One of the most satisfying aspects of traveling is meeting people from different cultures. Yet, if you asked professional photographers what subject matter is most difficult to capture, most would say people. I’m not speaking of staged professional portraits here. I’m referring to amateur travel photographers who want to capture the essence of the cultures they visit – that is, their people.
As a professional landscape, wildlife and travel photographer, I’m often asked to share some tips about how to photograph people in their natural settings. Here are ten tips that I think will help you get some WOW! results.
1. Get Permission.
Pros have it drilled into their heads that they need permission to use an image of a person for commercial purposes. But for the amateur, the situation is different, right? Or is it?
I believe it’s a matter of civility, pure and simple, to ask someone you don’t know for permission to photograph him or her. One of my pet peeves is the rude tourist who shoves a camera in the face of someone from a different culture. Of course, if the person is performing, that is a different story.
Permission does not have to be a signed release form. It can be a gesture – holding up your camera, pointing to it and to the subject and shrugging your shoulders as if to ask the question. Or, if you speak the language, just ask.
In some countries – I’m thinking of Muslim countries in particular – photographing women without permission can get you in serious trouble. At the very least, you owe it to your subject to give her a chance to cover her face.
Sometimes, I admit to having photographed a subject surreptitiously to catch a special moment or expression. In that case, I always go up to them afterwards, show them the images and ask if it is okay to keep it. Usually, their smiling faces are their answer. If they object, I delete the image right in front of them.
2. Get a Picture, Give a Print.
One thing I like to do is either send a print to the person once I get home or bring one with me on my next visit to the country. Fujifilm’s ingenious, portable and inexpensive Instax printers and cameras allow you to print wirelessly and instantly right on location.
3. Be patient.
Take a deep breath when you photograph people. Often, it is only after 10 minutes of shooting that the subject relaxes enough for that unguarded expression.
4. Get to Know Your Subject.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of travel photography for me is getting to know my subjects, even if only for a short time. The people connection is what makes the travel experience shine. Before you hoist your camera, ask about the craft they might be exhibiting. I always ask my subjects about their family; it’s the universal glue that binds us. I can guarantee that if you take the time to do this, you will be rewarded with warm and poignant images almost every time.
5. Shoot Early.
A great time to shoot is early in the morning, when merchants set up their market stalls, farmers heave their produce from cart to table and kids scurry to help their parents. The rising sun casts a warm glow, dust is kicked up highlighting dust motes and the grittiness of life is front-and-center for your photographic palette.
6. Tell a Story.
Always try to shoot a scene tightly. Doing so conveys emotion and creates dramatic impact. You do not need the entire person’s body in the image, and at times, not even the entire face. A child’s face from chin to forehead, chin streaked in chocolate, can be a prize-winner.
Decide before you shoot what the story is that you want to tell. Is it the expressions of toil on a merchant’s face, or the warm embrace of a nurturing mother? That will determine whether you shoot a tight face shot or a medium telephoto shot of the mother squatting curbside holding her daughter, or a wide angle of a bustling city square. You decide, and then fill the pages of your photo book with that story.
7. Anything But the Face.
There are times when you do not need to capture a person’s face – or the entire face – to elicit meaning from a travel image.
8. Laugh… a Lot.
Laughter truly is the best medicine, and I’ve used it even in uncomfortable travel situations. Just think of how funny you look to a Bedouin or a Sengali fisherman, and then lighten up and laugh at yourself. That frame of mind alone will loosen up your subjects and help them be more cooperative.
When shooting people, move around – talk to them as you do so – and shoot from many different angles. Digital is wonderful. Did the person blink? Just keep shooting. Was the background distracting? Move and keep shooting.
10. Shoot Wide Open.
If the person is the subject of your image, try opening up the aperture to its maximum (f2.0, 2.8, 3.5 or 4.0). That will blur the background and cause your subject to ‘pop.’ That works especially well if the person’s face or dress is able to carry the story. If the story you want to tell includes the context – a dance, the village huts, animals or a spectacular backdrop – focus on your main subject and close down the lens (f8, 11 or 16). That works best when your subject is close to you, creating a strong foreground element.
One last piece of advice… always remember that you are a good-will ambassador. I prefer to go out of my way to show people of different cultures that we Americans (or whatever your nationality) are not so bad after all.