Strangers Are Friends We Haven’t Met Yet

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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News Photography

What is Artsy Street Photography?

Finally, a photo gallery dedicated to the artistic side of street photography. The artsy style of photography is near & dear to me. So, I am happy to share this and welcome your comments.

Definitions & Examples

This might be the most complete collection of artistic street photos in one place. And, it’s complete with definitions and lots a examples.

See the new gallery here.

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Culture Photography

Selamat Pagi (Good Morning)

Street Photography Karma

I believe in karma when it comes to street photography. I believe that if your mind & eye are open to all forms of beauty and your camera is at the ready, then good rewarding photos will come to you.

I met this woman Grating fresh coconut (Nyuh in Balinese) on the way to an early morning portrait session. I had three bags of gear, but still managed to have my trusty rangefinder around my neck.

Feature image: A Balinese woman grating fresh coconut (Nyuh in Balinese) early in the morning near Ubud, Bali.


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Beauty in the Mundane

Everyday Bali

I contribute and support a few online photography forums. I enjoy seeing other people’s photos. I learn new things, see new perspectives, and get inspired. I definitely value people’s constructive feedback.

Recently, I started to comment on a photo in a street photography group when I read some feedback that disturbed me. Here’s an excerpt from the comment that bothered me.

Unfortunately, for me, your image doesn’t really succeed . . . The man isn’t doing anything interesting.

Here’s an excerpt from what I posted about the same photo that was being critiqued.

Hmmmm, a couple master street photographers immediately came to mind when I saw your post.

Quite a disparity, yes? Almost opposite ends of the spectrum. If anyone says that your photos capture people that aren’t doing anything “interesting”, you are in good company. You are in company with master photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson (HCB), Saul Leiter, and William Eggleston.

If you love the mundane and banal, please share your links with the rest of us. Want even more mundane photography? There’s a whole genre dedicated to unremarkable (or remarkable depending on your perspective) landcapes–New Topographics photography.

Here’s my nod to New Topographics in Bali which I exhibited in Ubud a couple years back–Balinality.

Photos of Balinese Ceremonies with a Twist - Bali Street Photographer - 35mm film Waiting for a lift outside an ornate entrance to a Balinese wedding.

Feature photo: Balinality or just another day in the life at Pasar Ubud, Bali?

Thanks for reading.

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Culture Photography

Surabaya – Bali Street Photographer on the Road Series

New Series

I always enjoy launching a new photo series. My goal for this new series is to share street photography of places outside of Ubud, Bali. A sort of Bali Street Photographer (BSP) on the road if you will.


The hero image for this post was taken last week (end of February 2019) at an open market at Car-Free Day in Surabaya. Car-Free Day is when the city of Surabaya shuts down one of the most scenic & busiest downtown streets called Jalan Raya Dharmo. This event is held every Sunday.

Surabaya is Indonesia’s “second city” and is located in East Java. Java is Bali’s next door neighbor to the west.


In this hero photo, I worked the crowd by blending in, going with the flow, and playing with layers of people & objects. Read more about layered photo compositions here.

Stay tuned for a dedicated gallery for BSP on the Road.

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Can Street Photography be Artistic?

You Decide–Artistic or Not?

Above is an unconventional street portrait of a hat vendor in the foreground framed by a Balinese woman in the middle layer.

For more on using layered street compositions, check out this article.

Want to learn more about artistic street photography? View the dedicated gallery on Artistic Street Photography here.

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Culture Photography Sightseeing

When Stuck in Traffic Make Photographs

Opportunistic Street Photography

Today, after running some morning errands. I was stuck in the middle of a huge traffic jam in the centre of Ubud. That usually means one thing–upacara. In other words, there was a Balinese Hindu Religious procession in progress.

Rather than waiting in the hot sun inhaling exhaust from dozens of idling vehicles, I pulled over. I took out my camera and began walking towards the Ubud Palace. I wasn’t disappointed. I stumbled upon an elaborate & beautiful Ngaben procession in progress.

Street Photography Tips

It’s experiences like these that have taught me some valuable street photography skills. Besides having a camera with a clean lens, charged battery, & spare memory card, these soft skills can make or break the decisive moments.

  1. Patience.
  2. Nose for action.
  3. Sense of adventure.
  4. Open to sponteneity.

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Chasing Harsh Light

Chasing harsh light is one of my favourite photography rule breakers. I love deep dark tones contrasted with bright highlights. I enjoy seeing the interplay of light & shadow to give form to shape and figure.

The best time to photograph harsh light in Pasar Ubud is on a mostly clear day (not overcast with clouds) between 8am-10am and 2pm-4pm.

Chase more harsh light here.

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Editorial Photography

Street Photography – How to be Different from the Rest

How do we really know what ultimately influences us to compose a picture before clicking the shutter?

Being Different or Like Other Street Photographers - Bali Street Photographer
Looking for Saul in Ubud Bali–A double-take composition influenced by master photographer Saul Leiter.

