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How to Take Candid Photos of Strangers

Updated on August 1, 2011

Seekers & Builders

When I first started studying photography, I was taught that there were two types of photographers: seekers and builders.  Builders like to control their subjects- arrange a set, pose models, etc., whereas seekers like to hunt out interesting scenes and photograph them as-is.

I found that I can be a bit of each type, seekers have the benefit of a thrilling hunt- especially when it comes to street fashion ands travel photography.  Few things can be as satisfying as shooting something exquisite that one just stumbles upon.  That said, it's easy to spend hours searching for the perfect shot- and that can be exhausting and frustrating.  I found that the best way to find great shots in great volume is via the stake-out.

What I refer to as a photography stake-out simply involves letting the exquisite shots come to you.  Here's how to set yourself up:

1. Find a cool spot

This is where pre-shooting-day-research can really come in handy.  Research popular spots, trendy shopping districts, and the like in your area of interest to find out where the most interesting action will be.
If you don't have time / don't want to research, simply find a cool person and follow him/her (in a non-creepy way, please).  I've found that this method can lead one to most fascinating locations.

2. Set up

Once in your location of choice, find a thoroughfare where you can lean up against a wall or sign and shoot the world as it passes by.  Consider traffic, lighting, and the legality of your location, as well as how conspicuous you'll appear.  If this spot doesn't work, by all means change locations, but I've found that this method is most effective when one remains utterly stationary.

3. Start shooting

Now that you've got your perfect stake-out spot, you can start shooting away! At first, you'll get the regular suspicious looks / attention, but after a while, people will take you for granted as part of the scenery. This is the greatest benefit of the photography stake-out. It allows one to become part of a place, and therefore experience it in ways that no moving object ever could.

4. Be prepared for attention

When people notice you have stationed yourself in a little spot and are taking pictures of them, there's no telling how they may react.  Most will ignore you, but some won't.  I've had people start posing for me on the spot, strangers strike up conversations with me in other languages, and even tourist groups swarm around me and make me the subject of their swarm-like photographic exploits.  Simply keep in mind that while stake-outs are typically less conspicuous means of photographing places and people, they can become quite exciting.

5. Have fun!

No matter how people react, go with the flow.  You're just taking pictures, after all.  Use your intuition, smile, and be friendly.  If your experiences will at all mirror mine, you'll have the time of your life and find that five hours have passed as though they were merely five minutes.

Conclusion

If you are a photographic 'seeker' you may truly enjoy the stake-out... even more so if you enjoy street fashion and travel photography.  Give it a try!  You'll be glad you did.

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    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      That's so cool!! Hahaa, yeah, I can see how you'd get a lot of people walking into your landscape photos. That's kind of awesome, actually, because you can get some AWESOME candid shots while still being able to argue that you were TRYING to take landscape shots and not be all creepy (like I am) and take photos of unsuspecting strangers.

    • oceansnsunsets profile image

      Paula 

      6 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Hi Simone, this is a topic I have been thinking more about as of late. It happened actually quite by accident. I have always been of the mindset that I shouldn't probably include strangers in my photos, or not on purpose anyway. Recently, I had my tripod set up, and people kept getting into the photos literally by accident, walking right up to it as if I wasn't there! I got some awesome shots as I have seen others doing this more and more. So I am looking up information on the idea and I found this great hub.

      Thanks for sharing it, and I got a chuckle from that one photo of people taking your photo. Too fun!

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 

      6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      The kids are so nice to photograph. But I don't want to post their photos. So lately I've been taking inanimate objects... :) I should post them. Loved your hub Simone.

    • profile image

      Leo 

      6 years ago

      It's a real problem to take photos of strangers. If you ask their permission (and in case they agree) they will start posing and then there is no sense...

      But some times these strangers look so funny or so beautiful, or so inspiring...

      And if you take your professional camera and start taking someone's picture without their permission, it is even worse...

      I noticed that when I am using my HTC phone camera, nobody can notice that he or she is photographed. No flash and people think I am just using my phone for writing email or so...

      The only problem is that the quality of images is not so high... but it is better than nothing.

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      Props to you, seeker! I hope you have a chance to take more random photographs soon! It is dreadfully fun, is it not?

    • Cashbackshopper profile image

      Cashbackshopper 

      7 years ago

      I'm a seeker and love taking photographs randomly

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      Yeah! I love the convenience so much, seanorjohn! Thanks for reading!

    • seanorjohn profile image

      seanorjohn 

      7 years ago

      Like you say Simone the great thing about photography is that you can take tons of photos and dump the dud ones and only print the gems.Digital photography has truly democratised the whole field of photography. Voted up and interesting. Wish there was a category very interesting!

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks, LuisEGonzalez! Yeah, it is so fun when the tables are turned, especially when one least expects it!

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      7 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Good tips, I have had several instances where I suddenly became the center of attention, probably due to the equipment that I use (long telephoto lenses), I must admit these were fun. Is as if the tables were turned; I no longer was searching for a subject, I became the subject...

