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6 Tips for Photographing People When Travelling

Photographing people you don’t know can be a daunting experience. A lot of people are not comfortable with approaching people and asking their permission. But if you can conquer your fear, you could be rewarded with some truly wonderful photographs from your trip.

So here are some tips for photographing people when you travel, to help get you started:

Photographing People-Kav Dadfar-Venetian

 1. When possible always ask permission

This is often the biggest hurdle you may encounter, after all approaching total strangers isn’t an easy thing to do. Therefore, you might end up trying to take a quick photo without your subject noticing which could annoy them, not to mention you might not catch the best angle or light. Here are some tips on how you could ask for permission to photograph them:

  • Simply smiling and pointing to your camera normally does the trick – even if the person you want to photograph doesn’t speak your language
  • If you are purchasing something from them, it is one of the best times to photograph people, as they would usually be amicable towards you
  • If you are able to, talk to them first and ask them about what they do, about their town or city and even tell them about yourself. It’s incredible how much more receptive people are when you put the effort in
  • A guide or a translator can be really useful in asking people if you could take their photo and also advising if there are places that you shouldn’t
  • Any time you are going to be photographing children you should ask permission from the parents
  • In popular tourists destinations it is common for the person your are photographing to want money for taking a picture. The decision is yours if you want to pay for a photo, but under no circumstances should you try to sneak a photo. If you are willing to pay, negotiate the price before you take the picture and also state how many photos you are going to take.
  • Don’t be offended if they refuse. There are plenty of other opportunities and people who wouldn’t mind having their photograph taken
Photographing People-Kav Dadfar-UAE Man

I spent around 10 minutes talking to this local before asking if I could take his picture.

 2. Be ready

Whether you are the shy type or not, being ready before you approach someone for a photo can be a really good habit to get into. Think about the lens you are going to use. Are you likely to need to raise your ISO? Will you require a fill-in flash? And make sure your camera is on and the lens cap is off. This is especially important if you want to photograph people who are going to be busy. For example a market vendor isn’t going to have too long to wait for you to take the shot before seeing to customers.

Photographing People-Kav Dadfar-Vietnamese

An example of a portrait

3. Portraits or environmental portraits?

There is no right answer here and it really depends on your style and preference. A straight forward portrait would usually isolate your subject in the frame and capture the details of their face. Obviously you can fill the frame if you wish or you can stand further back and capture more of the person’s figure and clothes. Environmental portraits add context to the person by showing more of their surrounding and allowing the viewer to learn more about them. Naturally for environmental portraits you would need a wider lens (e.g. 24mm – 35mm) so that you can get close and still be able to capture the environment.

Photographing People-Kav Dadfar-Turkish Street Vendor

An example of an environmental portrait

4. Don’t be afraid to direct your model

Once you’ve got someone’s permission don’t be afraid to direct them as to where, and how, you want them to stand, or look. Most people find it uncomfortable posing, so you as the photographer need to direct them and make them feel at ease. Will the photo look more engaging if your subject was smoking? Would they look better with the cap or without it? Is the background too busy? If they are nervous make them laugh to make them more comfortable.

Photographing People-Kav Dadfar-Smoking Man

I asked this farmer to smoke his cigarette as it adds to the mood of the image

Photographing People-Kav Dadfar-Vietnamese Woman Laughing

This woman was very nervous so all of the photos looked very staged and not natural, until my guide said something to make her laugh.

5. Look out for overcast days

Photographing People-Kav Dadfar-London Busker

Overcast conditions are perfect for portraits

Often a travel photographer’s worst enemy, overcast days are actually the best time to take portraits. The natural and soft light will mean your subject would be evenly lit without harsh shadows on their face. So the next time you encounter an overcast day on your travels, look out for interesting people to photograph.

6. Practice

The great thing about photographing people is that you can practice it pretty easily. Wherever you live you can head out and find people to photograph. If you need to practice your technical elements (i.e. shutter speeds, lighting etc) get your friends or family to model for you until it becomes second nature.

The ideal focal range for portraits is 80mm – 100mm (which is why sometimes these lenses are called portrait lenses), but that’s not to say you can’t take portraits with other lenses  [Note: this is in relation to a full frame camera – on a cropped sensor 50mm – 75mm is roughly the same range] . And if you use a wide aperture (f/2 – f/5.6) you can blur the background so that the focus is on your subject. Remember for environmental portraits you will need a wide angle lens (24mm – 35mm). [Note: 16mm – 24mm on crop sensor cameras]

For further reading on photographing people try these articles:

Okay, let’s see your people photos!

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Kav Dadfar
Kav Dadfar

is a professional travel photographer, writer and photo tour leader based in the UK. His images are represented by stock agencies such as 4Corners Images and Robert Harding World Imagery and they have been used by clients such as Condé Nast, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and many others. Kav is also the co-founder of That Wild Idea, a company specializing in photography workshops and tours both in the UK and around the world. Find out more at That Wild Idea.

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