Breaking Barriers: Tips to Overcome Your Fear of Photographing Strangers


“I try to photograph people’s spirits and thoughts. As to the soul-taking by the photographer, I don’t feel I take away, but rather that the sitter and I give to each other. It becomes an act of mutual participation.” – Yousuf Karsh

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

With air blowing around her face, Olivia Zweig, 3, of Ashcroft pokes her head through an opening of a bouncy castle in Paepcke Park at the end of the annual Aspen Children’s Parade.

Over the years, I become accustomed to photographing people on the street. To me, it’s easy and I don’t feel intrusive. Most importantly, I enjoy it.

I love the thrill of meeting new people, I love photographing strangers. I love getting to know my fellow-man.

Meeting new people is fun. Talking to them peels of a layer or two of their character exposing them, thereby making it easier to photograph who they are, to photograph their soul.

However, it was not always easy for me to photograph strangers on the street. When I first began my career, I was very timid in approaching people and even fearful. At times, I even shook from that fear.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

A bassoonist on the Hyman Avenue Mall in Aspen, Colo.

When I was interning at the Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner, I had an assignment to go to Hooper, west of Ogden, to photograph a fair for the next days front page. It was slated to be the lead art to go with a story. But, when I arrived, I was overcome with fear and didn’t produce a single image.

It felt as though someone kicked me in the gut and paralyzed me. My cameras weighed a ton and I had no strength. I was seeing some wonderful images, but the fear kept me from capturing them. I could only stand there and be an observer of the stage of life.

As a result, I was in major trouble with the photo editor August Miller. After talking to him, he put me on probation and gave me a second chance. He guaranteed the next time I “froze up,” I would be fired.

It was over the next few weeks during my internship I analyzed why I was fearful of photographing strangers. And if I didn’t overcome my fears, my short career in this field of endeavor would come to an abrupt halt.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

Liz Atkins of Aspen, Colo., receives a soothing apres ski massage from Aspen Club massage therapist Carrie Cook during Ladies Day at Aspen Sports. The more relaxed and confident you are, the better your street photography becomes.

I came to this simple conclusion the fear was simply unfounded and unjustified. I projected my fears onto my subjects. Thoughts such as “They don’t want their photo taken” became “I don’t want my photo taken.”

It was a hurdle I had to overcome. But I realized, people love to have their photo taken. People like being in the spotlight, even if for only a moment, they like being the center of attention.

Most people think what they do is boring. So when someone begins documenting them as they go about their “boring” life, they feel special.

Iranian photojournalist Reza said: “There is a curtain between the photographer and the subject, and the photographer has to be able to break through it.”

This is true for not only world events, but also simple moments in life. You must not fear opening the curtain. And it is that fear that keeps us from doing what we want.

To help me overcome this irrational fear, I created assignments for myself which forced me to meet new people. I set goals to photograph one new person each day.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

Jamming to the music, “E-Dawg,” of Aspen, Colo., dances to a DJ during Aspen Highlands endo of season party. To help ease your fear, go to a huge gathering of people.

I started in areas where a lot of people gathered such as markets, fairs, bowling alleys, or parks. After a awhile, it became easy to photograph people who were by themselves.

As I progressed in overcoming this fear, I wanted to get closer. I wanted my photographs to be more intimate. I wanted my viewers to feel involved in the lives of my subjects.

To do this, I limited my lens choice to the wider angles. As I was shooting in film, I used only a 24mm or my 35mm lenses. These forced me to get  physically close. They forced me to interact with the subject.

Lillian Cassidy, 5, of New York City gets comfortable for a good read while visiting the Aspen Pitkin County Library. Staying with wide angle lenses forces you to get closer, thereby heping you overcome the fear of photographing strangers.

And eventually the fear went away. It tries to rear its ugly head on occasion, but for the most part, I just quash it and have fun shooting. And isn’t that the whole point? Enjoy what you love to do.

An odd thing I’ve learned over the years is that there is a short period of time when you’ll not get anything good. It seems that for the first few moments, your subject may be a bit tentative. But as you continue to shoot, they relax and that’s when you begin capturing some very real moments. and it is in this time is when you should shoot as much as you can.

Work the moment. Vary your angle. Shoot from high, eye level and low. Work from the right to the left. Get closer, step back. And then you’ll realize how much fun you’re having.

One of the techniques I use is that I talk to them as I begin shooting. I ask them questions to show I have a genuine curiosity about them. this relaxes them and as a result, I get some good images. A genuine curiosity for your subject will go a long way.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

The feet of Jenni Stanford, Laura Varsafsky, and Jessica Philip, all from Steamboat Springs, Colo., hang from a second story window on Mill Street in Aspen, Colo., during a summer afternoon. Don’t forget to look at all angles while shooting.

