Read practical and helpful tips on how to photograph people while traveling.
There is something peculiar about photographing people while exploring foreign lands.
We take selfies with strangers, random snapshots of locals while we’re shopping, drivers, guides we hire, and the hosts we stay with… We try to become invisible so that we might catch an unusual expression, an exotic face, or discover a new cultural habit.
The human figure is a powerful subject in a photograph. It can absorb the viewer’s eyes in the frame, as it is usually the point of interest that has more visual mass than anything else.
At the same time, it’s also the most difficult one. Taking pictures of people is a visual conversation that requires lot of practice, patience, and humility. In the end, we’re always a guest in a foreign country, and because of this we need to bring respect and kindness into our photography.
I’ve been taking photographs of people during my travels for the last ten years. Before that, my pictures were all about landscapes, cityscapes, and on rare occasions, some tiny figures in the background. For a long time, I worked with female and male models. That’s how my confidence in working with people started to grow.
With time, I’ve learned how to cope with my shyness and approach people, and I’ve developed a keen interest in every single person as a human being, with stories, passions, dreams, and feelings.
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How to photograph people while traveling
If you’re looking for one single tip on how to take photos of people on the road – don’t try to capture a picture of an exotic foreigner that you know nothing about, rather take time to concentrate on an image of a human being.
Below you can find some helpful practical tips on how to take pictures of people while traveling that will make your images more genuine and appealing.
Visit more off-the-beaten-path areas
Authentic places create authentic photographs. Locals who are used to tourists might either ignore you completely, or ask you for some money or buy something in exchange for a photo.
In some touristy places with famous landmarks, where locals are wearing traditional costumes or performing religious rituals, you can usually find more cameras than people (considering that you always have your camera and smartphone with you, and maybe a second camera as well). So the magical atmosphere of uniqueness is usually lost.
Instead of ticking off all the famous landmarks of a destination, take also a detour to less known places.
How to do that
Explore non-touristy places like side alleys, small villages far from the main cities or secluded natural areas.
People are keener in welcoming foreigners, and you might even become a celebrity in a tiny, remote village where all the locals know each other.
Attend local festivals, events, and rituals that aren’t created to entertain tourists. Ask a local friend to join you so he or she can explain the meaning of an event, and help you avoid any cultural faux pax.
Join a street food tour, where a local brings you to some less-known alleys, squares, markets, and restaurants.
If you still want to see the main attractions of a city, go see them in the early morning or late afternoon, when the tourists haven’t arrived or are already gone.
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Slow down. Look around. Breathe. Be there. Approach people with calmness and serenity. Look at people in the eyes and introduce yourself. If a person is sitting, sit down as well, or get down to their level.
Don’t look at them from above. Freeze the moment. The more time you spend with the people you’d like to photograph, the more they’ll open up to you.
You’ll also be able to notice more details: how their eyes will be brighter when they laugh, the creases on their forehead when they get surprised by your questions; you’ll also recognize how they move their heads, and whether they use or hide their hands during conversations.
Do this respectfully, and don’t stare at a person scanning every movement they do.
How to do that
When you arrive at your location, try to spend as much time as possible in the same area.
Every morning walk on the same neighborhood street or go often to the same market so the locals will start to recognize you and you’ll develop genuine trust. Great things are achieved with time.
Be a story hunter
Capturing a moment when a baker takes the fresh loaves from the oven might make a great photo, but wouldn’t it be more valuable to the viewer (and to you) to know his name, where the craft and passion of baking comes from and how much bread he makes and for whom?
While landscape pictures often speak for themselves, portrait photography is different. It covets a story. We all need stories to be able to relate, understand, and remember each other.
How to do that
Ask simple questions, use gestures. If you are not sure where to start from, pick one interesting detail of a person’s tools he or she works with, the clothes they wear, if there is a family around, ask about their names.
Tip: Do your research before traveling to foreign countries so that you can avoid taboo topics. You don’t want to talk about the politics in Myanmar, Philippines or Russia. And you should avoid questions about religion in India, or history in Cambodia or Vietnam with random locals you meet.
Frontal view is king
Taking pictures of people from behind is common. Obviously, it’s much easier to press the shutter without asking for permission or starting chitchat.
But how much does a photograph of someone’s back tell us about him or her? Unless the figure’s back view is a part of engaging visual storytelling, try to avoid anonymous snapshots of people’s backs.
How to do that
If you’re not confident with portraits, try to capture a human figure from the side, walking, working, in action, or just contemplating quietly.
Find a place where you can observe the street life, and wait for the opportunity to take a photo without hiding behind someone’s back.
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Carry less equipment
Nowadays the majority of photographers go around with a big, heavy and expensive DSLR. The camera makers brainwash you into thinking you need a massive camera to look like a professional.
You might look like one, but for sure you are just intimidating people when you travel. Usually people are not comfortable having a massive zoom pointed at their face. Put yourself in their shoes, and imagine if you would be? You might annoy them and make them feel embarrassed.
Use a smaller, more discrete camera. I switched to a mirrorless Fuji X-T1 in 2014, and I can tell you that many locals don’t even notice me. Having a bag with a DSLR and lot of lenses, tripods and other equipment slows you down, and at the end of the day, you are exhausted from the weight carried on your shoulders.
How to do that
Minimize your photography gear, opt for a mirrorless camera, or smaller point and shoot cameras. Read my tips on the best camera for travel photography in 2017.
Look at your background
The background is as important as the subject. You should focus on the people, but also on what is happening behind them. A picture with trees or street lamps coming out from a person’s head is not the image you want to capture. And sometimes the color of the wall behind simply doesn’t match.
How to do that
Focus your attention on what is directly behind the subject, and if necessary, move a bit to the left or right, or ask the person to move if you’ve developed more comfortable relationship.
Use a shallow depth of field if the background is not helping. The frame is like a canvas and the photographer like a painter who must be aware of every element in the picture.
If nothing from above is possible to do, move yourself, and find the best view.
Care about the person
The person should always come first. When you approach locals, ask their names, listen to their stories. What is most important to you? The person or the photograph?
If you visit Luang Prabang in Laos, and you wake up early in the morning to take pictures of monks collecting their daily alms, you might find yourself in a crowded street full of photographers firing their flash at the monks’ faces.
This shows lack of respect and it happens everywhere in the all the touristy spots around the world. By doing this, what you really want is a souvenir, not a photograph of a person.
This is related to the point above. If you take candid street photography, sometimes it’s difficult to ask permission. Furthermore, photos are better when people are not aware of being photographed.
But if you do portraits, you are closer to your subjects, so asking permission is the way to go. In some countries people don’t like being photographed (e.g. in Morocco), but usually locals around the world are more than happy to appear in photos, as long as they agree to have their picture taken.
Respect them if you want to be respected and avoid troubles.
There is lot of debate among photographers if you should give money to locals when photographing them. I think what is important is using your common sense. I don’t always pay someone, but sometimes I do, or I’ll support them by buying local products.
A lot of the time I’ve sent him or her their photo, printed or digital. People give you their time and their smile and for lot of them that is the only thing they have, so be grateful and make this moment of interaction something for them to also remember. Read more tips on why and how to help locals when traveling.
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These are the main tips on how to photograph people while traveling. I hope they can be helpful, and if you have any other suggestions to share please leave a comment below.
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