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How to photograph people when travelling

How to photograph people when travelling

Taking Pictures of People When You're Traveling

I've traveled to more than 36 different nations, ranging from India to Argentina and everything in between. When I travel, I capture in my photographs the soul of the communities I visit and the people that make their homes in those areas. 

Tibetan woman portrait

As a traveler, it's important always to be mindful of the cultural norms and customs of the places you visit and to respect the privacy and wishes of the local people. When taking photographs, it's crucial to ask for permission before taking someone's photo and to be aware of local beliefs and customs that may impact their willingness to be photographed. It's also important to be sensitive to the power dynamics at play and to consider whether the photograph may be taking advantage of or exploiting the subject in any way. Taking pictures of people is an art, and by following these guidelines, you can create authentic and respectful photographs that capture the essence of the destinations and cultures you are exploring while also being mindful of the rights and feelings of the people you encounter.

Tibetan Man In Mask

Small Unobtrusive Camera

Small, discreet cameras with a prime lens can benefit photographers who want to capture natural and candid moments without attracting too much attention. Mirrorless digital cameras, compact point-and-shoot cameras, and small film cameras are all excellent options. They are usually lightweight and portable, making them easy to carry around and use on the go. Additionally, they tend to be quieter and less noticeable than larger DSLR cameras with large zoom lenses, which can be especially helpful when taking candid shots or working in more sensitive environments. They also enable you to become more familiar with your subjects or provide you with the opportunity to do so. 

For years I shot with the Leica M9 with a 28mm lens, which produced terrific shots (my India street photography collection uses the Leica M9), but now I am in love with my Sony Ar7 V mirrorless with a ZEISS Batis 2/25 lens.

Two men in front of a coffee shot in Dublin Ireland

Inquire about the privilege (while smiling!)

A simple action like smiling can be a great way to quickly build rapport with people you photograph, even if you speak a different language. Smiles are recognized worldwide as a sign of kindness and friendship and can be a great tool to break the ice and make people feel more comfortable. It is also great to show people that you are approachable and eager to learn about their culture and stories. It can help make your photographic experiences more enjoyable and successful.

Do not be bashful about approaching people on the streets. When I first started photographing people, I got anxious every time I did it. I would leave immediately after taking a picture. It took me a very long time to work up the courage to approach someone and ask permission to snap their photo or to go near enough to do so.  

TIP: Make direct eye contact

When I decide to take a photo of an individual(s), I first make direct eye contact with the subject, then ask permission to take their photograph (either vocally or by pointing to the camera), then I smile. A simple expression of happiness can go a long way. Quite often, I receive permission with a simple nod or positive gesture.

Handsome boy taking part in a wine festival in Tuscany

Get familiar with and educate yourself on cultural differences.

Before departing, familiarize yourself with the culture and history of the country you visit. Then, after you arrive at your destination, engage in conversation with the tour guides and other people you come across. People frequently find more opportunities to take photographs when involved in what is happening around them. 

One of the most important aspects of travel or street photography is how you interact with locals. For instance, if you approach someone with a positive attitude and tell them that you think they look fantastic or interesting, they will likely allow you to take their picture. I can't count how many times people have asked, "why do you want to take my photo?" and a simple response (while smiling) that they look great or have great interesting features results in the person being receptive and engaging with you. Once engaged in conversation with them, their anxiety about having their photo taken diminishes. They are more likely to let you take control of the shot, allowing you to alter their location, posture, pose, background, and lighting to get a more desirable photograph. 

However, some locals do not want their pictures taken; you must respect that. This could be due to a solid cultural conviction or simply because the person does not feel like being photographed at the time.  

For example, in my travels, I have had great success photographing people in New York City, but other cultures are not so receptive. I found photographing people in China challenging, but when you are refused, you smile, walk away, and find another subject (view my China Photography Collection). Persistence is a part of successful street and people photography

Man smoking a cigar and sitting on a bench in rural Cuba

Offer something in return.

Because photographers frequently benefit more from the photographs they capture than the subjects of the shots, I always offer some compensation to the individuals who appear in her work. Offering something in return can be as simple as showing the photo on the back of the camera. In New York, I would give them my business card, and they can contact me and receive a download of the image. When I was shooting pictures of some children in India, I kept a bag of small toys and gave them to them. For example, this young girl is blowing the small plastic whistle I have her, which creates another great street portrait. Her mother was watching in approval, which then led to further photographs. It is all about engaging in a friendly, meaningful way.  (I do want to stress that I never photograph a young child without asking permission from the parent.)

Cute girl plays with the whistle I gave her in India

The following are a few more examples of my favorite street portrait photos I have taken over the past 25 years of travel. 

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