The Art of Bar Photography – Part One

I was hanging out with a few photography buddies at a pub called the “Marquis of Lorne”. What a pub named after Lorne was doing in Fitzroy confused me somewhat, but we had a great day over a few pints and cameras.

One of my esteemed colleagues commented on the preponderance of portraits of younger people at bars on my photo stream. “Bar Portraits” are amongst the most popular images on my stream. I walked them through my thoughts on how to successfully get people to pose at bars.

A month or two later, that person said that they were now more confident about asking strangers for permission to photograph them since they started to apply the golden rules…. so here is what I remember from the advice.


Make sure you have two or three beers to warm yourself up. Alcohol is your friend, as it reduces your natural inhibitions in approaching strangers. It will help you the same way it will encourage your subjects to agree.

Identifying “Possibles”

People are more open to new ideas and are approachable after 3 – 4 beers. After that, they can get grumpy, so go get ‘em before they finish their second jug. A great reason take your camera to the pub more often!

People with visible tattoos like to be noticed. Why else would you get a tattoo in the first place, except to say: “look at me, I am special”?

Young people – Generation Y – think that life and the world is a movie that they are starring in. They are going to battle against the odds and, one day, succeed. Their idea of success is being noticed in a karaoke bar by a record producer and being offered a deal – not through practicing and working your ass off to succeed – they want reality TV success that comes quickly and without work.

Gen Y are both very suspicious of media and voracious consumers of it. Mostly, their need to be noticed and feel special will overcome any suspicion of your intentions to take their portrait. You are feeding into their own belief that they are “special” by noticing them in a bar.

Credibility is assured if you have a number of other photographers in the bar with cameras out – you look more like a genuine artiste than a GWC (guy with camera – a term used for suss characters).

4069983129_ee9f6a2edb_bOh, I nearly forgot – smokers tend to make good subjects, for some reason I cannot quite define. I think it has something to do with the fact that they have something cool to do with their hands.

How to Approach Them

Don’t stalk the people you want to photograph. You are not trying to pick them up (most of the time), so you don’t need to make eye contact once or twice before going over. Staring at people is not going to win their trust. Just walk on over to them and ask simply “May I take your portrait?” Make sure you have your camera out and obvious. I find that lifting the camera slightly towards them, almost as an offering, tends to work for some reason.

One of two things will happen. They will usually say either “yes” or “no” straight away. If they say “no”, just say “OK, thanks anyway” and move on. It is simply not worth the hassle to debate the point at all. If they say “yes”, get on with it straight away. You do not need to know their name, their interests, or their favourite footy team. Tell them what to do, if anything, and take your shots.

Get the shots you want quickly. You have about 30 seconds before you start to wear out your welcome. Get the shot and thank them and move on. Most people become uncomfortable after a while being the focus of a stranger with a camera. Move on quickly, before they think too much.

Other people will be watching you in the bar, and will be judging. The more people that say “yes” the more likely the next person will also say “yes”. If you are intrusive and talky, other people will simply say “no” to save themselves. The same rule that applies to guys at a bar applies to you – the more times you get knocked back, the more likely it is that the next girl will say no as well. Nobody likes unwanted goods…

Gear Makes a Difference

Bar photography is best done on a retro film camera, not a big ass plastic DSLR. The kind of person who is a great subject also generally fancies themselves as connoisseurs of all things hipster. Film cameras are hipster icons.

Grab an older, metal bodied camera like and FM3A or Hasselblad 500CM (or Seagull TLR if you a starving artist type) and plonk an inoffensive 35mm or 50mm lens that doesn’t poke out too far.

For some reason, people like to be photographed on film. It feels more like a student style activity. A big DSLR is perceived as being intrusive, and full of suspiscious intentions.

Engage or Not? 

Occasionally someone will ask “what are they for?” – just motion towards the table full of camera geeks you are with and say “just an amateur photographer”. Don’t elaborate too much.

So why am I so against engaging with subjects?

They could be a pain in the ass. If you talk to them, they might be under the mistaken impression they are your new best friend and stalk you around for the rest of the day.
The more information you give, the more questions it raises. The more you talk to the subject, the more time it gives them to think up reasons not to let you take their portrait.

You want to take more than one portrait of one person. Hanging around wastes your time. The most interesting subjects are usually a bit “edgy”. Don’t give them a chance to “turn” and get grumpy with you.

Spending as little time with them as possible removes the “fishbowl” feeling people hate. If you don’t get your shot, don’t linger longer unless the subject is really into it. People don’t like to feel like animals in a zoo for your viewing pleasure. The subjects are not there for your entertainment – if you make them feel like they are in the fishbowl, they will react very negatively… trust me.

kid at bar

And to wrap it up…

If you follow the rules, the worst thing that will happen is someone says “no”. Two out of three people will say “yes”.

So, instead of sitting on the train on the way home thinking “I wish I had’ve taken a photo of that girl at the bar”, you will have a great bar portrait that will win accolades and acclaim from your Silver Mine buddies.

Harden up, go and approach people. Say goodbye to that feeling of lost opportunities.


  1. Approach people who want to be noticed.
  2. Be quick, take your shot, and move on.
  3. People who smoke and have tattoos generally have a good “look”.
  4. Use a hipster friendly film camera

This is an updated repost from an article written for the Melbourne Silver Mine…

Part Two of this Article can be accessed here.


  1. The Art of Bar Photography – Part Two | Melbourne Street Photography - July 25, 2014

    […] Part One of this Article can be accessed here. […]


  2. Film Never Die – Melbourne’s Polaroid Heart | Inconspicuosity - March 7, 2015

    […] : Hing has shared some great tips. You can read more about asking strangers for portraits here.  Don’t regret not asking someone for a portrait – what’s the worst thing that can […]


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