Tips to Photograph People while Travelling


A street dancer in Havana
A street dancer in Havana

This is quite a common genre. Anybody who travels and takes pictures will need to know how to take photos of people.
It’s the reason why we travel, although we may not know it. We look to connect, observe and absorb different cultures and that comes from people

Read on below to get tips to photograph people while travelling

Types of people photos

Photos of people are one of 2 types

  • Portraits

For the purposes of this article I’m going to describe portraits as posed photos of people.

In other words they know they are having their pictures taken and are posing for the camera.

  • Candid

Candid is taking photos of people, usually but not always without them knowing that they are the subject.
In other words, they are going about their normal lives.

Portraits

Holyman in Durbar Sq Katmandu, Nepal

We all love to get that photo that conveys emotion in bucket loads
Well it takes a little bit of sensitivity and planning.

  • Sensitivity

Before you do anything or approach anyone you must be across the local custom and culture.
For example, most of us think that, in general, people in most western societies don’t have any cultural aversion to having their picture taken.
Yet nowadays the ethnic mix is not only white homo sapiens.
People of all sorts of backgrounds and cultures live permanently in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
So we need to be just as sensitive in the west as we do when visiting places in the Middle East or Africa.

  • Planning

Planning is not only knowing what you want your subject to be doing.
But it’s also working out the setting or the area around the type of subject you are looking for.
You may be looking for people shopping or serving in a market or walking the street.
Whatever it is, have a plan and picture what you want to get out of it.

Once you have taken into account sensitivity and completed your plan that then you need to ask for permission.
If you intend taking a posed portrait then you will need to approach someone to get permission.
At least that is the polite way, as I’m sure you wouldn’t like someone thrusting a camera in your face.The two main complications in approaching potential subjects are:  

The two main complications in approaching potential subjects are:  

  1. Cultural sensitivity and 
  2. The fact that some people for whatever reason don’t want their picture take

The former is about doing your homework. For example some cultures or religions have a belief that a photograph can steal a soul.
Some Australian Aboriginal people have cultural reasons for not wanting their photo taken.
If you find this out beforehand then don’t ask!
There’s not much you can do about this. Don’t beg or try to bribe. Just move on

Paying money

There will be opportunities to take pictures of people who want to charge you. You’ll find this usually in developing countries and it’s not expensive.
I’ve had approaches from a bell ringer in Buddhist temple and a Bedouin with a turban in an Egyptian temple. They wanted me to take their photo at a price.

Relationship

The best way to get permission is to get to know them first.
By that I don’t mean take them to lunch or coffee but have a conversation with them so that they feel at ease.
If they are being active in some way, ask them what they are doing or ask some general questions.

Let’s say you want to ask a shopkeeper if it’s ok to take his portrait. Then you could start by asking about his shop and how long has he had it.
What else does he do? Ask if his family are involved and what they do.
As human beings we love to talk about ourselves and what we are doing.
Most will start to relax once someone takes an interest in them.
Once relaxed that’s a good time to ask for permission to take their photo.

A little tip is to continue the conversation even after taking photos.
If you are subtle about it, you can continue to take photos with the camera loose around your neck or on a tripod.
A remote release is handy for this because then you are remote from the camera shutter button.
Sure, some of the images you take won’t be very good. But I bet you can get some very good pictures because your subject is relaxed and talking instead of posing.

Taking portraits is challenging and to some can be uncomfortable.
But its worth getting out of your comfort zone and asking to take their photo.
Once you’ve done it a few times you’ll be surprised at how easy it becomes and how enjoyable it is.

Candid

A group of men sitting on a wall in astreet in Katmandu, Nepal

Of course, if portraits really aren’t your thing or you want to mix it up, then taking candid shots is the way the go.

Again, the main factors are sensitivity and planning

  • Sensitivity

Even though you are usually taking photos of people without them knowing. You do still have to have some degree of sensitivity.
I can remember taking a candid shot of a stall owner in a Marrakesh market. I didn’t think he saw me, but he did and asked me to delete it.
I could have said no, as in general you can take photos of pretty much anyone in a public place.
But, I didn’t mean to upset him and gladly deleted it.
I did ask him whether I could take a posed photo which he agreed to. He asked me to come back later and when I did, he was nowhere to be seen.
Can’t win them all.

So, the point is don’t make it obvious that you are ‘stealing’ a photo.
It’s not just that you might upset someone. It can work the other way where they actually pose which may not be what you were after. Or they could put their hand out for payment which I’ve discussed earlier

  • Planning

Planning for candid photos can be as in deep as knowing exactly what photos you want to take.

Or doing what a lot of street photographers do and park yourself in one spot, cafés are good for this.
Then wait patiently for opportunities to present themselves.

Of course walking the streets keeping your eye out for opportunities can also work.
I will say, that whilst you are on the move you can easily get distracted so you tend not to anticipate what’s likely to happen.

Techniques

Children, toddler and baby in Bhakatupur square, Bhakatupur, Nepal

There are various schools of thought on how to set up your camera for Portrait and Candid shots.
A lot also depends on what equipment you have.
For both 80-105mm in the old language is standard.
Some photographers like to use a wide angle, say 24mm.

Others like the look of the compression created by zooming in with a long telescopic lens.

If you want that blurry background with the subject nice and crisp, then you will need to go for a large aperture (small F-stop). The equivalent of f2.4 should do it. Of course, not all cameras give you that option. Most smartphone can’t at all without some devilish app trickery.

If on the other hand you are taking photos where the person is part of an overall scene, then an aperture of F8-11 will do the job.

Whatever settings you need, make sure they are set correctly. Especially before embarking on taking people portraits.
Don’t make your subject wait for you to set up the camera. They will soon run out of patience. And you will be putting yourself under unnecessary pressure.

Light

Of course, the above recommendations are for ‘normal’ light.
If the light is poor, then you will need to make sure your ISO is set quite high. If you have it set to auto then it might be already.
The alternative is having the aperture set as wide as you can, to let what little light there is in.

Summary of Tips to Photograph People while Travelling

There are two main ‘genres’ of people travel photos.

  • Portrait

Portraits are taking photos of people who are posing. I.e. They know they are having their photo taken

  • Candid

Candid is taking photos of people usually without them knowing that they are the subject.

To take people photos it’s important to:

  • Plan well
  • Be sensitive to local cultures and respect the wishes of the individual
  • Be ready to recognise and take advantage of any opportunities
  • Have your Camera on the correct setting.

What to do now

You’ve got down this far and I do appreciate that.

There must have been something that piqued your interest.
Is it that you see yourself taking some great travel photos that you can share or display?
Or is it you can see yourself reliving your travel experience by bringing home some emotive travel photos?
Maybe you aspire to getting your travel photos published.

If one or all of these is YOUR goal, I can help.
If you sign up in the box below, you’ll get my free eBook “9 ways to improve your Travel Photography”. At the same time, you will also subscribe to my Travel Photo Tips Newsletter.

So, let me repeat that.
If you want to take great travel photos

  • that you can share and display.
  • that help you relive your travel experience
  • give you a chance to have your travel photos published

Then sign up below and subscribe to my Travel Photo Tips Newsletter AND get my eBook “9 ways to improve your Travel Photography”

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A street dancer in Havana
A street dancer in Havana. Click the image for a larger view and for other options.
Categories: How to, Technical, travel photographyTags: , ,

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