Taking travel photos of local people can perfectly capture your trip, illustrate a fascinating culture, show the emotion of an event or simply convey beauty of a place. But how do you photograph people when you travel? Capture the moment whilst being culturally sensitive? During my travels I have spent time taking pictures of people across many continents and cultures and have learnt a few things which help me to take photos of people when I travel.
On the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges in central China I got a taste of what it was like to be photographed. My partner was barged out the way, a camera was flung into his hands, and two grinning young Chinese guys stood uncomfortably close to me. They gesticulated at my partner to take a photo. I caught myself feeling indignant, before laughing at the irony of the situation. As a blond woman travelling in China this wouldn’t be the only time I was required for photos and I wonder how many Chinese family photo albums I’ve ended up in.
Some people may be unwilling to have their photo taken and it is not surprising as it can be intrusive, but it always surprises me how often people actually want me to take their picture. This can present a different problem. Personally, I hate the ordered line of serious faces people can tend to arrange themselves in if they are having their photo taken. I prefer more natural shots of people going about their daily lives. Professional photographers will pay a local person to model for them, and if you want to take up a persons time then this is reasonable to do, but as an amateur to take a couple of shots it is not necessary.
These are my tips on how to photograph people when you travel:
This is number 1 if you want to take a photo of someone. It is respectful. Most people will understand if you simply show them your camera and smile. In some places people really don’t like their picture being taken, like in Morocco for example. If this is the case, put your camera away and enjoy the privilege of just sharing time with people.
Be extremely careful of taking photos of people in uniform, especially police and military. Taking a photo in these situations could end up in you getting into serious trouble. I would have loved to take a photo of the military parade I watched in Turkmenistan, which included dozens of the famed Akhal-Teke horses, but photography was strictly forbidden (I did ask). I definitely didn’t fancy a stay in a Turkmen jail.
So if you ask to take a photo, how do you get those natural shots if, as soon as you ask people, they adopt an ordered, stale pose?
Build rapport with people
Building rapport is the main thing travellers fail to do when taking photos of people. Before I ask to take someone’s photo I’ll aim to build rapport with people. Spending time talking to people, playing games with kids, ask if I can help with the chores, negotiate a price in a market or drinking tea together. Don’t make your first interaction with people about trying to get a shot. Sometimes it may not feel right to ask for a photo, you instinctively know when it would spoil an experience, be happy to enjoy the moment instead.
If the situation is right and you ask to take photos, allow people to pose and take some photos of them . It is possible to get some wonderful portraits of people in this way, especially with a good quality 50mm lens. Once the portraits are out the way, however, I continue to spend time with people, asking them about their lives and what they are doing. As everyone relaxes and we get to understand each other a bit more it becomes possible to take more natural shots.
Another simple technique is not to bring the camera to your eye but instead take photos from your hip or with the camera resting in your lap using automatic focus settings. You can straighten and crop the photos later.
Also when taking photos of people sometimes bigger is not always better. A smaller camera is less intimidating for people. Using a camera such as the Canon Powershot G16 may give you some great pictures and be less of a barrier.
Essentially, most of the best photos I’ve taken of people have been when I’ve invested time with them and we have got to know each other.
Go to the right places
My favourite places to get photos are in markets or where people are in their places of work, like when they are working the fields or in workshops. In markets there is always colour and interest whilst in work places people are too busy to stand around posing for too long and soon get on with what they’re doing, enabling you to get some great photos.
Although great for photography busy, bustling places such as markets can be places where expensive cameras could make you a target for petty crime. I like to carry my camera in a bag which doesn’t look like a camera bag to guard against this.
Make sure you’re ready
When someone has indicated that they are happy for you to take a photograph you only have a small window to take a couple of shots before people want to carry on with whatever they were doing. So before you ask someone make sure your camera is ready to go; ISO, aperture, shutter speed, f-stops, focus is all correct, as well as being turned ON, the lens cap removed and with enough battery. I have also already thought about what the background is and how I’d like to compose the shot.
When I take pictures of people I set the camera to continuous shooting so that when I press the shutter button it takes continuous shots until I stop pressing it this means that don’t miss a shot if someone blinks.
Give something back
Sharing your photos with people is easy now with digital cameras. We can show people the pictures we’ve taken of them on the digital screen. Many local people I meet now use cameras themselves on their phones but they don’t often have the ability to print photos. If I’ve spent time in a community I like to print the photographs I’ve taken and put them in the post to people (usually to one person who can distribute them).
Returning to the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan this summer I printed the photos I’d taken of people in 2011. It was a fantastic opportunity to reconnect with people and caused much excitement.
An advantage being a female photographer?
Travelling and taking photographs I think that it may be an advantage being a women. It is acceptable for me to spend time with local women but I am also treated as an honorary man, giving me the ability to ‘access all areas’. I am probably seen as less threatening than a man with big a SLR camera.
Do you have any tips on how to photograph people when you travel? What are your experiences of taking photographs of people as a male or female photographer, any advantages or disadvantages?
Camera equipment mentioned in this post:
When taking photos with a digital SLR is use a camera similar to Canon EOS 700D DSLR (they no longer make the camera I have). This is a mid-range camera which has provided to be incredibly robust – I dropped it 500m down and mountain face in Tajikistan and it survived!
A 50mm lens is great for taking portraits of people.
For a compact camera the Canon Powershot G16 is a great option.