What to do when a stranger asks you to take their photo

August 2, 2018 - Kieran Stone

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We’ve all been there before, on one side of the story or the other. You’re at a popular tourist location or even just wandering the city when someone comes up to you with a phone in hand and says “Hey, would you mind taking a picture of me?”. It’s a simple enough request and you don’t have to be a professional photographer to aquiesse. For most people all they have to think about is whether the person they are photographing is in the photo when they press that button on the phone screen that takes the photo. For a photographer though, this can bring up a whole bunch of possibilities and problems. In this article I hope to give everyone, photographer or not, some tips and suggestions on how to get through this short interaction with strangers, with the least amount of complications as possible.


What are they handing you?


The most likely scenario here is a basic camera phone. The phone should already have the camera app open and all you’ll have to do is locate the “shutter” button. If you happen to hit a lock button or home button by accident in the hand over, simply pass it back for a quick reset to camera app and move onto the next stage.


A small point and shoot camera isn’t that much of a step up from a camera phone here. The shutter button will be on the top right hand side like any normal camera and the LCD screen will show the scene. If the screen is black, it may have timed out. Hand it back to the stranger for a reset here. Fumbling around with buttons might work but it could waste more time in the long run, unless you are particularly familiar with this camera model. If it has a viewfinder and the screen is black, use the viewfinder.


A DLSR or Mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses could be handed over too. Once again the “take photo now” button should be on the top right of the camera. There will also be a viewfinder. The complications that arise from being handed a more “I know what I’m doing” or “professional” looking camera will be covered later.


A film camera…whether it’s a disposable camera or something more, can be a little unsettling at first. We are so use to being able to instantly review and discard unwanted photos that we can feel pressure to perform when you only get one shot at it. The good news is, no one will remember you and you’ll be far away by the time they see any mistake you may have made. It will behave like a normal camera with the viewfinder and shutter in the usual places.
If you get something you’re not familiar with or it doesn’t even seem like the camera is on, just do a double check with the subject. A quick “Is this good to go?” solves many potential problems now and further down the track.


What are the settings?


My advice to you is to ignore what the settings are when you are handed a camera. No matter what you think you may know about photography, the settings on the camera, whether it be phone or DSLR, may be set for the specific purposes of the person handing you the camera. With a camera phone, there shouldn’t be too much room for variation here. It will unlikely be set to panorama or 360 mode. But if the screen looks black and white, or the flash is on during the day, just leave it.


For a more advanced camera, if it is set to manual mode with a closed aperture and a pop up flash because the shutter speed is too slow, just leave it. Take the photo with the settings given to you. If it’s a 300mm lens and you can only stand 2 metres away from them, then take a lovely photo of their nose.


Hopefully, autofocus will be on. In this day and age, no one should be expected to know how to focus properly when handed a foreign camera. If it isn’t on, hand it back to them and tell them the camera is broken and won’t focus. By the time they realise the camera is working fine, you’ll be busy doing something else and they won’t trust you to take their photo anyway.


After you’ve taken the photo, if they don’t like how it looks then it’s their fault for not doing the proper preparation and they can give it to someone else if they don’t feel too ashamed to try again. If you start turning dials and pressing buttons other than the shutter, you could make the whole encounter take a lot longer than it needs to. If you feel a desperate need to change settings, check out my suggestions in “Joker Mode”.


For a film camera, especially ignore any settings and just go straight to the viewfinder. Chances are it won’t have any settings you can change anyway, and if someone is handing you a professional film camera and they haven’t sorted it all out beforehand, they deserve a shoddy exposure.


Tourist photographing stranger


What do you shoot?


Don’t try and show off here. You’re not going to land a client or get any kind of paid job because you composed the image in a beautifully artistic way that demonstrates the emotion of the land and mankind’s intrusion into nature. In other words you’ve put the person’s head in the very bottom left of the scene and nothing else.


This is where the Rule of Thirds should actually be thought of as a rule. Stick to it. Compose the scene with the subject on the left or right vertical third of the image with the location in the other part of the scene. Make sure there is a little breathing room at the subjects head. How far back you go to take the shot can depend on the location. Don’t go so far back that other people will walk between you and the subject. I recommend aiming to get either thigh and up, or waist and up in the shot. Remember, you’re not going for awards and accolades here, you just want the person to be happy with their photo and go away. Oh, and for a single shot, shoot in landscape orientation. I don’t care if it’s a phone. Shoot landscape.


