“I’m heading to India next week and am looking forward to using my new DSLR. I’m particularly looking forward to photographing the people I come across but am a bit worried about whether I need to ask permission before photographing them in the street or other public places. Any suggestions?” – question submitted by DPS reader, Graham.
Thanks for the question Graham – you’re not the only person asking it. In fact I’ve written on this topic previously in my series on Travel Photography but I thought I’d go over my approach to asking permission to photograph people, especially in a foreign country.
Keep in mind that this is my own personal approach and that others do it much differently.
1. I always ask for permission if the person will be the main subject of my photo – I figure that I’m a guest in another country and that I want to behave like I’d expect someone to behave if they were in my home – with respect and friendliness.
2. If a person is a minor subject in a larger photo I don’t seek permission – it’s just not logistically possible to ask everyone on a street if you can photograph them!
3. Getting ‘permission’ can mean different things in different situations – often it’s simply a matter of holding up your camera and smiling with a raised eyebrow. Other times you might actually ask but gesturing will usually be sufficient enough to get a nod or a shake of the head. I find that it’s quite rare to get knocked back from a friendly approach.
4. If permission is not given or I’m sensing the other person is not comfortable with my actions I always stop and politely move on. I’ve found that in come cultures people say yes just to be polite but don’t really want you to take their shot. If I’m getting these vibes I stop immediately.
5. Before you travel do some research on what is and isn’t acceptable culturally – last time I traveled I was amazed to see how many people in the tour group I was with who had no clues about the culture they were visiting. As a result they often dressed and acted very inappropriately and annoyed a lot of locals by breaking social taboos. While this isn’t directly related to taking photos it does have an impact upon those you meet along the way that you might wish to photograph.
6. Smiling at the person and maintaining strong eye contact before, during and after taking your photo does wonders – for starters it helps with getting permission, then it helps them relax and lastly it shows your appreciation and that you value the person. Show a genuine interest in the other person, their life and what they’re doing and you’ll not only get a great shot but you’ll leave a positive feeling with the person – you might even learn a thing or two and make a new friend.
7. If I’m watching a performance or show where photography is allowed I don’t ask permission of individuals – I figure they’re doing it for some sort of payment and are used to it.
8. If photographing children I take extra care to get permission from a parent where there is one present. I think photographers need to be particularly careful in this area.
9. I don’t pay or tip people for photographs – I know many photographers do this but it’s something I’m not comfortable with. I do travel with little gifts from home (toys, pens, badges etc) which I like to give to people I meet along the way but don’t use these as ‘payments’ or bribes as such.
10. Don’t travel in a large group – One of the keys that I’ve found to getting good street photos of people is to travel in small groups or (when it’s safe to do so) alone. There’s something about a large group, all carrying cameras, coming up to a person that is very overwhelming. If I am traveling with a larger group I tend to hang back on the edges of the group and look for my own opportunities.
As I’ve written before – “Keep in mind what you’d feel like if a stranger walked up to you in your neighborhood and asked for a photograph and act in a way that you’d want to be treated in that kind of situation.”
Lastly – check out these tips specifically on photographing people when traveling.
Update: Get everything You need to Know about Travel Photography in our New Guide
Since publishing this post we’ve put together an eBook specifically on Travel photography called Transcending Travel: a Guide to Captivating Travel Photography.