What techniques do you use with people who don’t want to be photographed? Part Two

| September 2, 2014

Good photography is both a subtle art and complex craft, one that can be learned the hard way or the easy way. In an effort to help accelerate you on the “easy way” path, we asked top professional photographers from around the world for their insights into the most pressing difficulties and issues they face.

We have a series of questions and we’re going to post them for you over the next couple of weeks – we’d love your answers to these same questions below, so leave your thoughts on the comments section! Thanks.

Q. What techniques do you use with people who don’t want to be photographed? (PART TWO read part ONE here)


Dallas Dahms
I suppose this depends a lot on the context of where and how the person is being photographed. A lot of the work I do is documentary in nature, so I am often just a reporter recording scenes, but sometimes I do get asked to make portraits of execs or other corporate people. What I try to do is involve them as far as possible in the process, so I’ll explain to them what I’m looking for in the shot and I use the count-down technique to get them ready for the moment of exposure. There’s nothing worse than having to hold a pose or a smile for ages while a photographer fiddles with camera settings.

Von Wong – I don’t shoot them lol. It’s not really a problem.

Falcon – Whenever we “work the streets” our primary goal is to become “white noise.” So, in order to do that, we carefully have orchestrated everything we do – from how and where we stand to how we hold the camera and walk through a crowd. In our methodology, space shapes behavior, so before we begin working, we carefully study how people behave in space – where they stand, how they walk, where they walk… Every aspect of human behavior is carefully and attentively observed.

Mapping the way space shapes behavior is just the beginning. We establish patterns that will govern how we interact with the space. On one assignment in Chinatown, NY, I had to stand in the shadows for almost an hour before people stopped noticing I was there. In Honduras, in the midst of a coup, JD Milazzo and I used a completely different approach – we embedded ourselves in the groups of people. As groups moved through the space in the town where we were working, we used the group to conceal what we were doing. Our methodology also enables us to work quickly even though we always work with the camera in manual. This enables us to get what we need quickly and without being noticed. We usually use the Canon 7-200 L lens or the 100-400 L series unless we are in a very tight space. These lenses make it easier to blend in to the background and work unseen.

Only once have I had a problem getting what I wanted – I was in Washington Square Park in New York and I wanted to photograph some men playing chess. No matter what I did, one guy seemed to instinctively know when I raised my camera. I tried for two hours. Eventually, I created an image of him giving me the finger just to prove I could – and to make a point. He was rather upset.

Working in some European cities can be much more difficult. The sheer number of tourists with cameras can make people hyper aware of photographers. The same techniques still work well but we have to be a bit more patient.

Jose Antunes – I rarely photograph people and if I do I always have their agreement first, unless they’re in a crowd, or are just part of the landscape or scenic I am photographing. I will mostly try to get them in a way they’re not recognisable, so as to not have any problems. That’s my way, but that’s also why I prefer to photograph landscapes and animals. There’s, in modern days, a growing tendency for – many – people to become irritated if you point a camera at them. I hate to have a fight over a photograph!

When abroad I tend to do the same. I don’t like to shoot “exotic” places (or better, people at exotic places), because I feel they’re only exotic to me for one reason: I do not live there. The fever everyone seems to have with India and similar destinations does not mean much to me. I’ve written about the “exotic” on my own country, which in fact is quite exotic for foreigners visiting us. If you go to the countryside, some 30km from Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, you’ll find people as exotic as those in India, from a foreigner’s point of view. The may be less colorful, but that has to do with cultural habits. Do they want to be photographed? Usually not. Still, some will not mind and even cooperate, and for photographers that enjoy the experience, that’s OK.

I’ve had the experience of photographing abroad, in places like Kenya, where you go to visit a village where they supposedly live simple lives, and I saw them changing their t-shirts and jeans for the tribal outfits… I felt the experience was a mix of travelling in time with the notes of a theatrical show, and the sadness in some of the faces kind of said the rest to me. When the session ended they tried to sell the visitors some souvenirs… I did not take many pictures, I did not feel it was right, for me there was a barrier I could not/did not want to cross, in such a short visit. It could be different if I had time to stay, to really know the people behind the masks. Anyway, I did not go to Africa to see the Big Five. I was there to feel the dimension of the space, and feel how small we really are. But that’s another story!

