Skip to main content

Street Photography: The Art of Photographing Strangers

Lesson 4 of 20

The Psychology of a Street Photographer

Ashley Gilbertson

Street Photography: The Art of Photographing Strangers

Ashley Gilbertson

Starting under


Get access to this class +2000 more taught by the world's top experts

  • 24/7 access via desktop, mobile, or TV
  • New classes added every month
  • Download lessons for offline viewing
  • Exclusive content for subscribers

Lesson Info

4. The Psychology of a Street Photographer
Can you be a street photographer and an introvert? Learn how Ashley become extroverted for the sake of street photography and how to get out of your own shell. Work to build the confidence to approach strangers by looking at the worst case scenario and imagining how you would feel if the roles were reversed.

Lesson Info

The Psychology of a Street Photographer

So I've talked about having to force myself to change from being introverted two extra better um I still feel like it's a little bit of a I don't feel like I'm acting like I believe what I'm talking about when I'm when I'm working with people accept and I didn't like read books or like observe people on the street and how to do this that has forced myself into these situations like where I'm really shy but I just photographed this person and it's really compelling and I have to talk to them like I was still in australia we have I guess, a lot of ah habits of the british from a couple hundred years ago esso I still apologize two people before I even say hello like I'll say, I'm sorry uh my name's ash like I don't know I've got to stop doing it, but I still do it it's just a habit um so I I forced myself out of my shell I force myself to start talking to people on do you realize pretty quickly that occasionally you get embarrassed when you when you messed it up, which I do feel myself go...

