How To Get People to Say Yes When Shooting Street Portraits

Downtown LA, 2012
Downtown LA, 2012

In my street photography workshops, I often give the students a “5 yes/5 no” assignment. The concept is simple: you approach a bunch of strangers and ask permission to take their portrait. You intentionally try to get 5 people to say “yes”, and 5 people to say “no.”

Sometimes students struggle to get all 5 people to say “yes”, and sometimes students have no problem.

So what are some good strategies to quickly develop a rapport with strangers, and have strangers to say “yes” to having their picture taken?

The secret: use the word: “because”

One of the biggest strategies when asking for street portraits is to say the word: “because”.

I want to share a psychological study. The concept was simple: a psychologist ran an experiment trying to figure out how to be more persuasive.

In the experiment the psychologist tried to cut a line in order to make photocopies, and tried 3 different variations to cut the line. The three variations she had the students were these:

  1. No reason: “Excuse me, I have 5 (20) pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
  2. Legit” reason: “Excuse me, I have 5 (20) pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
  3. Bullshit” reason: “Excuse me, I have 5 (20) pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

Her big finding was this:

  1. No reason: 60% of people allowed her to cut the line.
  2. “Legit” reason: 94% of people allowed her to cut the line
  3. “Bullshit” reason: 94% of people still allowed her to cut the line!!!

You can read more about the experiment here see the full study here.

If you want to learn more, this concept is called “automaticity”.

Takeaway point:

So when it comes to shooting street photography, in order to get strangers to say “okay” to being photographed, use the word: “because”. Give people a reason why you want to take their photo.

If you approach a stranger and ask them to take their photo, many strangers are just curious why you want to take a photo of them.

So my suggestion is this: be very specific why you want to photograph them, and what details of them you find interesting.

Some ideas:

  • I want to photograph you because I love your style.
  • I want to photograph you because I love your sunglasses/haircut/face/outfit.
  • I want to photograph you because I am doing a photography project on strangers.
  • I want to photograph you because I love photographing interesting strangers.
  • I want to photograph you because I am a tourist.
  • I want to photograph you because I am doing a project on New York City and I think you would be a great part of the project.

Of course you can add to this list of “because”. What are some other phrases or lines you use? Share them in the comments below.

If you also want other street photography assignments, check out my article: “15 Street Photography Assignments to Re-Energize and Re-Inspire You“.

How to shoot street portraits

If you are drawn to shooting portraits of strangers on the streets, I recommend reading these articles:

  1. 3 Tips To Conquer Your Fear of Shooting Street Portraits
  2. How to Direct Your Subjects When Shooting Street Portraits
  3. How to Shoot Street Portraits With Permission by Danny Santos

Conquer your fears in street photography

If you want to build your confidence and conquer your fears in street photography, I recommend reading these articles:

  1. How to Overcome Your Fear in Street Photography with “Rejection Exposure Therapy”
  2. How to Harness Your Fear to Become a More Confident Street Photographer
  3. How to Avoid Paralysis by Analysis in Street Photography
  4. How to Become a Fearless Street Photographer
  5. How to Become an Invisible Street Photographer
  6. 5 Tips How To Overcome Your Fear of Shooting in Public
  7. 5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Be Sneaky When Shooting Street Photography
  8. The Golden Rule in Street Photography: Photograph Others How You Would Like to Be Photographed

Also check out my Free Ebook:31 Days to Overcome Your Fear of Shooting Street Photography

You can also watch my free hour-long presentation: “How to Conquer Your Fear of Shooting Street Photography“.

If you want to learn how to conquer your fears in street photography with personal guidance from me, and a push outside of your comfort zone, check out my upcoming street photography workshops.

12 thoughts on “How To Get People to Say Yes When Shooting Street Portraits”

  1. Hi Eric, this is very true. Most people just want to know why in the world you’d ever want to take a photo of them.

    I’ve also found that you should keep the “because” quick and simple. If you start going into a long explanation of your personal project or something then either they start to tune it out and want to move on or it starts to seem too serious and they don’t want to get involved. Give them your quick reason, make them feel comfortable and take the shot like you’re just doing something you enjoy, which you are.

    Also, not everyone can do it, but if you can give them a quick “because” and make them smile or laugh at the same time, you’ll rarely hear a no.

  2. The “because” tip makes a lot of sense. It is such a simple trick that I never though of! I always wondered how street photographers get people to let them take their picture because I would not let a random person take my picture but now that I think of it, it they had a legitimate reason or a “bullshit” one that sounded legit I would probably allow it.

  3. Bryan Campbell

    Very good points. I think a lot of people who aren’t artists can’t fathom why someone would want to take their picture. Giving them a reason should help bring their guard down in most situations. I need to practice this next time I am in Chicago.

  4. Phillip Ziegler

    I came up with a good strategy in your SF workshop. I stopped people and said, “I am taking a photography workshop and the teacher is making me go out on the streets and ask people to take their photograph.” Of course, everyone felt sorry for me–what a mean teacher–and so it was hard to get a “No.” After awhile I had to sort of push people who seemed at all reluctant to say “no.” and when they di I thanked them. It was a great exercise–really lowered my anxiety level and taught me that I wouldn’t die if someone said they didn’t want me to take their photo.

  5. I remember I read about a guy who was doing a project to document football fans at his local soccer club. He went to all the games and just said to the spectators .”I am looking for some authentic fans for a photography project I am doing about the club -can I take your picture ” ?

    He had loads of people volunteering and he reckoned the fact that he had an old fashioned film camera helped as well ! He only printed some of the best images which were exhibited at the club -but he did a collage of all the images as well.
    People are generally ok if they feel your motives are good.

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