There are exceptions of course. Having the stranger describe what kind of shot they want can be a double edged sword. On the plus side, they may tell you to get all of their body in the shot with them in the middle, in portrait orientation. Awesome. Done. Thanks. The negative side of this is getting someone that is too picky. They may not like the angle you took it from, they may not have liked their pose, you may not even have got the relative distance just right between them and the famous building they’re standing in front of. If you’re a polite person, try one more time, and no more. You don’t need a strangers hang ups slowing you down.


Once again, if you are unsure about anything, such as focal length or exactly what it is they want a photo of, just ask.


Advanced Mode


Advanced Mode should only be activated with a digital camera. If all the settings are good to go and the person is ready for the shot, first take the standard photo then engage Advanced Mode by saying “I’ll just get a couple more”. Here is where you grab an extra 3-5 shots in quick succession of different compositions. Some favourites of mine are the straight down the middle composition, full body length landscape orientation, full body length portrait orientation and tight crop head and shoulders. Just do whatever comes to mind after the first basic shot. You can be creative here but don’t start directing your subject like they’re on a shoot or say you’re just going to climb some structure to get a better vantage with a “trust me, it’ll look cool” kind of shot. Just some simple one step forward, and one step back shots will give the stranger a variety of shots that they can pick a favourite from. Five shots should be the maximum and you’re just crazy if you take more than ten.


Joker Mode


After some discussions on the podcast, I’m looking forward to being asked to take someone’s photo for the opportunity to try out these ideas. It is important that the initial standard photo is always taken before trying these so the likelihood of being discovered right away is minimal.


The first thing I want to try is when I get handed a camera phone. Chances are that if someone wants a photo of themselves, then they have Instagram. After quickly taking their photo, I want to feign ignorance on how to compose the image correctly, all the while navigating to Instagram on their phone, taking a selfie of myself, and posting it to their feed. The idea is that I’ll be long gone by the time they start getting notifications from followers about who I am and what I’m doing on their feed. They will likely only check their photos for the photo of themselves and walk away unsuspecting of my hijinks.


Another idea with a phone is to jump in close and take a selfie with the person then hand it back and walk away quickly. Kind of like a passive aggressive way of telling them to take their own damn photo.

This next one is a bit trickier but could also be fun. With a DSLR or Mirrorless camera, I want to change some vital settings that will confound the stranger when they next go to take a photo. This could be as simple as switching it to manual mode and turning some dials, clicking the lock toggle on the back of the camera, or going into the menu of a familiar model and maybe formatting the card. OK, I’d never do something that extreme and I feel bad for suggesting it. I just can’t bring myself to delete it though in case someone is more evil than me. Maybe I’ll just change the exposure metering mode or white balance.


Just Say No


There is nothing wrong with not doing what a stranger asks you to do. Most of the time that I’m asked to take someone’s photo is when I’m out teaching people on a workshop or I have my camera and tripod set up and I’m trying to get a specific shot. In more than one instance I’ve just said “No, sorry. I’m busy at the moment”. I just ignore the bemused look on the person’s face as they stumble away shocked, unable to comprehend my rudeness. The truth is, I am busy working. I’m either there to teach people that have paid money to learn from me, or I don’t want to walk away from my camera to get caught up taking someone’s happy snap. I’ve grown quite attached to my camera and I’d hate to have it disappear just because someone hasn’t heard of the term “Selfie” before. That, and some people can be quite surprised when they see you with a big camera, and the photo you’ve taken on their phone doesn’t look like those epic portraits they’ve seen on that Instagram account with 1 million followers. It just doesn’t work that way.


Or, if you notice someone make eye contact with you while holding a camera, turn around and start walking away until at least a couple of people are between you and them. This will make you a harder target and hopefully they won’t follow you, because that would just be creepy.


Last Minute Tips


– Make sure the camera is good to go, if unsure, ask.
– Keep it simple, don’t get creative.
– Rule of Thirds in landscape orientation.
– Don’t ask if they’re happy with the shot, they may say “no”.
– Ask for a tip or a socials follow. You should get something for all your hard work.


If you have any more tips or suggestions or even some interesting stories of when you’ve been asked or asked someone to take a photo, please leave them in the comments section below.



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