Strangers Are Friends We Haven’t Met Yet

Gamelan Musician - Bali Street Photographer

Photographing People

Photographing people is a hot topic for street photography. This particular subject comes up a lot. Today, I’m sharing with you how I approach photographing people on the street.

“Strangers are just friends we haven’t met yet.” ~Peter Swanson

Tip #1 Commit This Quote to Memory

This endearing quote is my mantra. First tip, make this mantra yours too. Repeat these words silently in your head often. The message in these words will set the tone when you are out on the street.

Tip #2 Set a Clear & Pure Intention to Make Art

In my humble opinion (IMHO), street photography is about mindset. It’s because of this philosophy, I wrote the Bali Street Photographer Manifesto.

Mission Statement for Bali Street Photographer

  • To see rather than look.
  • To create rather than take.
  • To explore rather than visit.
  • To connect rather than separate.

More mantras to practice 😉

The mindset makes the difference. Taking photographs and making photographs are two different things. Photography is an art. Making photographs is making art.

The vibe you give off behind the lens will be noticed. If your intention is ego-based (e.g. getting likes on IG), it will show. Your facial features will be more intense—maybe even aggressive looking. Your movements will be rough and noticed.

If you have little-to-no expectations, have an open attitude, or treat everything as a gift, then your face and body language will be more relaxed. You’ll blend-in easier. You’ll give off a more genuine and welcoming vibe.

Woman through a bemo window - Pasar Ubud Bali Street Photography Tours
“Looking for Saul” in Ubud, Bali.

Artistic Inspiration


Tip #3 Understand the Different STYLES

  1. 3+ Metres Away. If people are more than three metres away, they are basically in the open. If you have a wide angle lens (best for street photography), they’ll be in the frame. Do you need to ask permission first? Generally, no.
  2. 2 Metres or Less. Unless you are in a crowd or someone walks right in front of your camera while clicking, always ask permission to click when you are two metres or less away. I try not to make a big deal when asking—maybe make eye contact, point at your camera, and smile. Why? Because street photography is about capturing daily life. Once people pose for the photo with the gratuitous high sign (or thumbs up), game over. The candid moment is gone.
  3. Be Lost in the Crowd / Be a Tourist. Be a tourist. Get lost in the crowd. When you have these two things going for you, most people expect you to make photographs. If they even notice you at all. In crowded places, people will be walking into your frame at all distances. It’s not practical to ask everyone for permission. Unless, of course, you come into a face-to-face one-on-one situation. If this is the case, ask.
  4. Click and Smile. I’m talking about a genuine smile, of course. I actually don’t prescribe you smile all the time. But, if you enjoy photography, then a natural smile is inevitable.
  5. Body Language. If you see someone in front of your lens shy-away, frown, or give you the stop sign, don’t click the shutter. Maybe even say you’re sorry (with a smile) in their native language.
  6. Make New Friends (Saving the Best for Last). Be curious. Be authentically interested in what people do. No matter how mundane. I love chatting with the ladies at the market who make the banten (offerings) from scratch every day. Some of the vendors that I make the time to speak with, have been doing what they do starting at 4 am every morning for 20 years. This might seem like the most banal thing for them or for most photographers. For me, it’s exciting and new every time. Now, these “former strangers” are friends. And, opportunities to photograph them come often. It’s fun all around.

Caveat: please abide by your local rules and regulations. Above all, be polite.

Chasing harsh light - Pasar Ubud Bali Street Photography Tours
Moments before I made this street portrait, this woman and I were talking about the food she was selling. I asked her permission to make a photo. I said I like the light on her face. She said no problem.

Tip #4 Don’t Take Things Personally, Yet Be Empathetic

Be empathetic. Say you are on your lunch break after a crazy hectic morning at the office. You are sitting at your quiet place (in public), enjoying your sandwich. You feel this morning’s stress start to melt away. Then, along comes a 80 mm lens aimed right at you from 2-3 meters away—click. Arrgggh.

Don’t take things personally. If someone says no or waves you off, it’s not about you. Respect their space. It’s ok. As with life in general, don’t let rejections discourage you.

Parting Exercise

Count the number of times in the article you see these words or phrases.

  1. Take a picture/photo.
  2. Shoot the camera/person.
  3. User.
  4. Canon.
  5. Nikon.
  6. FujiFilm.
  7. iPhone.
  8. Samsung.
Photographing People - Balinese Bapak on 35mm film
I asked this kind gentleman if could make a portrait of him. He adjusted his posture a bit, then nodded ok.
All photos were made with a 23mm or 55mm lens. No zooms or excessive cropping done.

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