Portrait Photography: Overcoming the Fear of Asking

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’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?

Debilitating fear.

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 I set out a challenge for myself.
I made a promise to myself before I left for Nicaragua: I will 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.

Camera shy school girls in Nicaragua
Camera shy school girls in Nicaragua

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

nica

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.

A merchant in a market in Myanmar
A merchant in a market in Myanmar

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.

Kids

The innkeeper's daughter La Sombra, Nicaragua

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.

Dina from VagabondQuest doing the thing that tourists do
Dina from VagabondQuest doing the thing that tourists do

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.

High school girls in Matagalpa, Nicaragua
High school girls in Matagalpa, Nicaragua

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.


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?

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33 Replies to “Portrait Photography: Overcoming the Fear of Asking”

  1. This post makes me think about better ways of asking people to take their photos. There's often the slight feeling of embarrassment but the more you do it the easier it gets. I think you've often got to go with your gut feeling regarding the person who's shot you want to capture. Some countries/cultures tend to be easier than others. Your people pics here are really good.
    My recent post Captured for the Camera: Saudi Sunsets

  2. Oh gosh, this is so true. I always feel weird about asking people and I don't know why! Great article and advice. 🙂

  3. Jill, I hear you on this 100%. Taking photos of people is something that makes me so…I don't know, nervous! So, I have a hell of a lot of sneak photos. And then I feel like a creep.

    You're right, the worst thing they can do is say, "no." And that's fine. I should start asking more people if I can take their photo, too, as I love seeing that kind of thing in other people's posts and on their Facebook and the like. My favourite photo here is of the 2 girls who decided to change their mind – I love the expression on their friend who's just laughing at them!

  4. I feel absolute the same as you do!! Thanks for the idea of giving yourself a promise. I will try this the next time I'm abroad. And I loved the paragraph about the doorway and the fruits haha so true

  5. Lol at "doorways and fruit" and at Dina's picture – too funny! I rarely ask to take people's pics. I kinda sneak and do it and act like I'm photographing something else. But I need to start asking for permission, and you've given some great tips!

  6. It's always worth asking. You get some amazing shots and the worst that can happen is they say no – or maybe request money in return! I do find that you get more natural shots when the person isn't aware you're taking a photo, but this can be seen as rude or obtrusive in most cultures. When it's happened to me I wasn't too impressed!

  7. Kids I find are the easy photo vics. They are always so happy to see their image in the LCD after I took their photo….Some get so excited that they are tugging at my shirt so I can take more.

  8. What's the worse that can happen? Hmmm… I'm not sure I want to think about that! But thanks for the tips – I really want to get into portraiture a bit more in my travels.

  9. I'm also afraid of asking, mostly because I don't know how to ask politely in the language of the country I'm visiting. Sometimes I'll mime with my camera and a smile, but this is often met with a shake of the head. So I usually just sneak shots of people I find interesting. But this makes me want to try harder!

  10. What a great post! I too am pretty shy about asking locals for their photo… knowing others feel the same way (and are achieving to overcome it!) gives me a boost to get out there and ask away as well! That photo of the little girl is so cute!

  11. I have just returned from a trip to the Cambodian coast. Because I am usually too embarrassed to ask locals if I can take their picture I ended up having my camera hung around my neck and taking pictures without seeing what I am taking pictures off. I ended up with a lot of photos of peoples' legs. Doh! I think you are right. If you plug the courage to ask, I don't think many people would actually say no. So you inspired me to be braver now as well! 🙂

  12. It's probably a difficulty that every person that takes pics of people has to deal with at sometime or other Jill. As you point out though we are weird and do weird things so it's best not to get too self conscious about it.

    Striking up a conversation and building some rapport is a useful tip. Thanks for sharing your angst and how you overcame it. Some great tips.

    Incidentally love the pic of the two schoolgirls but the one of Dina genuinely had me laughing.

  13. Some great ideas on how to get into photographing people, Jill… And it's obviously paid off for you, from the results here. I particularly like the one of the two schoolgirls. It's a charming double portrait. I like taking pictures of people who are involved in some activity, such as craft work, or even just selling fruit, for example. In these circumstances, I usually find my prospective subjects to be quite relaxed about it, and this seems to be because they can see that I have an interest in what they're doing.

