‘Can I Take Your Picture?': How to Talk to Strangers Without Upsetting Your Mother


Photographing strangers can be a daunting proposition. It was one of the focuses of the workshops I held in NYC this past summer. What if they get mad, what if they yell at me, or what if they go completely psycho on me? Odds are, most people will simply say no pictures. Even the school of Bruce Gilden photographers have hardly been bothered with their “mugging style portrait.”

For all the threats I read on websites, no one has punched out Charlie Kirk or Eric Kim. Keyboard warriors are much more violent than the real thing. This is not to say there are some certifiable lunatics out there, but the odds are pretty slim that someone will do anything more than turn away or say “don’t take my picture.”

Be Honest

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

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

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

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

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

How to Overcome the Fear of Photographing Strangers

When a photographer says to me that they have trouble shooting strangers, the first thing I look at is how they interact with other people. Most photographers who say they struggle with the confidence to shoot people don’t actually have a photography problem. They usually have a people problem.

The idea of talking to strangers is the bigger issue. If we want to get really psycho-analytical, the fact that they are considered “strangers” and not “people” is probably a bigger problem.

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

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

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

Feminine Energy

Photography, for better or worse, is a male dominated field (I would argue for worse). One (of the many) lesson that men can learn from women is how to approach people.

Women have a much easier time with street portraits. They can photograph children without being a pedophile, they can photograph another women without being perverted, and they can photograph the most menacing subjects in the world because they are not threatening. They can put their subjects at ease and have the potential for a much greater level of intimacy because of their approach.

Men can learn a lot from this.

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

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

On the Bench

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

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

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

“If you want.” he said.

We struck up a simple conversation. I asked him where he was from, he asked me if I was from the C.I.A.? He revealed that he grew up in Paterson New Jersey, I confessed, much to his disappointment, that I was not in the C.I.A. but rather the Secret Service. The obvious lie broke the ice and we started talking about Paterson, which has a very interesting building history.

Paterson, New Jersey, the birth place of my grandfather, used to be the stain glass, tin, and brick making hub for New York City. Almost all of the tin stamped ceilings you see in SoHo lofts came out of Paterson. Also, many of the older residential buildings in the city are made from the sand of the Passaic River that cuts through Paterson. Bricks used to come in endless shapes and sizes that architects and masons would specify for project. Paterson used to be a serious place for manufacturing but fell on to hard times after WWII.

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

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

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

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

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

People don’t want to feel like a piece of meat. The hit and run style of street shooting leaves people with a bad taste in their mouth. It gives off the impression that you really are taking something from them, instead of having a meaningful exchange.

If you are going to take their picture, spend a little time getting to know them. All too often, I see photographers hurry through scenes only to come out the other end with images that feel like they were taken in passing.

The next time you are out shooting, if you are not already in the habit of meeting someone new, strike up a conversation with a new face. It could be a taxi driver or security guard or a random guy on a bench.

When mom told us not to talk to strangers she only wanted to protect us. But as photographers, the more strangers we talk to the better. Because eventually they stop being strangers and just become people other than ourselves.

The barrier that exists between two people is only an illusion. Once it is removed, the worlds mix and we discover that even in the most remote places, humans are more alike than we might like to admit.

Remember to smile.

About the author: Adam Marelli is an artist, photographer, and builder who lives in New York City. He holds popular photography workshops year-round around the world. Visit his website here. This article originally appeared here.

  • Barnabás Böröcz

    Hands down..great articel, incredible! Thank you. Smile.

  • CamCrunch

    Great post, Adam! I have found it hard to photography people on the streets in the past but I’m getting better. These tips will come in handy!

  • Duke Shin

    …just not being a complete Bruce Gilden has worked fine.

    Asking for a picture isn’t street photography, it’s an impromptu outdoor portrait shoot.

  • wilmark johnatty

    This is one of the key learning areas in photography and I wonder why this is not covered in the thousands of training videos in photography, especially f you are doing any kind of public photography. I have found once you start practicing these interactions with people you want to photograph it becomes infectious – I have realized that once people know that you are a professional photographer they want you to take their picture, especially people that are working or just going about their business.