So here are some tips to help you overcome your fear of photographing people:

  • 1.   Have a goal before setting out. Know where you want to go, have an idea what you want to shoot, and when you want to go. This will help you concentrate on your photography. Over time, the need to have set goals will fade.
    2.   Remember to relax and breathe. Your subjects will sense your unease and tension and react accordingly. When your relaxed, they’re relaxed.
    3.   Introduce yourself and tell them what you’re doing. Be honest. If they object, say thank you and move on. Remember for every person that says no, there’s a hundred that don’t mind.
    4.   Start with more crowded areas such as public markets. It’s common to see photographers in areas like these so you’ll look less out-of-place.
    5.  Use wider angle lenses. They will force you to get closer. I believe using telephoto lenses is more intrusive than using wide angles. With telephoto lenses, you can hide behind objects and actually makes you look suspect. I also think it’s just plain rude. Show yourself.
© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

Sage Paterson, 4, of Aspen, Colo., launches off a ramp while sledding on Whoa Nellie Hill next to the Aspen Recreation Center.

  • 6.  Keep your gear to a minimum. Use one camera and one lens. You’ll look less intimidating so people will be more relaxed around you.
    7.  Give your subjects business cards. This shows your professionalism and lets them know you are serious.
    8.  Carry a notepad and pen/pencil. Get names. This gives you a chance to talk with them, ask questions, get their e-mail address, write down funny quotes, and it also adds to that air of professionalism.
    9.  Practice. You’ll notice your fear dissipate the more you go out and shoot. And as the fear dissipates, your photos will get better and better.
    10.  And the most important tip of all: Don’t forget to have fun.

Hope this helps and I’ll see you on the street.

“Like the people you shoot and let them know it.” – Robert Capa

Thank you for stopping by and reading. All comments are appreciated. Feel free to ask questions.

Paul “pablo” Conrad

Pablo Conrad Photography

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16 comments

  1. Thanks Julia.

    I agree whole heartedly about just standing up, grabbing your gear and heading out the door. Most of the time it is because the photographer generate negative thoughts before heading out the door they are unable to get close to people.

    I carry a pocket model release that I have the persons sign when I need one.

    I know in the States, you can go to to the site Law Depot and you can print out long forms and pocket forms with your name on them.

    You’d have to investigate what the “Laws of Oz” are to find out what you need to do. And when you do, let me know. I’m going for Holiday there at the end of this year. Visiting old Woomera High School friends and maybe even emigrate.

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    1. I carry a pocket release also. Rules are if you are going to use the images commercially you need a relaease, but for editorial you don’t or for use as art you don’t. I try to get one to cover all the bases. i am a stock photographer for OzImages so I got my photorelease form from their site. Hope you enjoy your trip to Oz. I live on the pother side of the country in West Oz. if you want more info on me or OzImages check out http://www.juliaharwood.com

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  2. Having experienced that same trepidation, I enjoyed reading your article. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m going out today and shoot a custom car rally here in Austin.

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  3. I love to take candid street photos. the problem with asking people is that they become conscious of the camera and quite often pose for the photo to make themselves look good. That spoils it all.

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  4. Ze-

    I usually don’t ask. In my experience, most people when they see you are going to pose whether or not you ask.

    What I’ve discovered is there’s a few moments where they “pose.” Then they become accustomed to the camera, begin ignoring you, and go about their business.

    In fact, most people are too busy to even be bothered by you taking photos.

    I shoot mainly with a wide angle lens (17-35) as I believe, using a telephoto is more intrusive. If you’re going to photograph someone, be honest, not sneaky. And being honest means letting them in some way know you are photographing them: either by letting them see you, or simply asking.

    Number 3 is aimed at those trying to overcome their timidness so they realize, after many “yes” answers, that most people don’t mind.

    A lot of it does have to do with your demeanor. How you present
    yourself does affect the situation. If your quiet and unobtrusive, you will capture intimate, spontaneous moments.

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  5. I have been shooting on the street my whole life and when I find that moment it makes the day. I understand your ideas on shooting people and it is a good approach.

    I must say though that if I shot this way I would have very few street moments. I do not plan where I go or what I am going to shoot. If I do I never find it. I once walked the streets of Rome for a day an a half looking for photos. When I got pissed and said enough trying so hard I looked up and found the best shot of the 2 days.

    I say and do not plan. I just go. When I travel I take the Path less traveled. I turn the corner just to see what I will find. If I don’t find anything I realize I am not seeing.

    See with your eyes and capture with your camera.

    There are many ways to photograph people. Do it the way that you end up capturing them in your camera and

    Keep shooting.

    Bruce

    http://www.streetmoments.com

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    1. Thanks for the comments Bruce.

      “I say and do not plan. I just go. When I travel I take the Path less traveled. I turn the corner just to see what I will find. If I don’t find anything I realize I am not seeing.”

      I agree. I don’t plan, I just head out the door and go shoot. My best images are ones I run across.

      “I must say though that if I shot this way I would have very few street moments.” I don’t understand what mean. If it is in reference to Tip #3, then we shoot the same. I give this tip so those who are timid discover how easy it is to document life. Many are timid because they are afraid the subjects will reject them.

      I’m not one who asks. I just start shooting. I don’t use a telephoto as I believe they are more intrusive than wide angles. I believe telephotos are disrespectful.

      I’ve been shooting people with a wide angle for the last 10 years and have learned to be a “fly on the wall” even only when I am a few feet away.

      My friends say it’s my unobtrusive approach and humble deameanor.

      Thanks again.

      Like

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