Five Tips for Photographing People

Five Tips for Photographing People

I’ve been talking about this for a long time, so I wanted to go ahead and give you some free tips for on-the-street people photography.

From various conversations, I think that photographers are REALLY interested in taking photos of people they see on the street. We can’t help it, right? Our eyes are drawn to interesting “things” — not just landscapes. And if we see an interesting person, we really want to take their photo, yes? But then, often times, we don’t even pull the camera up to our eye because we are shy, embarrassed, or think about all the horrible things that could go wrong. So, maybe these tips will help!

Look, honestly, I don’t know if these will do you any good or not. But these are some things that I personally think about. So, insofar as some of my insights are useful to me, maybe they will be useful to you too!

Even though I’m known for “landscape photography”, I actually enjoy all kinds of photography! I take hundreds of people photos, object photos, food photos, model photos, B&W photos, etc. I assume that you take many types of photography too.

1) If you prefer to take photos of people as they are acting naturally, go ahead and take the photo before they notice you. You are a photographer, and this is you. You capture life… if you see something interesting whether it is a landscape, a pile of peaches, or a person that strikes your fancy, go ahead and do it. If you like and it is convenient, you can always go show them the photo after you are done. I do this whenever it makes sense, and I have a nice little interchange with the person.

2) Keep an extra camera ready for people shots. When walking the streets, I normally have my “big” camera ready to go for city landscape shots. My tripod is on. My wide-angle is on. It’s in that “mode.” If I am going to have to switch lenses, it will take forever, and the moment will be lost. So, I carry a second camera on a sling around my shoulder for people shots. On that camera, I have an 85mm or 50mm prime lens. Now, you don’t have to have this exact setup by any means, but having ANY kind of second camera for people shots is recommended.

2b) I find that the 85mm prime keeps me outside something I call the radius of intimacy. That is, when you use a 50mm, you are so close that people often stop acting naturally, unless they are a professional model or a natural thespian.

3) If they ARE likely to notice you, be confident and deliberate, softly asking permission with your eyes. This is a very subtle and hard thing to explain. I usually raise my eyebrows while I raise my camera, clearly indicating, “I’m about to take a photo. Everything is okay.” If they don’t want you to, they will make it clear. Usually, they say it’s just fine. People like to be thought of as interesting.

4) If they are very close, I ask permission out loud. Often times, I don’t want them to pose… so I say something (smiling!) like, “You look very interesting — can I take a photo?” Once they say yes (98% of the time they do), I usually ask them not to pose and carry on about their business. Then I start taking a bunch of photos and enjoy the pressure of capturing the moment.

5) Don’t be shy! If you feel overly shy, it may be a larger indication that you are letting fear motivate you rather than the opportunities that life provides. So, if you feel doubt or fear, just try to channel me and be brave and forthright.

Regarding that last one, seriously, folks, just be cool and confident with it. If you want to do it, and it feels right, just do it. Do not worry so much about rejection. Yes, you WILL get rejected 2-10% of the time depending upon how likable you are. Out of 500 people photos, I’ve been rejected maybe 10-13 times. It doesn’t bother me a bit. So what? People say no… big deal. The fact is that MOST people LOVE to have photos taken of them. To be interesting in a world of same-ness is a tremendous thing. Chances are that no one has ever taken a photo of them before, and they will feel special that you thought they were special.

Most of the time, after I take a photo and people look over at me, wondering, “Why did you just take a photo of me?” I usually say, “You look cool!” Or, “You look awesome!” Or, if they don’t speak English, I give them a thumbs up and a facial indication that I think they look cool. 99% of the time, they smile and carry on.

If you’re taking a photo of a kid, just get a steady nod from the parents before. Bend down to take the photo, look up at the parent, saying, “is it okay?” with your eyes. They’ll say yes or no… There is a significant number of moms out there that watch too much sensational news and assume that 50% of the population are pedophiles… but, maybe you’ll hit that other 50%! Again, we’re all just photographers, and if we see a cute or interesting kid, of course we want to take a photo! It’s what we do! There is no need to apologize for it! 🙂

Daily Photo – Salaryman in Tokyo

While I was in the middle of making a time-lapse sequence (see the video below the photo), I was using my D3S on a sling to take quick photos of interesting people. They were everywhere!

Behind me, waiting for the light to change, was this young salaryman. Salaryman is the Japanese word for “businessman”. That word salaryman always cracks me up for some reason. Anyway, he was this young kid, standing there in a most unassuming way in this nice suit. I spun around and grabbed a quick shot.

He looked a little confused at me after I took it. I gave him a nod of thanks, and he smiled in a surprised way then went merrily on his way.

HDR Photo

Videos – Life in Japan

While I am busy shooting landscapes and people in Japan, I also take time to make some videos.  Below are a few of them from recent past.  The music from both is by the great Patrick O’Hearn (buy his stuff!).  Enjoy!

  • James

    nice videos! makes me want to pack my bags and fly to japan asap…=)

  • casusan

    Oh wow! I had forgotten how awesome these video are Trey! And yes, I think you are right about taking photos or video of people – I know I would think it kind of unusual but wouldn’t object – maybe the only ones who would complain are those who have something to hide? Cool Trey!

  • Thank you very much, Trey! Now I get to stop bugging you about the “people” tips 😀 Seriously, that was really helpful. I would love to know if anyone here uses model releases… I carry them but damn if they aren’t annoying and a mood-killer to drag out when you are in a photo-taking mood! And if you miss getting a signed release, my experience has been that people are totally unwilling to sign after the fact- even when chased down, called and/or emailed. or maybe that is because I’m obviously stalking them to try to get them to sign it! lol. Anyways, has anyone had bad experiences from NOT using model releases? I just don’t know the legal ramifications, and that is where I get uneasy.

