How to Build the Confidence to Photograph People

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Portraiture, lifestyle, street, and travel photography – these are some of the genres that feature people as main subject. For some, these are enjoyable activities, being able to interact and communicate with people. Including a human element in photographs can bring a bit more life into their art. For others, it can be a disastrous nightmare, perhaps. The idea of talking with someone they don’t know very well, or being confronted by strangers they’re trying to photograph can be a bit too daunting.
Confidence is, therefore, necessary when photographing people. But, to be confident is a skill in itself and being good at it doesn't happen overnight.
The silliest advice I've ever received to help me with that is – don’t be shy. It’s probably the worst advice one can ever give someone that has little or no confidence in facing other people. It didn't work on me. I am no psychologist but since it didn't work on me, I don't suggest it to others either. So yes, I was shy. In fact, I still am. But the times I've spent taking photos of people are the most pleasurable moments I've had in my own photography journey. Although there are still times when I feel something holding me back from taking a stranger’s photograph, the possibilities of what I can create makes me feel a little bit more courageous.

Roman artist: Fausto Delle Chiaie by José Manuel Ríos Valiente, on Flickr

Eventually being able to come up to anyone and ask them for their portraits, or not be intimidated by people who refuse has been a skill that has taken time for me to develop. Here are some of the things that helped me find confidence to photograph people. Hopefully, it inspires you to be able to do the same.
1. Act The Way Confident People Act
Asking someone not to be shy will leave that person clueless as to what to do. It doesn't give any idea about what steps he or she can take to accomplish not being shy. But acting the way confident people act is a different story. Can you picture how confident people act? Start with the gestures, with the way you look, how you stand and how you walk. Stand upright. If you’re used to looking down all the time when you walk, start look up. Even if you're not used to it, start smiling at people you know. Later, smile at people you don’t know. These gestures can be practiced and over time, it becomes a habit. Remember, practice makes permanent. Soon enough you will feel a little more confident than before.

How Not to Shoot Thor's Well by Zach Dischner, on Flickr

2. Feel Competent
One fool-proof way to make you feel more confident is you make yourself feel competent. Someone who lacks confidence will feel a little more at ease when they feel they have the skills to do a task. Old houses, landscapes, and inanimate objects were my first subjects. This helped me become technically competent with the camera and other fundamental photography skills. Later on, I started to research on portrait photography, posing, and how to use light on people.  Afterwards, I asked friends to become my subjects. This worked for me since I felt I already knew what I was doing and I was quite comfortable taking photos of my friends. This is actually the next tip.
3. Start With Subjects That Don't Intimidate You
The worst thing that could ever happen to a shy photographer is jump in the freezing waters of talking with strangers. Although some think this is a good idea, I think it can go both ways as it can be a good way to start with people photography or it can even be an experience that would make you never want to do it again.

kids and 50mm 1.2 by Pawel Loj, on Flickr

It's best to start with your friends, family, and people you trust. Babies and kids are even better since  you won't feel intimidated by them.  Ask them to pose for you. Make it clear to them that you’re practicing doing portraiture. Setting their expectations will help you breathe a bit since they will know they are just your guinea pigs. This is the perfect opportunity to practice what you've been researching.  If you want candid shots, tell them what you plan to do so they can support your endeavor. From there, you can experiment on how to direct poses and make subjects feel confident because you yourself are comfortable with them.
4. Shoot With Groups
While you can go right ahead and shoot on your own, an option that really helped me out and perhaps will be good for others to do is to shoot with a group. Gather a couple of your friends for a photo-shoot, join your camera-club when they organize a trip, or sign up for a photo walk in your area. Taking a class is also good since it gives you a bit more confidence to take photos since everyone is learning together. Shooting with others will give you a boost of courage and you can even take photos of each other for additional practice.

This is a Photowalk by liz west, on Flickr

5. Always Build Trust
A fair level of trust between the subject and photographer is needed in every kind of people photography. The foundation of great posed portraits is trust. That is why it is best to start with people you know. They are comfortable with you because they know you and trust you. But even candid shots work this way. When strangers feel they could somehow trust you, they too become relaxed and confident in your presence. Strangers don’t like suspicious looking people taking their photos. They need to be able to feel safe before you can shoot with ease. That is why tip number 1 works, because acting confident seems to make one look more trustworthy.
I’m not a fan of concealing myself to photograph candid moments. Hiding does work at times, but it also makes you look like a spy with an evil scheme. But seriously, this can make people feel uncomfortable once seen. Personally, I find that being out in the open and just taking photos of everything is more effective than hiding. To reiterate, people feel safer when you don’t look suspicious.

Photowalk Vienna by Luca Sartoni, on Flickr

6. Make Subjects Feel Good About Themselves
There are different levels of shyness. I know this because I meet a lot of people. Some are still able to  talk with strangers but is too shy to ask for a pose. If this is you, use your ability to talk with others to your advantage. You may still be shy in asking strangers to be your subject, but being able to converse with them is indeed a great opportunity. To do this, you need to learn the art of listening. When you meet a stranger, don't do the talking. Instead, do the asking. Sure, it's important to break the ice, but you can make them feel good about themselves by letting them talk about themselves. This is initiated by you asking questions. When they engage you in a conversation, answer briefly and start asking questions. Listen well so you can make followup questions which will make them talk more. This is another way of building trust, because people like people who listen. When you find an opportunity, hint that it would be awesome if you could take their portrait. The probably of that happening is very high.

img_0002 by Dheera Venkatraman, on Flickr

7. Focus on the Positive and Prepare for the Negative
People who lack confidence to photograph people usually dwell on two questions – what if they don't like to be photographed, and what if they get angry if I did?
Asking these what if questions will only prevent you from stepping in with courage. Instead, ask yourself these questions: What If I were not shy just for just 15 minutes, what kind of photos can I create? What if that stranger says yes, what opportunity would that give me? What if he wants me to take more photos? What if she invites others for some more shots. Focusing on positive questions will make you feel a bit more confident because now you're focused on the end result. It is still possible though that the negative what-ifs can happen. Being prepared for it will really help. I always have two scripts ready if ever I get confronted. This rarely happens but I make sure to have a memorized answer – “I’m studying photography. I’m just learning how to take photos of people”. You can even add “Would you want a portrait? I'm still studying but you might like it?”. The other one is “Sorry, I'll just delete it”. Feel free to use the same script.

walking through snowy white fields by Olivia Harmon, on Flickr

Here's an activity you can try. Take your camera and your longest lens for a walk. Pick a spot where there are some people not minding each other –  a park is a perfect place. If you want to feel a little more confident, bring someone with you – your spouse, a friend, your grandson, or even your pet. Prepare your camera settings and do some test shots. When you see someone you feel you're not intimidated with, take a photo of that person at a distance. When they see you doing this, smile at them and raise and shake your camera a bit – sort of like saying hello with your camera. If they smile back, then continue shooting. When they don’t, they’ll probably just move on without minding you. If they confront you, just use the scripts I use. It works all the time in my experience.
As a final note, let me just say that digital photography has become very popular that people are becoming used to strangers carrying cameras all the time. The tolerance for people taking photos in public has increased and this gives us more confidence to take our own cameras out for some people photography. And when you do, you might even find others doing the same thing as you. Happy shooting!

About the author

Karlo de Leon

Karlo de Leon is a travel and lifestyle photographer. He has a knack for understanding how and why things work, taking particular interest in lighting, composition, and visual storytelling. Connect with him on Twitter where he shares his insights, ideas, and concepts on photography, travel, and life in general.


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