How To Photograph People You Meet While Traveling


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Imagine this scenario: You’re walking down a side street in Bangkok in the late afternoon, and you pass by an old man sitting on his patio. He’s drinking a cup of tea and staring off into the distance, and he just exudes an aura of contentment. The light is perfect, and the viewfinder in your mind’s eye composes the perfect shot, but you hesitate.

Photo by Bernard Chan

You don’t want to disturb him, but you also don’t want to just start clicking away without his permission. Also, your Thai is mostly non-existent, and you probably couldn’t ask him for his picture even if you wanted to. So what do you do?

A woman feeds fish at the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai, presenting us with two options: A potentially memorable photo, but also a potentially awkward and uncomfortable conversation. I’m here today to share 10 things you can do to help you approach strangers in foreign countries and go home with the “people pictures” you want!

Here are 10 actions you can do to help you capture pictures of people you meet while traveling. There are 6 things you should do before you leave home, as well as 4 tips to help you when you’re on the scene. These techniques will help you come out from hiding behind your camera, get the shot you want, and possibly even start new friendships. These tips are geared more towards international travel, when you won’t necessarily be able to speak the local language, but you can also use them the next time you take a walk around your own neighborhood.

BEFORE YOU GO: BE PREPARED BUT FLEXIBLE

This is the most important rule to follow when taking pictures and traveling - and it’s not a bad rule of thumb for life, either! Prepared and flexible can seem like opposite ideas, but you want to strike a balance between the two. Here are six concrete actions you can do before you even leave home:

1. Do some research and preparation

Think about where great photos might be waiting to be “discovered.” Locate places like markets, religious sites, or public parks, but also be aware of potential tourist traps. Also consider using apps like Stuck on Earth for guidance and inspiration. Unless you specifically want posed portraits, find places where local people will act naturally. For each day on your trip, identify two or three new locations which sound promising, but don’t let your plans be so rigid that they prevent you from finding opportunities while on the move. Be prepared to explore.

Before I went to Istanbul, I'd heard great things about the city’s mosques and markets. They were amazing, but they were also filled with hundreds of other tourists with cameras. My favorite picture from one day came when I happened to walk past a café and saw this man feeding a kitten little pieces of sausage. The lesson: always keep your eyes open to find that special but unexpected shot.

2. Find a “local” or a “native”

To learn more about special customs or good locations to shoot, talk to people from the area you’re going to visit. A native’s insight can be very important and help more than any internet search. He or she can help you with things like gestures and body language, and can also indicate if there are places, people, or circumstances that are inappropriate for photography.

3. Learn - and write down!

Sentences like “May I take your picture?” are important, but a simple phrase to introduce yourself can be just as useful in some situations. Fill a note card with phrases and use it as a “cheat sheet.” No one expects you to speak the language perfectly, but a little effort can go a very long way in building up good will between strangers. Your local contact from item number 2 can also be especially helpful here. Before you go, double-check to be sure your phrases make sense and that you know how to say them correctly. When asking someone for their photo, the last thing you want is to make a vocabulary mistake that results in you proposing marriage to their cat.

Before going to China I asked a Taiwanese coworker to help me with some phrases, as well as some advice about when it's appropriate to take pictures. She told me that many people are happy to have their pictures taken, but that they might act hesitant or shy at first. Before I took this picture of a woman preparing tea, I just said, "May I?" in Chinese and pointed to my camera. She smiled and nodded a bit, but that was enough. Remember, you’re taking pictures, not delivering a speech, so keep it simple.

4. Bring some business cards

Even amateur photographers can prepare contact cards or slips of paper with an email address and links to online photo accounts on sites like Flickr or Picasa. You can also use those cards to note the date you took the photo (so your subject can find it later) or to have your subject write his or her contact info (so you can add it to your photo log, and possibly send them a copy of their picture).

5. (Almost) everyone likes candy, so bring some

Especially if you might be photographing children, put some little sweets or gum in your gear bag. Kids normally aren’t impressed by business cards, but a piece of new “foreign” candy can make their day. Be sure to ask their parents first, though! “Don’t take candy from strangers” is like the Esperanto of parental advice.

I took this child’s photo while visiting Nicaragua. Of course, I got his mother’s permission first. That was before my “bring candy” guideline, but at least I was able to show him and his mother the pictures, which put a smile on everyone’s face.

6. Always carry an extra battery and memory card

You probably do this already, but just double-check before you leave for the day. If you take someone’s picture, there’s a natural tendency for them - especially kids - to be curious about how the pictures are turning out. The business cards and candy can help build up good will, but for instant gratification there’s nothing like simply showing the subject your camera’s display. That can also drain your battery, so be prepared.

WHEN YOU SEE A PHOTO OPPORTUNITY: BE DIRECT BUT POLITE

So, you’ve done your homework and you’re prepared. Now you’re in-country and you see someone you want to photograph. What exactly should you do?

Learn from your mistakes. This Argentinean man’s hat and gaucho pants caught my attention. This was in 2006, in my early years of photography, so I awkwardly asked him if I could take his picture. He seemed to think I was weird, and his wife laughed and made a comment about him being too ugly for the camera. Still, they said yes, and I got my picture. However, the shadows, the composition, and the distance from my subjects all illustrate what you should NOT do when taking pictures of people. I should have taken more time to set up my shot and improve it. You live, you learn.

