6 Tips for Photographing People When Travelling

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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!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Kav Dadfar is a professional travel and landscape photographer based in London. He spent his formative years working as an art director in the world of advertising but loved nothing more than photography and traveling. His images are represented by stock agencies such as 4Corners Images, Robert Harding World Imagery, Getty, Axiom Photographic, and Alamy and they have been used by clients such as CondΓ© Nast, National Geographic, Wanderlust travel magazine, Lonely Planet, American Express, and many others.

  • josh_bornstein

    I take a very different approach to the article’s author. I tend not to like image where the subject is visibly posing for the camera. It looks unnatural to my eyes, and is therefore less interesting. I’ll note that I almost never am able to see this types of posed portraits.

    I instead make a point of *not* letting the subject know in advance. I use a much longer lens, often plant myself across the street or across the plaza, and take photographs of the subject going about his/her normal life. I’ve found that I end up with a lot more “wasted” shots (who cares, film is relatively cheap, and the digital shots are essentially ‘free.’), but also tons more dramatic and–frankly–sellable shots.

    What works even better for me is when I’m traveling with my girlfriend. She will pretend to pose on front of my actual subject. I use a long lens and shoot “past” her. Never had a problem shooting this way.

    I know there are photographers out there who would never think of taking photograph of a human without first getting permission. And that’s absolutely fine . . . I have no desire to impose my workflow onto others, nor do I think their approach is “wrong.” Different strokes for different folks. πŸ™‚

  • Elrey

    Great tips. Can’t emphasize enough that Be Ready one. Watching a parade from a sidewalk in Puerto Vallarta, surrounded by hundreds of people and distracted by lots of movements, many of my shots were “busy” except for this woman on horseback. I thought she might look my way; and sure enough, she looked right at me and smiled.
    105mm, f/5, 1/250

  • Thanks for the advice. I was recently in Spain, doing an extended walk through the countryside, and this old farm woman on a donkey approached. I wanted to take her photo, but I wasn’t sure how to do that. There wasn’t much time for interaction. I guess if I had smiled and held up my camera, she probably would have been fine with it?

  • Kav Dadfar

    Never mind Bonnie. Yes from personal experience a smile and a point to the camera usually does the trick.

  • Kav Dadfar

    Perfectly timed and sharp. Lovely portrait Elrey.

  • Kav Dadfar

    Hi Josh

    Absolutely, everyone has their own preferences and style and ultimately the decision is down to the photographer.

    I would still encourage people to assess the situation and think about where they are before taking photos of people without asking. From personal experience, on an assignment to Istanbul my colleague got into a huge spot of bother with a local who he photographed from across the road.

  • ray nedd

    This sounds very unethical to me, especially for someone looking for “sellable shots.” I hope at some point you get the person’s permission to use their image.

  • Hawaii

    Lots of information and great samples too.

  • josh_bornstein

    I totally respect that viewpoint. I probably should have mentioned that I take the above approach as it relates to my fine art work–the lith prints I do in my wet darkroom. For images I market to magazines, I would never submit an image (with an identifiable person as a main subject) that did not have signed release forms.

    Ray, I am unsure how you could accomplish your goal while traveling abroad. I would struggle to accurately convey the concept of using a photography image to a person who spoke only German or Russian. I can’t imagine how I or you or anyone could do that in, say, Kenya, or Burma, or Swaziland, or Slovenia, etc…unless we traveled with a few dozen translators every day! πŸ™‚

    The above was hopefully not taken as snark. I’ve never had the opportunity to talk with a “National Geo” photographer or editor. What do they do? Is it enough to get a head-nod, or, do they need written permission to use the photo in a commercial sense. Does that written release need to be in that person’s native language? When you shoot a minor (I’m thinking of something like Steve McCurry’s famous ‘Afghan Girl’ image), don’t you need her parent’s okay?

    I guess I’m reacting to your choice of “unethical” as a description, which may merely be thin-skinned on my part. (But none of us want to think of ourselves as unethical, of course.) If you are walking along a river, and you see a great shot across the water; do you shoot it, then walk across the bridge to ask permission after-the-fact? What if they say ‘no?’ Do you delete that digital image? Do you take the entire roll of film out of the camera and expose it to daylight?

    If I ever want a posed shot, then I’d certainly ask for permission. But there are a lot of photographers who want a natural photo…ie, not posed at all. A photographer simply can’t do this by asking permission in advance. The subject will stop what she or he is doing and pose for you. So, if you want a photograph of someone acting naturally . . .

  • Elrey

    Thanks.

  • john

    you talk too much and you’re a “know it all”, which totally diminishes anything you say.

  • Kathleen Mekailek

    photopraghy has made me break out of my shell. i’m not afraid to approach people any more and have gotten good shots in our little town. can’t wait to go on vacation and get shots of locals- i think it will really liven up my shots!

  • Kav Dadfar

    That’s great Kathleen. I find that photographing people is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the culture of a country.

  • Penny Sadler

    Love #2. Good tips. I’ve done it both ways, I’ve asked people and I’ve snuck them. I write a travel blog and I never feel really good about using the ones where I’ve photographed someone unexpectedly. (so don’t often) So that’s my take on that.

  • Powerweave Studio

    Useful tips for photographing people while traveling. Taking permission is always good…

  • gina

    Great advice! Can’t wait to start taking pictures. πŸ™‚ <3 from Ph

  • Petrus

    Great tips, thank you. One that also worked for me was to engage the subject by asking directions, even if you know where you were going This is an easy way to start a chat and then afterwards ask for a photo.

  • Kav Dadfar

    Great tip Petrus.

  • Carl-Robert

    No need to be rude John, totally unnecessary

  • Billie Thomas Gray

    What about the legalities of a model release?

  • Kav Dadfar

    Hi Billie

    Obviously legally thing might be different from country to country but basically a top line summary – any image that doesn’t have a model release can’t be used commercially. What that means is that for example if you take a portrait of someone that picture can’t be used to advertise sunglasses or anything else. However, the image can be used editorially. So for example in a news report or if the article was a feature on that destination.

    Hope that helps.

    Regards
    Kav

  • Agnieszka Boeske

    Love the article and your personal support in the comments!

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