  • thanks for the tips for Photographing people…some people in the FB shoot candid photo, post to their wall and make fun of the photo, really disturbing. It makes a bad impression to other photographer out there.

  • michelle

    very nice video!!! thanks a lot for the sharing !

  • Nice videos Trey! I really like the timelapse (1:18), how did you do it? It’s all HDR’s from one RAW? You should write some article about it! Still waiting for the google doc. 🙂 BTW I recently bought all your ebooks, they are very helpful (especially your workflow) and fun to read! HDR DVD is on my must-have list, but now i am collecting money for the D7000, specs are great and i’ve read only positive previews. Way better machine than my D60. 🙂

  • Thanks for the extra tips on ‘People’ photography Trey – i’m feeling a bit more empowered now. All i need to do is find some awesome people to snap!

  • Gail in Montana

    Thanks for the tips, Trey. I remember the videos, they are great! Nice photo of the gentleman in Japan. Have a wonderful Sunday!!

  • Thanks all.

    Filip – yes – have a how-to here on

    Kelley – yes! That model release is a real mood-killer !

  • Hello,

    Saw a comment in a facebook fan page for this website. Comment said that the picture here, was taken from this site. I don’t know where to put this, so I hope you don’t mind the comment here.

  • francois

    Very nice videos. It’s the first time I realize the beauty of slow motion. Which video camera do you use ? Was it the D3X ??

  • Bart

    Very captivating photo of the “salaryman”. Your use of depth of field just makes him pop out of the background. I would like to have seen the sequel though. His expression is so serious it is hard to imagine him smiling.

  • FrodoTheGreat

    Thank you for your useful tips!
    You videos are the “must watch” of this year, very good!

  • That is a most incredible video (the top one). I am beyond impressed. And those D3’s are sure sexy. TIme to upgrade the D700!!

  • Gurdish Johal

    Wow! I don’t know where to start! absolutely inspirational! I’ve
    taken video’s in the past, but the way you’ve put them together makes we want to have a go!
    Tips please -camera/video? software? please!!!

  • Thanks !

    Gurdish – I have a whole page about that here just go to /stuckinmotion

  • love the video editing Trey :-)) Beautiful! Hope you enjoyed your stay in Japan.

  • Please come to Lithuania. I was mesmerized by your videos and pictures. I would be so proud if you did something like this Japan video about Lithuania too. Please come to Lithuania.

  • Patricia

    Nice photos. Come to Moscow, I will show you the way around the city!!!!! I love photographing people as much as you do.

  • Haven’t loooked at the videos yet but was struck by the photo of the ‘salaryman’. Great photo – but what aree the implications of publishing his photo without permission?

  • Dorothyann Strange

    With all these people you have shot, have you ever used a photo on-line, or for sale without permission? I have a few of those and not sure what to do. Do I dare? One of these is from Cambodia and I did not have my guide with me to speak to the person and it is too beautiful not to share. I find your photography inspirational and intimidating at the same time. Love it.

  • Lili

    Thanks for these wonderful videos!
    I miss so much Japan!!

  • I’m with Gurdish. I’ll have to check out the tips on your website for doing video. The only videos I have done were in the past of my son playing ice hockey. It’s a whole new area of learning for me.

    Thank you for sharing. I very much enjoyed.

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  • Seeing that we already happen to be discussing points regarding Five Tips for Photographing People, Weddings are a huge part of a photographer’s career, and many photographers are booked for months when it comes to weddings. Due to the fact that some photographers are in such high demand and brides are calling left and right, it is important to consider booking your photographer 9-12 months in advance.

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  • Nice tips!

  • PhotogJohnB

    Trey – I Enjoyed reading your comments about photographing people. I recently exeprienced a situation where I photographed a small child, and the child’s Mother went ballistic on me. The whole experience really shook me and has certainly impacted my desire to photograph ‘street’ people. After reading through your comments, I feel more willing to photograph people knowing now how I can better approach individuals. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Awesome tips and great videos, love the editing. I hope to be as good someday 🙂

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  • Good tips – one thing I am aware of is that when you’re a guy asking a woman to take her picture can be a little tricky. Nobody wants to come-off as a creep. So, I usually only take female shots if my wife or kids are with me 🙂 …And I never take pix of kids (in the West at least)…

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  • Just amazing videos Trey, It’s still one of my wishes to go out to Japan some day.

  • Zach

    I agree with you about how to approach people. I was in Israel for Birthright a couple months ago and while walking through this artsy town in the north (Tzfat) I tried to snap a shot of this woman leaning over her balcony to put out the clothes hanging on a wire across the alley way. She quickly asserted herself as not wanting her picture taken.

    Later while walking through another alleyway full of little artists studios, I saw a man painting a picture surrounded by all his other art. I took the opportunity to ask him if it was alright to take his picture. At first he seemed puzzled and then was ok with it. He didn’t even pose nor did I ask him to act normal, he just carried on with what he was doing. It’s one of my top favorite shots of the trip.

  • Jo

    that would be nice if i didn´t live in Europe where i almost can´t afford only one reasonable camera… how could i buy 2!

  • Jo

    oh! nice photo by the way, and excelent tutorials in your website.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

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  • Yeah it’s all cool but you’re not really allowed to publish them are you? Thats all I’m really interested in is people pics. They’re awesome!! I was actually chased by a man recently with a bottle for taking his picture. We didn’t even have a chance to exchange body language he was on me! lol

  • Also don’t forget to take pics from a lower perspective (the eye level), when taking pics of little children.

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  • Wonderful portrait. I’m not a people shooter. An upcoming trip should give me the opportunity to take a lot of people shots (not something I’m comfortable with or good at). Check my woks in Photoshop 2015

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