The Rewards of Photographing People When You Travel

The Rewards of Photographing People When You Travel


One of the most rewarding aspects of photography is that you can use the camera to connect with complete strangers, especially when you travel.

Unless you are heading to the wilderness, the scenery alone is only a part of any trip.  The people and culture you encounter is the other part.  A travel album feels much more complete when you include images of both scenery and people.  Or even better, images that combine the scenery and the locals.


Maybe it’s a portrait of a seller at a local market, or an interesting person that you pass while walking down the street, or even your tour guide.

Not everybody will be happy to allow you to photograph them.  In the market in Managua shown in the above and below photos, every other person I asked said no to a portrait, but they still said no kindly.  Even though I didn’t speak the language, a little nod of the camera and a smile would let the person know that I wanted to photograph them.
That feeling you get when they give you permission to take their portrait, is worth almost as much as the photo itself. It is a powerful connection that will provide some of your favorite moments while traveling, and perhaps you’ll make a new friend.

Managua Market, The Rewards of Photographing People When You Travel
Whenever I travel, I try to capture three different types of images.  I try to mix together photographs of the scenery, (whether it be nature or architecture) portraits of people, and candid photographs of people and daily life.  I don’t always succeed at all of these, but I try.

So here are a few tips to help you capture better portraits when you travel.

Be respectful and careful of the local culture and laws

In certain countries, candid photography or even portraits of people are either not allowed or are looked down upon, while in other places, people are more likely to react with excitement.  Different countries and cultures have different views on this type of photography, so make sure to do your research or ask someone with experience.
Always use judgement when photographing people.  It’s not too hard to tell someone that does not like having their picture taken.

Managua Market, The Rewards of Photographing People When You Travel

Get close and focus on the subject’s eyes

By far, the most important rule when taking a portrait of a person’s face is that their eyes are sharp.  Focus directly on their face, or their eyes if you are close up.  It is not good if their ear is sharper than their eye.
And get close.  The portrait doesn’t need to be of their whole body.  Try some portraits with just the face and upper torso.

Soho Skater, The Rewards of Photography People When You Travel

Managua Market, The Rewards of Photographing People When You Travel

Pick a background and wait there

This works for both portraits and candid shots.  You’re going to come across interesting people spontaneously in your travels, but when you have some time, find an interesting background and wait for an interesting person.  Either capture the candid shot or ask them for a portrait, or both.


Take your time

If someone gives you permission to take their portrait, you owe it to them to create the best portrait that you can. Taking a quick shot, saying thank you, and scurrying away nervously is a waste of time for both of you.

Don’t take too long, but make sure your settings are correct, the background, and angle of the subject to the main light source is ideal (and if it’s not, tell them where they should move), and that you are composing correctly.  The first compositional aspects that I try to figure out are whether I want to create a vertical or horizontal portrait and how close I want to get.


Expression and posture

When you first meet someone and instantly have to take their picture, getting them to give a strong, natural expression is just not always possible. Even if you are nervous and have no clue what you’re doing, try to act like you know what you’re doing.  The more confident you seem, the better they’ll feel.

Soho Portrait, The Rewards of Photographing People When You Travel

First tell them where they should stand.  Some people will be naturals, but many will look for some direction from you and will be uncomfortable until they get it.  Telling them where to stand, and to do so in a natural posture that feels comfortable to them is a way to make them more relaxed.  Otherwise, a lot of people will just stand stiffly, while waiting for some direction.

Throw out a positive word or two.  A simple, “That looks great” will mean a world of difference in making them comfortable, because they will think they are doing something right.  Even ask them to make up a pose for you!  A portrait is a collaboration.

A good trick to use when you don’t like their expression or they seem uncomfortable is to have them move over a step or two and reposition.  It’s something simple that can break them out of an uncomfortable posture or expression and have them start all over again.

And if they smile, tell them not to!  Natural smiles are good, but a forced smile can kill a portrait.

Start with one person

The biggest problem I encounter is that people who love the idea of capturing people when they travel still don’t follow through on it.  They seem to carry the feeling that they might be doing something wrong, or they might anger someone, or even more likely they simply don’t feel comfortable with approaching someone.

jugglerMany don’t seem to ever get over the initial hump of capturing that first portrait on a trip.  That’s unfortunate, because once you get past that, you’ll be hooked.

You probably know this already, but many people enjoy having their photo taken.  A significant percentage of people will be flattered when you ask.  A camera is a great connector between people.  Almost everyone knows what it is.

So start with one person.  The next time you are out there, just tell yourself that you will capture one portrait of a stranger over the course of the day.  All it takes to start is one.

Read some other articles on travel and people photography here:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

  • raghavendra

    Depicting the people and their culture is a treasure to be told

  • Chris

    I agree with your last comment about “all it takes to start is one.” I was pretty shy at first as well, but once I started rolling with this kind of thing it became easier, and I definitely looked forward to my next street shooting opportunity!

  • Tod Davis

    I think that it is a lot harder in westernised countries. westerners are lot more cynical about motives etc.

  • James Donahue

    I found the German people on the street to be really uptight, the people in Hong Kong to be really fun, but the hometown (Memphis) folks are always suspicious

  • I agree with Tod; It depends on personal audacity and attitude to a great extent but, more importantly, on the country where you are. Some cultures are simply more friendly towards being photographed than others.
    In Thailand, where I live, people is very open and receptive and most of the times a smile is what you will get when you point a camera at them. You can see plenty of examples in my blog!

  • Kathleen Mekailek

    Glad I live in Texas- most folks love their pictures being taken and love to sit and talk for a while, so you really get to know them!

  • Jb

    Any idea if Chicago area people are not skeptical? I’m planning to have a photo walk and I wanted to shoot people as well.

  • Very true Gonzalo – some places are much tougher than others.

  • It depends Tod – I rarely have much trouble in America. If you approach people in the right way there’s a pretty high success rate. Some of the people you think are going to say no are the quickest to say yes, sometimes.

  • Yeah the first few times change everything.

  • I think you should be fine if you approach them nicely and in a flattering way. People always say no, but all you need is a few yeses.

  • Koombassi

    I’ve read a bit about taking candid photographs in France and look forward to trying your “common sense” approaches. Thanks James for the words of wisdom.

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