Like being prepared but flexible, you need to find a balance between being direct but polite. This is particularly true if you don’t speak the local language well. Taking pictures of people in their everyday routine may be interesting for you, but for them, it’s routine. It’s not special for them, so the idea that an outsider wants to take their picture can make them suspicious of you or your intentions.

Here are four more tips to help put your subject at ease and ensure that your photo session goes well:

7. Use gestures

Use gestures, but make sure they’re appropriate gestures. Communication breaks down even in the best of situations. You might find yourself shyly whispering near-gibberish like, “You foto?” or, “I may can, yes?” while gesturing your camera towards your subject like you’re trying to sell them a box of wet matches. Don’t worry; simply pointing at your camera and hopefully raising your eyebrows will probably get your point across. Then, once you start taking pictures and showing them to the subject, those pictures will truly be worth a thousand words.

8. Be friendly

Be friendly but not insistent. Remember, you’re on their turf so they’re the ones who will call the shots. If you can, introduce yourself and explain that you’d like to take their picture, with their permission. If they say no, thank them anyway and move on.

This couple was watching a soccer match in a Munich beer garden. When I asked if I could take their picture, they looked confused at first, but then I explained that they were the only couple I’d seen wearing shirts from both teams (Argentina and Germany). They laughed as if they’d not noticed that, and then were happy to pose for a picture.
A side note: when people are drinking enormous beers and watching sports, they’re often VERY happy and open to having their picture taken (when their team is winning). However, it’s just as likely that they’re very angry because their team is losing, and taking their picture can lead to situations much more uncomfortable than asking permission to take pictures. Shoot with caution.

9. Give something back

Sure, your contact cards are lovely, but if a woman selling fruit lets you take pictures of her for a half hour, you should strongly consider buying a nice, refreshing orange - or a whole bag of them! They’re helping you out, so do what you can to help them.

This Costa Rican man was selling cups of shaved ice. After I bought one from him, I mentioned that I’d not seen a cart like his, and asked if I could take a few pictures of him working. “Of course!” he responded. Much of the time, it’s as simple as that.

10. Permission

If you’re in a large open area or a place with a lot of people, you may not need anyone’s permission to take photos, but still be respectful. Such areas lead to great pictures if you can capture people doing things naturally, without preparation or pretense. However, just because people are in a public park, doesn’t mean they want their picture taken. You’re not a spy, so it’s OK if it’s obvious that you’re taking pictures (but not so obvious as to get your camera stolen). If anyone looks uncomfortable or seems to object to what you’re doing, stop right away. And if anyone asks to see your pictures, show them: it could even lead to your next photo opportunity!

If you're in an obviously public area, consider using the "And now, I wait..." technique. Find an interesting backdrop or setting like a wall, a tunnel, or a display. Then wait for people to walk by or do something interesting in front of the scene you’ve set up. In these situations, the people are no longer the focus of your photo, but they do help add interest to a photo that might look boring otherwise.

If you follow these tips while traveling, you’ll find that taking pictures of people can go from an intimidating task to a genuinely enjoyable experience. You’ll be able to take home more great shots, and possibly even some new friendships.

These are my “secrets” - what are yours? Have you tried any of these techniques, or do you have any of your own that you’d like to share?

About the author: Ryan Sitzman is an English and German teacher, an amateur photographer and writer, and an avid traveler. He also knows how to drive a bus and can give medicine to cows. He lives in Costa Rica. You can find out more at his personal website.

This post was written by a guest author. Please see his/her author bio at the end of the article.
  • http://twitter.com/fabcastle Fabricio Castillo

    Lovely article. As an Argentinian I love the two example you mentioned from this coutry. Great info about this simple but not so considered topic.

    • Sitzman

      Hey Fabricio,

      Thanks for reading and for your comment! I really enjoyed the two trips I’ve taken to your country–it’s one of my favorite places, and I hope I’ll be able to go there again some day.

      Have a good one!
      Ryan

  • Paul

    Great tips! Often, having a camera can help break down certain barriers, but if someone is unprepared (which everyone likes to say that they’re not photogenic) then those barriers can quickly go back up. Like you said, it’s often as simple as pointing to your camera and asking with your eyes or gestures. Then at least they know that you’re friendly enough to engage with them and not a spy, trying to steal the recipe for their rice krispie treats. Looking forward to your next article!

    • Sitzman

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and reply to the article–I’m glad you liked it!

      It’s definitely true what you say about people believing they’re not photogenic, not interesting, not made-up or “ready,” etc. A lot of people maybe just don’t want to seem self-absorbed or…well, who knows?

      Actually, a few hours after I took the picture of the kid in Nicaragua, I asked to take a picture of my friend’s friends in their house. The mother refused at first because she wasn’t made up, but then she asked me to wait while she “got ready.” So about 15 minutes later she came out with different clothes and makeup and I got a nice shot of her and her daughter.

      I guess the point is that even events that initially seem like setbacks can sometimes work out well.

  • Basim Wani

    That kid looked super happy you brought him a piece of candy. Clever. And slightly disconcerting. Overall, great tips. I especially like the cat in Istanbul pic.

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  • http://www.visit2goa.com/ Amit Chaturvedi

    infact i used to photograph people according to their interest

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