Approaching Strangers

One of the many questions I have been asked about my street photography is how I approach my subjects on the streets. The fear of getting cold response and worse, yelled at for shooting photographs of strangers often hold many new photographers on the street to explore the possibilities. The saying of "if your photograph is not good enough, you are not close enough" strongly applies to street photography as well. If you want good enough shots, you have got to move in close enough. You have got to get pass the fear of rejection, and brave yourself nearer to your subjects. 

All images in this entry were taken with Olympus DSLR E-5 and Zuiko Lenses: 25mm F2.8 pancake or 50mm F2 macro

It is only 4 bucks

burnt and whats left of them

You will be surprised of how many interesting subjects to photograph inside a Chinese Temple

Burning candlelight

I think the most important aspect of being a street photographer is having a very positive and friendly appearance. Somehow, you have got to blend in your surrounding. Different people may have different methods to do so, and you must not stand out from the crowd too much. Being generally pleasing to look at, with confident manner and genuinely friendly expression, people will find you less threatening when you point your lens at them. The first and most important part of all is portraying that you are not an enemy, and you mean no harm. A smile is important, and if you need to, strike a short conversation to make that connection happen. 

Do not worry about rejection. Yes, you will encounter people who will not like to have their photographs taken. It happens, so what? Move on. Find more subjects on the streets. Staying positive is the key, and for whatever reason people rejected you, be courteous, and smiled in return. Apologize if you need to, and make sure you get the message clear across: "I mean no harm". How you react, how you present yourself, your facial expression and body language are all important. Do not push it if permission is rejected, just find your next target. You do not lose what you never had, so do not make a huge fuss out of it. There are plenty of subjects more to explore, and there are plenty more photo opportunities awaiting ahead. Do not let the frustration of rejection get to you, because emotionally, it will affect how you approach your next subject. 

Joss-sticks to be burned

GFailed panning attempt. I blame that guy on the wheelchair, he was moving too slowly !! ( we all make excuses for unsuccessful shots, don't we?)

Happy flowers



Glee in the rain

I never knew unbrellas can make the scene so interesting

Walking stick

Push cart

Health hazard

I fully understand that street photography, in its purest form (whoever stated the definition) should not be posed, or staged, and remain completely natural. Perhaps what I am doing in the street is not 100% street photography. I do take a lot of candid shots, without my subjects knowing that their photographs were being taken, in my stealthy mode. I shall discuss about stealth shooting in another separate entry. However, I also do a great deal of walking up to my subject, smiled at them, and with some body signs (holding the camera up) signalling a question if it was ok to have their images taken. Most of the time, a smile is a cue telling you that you are safe to move in closer and snap the photographs. Sometimes, I just point the camera directly at the subjects, and usually they either do not care, and kind enough to have their photographs taken. You will be surprised how people can accept your presence, and be cooperative, but you have got to have the right attitude and confidence to begin with. 

I know some street photographers hate it when the subjects smile, or look at them directly into the camera. I guess it all comes down to what you want to present to your audience, and how you form your own street photography style. I have no issues with my subjects smiling and looking directly into my camera. When I see a person whom I am interested to photograph, usually there is some quality that stands out: facial features, or their style of clothing. Having the direct eye-contact into the camera establishes the very engaging connection to the viewers, as if you are looking directly into their eyes, and having that close-up encounter, intimate conversation with that person. Smile is a very human thing to do. Smile is possibly the strongest, and most universally accepted expression, showcasing powerful and genuine emotions, which will add a lot of drama in your photograph. I do not understand how people would prefer sulky faces in their portraits, instead of heart warming smile. Some street photographers claim that their photographs look more natural if their subjects do not smile, I strongly disagree. My subjects look at their best and at most natural state when they show their beautiful smile, because smile portrays a lot of inner beauty that shines through photographs. It is like a window into their soul. 

More and more unbrellas

Another walking difficulty


Inspired by Luke Ding: Street Fashion



Washing up

Soya Bean milk drink seller

Mini Statues

Together time

I believe it comes down to building up confidence. I admit it was not easy when I started out, and I did not have the guts to move close, as I only attacked my subjects from a distance with tele-photo zoom lens. As I did more and more street photography, bit by bit my courage increased, and I started to realize that people are not that unfriendly after all. Most people are friendly and very approachable. Having that confidence, it shows through my own face (smile) that I do not mean any harm, and I can be trusted. When you doubt yourself, or hesitated, it also immediately show in your expression, portraying your insecurity and your subjects on the street will be able to pick that up also. When you panicked and have that "oh crap" expression, your subjects will also reacted the same way, reflecting your own reactions in the first place. Therefore, just be yourself, slowly build up your confidence level. You are shooting images, You are not doing anything wrong. You are not breaking any law (if you are, then God help you). Street photography is not crime, it is perfectly legal and alright to shoot photographs in a public space. Knowing your rights, be confident, and approach your subjects. Things can't possibly go wrong. 