Should I be like all the other street photographers, or should I be different? How can I be different–is this even possible?

If you’ve been into street photography for even a short time, these two questions should have crossed your mind by now. We humans are influenced by many conscious and not so conscious factors. How do we really know what ultimately influences us to compose a picture before clicking the shutter? Is it our individuality or because we’ve seen it done by someone else?

Here are four heuristics I practice to be a more unique photographer.

  1. The double-take test:  If I’m going to photograph in a well known place, I look to see what photos are already out there. I take notice of what images make me look twice. Then I try compositions I hope will make people do a double-take. E.g., it can be looking at the scene upside down to discover a unique perspective, pointing my camera in the opposite direction of everyone else, or finding a spot off the beaten path that hasn’t been snapped yet.
  2. Research the masters: Looking at the masters is always inspiring to me. But, their work gives me more than mere inspiration. Take Saul Leiter for example. His photographs allow me to put myself in his shoes. When I do that, I can ponder, “What made Saul so special? What made him stand out? What was Saul thinking when he decided to stand where he did when he pressed the button? Why did he approach who he did when he captured a portrait?” Perhaps we may never know the answer and leave it at that. Or, we can see if the answers are out there in books, interviews, and documentaries. The bottom line is that we can let the masters impassion us to be unique.
  3. Inside job: Some times it’s who you know. A good number of my favourite photographs (the ones that break the mold) are pictures of people I know. I’ve photographed priceless moments of my wife in Surabaya, my barber in Ubud, my tuk-tuk driver in Chiang Mai, my waitress in Bhutan, my scuba instructor in the Maldives, and my media colleague in the Philippines. These acquaintances, former strangers, and friends give me an inside angle that can literally serve as a backstage pass for street portraits. Use it, but don’t abuse it. Your relationships are privileges not potential exploits.
  4. Be yourself: Being yourself requires meditation time away from the camera. Spend time reflecting and searching for your true self. One way to do this is to detach from your ego. Start practising street photography for the joy not the ego-based competition. Be mindful or your surroundings and empathetic to people. Once you start shedding your ego and become more mindful, your individuality and creativity blossoms. When this happens, your uniqueness and personal perspective will be reflected in the art you create not the pictures you “take” or “shoot”.

Portrait of Iman - Bali Street Photographer Ubud Bali
Portrait of Iman Inspired by The Morrison Hotel album cover by Henry Diltz – photographing who you know is a back stage pass to hidden gems.

Sunset Portrait at Sanur Beach Bali - Bali Street Photographer
Sunset Portrait at Sanur Beach Bali – while everyone was tripping over themselves to photograph the sunset, I pointed my camera the other way to catch the fading light on this man’s face. On Ilford HP5 Plus 400 35 mm film.

Yearning for more inspiration? Visit our Artistic Street Photography gallery here.

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Adding Another Dimension to your Street Photography using Layers

Updated 1 January 2019.

“Just as a good story should have a beginning, middle, and ending, so a good photograph benefits from having a foreground, middle ground, and background.”

~John Hedgecoe Emeritus Professor of Photography at the Royal College of Art, Queen Magazine, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Observer, Vogue, and Life.

Feeling Flat?

During one Pasar Ubud Tour, I was asked, “How can I create more depth in a street photo?” My favourite go-to technique to create depth is layering–not to be confused with Photoshop layers.

So just like Mr. Hedgecoe says above, think about creating a photograph on the street that has someone right in front of you (1-2 metres), someone slightly further away (3-5 metres), and someone or something in the background 6+ metres away.

Layering street compositions - Bali Street Photographer The man is about one metre from me, the woman looking at me is between 3-4 metres from me, and the people/building/trees behind the woman are 6+ metres away from me.

The Technique

I found the best way to do this if you’ve never tried layering yet is to do what Eric Kim suggests. Kim will manually set his focus to 5 metres (middle layer). Then, pick a spot with some people passing in front of you at various distances and start clicking. This is when the magic happens. You should have a set of exposures with people blurry (first layer), in focus (middle layer), and in the background.

Pro tip: For analogue and digital cameras, set your shutter speed to at least 1/60 or 1/80 of a second and aperture at F8 or F11 so that your middle layer subject is in focus. For digital cameras, you can try setting the camera to aperturepriority with F8 or F11.

Layering street compositions - Bali Street Photographer

Above: Going crazy with layers at Bali Spirit Festival 2018. Reflections always add another dimension.

Street Portrait of a Hat Vendor - Bali Street Photographer
Street Portrait of a Hat Vendor – Bali Street Photographer

Above: An unconventional street portrait of a hat vendor in the foreground framed by a Balinese woman in the middle layer.

Inspiration from the Masters

Cologne West Germany by Josef Koudelka Cologne West Germany by Josef Koudelka
Woman in Cloche Hat and Pedestrians by Walker Evans Woman in Cloche Hat and Pedestrians by Walker Evans

Recommended Reading

  1. Working on Layers by Eric Kim.

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