ing red right now? Actually, just the thought of it but the key is to be able to get back up and do it again, you know, to keep on trying so that's keeping on trying is about being unafraid of the consequences and this is again where the samurai training comes into it you know when I'm when I'm going into a story I look at the risk of the story like how likely is it that I'll die or how likely is it that I'll get messed up or how likely is that I'll go to jail or how likely is that the people would be annoyed by me so I'm looking at the risk versus, um universes the picture essentially on photographing strangers on the street is not very risky I can promise you that like I really had no bad experiences with this outside of people saying no so when you sit down before you go out to shoot you consider like how bad could this be what's the worst thing that could happen somebody shouts at me like I live in new york so occasionally we get people who will tell me toe like put my camera with the sun don't shine and people who could be pretty aggressive but that's that's new york thank god it's the only city in america that's like that so look at the worst case scenario when you're photographing strangers the worst case scenario is not very bad it's it's really the only thing that's going to suffer from and is your ego andi if anything like beating down the ego a little bits pretty healthy and then envision how you would act if you were approaching you know, a version of you on the street how would you want to be treated how would you want to be engaged? What are the sort of things that you would want to hear like why did this photographer choose me? How is the picture going to be used? Think about those responses before you actually go out there because if you're making it up as you go like off the cuff can be great but you have to have some idea of why you're doing it why you're compelled why you're compelled by downtown seattle why you're compelled by this particular person and that's where honesty comes in it's hard it's hard I think for you know to say to somebody you look you look absolutely beautiful like that's got some pretty creepy right but there's ways of saying it like you look amazing in this light with the way that you're dressed with the way that you're sitting like you know, I just I just saw you walking through the street in the way that you move through the strait is graceful and it's true it's true you say it if they look like a little bit crazy maybe there's a different approach than you can use them that um you know, you look like you have a really compelling story you have a really amazing face on guy I want to come over, introduce myself and see, like, what do you what do you doing here today? You know, I'm just taking pictures and you came, you came into my frame, and I wanted to talk to you on dh it sounds totally crazy, but people start talking, um, is the picture that I shot in uganda on dh it's, just an example of there's, different types of pictures, there's somewhere people are looking at the camera there's somewhere they're not looking at the camera, but you can feel the photographer's presence and then there's other pictures, which I regard as a more successful type of image where you don't feel the presence of the photographer you in a picture like this, I feel like I'm standing in front of the frame, and I'm just standing there with my with my naked eye and looking at this as it's happening, these kids having the eyesight tested, and they're looking for preventable blindness. So this is the type of comfort level that I want to get, too, with different sup with the different people that I'm photographing around the world, where they don't really feel you anymore, and they just go about their business as though you're not there, so I try to ask questions about the people that I'm photographing, I mean I'm sure that some of you guys have experienced this like dinner parties or parties like the worst people at the party you sit next to a journalist's on dh and therapists because all they do is ask you questions all night that's how we that's how we operate it's and it's not because we're manipulating you like it is a true sense of curiosity it's probably some manipulation involved at some point accept mostly it's because you want to hear about what the person is like what they're interested in like that's that's what that's what drives people like me at least so I asked questions about the person I'm not shy about that either like I when I think when you're engaging in a very honest and direct manner there's not a lot that's off limits um so being very genuine about it but you ease into it as you would any sort of conversation where you from how old he used a little bit weird especially when you're talking to women but it's been trained to always ask these this information what's your name how old you are where you're from what do you do on contact information? So explain what I'm doing as I said, you know ashley gilbertson of a photo agency or with the publication I share a little bit about my background off to when I'm working the united states I have to explain why I have a weird accent um, which is a little bit of an icebreaker times um and then I say why I want to take the picture and as I said, it could just be the pure beauty of the scene that's in front of you all you could be working on a story about homelessness, you could be working on a story about thirties, which is why I'm photographing, you know, lines of people waiting hours and hours for a bowl of ramen or we had doughnut in new york, you know, you have tio you don't have to do anything except in order to engage in amore in a meaningful level with people to be really honest and transparent is key because these are the questions that you would have if I was the photograph you right now on the street, you know, we're on the street, you don't know why the hell is this guy taking my picture? Like people are suspicious as well, particularly with cameras? You know, where old journalist in one way or another now with things against the ground, even like facebook and twitter, so people want to know in what context the picture is being used, so I wanted to know from you guys with, you know, some of the photographers here it had difficulties with, you know, with engaging with explaining yourself, engaging with the subjects I do have a great question that had come in really into that that is from jen, she says ash your professional and sew it and so I think that it might make it easier to get subjects trust what is there? I thought on the difference with you having a lot of experience as a professional engaging with strangers versus just a woman with a camera whose job is not to be professionally curious then you just curious and I think that's fine, I mean, I think that in many cases it's actually less scary for the people that we're introducing ourselves to when it's an ambush photography when it's a keen when it's a keen photographer somebody even with an iphone and you're working on you gonna instagram feed I think that that's less threatening in many ways but saying like I love photography, I've been doing photography for some years and again, like I was compelled to come over and talk to you for this reason or that reason because then the picked you know, and I'm gonna post the picture on instagram would be happy to tag you all I'm just going to make a print at home. Do you mind if I take your picture? I think that in many ways you're more likely to get permission in a case like that um because when you're working as a professional the picture always has some sort of context and that's what people want to know, is there an agenda into how you're working? But if you're just working because it's a love of photography and it's a love of meeting people and you're just curious, then I thinkit's let you know it's it's, it makes it somewhat easier. What makes it hotter is on the person who's trying to take the picture because everybody seems too, and I I did this when I was young. I always thought that I needed prescott. You don't need a press card, you don't need an affiliation with some agency, you know you don't need seven photo with the getty images it's, you could just be a photographer. That's there's, nothing wrong with that there's. Lots of people who are just photographers and it's, you know, it's it's a great thing to do. So I think it's getting over yourself as much as it is, um, you know, being transparent, but yeah, eso, mine's a little bit different because I'm working with families who have invited me into their home, and I stayed with them for several hours and document their lives, and so and I still fight phil sheepish around them sometimes, and so when the problems I had recently with I was photographing a larger extended family and the sisters were talking and I felt like a voyeur there I