Do you pay for your photographs? Do you ask permission? Have you had any problems taking photographs of people on the street?
We field these sorts of questions often. Several readers also recently requested that we write a post about how we get our photos, especially of people in street and market settings. In response, we share ten tips for taking engaging photos of the humanity that colors our planet.
Rather than focus on camera settings and technical tips already enumerated on 1000s of photography websites, we’ll characterize our approach to subject-seeking, shooting, and presentation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, you’ll find that it closely resembles our approach to travel.
1. Go where the people are.
Elaboration of the obvious perhaps, but so many travelers don’t do it. If you want people shots, you have to go where the locals go. Seek out the places where they work, where they walk, and where they hang out — and you’ll likely get your best shots. And don’t just wait outside the door of that funky cafeteria or pool hall. Go inside, make some friends and get into the action.
One of our first stops in any new location is the local fresh market. It’s the way we orient ourselves. With a few exceptions, markets are loaded with real people who are friendly, photo-worthy and informative. Parks, street food stall areas and bus stations also provide endless subjects.
The places you’re least likely to see large numbers of ordinary people going about their day? Museums, tourist sights and tourist ghettos.
2. Make a personal connection.
Show an interest in a person as a fellow human first, and a photographic subject second. For example, ask a market vendor what that exotic fruit or vegetable is called. Ask a mother about the age of the child she’s holding and whether she has other children. These simple questions will usually lead to other conversations. And more than likely, to the photo you are seeking.
Once you have developed a level of trust, ask to take the person’s photo. For parents with children, ask permission from the parent before photographing the children.
Of course, speaking the local language helps. But even if you don’t share a common verbal language, positive body language – smiles, respectful nods – goes a long way in greeting someone and establishing a connection. Once you’ve made the link, you’ll have an easier time requesting photos by motioning with your camera or performing other charades.
When our train in Toungoo, Burma was delayed by an hour, we used the opportunity to engage with vendors and fellow passengers. Most were unaccustomed to foreigners and virtually no one spoke English. But we started with the kids and turned the delay into one of our most enjoyable photo sessions yet. Everyone had a good time and the photos reflect this.
And shouldn’t the point of any exercise be that everyone enjoy the experience?
Note: If someone does not want his/her photo taken, respect those wishes. And don’t take the rejection personally. There are lots of interesting subjects out there.
Speaking of interesting subjects, we’ve never paid for a photo. If someone asks us for money to take his photo, we don’t take the photo; we move on. Other photographers feel differently and pay. It’s a personal choice.
3. Ignore the first shot.
Sometimes the most charismatic person in the market will turn serious – reminiscent of turn-of-the-century set shots of the royal family- when the camera is obviously turned on her. Go ahead, take the photo – serious expression and all – even though it’s not the one you want.
When the person realizes that the photo is taken (i.e., the ordeal is over) – she will relax and get back to business. That’s when you turn around and take the second or third photo. These are the images you want.
4. Don’t ask people to pose.
Don’t ask people to do what they normally wouldn’t do. Shoot them in their natural environment.
We once witnessed a professional photographer (two cameras around his neck, obscenely huge telephoto lenses) in a market in Burma coercing a vendor to pose with her scales. He poked at her like she was a doll, ignoring the fact that she was human. The look on her face said it all; she was disgusted with the process (and rightly so).
We peeked over the photographer’s shoulder as he was reviewing his shots in the LCD screen: as awful as the look on his subject’s face.
5. Talk and shoot. If you are two, employ tag-team photography.
Many people are understandably uncomfortable with having their photo taken. Distract them from the presence of the camera by talking with them and you are more likely get a natural shot. Chat, ask questions, tell a joke, use self-deprecating humor. Use your inner clown to elicit laughter or your inner psychologist an emotional response.
This works even better if you are two people: one photographs while the other carries on the conversation.
This technique came in handy with microfinance borrowers in India and Guatemala. In both cases, many of the women we photographed were unaccustomed to having their photographs taken. Some became visibly intimidated by the sight of our DSLR camera. But one of us asked questions while the other took photos. For the most part, our subjects forgot about the camera and relaxed. And we got the chance to hear their stories.
6. Take a step back. Stop and wait.
Once you’ve found where all the people are (#1), you might just be overwhelmed by it all. A sea of humanity – the activity, colors, sounds and smells – can do that. At this point, take a step back from the action and find a corner, bench or outdoor café to observe it all from a distance.
Temporarily retreating to the sidelines helps make you and your camera a little less conspicuous. It also affords a broader perspective. This is where you take your overview shots. You can also photograph people from afar, without having to ask for permission.
7. Know your white balance.
We know. We promised something other than technical tips. The tip is this: if you seek to understand any technical bit about your camera, understand its white balance settings. You may have the most amazing subject and composition in the world, but if the mood and color temperature are off – an unintended bluish tint, washed out or over-saturated colors – you still have a bad photo. Yes, post-processing can help a bit, but it’s best to get the color temperature right in the original image.
Even most hand-held cameras allow you to adjust white balance. Play around in advance with these settings so you know which to use in heavily shaded market stalls, under fluorescent lights, in fog, in bright daylight, etc. We tend to use cloudy and shade white balance settings most to yield warmer colors.
8. Get close.
Many of the best people shots are close-ups. Sure, you can always crop an image afterward, but try to get in close for the original shot.
If you’ve made a connection with someone (see #2), use that mutual trust to get closer. Or, make use of that telephoto lens…respectfully.
We’ve seen photographers armed with foot-long telephoto lenses almost poke their subjects in the eye with the lens. (True story of Cambodian children at Angkor Wat.) This is rude and disrespectful. There’s also a good chance your shots will reflect this.
9. Use your LCD screen to show the result.
People all over the world are curious about what they look like, especially in developing and transitional countries where many people do not have access to a camera…or possibly even a mirror.
Showing the image you have taken will usually evoke a response that in itself is worth photographing (if you have a second photographer, this can be another great shot). The whole process builds trust. The hub-bub and laughter can also help recruit other people nearby to have their photos taken.
And, it’s just plain fun. This is one of our favorite parts of taking photos of people. Children go nuts. And older people are often pleasantly surprised by the result. Belly laughs are common. And the smiles and reactions are priceless…even if we don’t always record them on film.
10. Edit, edit, edit.
We’re not talking about post-processing, but about developing a critical eye to select and display your best photographs. While you might think that all 300 photos from your recent trip are worthy of the Ansel Adams award, consider perhaps uploading and sharing a smaller batch.
Select a variety of images (e.g., people, landscapes, food) from a place that together tell a story. If you can, provide a few titles and descriptions so that viewers can understand the photographic context and learn something along the way.
If you have your own street or people photography tips, please share them in the comments section below.