When you travel to far off lands or even just somewhere local, taking images that tell a story is key. When you photograph landscapes they sometimes look like they could have been taken anywhere, within reason. However, when you photograph local people doing local activities it tells a far more compelling story. I have been fortunate enough to have travelled to some fantastic places. However, I haven’t always been able to get images of people the way I wanted. Over the years I have learned the best way to get pictures of people when travelling and how to approach the situation of getting that image.
Photographing People: Don’t Be Rude
I’ve seen some strange things in my lifetime and experienced some pretty rude behaviour from tourists. If you are looking to take a photo of someone don’t just walk up to them and stick a camera straight into their face. I’m sure you wouldn’t like it and if it were me, I’d probably re-attach their lens to another part of their body. I experienced this in photographing people in Mumbai (Dharavi Mumbai visit: the Slumdog Millionaire paradox). I had to be mindful of privacy when visiting the living areas and put my camera away.
A Smile Goes A Long Way
If you don’t speak the language and don’t have a guide with you, remember the universal language. A smile, is always is a good start. If you smile at someone who doesn’t smile back, it is likely they won’t want to have their photograph taken. However, this is not always the case. Remember that you are probably as interesting to them as they are to you. You might be the only tourist in the village, making you the source of attention.
If you have a guide, explain your interest in capturing locals and their way of life. Explain that you are willing to pay a small fee if that helps. In some countries the locals think if you take a photograph of them you will steal a part of their soul. So don’t always assume you will be able to get the image. Remember, being courteous, friendly and respectful goes a long way.
Don’t Stand Out
Ok, this is not about you wearing a day-glow t-shirt, fanny-pack and flip-flops, this is all about the light. Normally when you go sightseeing
you end up in markets, villages, places of worship and other tourist attractions. These tend to be outdoor places where large amounts of people gather, if you see an interesting person who you wish to photograph, try to get them to stand out of the direct sunlight. This is because it is not flattering at all, shadows will fall hard onto the face and they may even be squinting their eyes to prevent the light blinding them. Simply ask if they can move into the shade, maybe under a canopy in the market or under a shelter in a village. The same
goes for indoors, sometimes it’s too dark to get a good image without setting your camera to a high ISO. This introduces a certain amount of grain into your photo and its also not appealing. Ask them to move towards a natural light source such as a window or door and you will get a far more flattering image. The key here is balance, getting the right light to fall onto your subjects makes a huge amount of difference to the end result.
People: It’s All In The Eyes
Composing your image helps tell the story better, getting as much of the story into the photo means you don’t have to write much to explain it. In fact, you should try to take in image that needs no words, that is the holy grail. If the person is in a market, also get the surrounding produce or goods in the image. Perhaps the person is wearing traditional dress, get as much of it into the shot as possible. If it’s simply an interesting face, then get rid of all distractions around it either by using a shallow depth of field or move them so the background is plain. However, whatever the subject, focus on the eyes.
When you focus your camera, whether it’s a point and shoot, DSLR or phone, it tells you where it’s focussing. Make sure that point is on the eyes of the subject. You can tell so much from the eyes, whether they are happy, sad, surprised, the eyes are a source of emotion. When you meet someone the first thing you look at is their eyes, when you talk to them you look them in the eye and its no different with an image. When you look at a photo of a person the first thing you do is look at their eyes. Be sure to make sure they are in focus and sharp.
Capture The Moment
So, just to contradict what I just said, quality is not always a priority. I don’t know how many times I’ve been caught out missing a moment because I didn’t expect it. They tend to happen out of the blue and only last a few seconds. By the time you get your cameras into place and focus and shoot, Boom! you missed it. This is one reason
I always leave my camera on, awakening from sleep mode is much quicker than a full power on. Sometimes you capture the moment but it isn’t sharp, or there is motion blur or some other imperfection. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad image, sometimes it adds to the composition but most of the time people just see the story and are less critical of how ‘I would have taken this better’. So, don’t throw away images that are not perfect, look through the quality and ask yourself, is the image compelling? Does it convey what I want? Yes, then it’s a keeper.
Safety and Security
When you are taking images you tend to be completely in the zone of creating. That takes a lot of attention. If you are travelling with someone, give them all the gear you don’t need to achieve your goal. If you are travelling alone then make sure you have all the gear stowed away that you won’t use. I carry all my gear in a backpack (here is an affiliate link to My Backpack), it has secure zips and I have a tripod strapped to the side. I walk around with just the camera I am using, others are locked away with lenses, memory cards, batteries, cleaning cloths etc into my backpack.
Keep a close eye on your equipment. It is most likely expensive and certainly valuable to any sticky fingered person whom fancies their chances. This applies to anywhere you travel. Also remember that your safety should be paramount, don’t go off down a dark alleyway because the smoke looks interesting. Either check first with a guide or simply don’t risk it, no photo is worth that much, look the other way and find an alternative option.
Sharing Is Caring
When you take a photo of someone, show them the image on your camera. Especially with children. They love to see themselves on the back of your camera. Some have never seen an image on a camera. This also helps break down the barrier of communication. Children will sometimes point to the photo of themselves and say their name. This gives a good opportunity to introduce yourself. If you take a photo of someone, ask if they have an email and send them a copy. Also, if you are doing this professionally and want to possibly sell the image, make sure you get them to sign a Model Release (Download this generic one here), otherwise your photo is worthless commercially. Finally, thank them for letting you capture an image of them. The next tourist is not far away and you are setting the scene for how they will be welcomed.