I am not sure if you can see what I see, but when I shoot portraits of strangers, I get some kind of satisfaction. Those moments, no matter how brief being established, somehow formed some sort of bond or connection, which was captured and immortalized in the images. Those photographs show true faces of people on the streets. They do not lie, they document real life activities, real facial expressions, real smiles, real emotions and real souls. They represent the very important component that made the street alive: the people who live in them, and make the streets busy. Those street photographs have stories to tell, if you just open yourself to listen. 

1 month and 4 days

Caretaker of the baby


Large eyes

Shoes caretaker

On this glorious Saturday morning, I went to Petaling street to shoot with Choon Wee (click), a great photographer friend of mine. During lunch, I met up with Chung Ka and his family at Times Square. After lunch, Chung Ka's family and I headed to Petaling Street, and shot on the streets there (again for me). It was a rainy day, cloudy most of the time, with light drizzle. Not exactly very nice day to shoot and wide scenes that include the ugly sky, and since the lighting was very flat, the subjects on the streets lack color saturation and contrast, making everything look very dull and uninteresting. Nonetheless, I do think that the flat lighting was very flattering for portrait subjects, illuminating the faces very evenly, creating very flattering outcome. Hence I focus on making a lot of close up shots, utilizing the good portrait lighting.

Chung Ka (he uses an Olympus E-520, what an awesome camera that is !!)

The only way to get better and improve, is to go closer.

So do not be scared, pick up your camera, head to the streets, and make some photographs happen !!


  1. Hi Robin,

    Can't wait to hit the streets myself.
    Again your pictures are great, even get better and better.

    Hope to get the EM-5 soon.

    All the best,

    1. Hello Luke,
      Too bad you were not free today !! Shooting tomorrow? there is a chance I will be shooting street.

    2. OOps, sorry Luke I have mistaken you for someone else !!

  2. What an inspiration, in both the photos and the commentary!

  3. Thanks for the tips on taking street photographs. I will practice it in Toronto with my E-510. Referring to the last picture, what lens was Chung Ka using?

    Have a great day.

    Chi Lee

    1. Hello Chi Lee,
      That was the original kit lens, 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 that comes with the camera.

  4. Nice pics, but sometimes I think you overuse the bokeh effect. For eg the shot with tourist would have been a lot better with more depth of field in my honest opinion and also don't really like how you add the vignette effect in post processing in some of your shots. Still a fan of your work though.

    1. Faris,
      Thanks for the feedback.
      Funny, I thought people say Olympus has no bokeh !! And they complain that because of the lack of bokeh capability, people prefer to buy APS-C or full frame cameras. You are probably the first to say that there is too much bokeh !!! That was unexpected.
      I was only using a F2 lens, which is F4 equivalent. Imagine, how horrific it would have been if F1.4 lens was used.
      Faris, the vignetting is "like it or hate it" affair. I add them for specific reasons in some shots. As you can see, I use it sparingly. When it works, it works.

  5. I love your style of street photography. Your shots and captions are intriguing and tell a story. It is what I hope to get to at some point. Thanks for the great read and advice.

    1. Hello Mr Kal El !!
      Thanks for the kind compliments. I think my shots are nothing more than ordinary, but yeah, we are improving every time we shoot. It is my pleasure to share my photographs and thoughts !

  6. Hey, my camera! :-) Wonderful photos as always Robin!

  7. Hi Robin,

    Came across your blog while looking for reviews on the Olympus E-M5 (very informative, thank you) and stuck around. Really enjoying your photographs and words.

    Best regards,
    (Cork, Ireland)

    1. Hello Eoin,
      Thanks for the kind words !! Do come back and visit often !

  8. Hello Robin,
    At last I get to know how you react on the street during your shutter therapy session. Thank you for sharing.

    Your images are just awesome. Love it.

    If I gonna tick a box of what you are doing, I am not far behind. I interact alot with my subject matter. Sometime I am can be very daring when I am too excited to get the interesting shot that I 'see'. This daring thing got me into minor trouble a few times but I learning fast to handle it now. In the art of seeing, I am very far behind. Need to learn and more practice.

    I may share this posting with my friends who refuse to roam the street with me as they are too scared to do street due to their pass unpleasant experiences. I believe they are using the wrong approach or approach the subject matter with the wrong body language. I hope with the help of your blog, they will accompany me in my next shutter therapy.

    Thank you again for your sharing and may you have a great day.
    (This Saturday, I can not do street as my wife has another Hopefully next Saturday, I can do it.)
    Happy shooting.
    John Ragai