Generally there are 2 schools of thoughts when it comes to taking pictures of strangers:
1. You ask them
2. You don’t
The obvious safe practice is to ask them first, which is safer since you don’t want someone chasing you down trying to destroy your CF card. But in many cases it ruins the moment, probably the very reason why you were enamored with the person in the first place.
And you know what? Countless amounts of people have noticed me taking a picture of them, some happy, some weirded out, some indifferent, and even slightly angry in some cases, but never has a person ever tried to do anything about it.
The correct choice in my opinion is… both. I do a bit of both. It just depends on the situation.
If a person looks occupied with something, I leave them be. I try to capture them in that moment. This is a situation where you need to be as discrete as possible.
Do not make any sudden movements. Ease casually into your shooting position, or even better shoot from the hip. I find that the best time to take candids of strangers is when I’m already participating the scene myself. For example if I’m waiting outside to be seated at a restaurant… and someone of interest comes outside to sit down, they don’t notice me cause I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
A discrete shot needs to be fast. Take a quick glance… then
*Breath in* -> meter, focus, compose
*Breath out* -> click
Take as many frames as you can, which I find to be about… 2-5 before they notice (depending on your camera’s fps and loudness of your shutter sound). Then just carry on with what you’re doing.
When I’m at a bar, I order a drink and sit around for a while, then I start looking for pictures. I’m part of the scene already so people are less alert to my presence.
For this one I was already drawing on the floor with a friend when these lovely ladies showed up. Street photography is magnificent since you actually get to participate in the event. The way your subject reacts to you is a direct reflection of your involvement in the scene.
I find it helpful to actually shoot wider (28mm~)… and get super close to the subject, so close that they think you’re taking a picture of something else. Again I will write another tutorial on how to take pictures like this quickly, efficiently, and without bothering your subjects.
On the other hand, I ask quite often. It doesn’t always have to be a verbal agreement though. A lot of times I just point at my camera or make eye contact and smile at them right before I take the picture.
I used to be a very shy person who stayed inside all day. But now I’m probably the most extroverted person among my friends. Photography propelled me to speak to strangers, hear their stories, and it’s gotten me very far. This guy happened to be the head of customer service for the Metro in Boston, he gave us a couple free limited edition Japanese T passes. Pretty sweet right?!
You just never know the stories people have… or what they do. It’s all quite interesting. I had probably one of the most high level conversations about photography with a complete stranger. (I apologize in advance) Life is like a box of chocolates… you never know what you’re gonna get.
Oh yeah… what happens when the person says no? Don’t take the picture. Don’t think anything of it, sometimes they just don’t want it done, maybe they were having a bad hair day or something. Just walk away… you’ll find another potential target soon enough.
So yeah… in the end its your choice. Just remember to participate, be chill about it, be kind, and smile.