was just I had been there for a while, you had the small talk here and there, and then when you were there for a long time, your kind just taking pictures of them while they're talking and engaging with one another and I start to feel really self aware and which you can see my images because I started back up more and so I actually brought it up to my mentor when we're going through the the images, and she had said she said, we'll just talk to them because you are there, you just keep talking, but sometimes I feel like become very self aware and concern with that, so that was her is just your there talk to them, you know, and laugh with the stories, ask him questions about their childhood or has she always been like this? And I think everyone have questions sometimes, so when you there's always a period of that, when you're working a longer stories and particularly in homes, you're right where it gets to a point that you feel like you should leave, we're going we're definitely gonna cover that, you know, in depth today, but it's, that moment that you have to sit with it and it's really uncomfortable and it might just be you who feels uncomfortable and yes you probably acting a little bit all put except that's okay you have to sit it out and wait for it to pass um like in in different types of look I run a lot and part of that is an exercise that I feed back into my photography in that you know when you're running for extended periods you go through periods of like intense pain and they call it they call it running through it you run past his pain and you get to a point where you don't feel pain there anymore but you feel paying here or whatever but it changes and it passes and it's the same thing is when you're photographing in these types environments you're talking about like that discomfort will pass and that will be really really super awkward moments that you don't want to be there and you want to go home but that's when you have to stay it was the most important time that you should be staying because it's you break through that and then all of a sudden different things that opening up like they it's your story so you've got different I'm sure you had different experiences where that has happened and I'm sure you got experience is what you did leave eve but by staying the access becomes more intimate you know you and you might you know to be really practical like I've often inserted myself into conversations which I feel so uncomfortable about, but I'll try to add a little bit but you have to realize that the story, what they're doing, what their experiences isn't about you, you know people often aren't actually focused on you like you can go on interject yourself into a conversation. So do you mind if I, uh, join you guys will be like show and they just keep talking, you don't even though you will feel like you need to be really active in a you don't necessarily have to be you know you could just be listening and I think that's interacting in a really intimate level like that's something that I had to learn as an australian I naturally talk a lot of you is just a person I naturally talk a lot and I feel those silences that often happen when you want a moment somebody with words and I realized in the course of the bedrooms work that that's totally unnecessary that the silences air actually there for a reason and you considered out so I would just be aware that it might just be you is the photographer that that that's normal like it's normal that any of us would think would feel that way, so I started kind of ah personal project actually because I was here when I was on kirsten lewis's show doing the family the storytelling and she had ah, a challenge to do an instagram shot of a straight portrait and it was the first time I'd ah push myself to do a street portrait of a stranger and, um I sat there for maybe like, half an hour before actually went and asked this guy to get a picture and I think ordinarily people take me as an extrovert then when they meet me and from knowing me and but I know myself as an introvert and um when I actually went and spoke to him, what I realised that was that he really wanted to talk and we connected because this guy he had a soon as he heard me talk he realized I was a brit back in seventies he had was stationed in england uh well, his dad was stationed in england and that was my that was my end yeah, and he talked for like an hour. And so what I've realized since and trying to light it's been really slow getting trying to get this like thing going because it's still like this barrier, I've got one to go out and do my my photo walks to try and get myself toe ask at least one person is finding that thing you know, that I connect with and that I can like start talking um but once I get that thing they start talking you know, because he he stood there and talked like for an hour right commissioner finding common ground right? He gave him his name, he wrote frankly, his whole life story that's the amazing thing and I think when you're having trouble you when you're sitting there for half an hour thinking sure going talk to that person or not try to remember remember the nightmare stories like the ten times people said no in one hour but remember the great stories like the stories that moved you like, obviously he had a profound effect on how you work and how you like tio interact with people and so you think about that like, that was so great if I'm lucky that'll happen again it's not gonna happen every day, but I've got certain pictures like a picture of ken on the refugee that I showed that I connect with so strongly and that I love so much when I'm having a difficult time continuing work, I think about that like the more I work, the more likely I am to find somebody that's inspiring or is cool. Uh, is that so? You know it's it's positive reinforcement for yourself, right? Except look at the highlights don't don't don't always be considering the worst case scenarios like that should definitely be a part of how you prepare yourself for a day out there but look at the highlights of how great it can actually be because it's moments like that when we get lost in the moment and hearing the stories of these people that you're taking pictures and portrait and it's just it's all happening and that's when its magic and that's when we remember why it is that way photographers you know why? Why did we start doing this? Why the hell do I want to talk to strangers every day? It's for this reason it's so it's, so moving. So this is just an example that I was, um this is from liberia, um, during the beer is a tough place to work. It was during the ebola outbreak and I was working on a story about the firestone operation, the guys who make the car tires and robbery and stuff like that, and it was very, very difficult to get pictures of people, I think, in the environment, in their natural environment, with their families. And this is one of those cases like the family we're talking about. I went and I found this. Actually, I heard I heard this story about a fisherman. Um, his name was, I think it was he had a funny name, it was like money, baby or something, they give that guy's funny names in liberia when they're born on the plantation so I went to this village and I like I heard that this guy was the best fisherman in all of liberia and I arrive in the village and like there's money baby like all money baby's dead oh my god my story my god what I'm gonna do with my story okay if he's dead and somebody else is now the best fish who's that on it's just a brown the guy in the blue t shirt and so I went and I told joseph like I would like to spend a little bit of time with you and photograph you but you know what I'm I'm hanging out with him and his family he's like what he's doing and why why you still here and I guess that really awkward moment and that's that's when you just have to sit down and stay there and they start interacting he starts going like fixing his net then you know, a couple of days later I turned off like what you guys doing today is like well I need to go fishing so we go out on his boat and going out in this rain storm um you know, with my really fancy cameras on a dug out canoe you're building trust like he's seeing that you're in the story with him andi think that that's really important when these when you start spending a significant time with people well first of all there no longer strangers for there's, different levels of intimacy that you have with people when you start going to things with them, and whether it it could be, um, it could be performances that people are attending, or by the party they're going to. And you, you tag along to the party with somebody as a photographer. It's. Pretty weird. But if you interact with people at the party, is a normal human being at the same time is taking pictures. There's, nothing weird about it.