  • Doug Knisely

    Street photography excites, challenges, and moves me emotionally more than any other form of photography, or pretty much any other activity in life. I admire and greatly respect both candid photographers and photographers who prefer to interact with and engage their subjects. Personally, while I have tried both types, I strongly prefer candid photography (for my personal work) — both during the process, but most importantly in the results. I prefer honest, natural, un-staged/coached expressions.

    The thing that constantly amazes me is that so many good photographers who prefer engaging and interacting with their street subjects are also virulently (and often offensively/condescendingly) opposed to candid street photography. Even more to the point, they are downright insulting to the >people< who choose to do candid street photography (as is the case in this article, but it happens all the time).

    Even one of my very favorite photographers and educators (who produces stunning engaged street images) makes statements like this, and I just don't get it.

    "If you answered no to any of those three questions, I would not take the picture." — Thank god that HCB and nearly every other seminal street photographer did not listen to this advice, stated with such unnecessary authority! I urge you to be more open-minded, perhaps getting out of YOUR comfort zone and looking for some candid honest expressions rather than limiting yourself to posed natural light portraits of strangers.

  • Bill Mckim

    Awesome article

  • cristofa

    … in a way, I lament the popularity of ‘street photography’ – especially of the confrontational variety. I like opportunistic quirky shots which are over in a second – no chance of engaging with the subject to record those events. Although I am quite happy to chat with people and show the subjects what I have taken if asked.

  • Cloudsuck

    Call me creepy, but I prefer taking a picture of someone without he/she knowing.

  • harumph

    Not that I really disagree with much of what’s said in the article, but it seems to me that the approaches that are described here are moving away from what most people consider “street photography.” I’ve done my fair share of candid photography as well as the type of friendly impromptu portraiture seen here. They are not the same thing. Traditional candid street photography is impersonal by nature. Taking candid shots of people you’ve just met is the opposite (or it strives to be). As I’ve grown older, I’ve found that I much prefer to take pictures of people I’ve gotten to know a bit first. That could mean that I’ll simply wait a few minutes before the camera comes out, or it could mean that I’ll wait a few years before I start taking their picture. However long it takes to get them to be comfortable in front of the camera. Street photography, on the other hand, isn’t at all interested in making the subject comfortable, or with connecting on any sort of intimate level with the subject.

  • Adam Cross

    I resent being called a “pervert” and a “creep” for hip-shooting, hip-shooting results in a certain aesthetic that I like, if I wanted different pictures I would approach it in a different way, If I wanted to talk to someone – I would.. If your approach is to talk to people for 10 mins and then take their photograph once they’re at ease – fine (it’s something I’ve done before, it’s not a problem for me), but please don’t presume that your approach is somehow better than someone elses simply because you spoke to someone because photographing them.

  • Kathleen Grace

    It is a good article about how to approach people. I agree with others that this is no longer street photography but street portraits. What I’ve found is that when I see people and ‘want’ to take that picture, they are totally at ease in themselves, unaware of the impact their standing, walking, sitting is having in connection with the environment. As soon as you approach them they change, they are no longer that person interacting with the environment, they are responding to you. I have loved taking photos of people on the streets – until one guy came charging across the street screaming at me in San Francisco. And that put a great fear into me. I loved people watching as a kid, they are, rather we are interesting creatures and I most like those totally honest moments when we truly are who we are. How to capture those moments without a fear for one’s safety is my concern.

  • Cat Milton

    Cool post!
    I photograph both candidly but also have to photograph under the conditions where it is mandatory to speak to people on the street – in an area where the main language is not one I speak! (I’m the photographer behind Humans of Ibiza (Facebook) – I’ll spare everyone the link – it’s a genuine post and compliment from me – not an exercise in PR.

    Despite the language barrier, a smile, a genuine compliment (and much gesturing…) about what’s caught my attention often paves the way smoothly for a photograph. In fact, the only time I have been turned down is from the much older insular generation of Ibicenco’s (Ibiza) who aren’t so sure about this modern lot – and a woman who was so up herself that after her abrupt and rude dismissal, I saw through the original ‘beauty’ and was quite pleased not to feature her!

