- Never approach children. You need to talk to the parents.
- When approaching couples, it's usually best to speak with your own gender first.
- Don't “chase” subjects. If a person moves away, you might want to take that as a “No.”
- Realize that “No” means “No.”
- Keep your hands to yourself, other than offering a handshake.
One of the hardest things about street photography, travel photography or any other genre that might have you taking impromptu photos of strangers is getting permission to photograph someone you don't know. Many photographers skirt around this by shooting with telephoto lenses or simply trying to “sneak” people into the shot while pretending to shoot the surroundings. In my opinion, both of these methods are mistakes and are partly responsible for the stigma centered around photographers in public places.
The interesting thing about this problem is that, in my experience, most people don't really mind being photographed. There are exceptions, of course, and every photographer should respect a person's right to privacy. That's one of the many reasons that getting permission is important, and it's almost always going to be up to the photographer to “break the ice”. (There are exceptions to that, too, although they are rare.)
In most cases, I've found that the key to getting the OK to photograph a stranger is not to treat him or her as a stranger. It might surprise you to know that many people will appreciate being seen as interesting individuals rather than just another part of the crowd. Sometimes just eye contact and a smile are enough to get the ball rolling, so to speak.
Now, it's probably worth noting that I'm a people person. I strike up conversations with people in checkout lines, at the beach, and pretty much anywhere else that I, and other people, happen to be. It doesn't take much to get some lively banter started with most people; something simple like, “Nice day to be at the beach” is usually enough. I like to be a little more creative, but let's not over-complicate things.
For the less-outgoing person, the straightforward approach is usually the best bet. People already know you're taking photos. Why not just ask politely if they mind you taking theirs? Offering them your business card at the same time will help you present yourself as a professional, rather than a stalker. If you happen to have a KeepSnap card, it also opens up the door for some possible profits from the photos you take.
Whatever your approach, there are some important ground rules:
Note that the rules above are mostly for your own protection. A little bit of common sense and good manners will go a long way.
Always remember that language barriers come in various degrees. If you find yourself speaking with someone who struggles with your native language, listen quietly and patiently. If you're approaching someone who obviously doesn't speak your language, it's perfectly alright to resort to an inquisitive smile while pointing to your camera.
Finally, keep in mind that the worst that may happen is a negative response, which needn't ruin your day or theirs. Accept a refusal graciously and professionally. Not only will it be appreciated by the potential subject, but other people in the area will notice, too. Demonstrate professionalism and courtesy and you'll earn respect, which will go a long way toward getting a “Yes” from the next subject.