In 2015 I traveled to Thailand, Morocco and Indonesia. I was looking for a camera to travel with and decided to buy the Fuji x100s as my companion. The camera has many benefits for traveling, a few of them I will point out in this article. But the main purpose of this article is not to glorify this great camera for traveling and street photography, but to give you some advice on how to take good travel photography pictures of people. Not in terms of photography techniques but rather from the human side, to discover a country and their people via photography – and how that leads to get some great travel portrait photography.
Why I decided to write an article about travel photography
After each journey I create a photo book. They include the best pictures of each destination. Shooting nature with a 23mm lens is great. Using it for street photography to capture people is even better. After showing the pictures to family and friends and also posting them on my Website and Facebook, many people asked me to give them some advice on how to approach locals in a foreign country and how to best take a pictures of them. After talking to my friends I figured out, that many of them simply didn’t know how to approach locals in a good way. There seems to be a greater barrier of finding the right way to ask someone to take a picture of them than I thought. So I decided to write down different possibilities of shooting strangers that have worked well for me in the past.
Connect with people via photography
Whether it’s on the streets at my current residence Zürich, at a bar, club or (especially) while traveling, photography is my everyday way to connect with people. Photography is an incredible icebreaker that has led to friendships with people all over the world. I recommend everyone who is interested in photography to take their time to discover a culture via photography. You will quickly see, how easy it will be for you to connect with people only via a camera. Why? The camera will be your door opener to places you would have never thought about discovering. The camera will guide you. Just follow it. This leads me to turn my first advice:
Get out of your comfort zone
Never ever will you discover something new, if you don’t try things you haven’t tried before.
The best advice I can give you is to use your curiosity. Your interest in the culture, the life, the job, the hobbies or whatever else you find interesting about people. The easiest way to find good places for authentic people and places is to leave your Hotel and avoid all the 5-star rated places on Tripadvisor, in your travel guide and all the other sources most people use for traveling. That is also important for places that are non-mainstream. Don’t get me wrong, of course you can visit all the popular places, many of them are a must-see. But you probably won’t find the possibility to find the people and motives your are looking for. In touristic places, locals are just too used to tourists and a lot of authenticity gets lost along the way. For example the food is not spicy any more or you have to pay money for everything. Quickly you are not the tourist any more but the money machine.
Good places are all the places that are not on your or the others’ list. That may for example be on the way to a bigger attraction. Or the island next to the popular one. Look out for places to discover the country as it is and the people outside the tourist economy. Once you get there it’s easier than you think to connect with locals. Really, the worst thing you can do is to run around like a chicken with a camera, taking a picture of everything that moves. That will probably ruin your experience and leads to my second travel photography tip:
Focus on the moment, be polite and ask
Asking is the best way to take a picture of a person. I take 80% of my pictures asking people first. All it takes is some courage to approach the stranger. Depending on your personality you might have difficulties jumping over your own shadow. Even I sometimes have difficulties approaching strangers, although people describe me as a really open and very communicative person. It all depends on the situation. But why is that?
It’s easy to talk to people that have a similar cultural background as you. That means on the other hand, the bigger the cultural and personal differences are, the harder it is to open yourself up. But believe me, the bigger the differences, the bigger your reward will be. Not only in terms of an impressive picture in the end but also in terms of what you will take home from that encounter. Memories you might never forget your entire life. The good news is: from my experience, most people will agree to you taking a picture of them. Your chances grow if you consider the following advice:
Don’t think about your dinner or the jungle tour tomorrow just yet. Take your time and let yourself sink into the situation. Look around and recognize what’s around you. Once you find a person that attracts your interest, be prepared to focus on the moment, giving your entire time and attention to the person. Just try to remember a situation where somebody tried to approach you, even when wanting something from you. If the person is friendly, polite and asks, you will probably listen to him to find out what he wants. If you don’t like what they have to say, just say no. Vice versa, the worst thing that can happen to you is that someone you talk to will say no. But still you have tried. The same is true for asking someone out. If you should have problems with doing that, maybe photography is just the right practice for you!
Asking people to take their photograph also has another great benefit. Once you got the approval and have developed some kind of relationship to the person you can “work” with the people. That gives you the possibility to come closer with your camera or even put them in the right setting, a better background or lighting. Many people are even honoured you put some work into getting their picture right. They are proud. By doing that you get a really good chance to connect with them, listen and learn.
On the contrary, especially in Asia, many people will set up their fake smile and start posing after you ask them to take a picture. That really ruins almost every photograph. So there is some more advice for travel photography that I can give to you.
Look them over the shoulder
Once people got used to you being around, taking pictures, try to work more with perspective like looking them over the shoulder. Indirect pictures have another benefit. They are a good alternative if people don’t want you to shoot their face.
Sometimes asking is too slow. The moment is gone seconds later. So better be prepared to shoot. A good advice is to prepare the camera settings when moving into a new environment. All you have to do then is to turn on the camera, maybe make some small adjustments, and take the picture. Of course that is not always possible. But if you catch the right moment the pictures almost always turn out good because of their originality. After you took their picture, show them. Most people will be happy to see themselves. The perfect introduction for you to connect and take more pictures.
Take a few pictures of a person, let them do their fake smiles and poses and show them the pictures. Let them get comfortable with you by doing that. Then spend some more time, ask some questions (again show interest in their lives), then take more pictures capturing their pride telling you their story or doing their work. Now, they already got used to you taking pictures. So just take some more.
Get asked to take a picture
People will start seeing that you are serious about photography and will ask you to take a picture of them. This also gives you good possibilities to work with the person and let them take the right pose. Just make sure they don’t look too superficial. As so often, the first pictures are for the warm up. The later pictures turn out much more natural.
It doesn’t get more personal than this. Being invited is always a great honor. You have time, you can get personal and observe what happens, waiting for the right moment. But try to read the situation correctly. Avoid going with total strangers to places that are off the public, especially when traveling alone. Your senses will tell you what is safe and when it geets creepy. In some countries you will also get asked to pay for the dinner, because you are the person with the highest income. Also you cannot just leave because this would be really impolite. Think first if you got the time to spend.
I have made the experience that children are almost always ready to model for some pictures. Again, it’s quite difficult to get the right expression from them. Often times they will goof around and there is not much use for the pictures later. A calm environment is alway good, right on the street kids get distracted quickly and move around too much. Give it a shot. But please make sure to ask the parents if they are around. Many times I ask for the e-mail address to send them the pictures later. You can make some parents really happy by doing that! Oh yeah, and girls are definitely easier to shoot than boys!
No means no. Always respect personal opinions!
My last travel photography advice is that you should always respect the will of the people you approach. Also keep in mind that some cultures are very special about certain things. Faux passes happen faster than you think. So please be aware of the general cultural background of the place you visit. If someone says no, just take a selfie.