  14. I completely feel your angst with this one, Jill! I'm really pretty introverted and shy, so I have a hard time approaching strangers, no matter the occasion, but having a camera in my hand only seems to make it more difficult! Ever since leaving on our trip, I've really been enjoying developing as a photographer, but I still find it really difficult to talk to people and ask to take portraits. Normally I just try to take "stealth" shots that capture the moment organically without anyone noticing I'm taking photos, but of course that doesn't always work out! Normally when someone notices I'm taking pictures of them, I just give them a big sheepish grin to show I mean know harm and normally they either smile back, or just ignore me. A few countries & cities haven't been great for taking pictures of people on the street (Hanoi comes to mind), but generally I think I worry to much about people reacting negatively to having their photo taken as most people really don't seem to care or are happy to pose!

  15. I loved this, thank you so much for these pointers! I'm a hyperrealistic portrait painter and have been toying with the idea of painting larger-than-life portraits of people I meet on my trips abroad, but it's been intimidating to think of approaching strangers, especially with language barriers. That, and bringing my canon t3i on trips with me… Which I need to capture enough detail to make my zoomed-in paintings. Any tips on traveling with bulkier or more expensive cameras?

    1. Sorry 🙁 – I travel with my iPhone as my primary camera. I'd say that having your camera set to take a pic as soon as possible (without fiddling around) is probably best. You don't want your subject to stand around awkwardly waiting while you set your white balance, flash, etc.

  16. This is a great post! I really didn't think the anyone else felt as uncomfortable as I do about asking people for their photo. I like your point that locals usually think tourists are weird anyway. My biggest fear is that it seems weird to ask a stranger for a photo; but, I think you're right, they probably think I'm strange photo or no photo. It's oddly comforting.

  17. I always felt like you, until one time when I was traveling in Paris and a girl stopped me on the street and asked if she could take a picture of me for her fashion blog cause she liked my jacket. I was beyond flattered, lol, and that made me realize that others would probably be happy to pose for blog related travel photos, too!;-)

  18. I do get a little intimidated, but you're right–what's the worst that could happen? One of my favorite picture is from Spain at a train station. I saw an older gentleman sitting on a bench with his little dog. They were so cute together. I asked what his dog's name was and if I could pet him. Then I asked if I could take their picture. He sat up nice and tall and smiled. So I know it's worth my little bit of embarrassment.

  19. Great tips! For real, taking pictures of people can be nerve wracking! When I see amazing pictures that other people take of strangers, I always wonder, "Did they ask or did they just take it and explain later?" I'm with you, I'd rather ask first. Here in Korea, a lot of strangers try to sneak taking our picture, but I always bust out a pose so they know I see them. haha. I'd rather they asked instead of just pretending! 🙂

  20. I can so relate to this… I either pass by the opportunity or try to be sneaky, but either way really sucks. Though the other day we were at a market and I was snapping away not at people specifically and one of the stall owners was extremely mad that I took picture of her sign without asking! But because of her being so mad at me I asked other people and had some nice chats it can be a great way to talk to the locals!

  21. That little girl is so cute! Good blog, I think I've got a good eye but when it comes to people photos I suck. Great advice and tips, something to strive for!
    Keep up the good work!
    Frank (bbqboy)

  22. I think this is something that most of us struggle with. We try so hard to "live like a local" when we visit somewhere that we feel weird or guilty for acting like a tourist and taking pictures of mundane things. The difference though, is that a doorway (or fruit) won't reject you, but a person might. I've been working on asking as well, and it does get easier with time. India has been a challenge for me, only because many people ask for tips when I ask to take their photo an I have some weird issue with that.

  23. Jill, these are really great tips and this simple challenge resulted in some great shots! I take terrible photos of people (mostly by sneaking) and I hate that. I regret it every single time I come home and look through my pictures. I'm definitely going to try this on my next trip.

  24. I find this really challenging too! My approach (similar to yours) is to start with the kids. If their mom/dad is nearby I usually ask if it's ok to take a photo of the child… and then when we are all having fun I sneak in "And you too??" It sometimes works!

    If you think about how often locals will ask to take photos with tourists (especially in places like India), it really shouldn't be a big deal to ask them too. At least in those places. I've never said no to someone who wants to snap a photo with me! (But I do feel silly, of course!)

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