Anyway, that’s me at sixty! When I was younger, as a photojournalist, I used things like hyperfocal techniques to photograph people that did not want to be photographed. Even in interviews I remember coughing while tripping the shutter (cameras did make quite a noise in the old days…). Or one would suggest to be taking a picture of something else, while looking for the corner of one’s eye, with everything ready, and the distance eyeballed (no AF then…), and when the subject was not paying attention you would shoot. A long lens is also useful, if you really want to do it. Just make sure you know where the images are going to be published afterwards. With the Internet it is hard to know who sees your pictures.

Ziv Koren – In the field of photojournalism I don’t ask, I shoot first and then ask questions, there are limitations of law that are different in each country considering private property. But generally speaking, under the umbrella of the right to know, my obligation as a professional photojournalist is to tell the story. I will shoot first and deal later with personal, ethical and moral issues.

Al Diaz – Most newspapers frown on using photos of people without identifying them. Therefore, it is a must to get their ID and that is not always easy.
Back in the 1980’s many Haitians fled their country during the reign of Baby Doc Duvalier and the massacres that continued in the 1990s by paramilitary groups such as the Tonton Macoutes.
At the time, the Miami field office of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, now part of Homeland Security, was always packed with many of these Haitians seeking safety in South Florida.
My assignment was to photograph the crowds at INS for an immigration story. As I’m escorted to the main floor with the largest crowd, I quickly scouted the room for the best possible angle.
As expected, my cameras attracted quite a bit of attention. At the time many Haitians were concerned for the safety of their families back home and fearful of the long reach of the paramilitary groups. No one wanted their picture taken.
As I raised my camera, the room erupted in Creole as more than 100 people scattered, covering their faces to avoid my lens.
No ID’s on that day.
Occasionally, I’ll watch a situation and wait for that magic moment to come together. If I approach the subject too soon the spontaneity is gone. Once I’m satisfied, I’ll go and tell the person or persons who I am, show my Miami Herald photo ID, and tell them why I’m taking their photograph. Then I’ll ask for their names.
All those steps are not always necessary depending on the assignment. If it’s fans at a sporting event, I don’t bother with the formality. I just tell them I’m with the Herald and ask for names. Most folks are amicable.
It’s totally frustrating when the subject says they are not interested. In my head, I’m screaming! Are you frickin kidding me? I just invested 10-15 minutes watching your… OK, that’s when my anger management skills kick in and I attempt to remain calm
Most of the time I’ll just walk away but if the image is extra special and deadline is looming I’ll start pouring on my charm. If that does not work I’ll show them the image on the camera’s digital screen but that can backfire if the person’s vanity kicks in. Finally, I’ll seek a little sympathy as a last resort, but at this point, I’d rather forget the whole thing and start over.

Mike Kelley – Luckily I am an architectural photographer – so I don’t have to deal with this too often! It does occasionally come up, in which case I make sure to use a slow shutter speed like 1/5th of a second to adequately blur faces and bodies, which has the added benefit of adding motion to my images.

Ami Vitale – I talk to people before I even lift my camera. I like to make sure they understand why I want to make a photo of them. And if they don’t want their photo taken, then I respect their wishes and move on. There are so many beautiful stories and people out in the world. Why unnecessarily harass someone?


Thanks to all of our pros for their time in answering these question – more to come! Meanwhile, we’d love to hear YOUR ideas for this question! — What techniques do you use with people who don’t want to be photographed? Pop your answers down below in the comments.

Stay tuned for the next question… “What is consistently the most challenging thing on a shoot”


Category: Ask The Pros

About the Author ()

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Simon manages social media for www.thinktankphoto.com You can find out more about Simon here - http://about.me/gtvone

Comments are closed.