May I take your picture? How to photograph strangers.

may I take your picture
Left: Jaipur,India. Middle: Don Giugginu, The Granita Man of Modica. Right: Enzo (“go ahead make my day’) Ragussaibla, Sicily. These portraits were taken of complete strangers using my 5 second rule followed by “May I because” technique. They totally work. Once they agree to pose for my camera I set them up so I get exactly the shot,pose and mode I am after.

May I take your picture?

Have you ever walked past a complete stranger and thought: “Wow I’d love to photograph that person, they look incredible”? How many times have you acted on that impulse? Asking a stranger to do something for us isn’t easy, even for the most confident person. We’re all afraid of being rejected or looking silly. What will other people think about us?

“You don’t ask, you don’t get.”

This was my dad’s favourite saying and the secret of getting what you want is
A. Asking
B. How you ask.

At a recent workshop I was running, I asked two of my students to approach a complete stranger and ask to take their portrait. One of the students came back with an amazing shot. The other with nothing. Why?

The difference was all in the asking. Here’s what they each said to the stranger:

Student A said:
Ummmm. Hi, how are you? I’m really sorry to trouble you… ummmmmm… I know you’re really busy… ummmm…” *cough* *shuffles feet looks down at ground*. Then mumbles: “would it be ok… if… I… ummm… can I take your photo?”

Student B said:
Hi, I think you look incredible and I’d love to photograph you because I’m taking pictures for a project I’m working on.

Student A got a fast no. Student B got an incredible shot.

It’s all in how you ask.

The City University of New York conducted a study where people were asked to try and cut in line at a photocopy machine. The first group tried to cut in by saying, “Can I go before you?” were successful 60% of the time but the second group who asked “May I go before you because I’m in a rush?” or “May I go before you because I need to make copies?” had a 94% success rate.

The difference was group B added the explanation: “because I’m in a rush”. Even stating the obvious: “because I need to make copies” works.

It seems ridiculous but once I learnt this technique I started to use it when I approach strangers for photos. My success rate is really high. Give it a try, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.
– John Wayne

Here are a few other hacks that really help when approaching strangers:

1. What are people going to think?

This is the one secret I learnt that was a huge game changer when it came to how I felt about approaching strangers. Nobody really thinks about anyone else that much at all. Everyone else is too busy worrying about their own stuff.

2. Asking gets easier every time you do it.

Believe it or not overcoming this fear is a muscle that you can train just like doing 100 squats a day will give you glutes of steel. Approaching strangers and asking for stuff gets easier the more you do it.

For the next two weeks ask a perfect stranger for something everyday. It doesn’t matter if the answer is no. You are training a muscle. Start small, like asking for a discount at the coffee shop or dress shop and try and cut in a queue with the “because I’m in a hurry” line. Watch what happens and let me know in the comments below.

3. The 5 second rule, or the Nike rule.

Once you see someone you want to photograph, apply the 5 second rule. Don’t hesitate. If you wait longer than 5 seconds you’ll talk yourself out of it. Don’t think. Just Do It. This also works if you want to ask someone out or when you need to make that important call you’ve been putting off. Don’t think. Nike.

4. Keep conversation neutral

There is a reason most of us get annoyed when we are asked a series of personal questions by strangers. “How’s your day going?” “What are you doing?” “Where are you going?”

Try to keep the conversation neutral. “Hey is that a Ben and Jerry’s choc chip you’re eating? OMG have you tried the new choc mint flavour? Have you seen their new store on Main street? So cool.” This is neutral territory and a safe area to chat about because people don’t really need to divulge any personal information.

5. Be patient.

I can remember being so nervous when I approached strangers. My mouth was dry, I forgot things, my voice was shaky, I felt like I was being judged. It got easier. The more I did it, the more confident I became, the more confident I became, the easier it got. At first I pretended to be confident until I finally became confident.

If 50% of the people you approach say no, you are still 50% better off than if you do nothing. It will mean you need to get uncomfortable for a while but success is what happens when you step outside your comfort zone.

1 Response
  1. Hi – great article. I missed a shot yesterday – drab day, grey concrete setting, cool guy with really bright shoes and hoodie – all because I talked myself out of it!


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