    Really enjoyed your article and love your approach! Kudos.

  • 9inchnail

    Amen to that, just wanted to write the same thing.

  • 9inchnail

    Certainly not in Germany. As soon as people think you’re a professional, they wanna know what you’re going to do with those pictures. People here are very sensitive when it comes to taking their pictures. Doesn’t stop them from posting every little thing of their private life’s on the internet but if a stranger takes their photo, they go apeshit.

  • Ronald Santerre

    Yep and while you spend 15 minutes with someone a lot of other photo opps are passing by.

    Like Jay Maisel says: “I’m not out here to make friends but to take pictures” and believe me he’s neither a creep or a perv, same with H.C. Bresson!

  • ManWithACamera

    It seems he is thinking that taking portrait photo in the streets is alone street photography. It is just a part of street photography, not the whole.

    Imagine Alfred Eisenstaedt went near to the army man and talked 10 minutes about the war and another 10 minutes with the nurse about her hospital. Then, Alfred: ‘Can you kiss her? I will capture it and become famous;) Hilarious :)

  • photosforus

    I disagree, Street photography is about capturing the world around you. If you’re asking the person to do this and go over here and take off the hat and hold this flower then yeah, you’re past the point of street photography. But if you see an interesting character smoking a cigarette at a bus bench and say do you mind if I take your picture while you continue to do what you were doing I think you’re still capturing the moment.

    Besides I’d much rather see a photo taken of somebody smiling right into the camera then another shot of somebody’s backside because the photographer was scared that the subject would see them but too afraid to “ruin” the moment by interacting with another human.

    I do agree with you that we don’t need to be Bruce Gilden’s.

  • ripley

    Yes, men. Learn from women photographers, grow a vagina, because it’ll make you less intimidating and you’ll have zero chance of being a perv or pedo.

  • Bristol

    I read somewhere that they recently found that Eisenstaedt’s photo was posed, and not actually candid.

  • Roman

    why don’t we first take picture and then think what genre is it.
    Is it “street” or is it “portrait”? Does it matter? Are we individuals or are we have to follow so kind of rules to be able to fit to certain group?

  • RenoGuy

    You talk to someone and take a boring photo. Big deal.

  • stormcab

    I use all known techniques to photograph people, asking them, from the hip, and across the road with the above mentioned 400mm lens. I choose which method suits
    me for that particular day, place, or my mood. If I choose to go the one specific route, like the one above, and everyone did the same, the photography world would be an incredibly boring place. What you have said, is like what I am saying – just an opinion.
    I am very comfortable speaking to anyone, as I am a London cabbie, but what I don’t want is all my future images looking exactly the same.

    As for it being easier for a woman to photograph certain sudjects, well nothing worthwhile is ever easy. In that respect it could be said that men therefore have to work harder to get ‘that’ image, and therefore a better and more rewarding one.

  • stormcab

    it’s pathetic isn’t it. So those 1000 people who happen to be behind your wife while taking a photo of her makes you a ‘perv’? Some people’s way of thinking really is one dimensional, and they should be restricted to only being allowed to shoot on a 10 year old 2mp camera lol.

  • DainBramaged

    A personality is not a reflection of photography skill or ability. Shame on you for thinking like that.

  • SemT-Ro

    Why not use a new term? Social street photography

  • Nah

    Doing anything without consent is more than a little messed up.
    People are not objects.

  • Nah

    Consent is important.
    If you think it isn’t, I hope you never experience the negative end of that.

  • Nah

    Yeah, that’s creepy & entirely nonconsensual.

  • Nah

    People are not objects.
    They are not “interesting creatures” for your amusement nor your lens.
    Your concern should be obtaining consent.

    Here’s an idea:
    Take the picture you see.
    Then go ask the subject if they would prefer it deleted.
    If they say yes, do so.

  • Guest

    What you just said is not at all inconsistent.
    People want control of what is ‘theirs’.
    This includes their image & anything derived from it.

    If THEY choose to post THEIR pictures on THEIR preferred outlet of choice, that’s THEIR business.
    As soon as another party enters the frame, they need to obtain consent & be clear about their purposes.
    It’s perfectly reasonable.

