Four Ways to Get Photography Subjects to Say Yes

Recently, I wrote an article about photographing strangers in the street and the perils and risks that befall all of us who do such “horrid things.” Though this is the method I usually prefer, there often are times when I will ask permission of the people I photograph. It all depends on the situation.

For instance, one of my ongoing projects involves photographing people at their place of work. I chose to do this series by having the subjects pose for the camera because a cooperative subject facing the camera works best for this project. I want to take my time photographing someone in their environment. Sometimes I want to take a series of photographs, which, is difficult, if not impossible, if the subject is unaware of what I am doing.

Focus on Conversations to Win People Over

So how does one go about asking complete strangers for permission to take their picture? Over the years, through trial and error, I have developed a number of ways to approach strangers to request and receive their permission. What follows are but a few.

1. Often, it is the subject who approaches you. “Nice camera!” “Can you tell me how to get to…”  “Got any spare change?” People approach you all the time. Some of them are interesting and others are not. When this happens all I have to do is engage them in a conversation for a short while and then ask.

2. Compliments are nice door openers. “Nice hat!” and “Nice dog!” are ways of breaking the ice. People like to be noticed. They respond favorably, we exchange some words and I ask. If they are gruff or ignore me, I move on.

3. People at work are often bored, and talking to them about their work or their lives is something that they appreciate. Again, they are noticed and are only too happy to speak to you about themselves. Waitresses and bartenders, sales staff, placard holders (very common these days) are all in this category. Remember, people like to talk about themselves — they really do — so learn to be a good listener.

4. Day to day, I talk to people about many mundane, everyday things. Picking up the laundry, getting my car serviced, business meetings, etc., put me into contact with many people on a daily basis. Eventually they become used to seeing you. Eventually you show up with a camera around your neck and they become used to seeing you that way. One day, you simply ask.

Sometimes It Pays to Have Patience

Having said all that, there is still a technique to get people to say yes. Walking up to somebody and saying “Nice dog! Can I take your picture?” is a bit aggressive. The subtle approach works best. Forget that there is a camera around your neck and just talk to them about anything. Save the picture-taking for later. Most of the time, once someone is comfortable with you, they say yes.

There have been occasions when I returned over and over to the same person on different occasions and finally asked them on the third or fourth visit. For instance there is one store in Palm Beach that I return to four or fives times a year and chat with one of the saleswomen.  I have photographed her on many occasions but I am still not completely satisfied but this has spawned a relaxed, friendly relationship. She has invited my wife and me to parties, gallery openings, etc., and I have been more successful photographing her on these occasions than in the store. One thing always leads to another.

Sometimes it’s best to have some ammunition. Women photographers seem to get more yes’s than no’s. I wonder why? Older photographers are less “threatening.” If the photographer is with his or her dog, that surely helps because dogs are great conversation starters.

All it takes is practice, more practice and a lot of patience.  This photograph was made recently close to my home. I was driving by, saw her holding the sign and parked a few blocks away. I walked back and as I passed her I smiled.

“Nice hair,” I said.

“Thank you.” she replied. “Do you want a tattoo?”

“No thanks, my wife probably would probably strangle me.”  She laughed.

“Can I take your picture? I am doing a series on Dixie Highway and you would be perfect for it.”

“Oh, please do.” she replied, and I took six or seven shots of her. Her boss was sitting on a chair behind me.

“Cool camera. Do you do this all the time?”

“Yes,” I said. “It keeps me out of trouble.”

I asked if I could take a few of him. It was easy.

8 Responses to “Four Ways to Get Photography Subjects to Say Yes”

  1. Do you always ask/get a model release or just a verbal ask?

  2. I have never used a model release. If I were to use one it would spoil the moment asking the subject to get involved with paperwork. Since my intent is non-commercial, I don't believe they are required. (If they are, its time to find another way to spend my time.)

  3. If you're a stock photographer, here's something to use. (It works every time).

    a.) "My name is_____"

    b.) "I'm a stock photographer."

    c.) "My pictures appear in books and magazine."

    d.) "I'm adding to my stock collection."
    - - - - - - - - - -
    Shooting stock in public can be fragile, but this routine works well, even with the suspicious. If you wear two cameras around your neck you will be perceived as "The Press", -which basically you are.
    As an added touch, wear a lapel pin with your name on it.
    If they ask for a copy of the photo, give them your card with your address on it. Don't ask for their address. Few follow through. If they do, do your duty.
    For those situations where you must get the photo, carry along some tear sheets of your work in textbooks and other assignments. They realize that this will be their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’.
    For editorial stock photos, buyers rarely ask for a release, (First Amendment Rights) but if the situation allows, might as well get one in case you need it for a commercial situation some day.

  4. Good information. Thanks for sharing this. Always like to read about how photographers get the photo...

  5. When I used to work as a daily news photographer (some of my editorial work is posted at ) you would deal with the reluctant subject often and rarely could you take "no" for an option. My play was to promise them I'd edit out any unflattering photos. If that didn't do it I'd joke that I may lose my job if I didn't. That was the last resort.

  6. This is one thing I've always struggled with, I don't think I could ever do it for stock. Like you say it would sort of ruin the flow of the moment so to speak.

    I'll certainly try to put some of these suggestions into practice in future.

  7. Hi David,
    Good article! I agree the more you talk (showing sincere interest), the easier to get the photo. What I still do not know well, is how to ask them to sign a model release. People sometimes sign without asking, or even see that as natural, but other times (I guess), they watch at you as if they were wondering if you would earn lots of money from that image, and perhaps should charge you...
    Do you ask MR? and is it your approach, the same? just keep talking and explaining?

  8. Thanks informative

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