Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

Overcoming the Fear of Photo Rejection

Veronica at El Mercado

Veronica at El Mercado

I’m willing to guess that many, if not most people, have a fear of rejection. That’s what makes it hard to ask someone on a date or go on a job interview. Street photography, where often the subjects are people in candid situations, can be scary and exciting at the same time–precisely because of the fear of rejection. A photographer may use a long zoom lens and take photos of people from a far, but this is really not in the spirit of street photography, I believe. You really have to get up close to someone with a shorter lens. You may be able to take an image of them without being seen but more often than not, if you are close, your intended subject will see you. At this point you will have to ask them, in various ways, if it OK to take their picture. Sometimes body gestures, a nod or a smile, may be enough. Other times you may have to directly ask them. That to me is one of the biggest challenges of this type of photography. Talking to complete strangers and risking rejection. I’ve certainly asked people before if can take their photograph, but usually at events where they are expecting some kind of photography. On the streets, with complete strangers, it’s certainly a different situation. I believe, reducing or overcoming the fear of rejection, at least in photography, is essential in taking good street images — something in which I need much more practice.

I got a chance to practice street photography last weekend in San Antonio with Kirk Tuck on his “anti-workshop event” which I described in a post earlier this week. The San Antonio photowalk was wonderful on many different levels. I certainly admire Kirk for his great photography, however, watching him go up to strangers to get permission for a portrait was an eye-opening experience. Kirk is charming and personable and not shy. He builds a rapport with people very quickly. This, I think, is the truly important skill for a portrait photographer, beyond just the technical, photographic skills. Just watching him interact with people on the street was worth the early morning trek to San Antonio.

While I have done some street photography before, its been mainly grabbing shots on the street, quickly. I didn’t sneak around per say but I typically did not get up close to my subjects. I usually prefer to use my prime lenses rather zooms, either my 35mm, 50mm or 85mm lenses. I think there is a benefit in using a fixed focal length lens to pre-frame the scene in your head before taking the shot. Also the prime lens tend to work better in lower light and are capable of a shallower depth of field, which I prefer. On this San Antonio event, I made more of an effort to engage with my subjects. Taking a cue from Kirk, I attempted to get over the fear of asking people for their image.

The photograph of Veronica is my favorite portrait of the day. Veronica was giving out product information at El Mercado, a Mexican marketplace in downtown San Antonio. She had a great smile and I thought she would make a wonderful portrait. I specifically ask her if I could take her picture. I took a few shots of her and then we stopped and she actually wanted to check her makeup and put on fresh lipstick. I took several more images and came up with the photograph above. I realized that some people are flattered to have their photograph taken and Veronica certainly was a fantastic impromptu model. The three other images I’ve included in this post are also portraits that I verbally had to asked my subjects for permission.

I took different types of people images, some posed and some more candid. For all the posed people, I explicitly asked if I can take their photograph. I got permission for the more candid photographs using body gestures such as a smile, a nod or pointing to my camera. Only once did a person not want their picture taken. I felt fine with that and with only a minor twinge of rejection and I moved on.
[Here are the rest of the street images I created during this San Antonio trip.]

So what did I learn? Well like almost anything, the more you practice the easier it gets. I still can’t claim it’s very easy and I can’t do this as masterfully as Kirk. Many of my images were shot at El Mercado which is a festive, crowded and laid back place. It somehow made it easier to approach people. I’ve also learned that it’s important to smile, to be confident and don’t look suspicious. Be pleasant and have the attitude that the person that you want to photograph is special and I think the feeling will show through. Come to think of it, these tips would work great for most social situations above and beyond photography. Kirk Tuck also posted some excellent pointers on street photography on his blog.

Young Lady in San Antonio
Tourists at El Mercado
Vendor at El Mercado

My Thought Process

I asked the people in each of the 4 photographs if I could take a picture of them. Since they are all posed, they don’t have the candid feel of a true street photograph. Nevertheless, they were taken on the street with natural light. The images of the two young ladies were taken with the aperture set close to wide open. That way I could blur out the background and remove any distracting items behind the ladies. With the image of the two tourists, I closed down the aperture somewhat so that I would get both people in focus. I also had a smaller aperture for the woman selling peanuts since I wanted to add a bit of the environmental context in the image.

Image Details

NOTE: You can click on a photograph to see a larger version.

The images were taken with a Canon 7D with the Canon 50 mm F1.4 lens. Veronica was taken as 18MP RAW file. The other 3 images were taken as 18MP JPEGs.

All of the images were sharpened a bit, added a slight vignette and darkened the background some by using the burn brush in Aperture 3. All of the images except for the lady selling the peanuts also had the color balance changed slightly and a boost in color vibrancy.

Image 1: f2.2, 1/250 sec, +1/3 exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 50mm
Image 2: f1.4, 1/125 sec , no exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 50mm
Image 3 (L): f4.5, 1/100 sec , no exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 50mm
Image 4 (R): f4.5, 1/125 sec , no exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 50mm

13 responses

  1. Good post Andy!

    I also need to practice my skill at asking people for photographs.

    September 12, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    • Thanks John. I talked to a few photographers tonight and we all agreed that its a challenge to ask people for photos… We are not alone.

      September 13, 2010 at 12:33 am

  2. I’m glad I’m not the only one scared by this :)

    I have to say that I sometimes hide behind the tele lenses when it comes to street photography. Unfortunately, this has the added effects of 1.) making me MORE conspicuous 2.) limiting what I can capture.

    Living in Taiwan has the added language barrier – but that’s no excuse for me as my poor girlfriend is usually being dragged along…

    September 13, 2010 at 1:11 am

  3. Joshua. I know what you mean about hiding behind the camera. I’ve done it myself. In a way, I’m trying to use photography to engage with people even more. Both with subjects as well as other photographers.

    September 13, 2010 at 8:53 am

  4. See, you’re a salesman at heart! Just get out there and talk to folks LOL. Well written Andy, this is something I want to work on as I have only done it sporadically. Nice post. Jim

    September 13, 2010 at 12:25 pm

  5. Thanks Jim. Thank mean a lot to me. The blog posts take more effort and I don’t think I’m a great writer but I’m attempting to share my thoughts and ideas out there in the community.

    September 13, 2010 at 1:22 pm

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  7. Good post Andy. I found this especially interesting since Im about to take on the 100 Strangers challenge. This was good advice and motivation.

    September 17, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    • Thorpe, I’m glad you found it useful. Good luck with your challenge.

      September 17, 2010 at 10:11 pm

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