This is not a post on how to take good portraits, nor is it about what lens to use to take portrait photos, or all of that technical stuff. This post is about my personal tips on how to overcome the fear of asking of people for pictures. I love taking street portraits but here’s the thing:
I’ve been terrified of asking strangers for their photos for as long as I remember.
Climbing mountains or jumping off airplanes? No problemo. I even got over my fear of drowning. But asking a complete stranger if I could stick a camera to their face?
I know it’s an irrational fear (like my fear of maggots – but not that I’m comparing people to maggots or anything), but that’s just how it is.
But I’m tired of ‘sneak’ photos. I like taking pictures of people – I find photos of people I’ve met during my travel are the ones I treasure the most. Mostly I’m simply tired of being afraid of something so… silly.
So before I left for Nicaragua, I set out a challenge for myself.
I made a promise to ask somebody for their picture. Once a day.
Note that I didn’t promise myself to take a good picture. Or even a promise to take a picture per day. I just made a commitment to ask for one. It wasn’t easy. But I managed. At least once a day, jittery from cups of Nicaraguan coffee I gulped down to bolster confidence, I’d ask a complete stranger,
“Me permite tomar su foto?”
Each ‘yes’ boosted my confidence. I didn’t receive a single ‘no’ so that helped my case immensely. Although I did end up with a few pictures like this where my subjects changed their mind in the last minute.
In forcing myself to do this, I learned that a few things that made asking strangers for their photos a lot easier for me.
Asking someone who showed interest in me first
I found Nicaraguans to be more reserved than the people I’ve me in Latin America. But every now and then I came across people who found me interesting (for whatever reason) and striked up a conversation. Like this old farmer I shared a 2 hour bus ride with. I understood about 1 in 20 words he said. I think he either had 18 cows or 18 daughters – I’m not sure. It didn’t matter – he kept on talking.
The point is, before I got off, I made sure I asked for his picture. I thought saying ‘yes’ was the least he could do after talking my ears off for 2 hours.
He nodded and smiled while I snapped a couple of quick shots.
Asking someone whose service/goods I’ve bought from
Tour guides, store owners, merchants, cafe baristas – often times this is the easiest way to get a portrait shot. The initial barrier has been broken, you’ve made them happy by using their service, and happy people are less likely to say ‘no’ when asked for a favor.
Asking myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
I mean, really – the worst that can happen is getting a ‘No’ answer. So why is it so scary to ask?
The more I ruminate over the question, the more confident I get. Yes, the confidence sometimes only lasts a few seconds before yet again I cower and take pics of someone’s backside. So those rare seconds when you feel invincible? Ask them for a picture.
They’re my confidence booster. They love having their pictures taken and they have the most expressive facial expressions.
This girl here is the daughter of an innkeeper. She would not shut up unless when posing. I felt a headache coming from all the chatter so I started taking a bunch of photos. It’s a good thing she’s cute.
Playing off the ‘all tourists are weird’ cards
Sometimes I’m afraid to appear silly or foolish when asking people for their pictures. It’s the whole fear of rejection thing, I believe.
However, I have a suspicion that locals, regardless of where in the world, think tourists are a weird bunch. We take pictures of mundane things. Like doorways and fruit. We dress funny and we get excited over the simplest things. Like doorways and fruit.
I know, I live in San Francisco and I think tourists here take do the craziest things.
The point is – they already think I’m weird. So I’m going to stop worrying about what they think of me.
Learn the local word for ‘pretty’, ‘handsome’, ‘very nice’ and of course ‘thank you’
The idea is not to flirt, but to make them laugh. Asking someone for their photo shouldn’t feel like a burden for the subjects, I try to make it fun. I assume everybody likes to hear how handsome or pretty they are – even if I butcher the pronounciation.
What I’m planning to get better at
Asking people to move to a better place for their photos. Sometimes the current location is not ideal because of the lighting or because there’s something awkward in front of their face.
But I’m afraid that it might be imposing too much.
I don’t know.
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What do you think? Do you take pictures of people during your travel? Any tips on how to make the experience as painless as possible for both parties?