Finding and Approaching Strangers


So you have made the decision to do the project, have your equipment and got out the front door. In Part one of this series we talked about getting started but where do you go and how do you approach strangers?  In this section I will go into more detail on finding and approaching strangers.

(Note: Click on the pictures to find out more about the stories behind the portraits)


As you get more confident you will choose your locations differently but for now your goal is to just get used to asking strangers. I would therefore tend to try locations where your potential strangers will be relaxed, having fun and aren't in a rush. Here are a few places I have found to be great for finding strangers.

Events/Tourist locations

Anywhere there is an event of some kind or where many tourists go is usually a good place to start. You will find people are in a relaxed mood and also it will be easier to start a conversation. For example, a group of us went to the Tattoo convention in London to find strangers. We thought there would be a lot of cool characters who would love to have their tattoos showcased in a photograph. They would also be relaxed and were the types of personalities who would likely say yes to a portrait. In fact, I don’t think any of us had any rejections that day.

Stranger 39 - Eduard (shot near a tattoo convention)

Stranger 39 - Eduard (shot near a tattoo convention)


Market places are also great places for finding strangers. As well as asking the people hanging around the market, you could also ask stall holders and buy something in return. This helps to get over asking a person because you have in effect given something in return. However, unless this is the purpose of your project, I would only advocate doing this when you first start out to get your confidence up or if you come across a great character and/or a cool scene. In this portrait of Kat, I saw the headpieces being sold in Spitalfields market and wanted to get some out of focus headpiece in the foreground to lead you into the subject. 

Stranger 20: Kat (Spitalfields Market)

Stranger 20: Kat (Spitalfields Market)

Bohemian / Arty neighbourhoods

One other place you could go is anywhere that has a creative vibe or is bohemian in nature. Creative people are more open to having their picture taken as they appreciate the art. 2 of my favourite hunting grounds in London are Soho and Brick Lane. In both areas there is a creative crowd and also more recently a tourist hub too providing even more opportunity.

Stranger 14: Kade (Brick Lane)

Stranger 14: Kade (Brick Lane)


Now that you have got to your location and found the perfect stranger all you need to do is approach them. What are you waiting for?

Well… some of you are going to find this easy and some will find it hard. I fall in the latter category and it took me 4 hours to approach my 1st stranger due to my fear of approaching someone. I was rocked with doubts about what that person would think of me and, if they said yes, whether I would be able to take a great picture. I was surprised that Simon agreed to a portrait at all given that I was shaking and fumbling my words. I was also surprised that I even managed to make my camera work but I must have done something right as I won a runner up prize for that portrait in a competition.

Anyway, enough about me! I could probably write a whole new post on overcoming the fear of approaching strangers but here are 3 things to help you on the way.

Remember you already have the “No”

You already have the “no” answer even before you approach a person. By approaching a person you are not going to end up with a worse outcome but have a high chance of getting a “yes.” The odds are therefore already stacked in your favour with no downside. It is like being given a free bet.

Embrace the fear

The fear will not go away. Approaching people will either be easy for you or difficult depending on your personality. I would love to say that it will get easier the more you do it and to some extent that’s true. However, there is a chance that it will never completely go away. I was able to accept that but knew it would not stop me from taking portraits. In a perverse way, that fear can be a good thing as it helps to keep your edge and means that you are still growing.

What does change though is your confidence in getting a good picture and this helps you to overcome it and go for it despite the fear. 

Stranger 15: Ivane

Stranger 15: Ivane

3 Second Rule

There is rule in dating community that says you have 3 seconds to approach a girl once you have made eye contact. I think there are 2 reasons behind this but for the purposes of street portraits the reason is simply that it stops you from over thinking it. You have seen your stranger just go up to him or her and ask. Worried about what to say? Read on….


It’s not what you say but how you say it

Have any of you seen the opening sequence to the Will Smith film, Hitch? The gist of it is that 90%  (60% body language, 30%  tone) of what you say is not coming out of your mouth!

There are many ways of approaching a stranger but what I have found to be more important is the energy that you bring to the approach. However, a strong, confident and authentic approach is the best way to achieve a successful outcome.  It almost doesn't matter what you say, it’s more about how you say it. I know if I bring an energetic and positive vibe then I am more likely to be successful. 

Flattery goes a long way

Flattery always goes a long away and people usually love to be noticed. If there is something about the person that you like, whether it’s their style, hair or something about else about them, letting them know helps to get things going on a positive note.

Stranger 81: Yasmin

Stranger 81: Yasmin

Keep it simple

My personal method is to keep it simple and direct. As an example I might say “Hi I am doing a photography project and love your style. Can I take your picture?” This a quick simple question which gives them the opportunity to give you an answer straight away and doesn't take too much of their time. They are then able to make a quick decision or ask more questions.

Have business cards or a phone to show your project so far

By far the most effective way for me to convince a sceptical person to allow me to make their portrait is by showing them examples of my work. I either have business cards or show them portraits on my smart phone. This achieves two things: Firstly it legitimises what you are doing and secondly it gives them confidence in you.  

I hope this helps you guys to get you on your way. What are your tips for finding and overcoming the fear approaching of Strangers?