots in a sneaky manner; you won’t feel good about it yourself and if you’re caught by you’re subject, you stand very little chance of being allowed to continue!


It may be tempting if you’re just starting out and still building confidence, but trust me it’s not the route you want to take. You’re far more likely to evoke a negative reaction from people when they notice you taking their photograph in this manner. You’re never going to get the best photograph you can if you’re rushing to take the shot before you’re noticed.


Wouldn’t it be better to take your time, set up your camera properly, compose the shot and then take the photograph?


It’s an unavoidable truth of street photography that not everyone will be happy with you taking their photograph, but at the same time you’d probably be surprised by the amount of people that actually don’t mind! If you’re smiling and very honest about the fact you’re taking a photograph, the more likely it is to be accepted or even welcomed. If you and your subject are open about the situation, you’ll both feel more relaxed and this will result in more natural images.


Sometimes people will ask why you want to take a photograph – so always be friendly, pay compliments, and explain that it’s because you are a photographer. If they want to know more, then show them examples of your work – and this leads nicely onto my second Top Tip…


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#2. Have a Chat


As I mentioned in #1 your subject(s) or others nearby will sometimes approach you and ask you why you’re taking their photograph. Don’t be afraid of this – it is sometimes the best thing that can happen!


Take your time to explain you’re a photographer, show examples of your other work and tell them more about the project you’re working on (ensuring you have been as polite and friendly as possible). After finding out more about you and your motives, the subject of your ‘candid street photography’ will often be far more open to letting you photograph them. This will usually lead to a far more relaxed situation, more time for the shots you’re after and more natural poses, postures and expressions. It’ll also make your job as a photographer a little less stressful!


One of my favourite things to do is exchange details with the people you’re photographing.


Carry some business cards or take note of their email address, and you can even offer to send them a file or a link to their photograph. It’s a great way of building trust and will often turn into a really interesting conversation or even unexpected commissions! I’ve personally met some really great people this way and still keep in touch with them now.


An elegant bride emerges from her ceremony in Tokyo, Japan.


#3. No Means No


It doesn’t matter how friendly or approachable you are, sometimes people just won’t want their photograph taken.


Most of the time the person will simply ask you not to take their photograph; in which case the best thing to do is politely accept their request not to be photographed and move on to another setting and another image. If you’ve been asked not to take someone’s photograph, you will always be in the wrong if you continue trying to do so.


There will be situations when you’ll have already taken the photograph, in which case you should apologise and continue on your way. If this is not enough, then be sure to show them as you delete the image on the camera.


Trying to photograph someone after being asked not to can result in an array of undesirable situations – from verbal abuse to violence or police intervention – none of which you want to be involved with! No matter how good the shot may have been, it is not worth risking your safety and reputation as a photographer by persisting and trying to capture the image. Your time is better spent looking for a better composition that doesn’t cause any distress for your subjects.


A street entertainer astounds onlookers with some high-flying football skills.

#4. Bad Weather is Your Friend


Photographers are possibly some of the only people that regularly hope for cloudy, stormy or (what is normally deemed as) undesirable weather. If you don’t… then you should!


Bright sunlight will often lead to images with high amounts of contrast, blown out high-lights and/or underexposed shadows. These are generally seen as undesirable qualities when it comes to street portraiture and photography (though not all the time, depending on your style!) and best avoided. However, you’ll find that when the weather is overcast the ambient lighting can be more balanced and allow you to capture beautifully exposed images with wonderful detail. So the next time the Sun is shrouded in cloud it just might be one of the best times to head out with your camera!


The weather will also directly affect the way that people behave outdoors. 


Warm sunny weather will often mean that there are lots of people, smiling and ambling along slowly whereas the opposite is true when rain is pouring from the heavens and pedestrians are rushing for cover whilst holding briefcases, newspapers and plastic bags over the heads. It is of course personal to every photographer and their own style, but I often find that some of the most interesting behaviour can be captured with a camera when the weather is at it’s worst…

A group taking part in the ‘Power Big Meet’ classic American car show in Vasteras, Sweden during an evening cruise.

#5. A Little Money Goes a Long Way


In many parts of the world people are used to being photographed by tourists and travellers – to the extent that they will ask for money before they will let you take a photograph of them. This is more common in areas with lower employment rates or high amounts of tourism. I’m sure it’s something many of you will be familiar with already! Whether you choose to pay them is up to you, but you certainly shouldn’t try and take their photograph if you are refusing their request for money in return (as I explained in point #3).


Sometimes making a small donation can go a long way…


People in less developed countries will often rely on different aspects of the tourist industry to supplement their income and in many places your pennies can make a huge difference – from the acrobatic performers on the streets of Colombo to the snake wrangling children of Siem Reap. If you agree to make a donation, then you could be making a big difference in that persons life and at the same time you’re securing their permission to be photographed.


This can also have a dramatic impact on the boundaries that are normally set for you as a street photographer. Instead of waiting and relying on the perfect moment to happen, you will be more able to ask the subject to ‘change their position’ or ‘look in a different direction’ – helping you to create the best image possible.

A member of ‘The Strangers’ – a group of rockabilly dancers often found at the entrance to Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, Japan.


Every photographer has (or will develop) techniques and methods individual to them – from the technical aspects of photography to the interpersonal skills necessary to work with people. Hopefully my 5 Top Tips to Photographing People in the Street will help you to build upon your existing skill set, develop new ideas and adapt your methods to create even more beautiful images.

Aaron NorthcottOther articles by author

A multi award-winning photographer, Aaron has a diverse portfolio of powerful, inspiring imagery and an impressive résumé of clients and commissions.

Specialising in Wildlife, Travel & Landscape photography, the work Aaron produces has been seen around the world and has been used for everything from Tourism and Conservation to Outdoor Living, Lifestyle and Adventure.

Aarons passion for photography, his subjects and the world around us is always evident through the images he captures - and pushes himself constantly to be one of the most versatile, creative and innovative visual artists working in the photography industry today.

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