Class Description


  • Confidently approach strangers for street photography
  • Refine your eye for strong compositions
  • Choose the right gear for street photography
  • Tell a story through street photography
  • Write captions to accompany your work
  • Cull and edit your street photography images
  • Use street photography tips for building a career


Find the courage and skill to photograph strangers in public. Work with renowned street photographer Ashley Gilbertson to build both the confidence and skills necessary to succeed as a street photographer. Learn how to capture people moving through everyday life in artistic ways. Find out how to approach people in the street -- and how to photography anonymously in public places when everyone says no.

From understanding gear and the nuances of focal length to working as a documentary photographer in a public space, take your passion for street photography to the next level. This class isn't for beginners learning shutter speed and aperture for the first time -- it's for anyone that's ever wanted to work in street photography but struggles to build the courage to do so.

Watch behind-the-scenes videos following a real street photographer in action. Hear tales -- and see sample images -- of street photography across the United States and abroad, including major cities like New York and Chicago. Build captions and edit images with Photomechanic and Adobe Lightroom Live. Dive into an art form that reveals the complexity of human nature with Street Photography: The Art of Photographing Strangers.


  • Intermediate photographers eager to try the street photography genre
  • Enthusiast photographers branching into documentary style photography
  • Advanced photographers struggling to come out of their shell to approach strangers

SOFTWARE USED: Adobe Lightroom 6.0


Australia born photographer Ashley Gilbertson is a well-respected documentary style artist that many consider among the best street photographers. From working on editorial shoots to personal projects, his work has earned him an Emmy nomination, the Robert Capa Gold Medal, and an American Society of Magazine Editors Ellie award. The street photographer is also the author of two photography books and a regular writer for publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post. Based in New York City, Ashley's work has been featured in major publications as well as museum and art galleries around the world. 



I have taken more than a few of the Creative Live courses. I have, in general, found all of them to be very good and I have learned something important from them all. Not always enough of exactly what I was looking for, but something useful and important. This course was absolutely amazing. The best I have taken. I would like to download it and see it again and again. Ashley's style was authentic, humble, yet confidence inspiring. The information he gave was focused and totally useful. He shared both philosophy and thinking as well as real tools to learn - whether they be soft stuff (like how to approach someone) or hard stuff (like gear and settings and such). I cannot recommend this class highly enough. If you want to learn to do "humanistic photography" (his term which resonated with me), this is best I have ever taken!


This was a terrific and wonderful class. Ash was superb. His stories were awe inspiring, his passion was evident and his ability to teach was flawless. I would take any other class by him and actually can't wait for more of the VII agency programs eminating from Ron's class during photo week 2015. A great great addition to Creative Live's orbit.


Wow, I loved this course - I watched the whole thing, and most of it twice, during the first run. Ash is is intriguing, a good teacher, honest. I found this class to be so inspirational. I especially loved his encouragement about talking to strangers, asking to take their picture- "what's the worst thing that could happen?" And the videos watching him in action were motivating- you saw him make connections but also saw him get rejected too, but he keeps such a positive outlook. Love this class, please more photojournalism!