  • Nah

    What you said is not at all inconsistent.
    People want control of what is ‘theirs’.
    This includes their image & anything derived from it.

    If THEY choose to post THEIR pictures on THEIR preferred outlet of choice, that’s THEIR business.
    As soon as another party enters the frame, they need to obtain consent & be clear about their purposes.
    It’s perfectly reasonable.

  • Nah

    It was a non-consensual act anyway.
    Adding non-consensual photographing of it doesn’t make it any better.

  • Nah

    Obtaining consent of those photographed is of vital importance.
    Ideally this should be done before any photos are taken.
    The alternative is asking the subject/s after the fact, explaining & being clear that if they would prefer the images of them deleted then you will do so.

  • Nah

    You should be doing the asking, purely as an issue of consent.

  • Nah

    … I rather think people are entitled to give a stranger asking for their picture an “abrupt and rude dismissal”.
    Their consent is theirs to give or withhold as they please, and you are not entitled to it.

  • Kate

    Well, that’s not so, people are interesting creatures, we all are. Your ignorance failed to see that I said WE are interesting creatures, people are. You obviously didn’t read properly. You’re comment is simply idiotic.

    And further, you failed to read why I stopped, that it felt threatening to take the risk that another person may become violent. You have no idea of what you speak. It is not amusement or entertainment though you may seem to think so, I think more of people than simply that, though you seem to think otherwise.

  • Adam Cross

    you don’t need consent to take photographs in public places.

  • Nah

    Legally, you’re generally right.
    Except that doesn’t make it okay to take pictures of people without their permission.
    If the only thing you have to defend your actions is “Well it’s not illegal”, that’s a VERY weak argument.

  • Nah

    “You’re comment is simply idiotic”, hm?
    Uh, if you’re calling someone else an idiot you may want to make sure you don’t make any errors in doing so.
    Asides from which, insults don’t constitute arguments.
    Your comment was not about you taking pictures of yourself, it was about taking pictures of others; in which you called them “interesting creatures” as subjects, as objects.
    Saying “Well I think we’re ALL interesting creatures” does not in any way alter that you’re still viewing & treating other people as objects.

    I did read why you stopped, I quite clearly have ideas on what I’m currently speaking about or I wouldn’t have been able to comment, & quite frankly I’m glad you are scared of what people might do when you purposefully violate them.

    If it doesn’t make you happy (amusement/entertainment/recreation) then there seems little reason for you to do so without coercion.

    People are remarkably capable of justifying their actions with weak rationalisations, aren’t they..?
    I’m talking about you, by the way. You are remarkably capable of justifying your actions with weak rationalisations.

  • Kate

    No, my friend. Again it seems you don’t read well. Saying a statement is idiotic does not mean the person is. And I’m an interesting creature, you are certainly an interesting creature. And your insistence on assaulting my words just makes no sense. I am not speaking to you and don’t even care to engage in argument, just to get you to stop attacking me for what I said which is in no way offensive.

    You don’t know me, don’t know what I think or how I think. You do not know how much I love people but are intimidated by them because I was abused and am fearful of people and their reaction because of how I was treated. I would like you to stop attacking my own personal rationale. I do not need someone like you proving further that there’s a reason to fear people. Your irrational argumentative attack on a simple statement is abusive and uncalled for.

  • Adam Cross

    You don’t need their permission. It’s that simple. If we needed permission then we would all need permission from governments and police to record us 24/7 – but we don’t. There is no expectation of privacy in the world we live in, apart from your own home (but governments have even made that line a wavy one). someone’s right to be offended or claim privacy violation because of a camera (unless you’re being purposefully abusive) doesn’t actually count for anything in public places. You might think it a weak argument, but it’s a fact.

  • bwoolfolk

    Wow, this is a wonderful article, Adam, chock full of insight. I am a
    street photographer and an introvert. Two of my goals are to get over
    my fear while doing street photography and to learn to be more
    “sociable” with people. You have helped me realize that my two goals
    are really only one. The transformation starts now.