      Thanks for posting

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      jill of alltrades- you make a good point about gaining friends through photography. It seems to be good for adding both friends *and* enemies sometimes, hehee!

      tracykarl99- I totally understand that shyness. The only way I can stand to take photos of others is to install myself in a public place like this where people can avoid me if they don't want to be in my shots. And hahaa- those three guys were hilarious! They came back and took me out for drinks a couple hours later XD

    • tracykarl99 profile image

      Tracy 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      I really enjoyed reading this. I love taking pictures in bustling metropolitan areas, but am a little shy about snapping away at people. But I like your inspiring, take-charge approach. Love the photo of the 3 guys hamming it up!

    • jill of alltrades profile image

      jill of alltrades 

      8 years ago from Philippines

      I guess I belong to the "seekers" group. However, I seek out things especially unusual ones. I am rather shy to seek out people, although I would sneak in a few shots every now and then. I usually do not want to intrude on people. However, you are right about their reactions, some would willingly pose while others will either ignore you or will feel intruded upon. I usually ask permission to shoot if I need to include recognizable faces in my shot. I have gained some friends this way.

      Thanks for this "stake-out" tips.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Understood and I agree. Going to go out there and get more people shots!!! :-)

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      It could, but it really comes down to this: if someone sees it and has a problem with it, we take it down. If not, we're free to use it. If we had to get signed permission from every stranger who ended up in photographs, we'd not have any people shots!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks for the explanation. We do make a little money writing on hubpages thus our photos COULD constitute being published for profit. Or is this a stretch?

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      From what I have understood from various digital media and photography professors, it depends on whether the photos are utilized for profit or not. If someone asks that you take a photo down, of course you're obligated to do so, but when one is doing crowd shots in public spaces, it's fair game until they do!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I've never done a "Stake-Out" type of photography and I'm sure it would feel weird...especially in the beginning as you stated. IF THE PHOTOS ARE PUBLISHED and the faces are recognizable...are there no liability issues? I have asked permission of people ever since I published a friend's photo (we had traveled together) and she did not like it and asked that I remove it from the hub. It would be impossible to get everyone's permission in a crowd scene. Just wondering...

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Cosette- to be honest, the very idea of shooting strangers on the streets makes me want to vomit; I'm really shy and don't like to encroach on peoples' privacy.

      And yet- there are so many amazing people to photograph!

      The cool thing is when you make yourself into an 'installation' in one place, and make it obvious that if people walk past your 'station' they will be shot, there emerges a sort of tacit agreement... like they acknowledge the risk, and they acknowledge you. Suddenly, that awful feeling is gone! It's awesome. Do give it a try!

    • profile image

      cosette 

      8 years ago

      wow, this is cool! i have never had the guts to snap people on the street, but i just might now, since you made it look like so much fun.

      it's funny, i was just thinking tonight about some of the interesting people i see on the streets of Tempe every so often and if i had had a camera, i could have shared them with everyone.

      cool idea :)

    • Money Glitch profile image

      Money Glitch 

      8 years ago from Texas

      Great pictures! I've got to get more familiar and comfortable with my camera, in order to have fun. Love doing scenery, however feel uncomfortable photographing people. :)

    • cupid51 profile image

      cupid51 

      8 years ago from INDIA

      I consider myself as a student of photography. I have a entry level DSLR and shoot everything I get when I am outstation.

      Your hub is a great inspiration to me, thanks for sharing such vital information!

    • profile image

      ahorseback 

      8 years ago

      I fnd myself doing only landscape , and ocassional wildlife .thanks fo you great insight.

    • itech profile image

      Krishna 

      8 years ago from Dausa, India

      useful points... I prefer to capture shots when people were unaware about me....

    • VioletSun profile image

      VioletSun 

      8 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

      I love to take pictures but can't consider myself a photographer, but would love to learn. I have bookmarked your hub as it has great tips!

    • elayne001 profile image

      Elayne 

      8 years ago from Rocky Mountains

      Great advice. I love photography and I am improving bit by bit. Some of my hubs have photography I have taken. Aloha!

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      I really believe that ANYONE can be a good photographer. One of my most talented photographer friends says he's TERRIBLE- but still gets good shots because he takes a TON of pictures.

      And whoah... I've never seen a killer whale in the wild before... if I DID, I'd be so excited I wouldn't think to snap a photo at all! Hahaa.

    • profile image

      you suggest one 

      8 years ago

      whichever of the two methods you talk of is put into use is fine if you know how to use a camera,I have spent a lot of time in Canada,taken hundreds of photo's of the wonderful scenery,local people,killer whales,small and tall ships in Victoria harbour also old buildings,but all I end up with are photo's of my feet,fingers,thumbs,anything but the real subject,photography is like everything else you can either do it or you can't.YOU CAN,keep up the good work

      and welcome.

    • equealla profile image

      equealla 

      8 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      You changed some of my attitudes towards this little techno-wonder, we just take for granted these days.

      I usually aim and press just to catch a memory. Never thought about doing it just for the fun of it.

      Thank you for giving a bright new idea in my life.

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