Look through any travel magazine, and you’ll quickly notice many (most?) of their photographs have people in them. People perusing travel photos like to see other folks enjoying themselves at the same destination. This is especially true if the residents are dressed in unique (to you) and colorful garb. So, it seems logical that you’ll want people in some of your own travel photographs.
Travel photos are about interesting places, events, and lifestyles around the world. Your people photographs need to fit into this mold. You want to show people in their environment. You’ll want to include more details than you might show in a simple portrait by choosing an aperture setting with enough depth of field that the supporting background details are discernible. Here are some things to consider:
When possible, use the native language. For many Americans, this can be difficult, but you should always try. The locals will appreciate it. You can usually get by with gestures and eye contact, but learning a few phrases is always better. “It’s like those people have a different word for everything!” As I mentioned in an earlier post, I carry a couple translation applications on my phone and tablet (and most of these apps are free). I pre-load the apps with the obvious questions and answers for photography, so I can communicate with the apps, if required.
Make a friend. While you’re out taking your travel photos, your demeanor is an important tool in getting good people photographs. You want to present a smiling face and relaxed attitude. Get out there and meet people.
You can start off easy with street performers. They are out there to be seen and are happy to be part of your photography. Take your time and get all the angles of their performance. If they have a tip jar, I always contribute. After all, you want to keep this performer out there for other photographers.
When we lived in Bavaria, we participated in volksmarches. A volksmarch is just an organized walk (10, 20, or even 42 kilometers), along a prescribed route through the town and surrounding countryside. They are common events throughout Germany and other European countries. They always had fest tents with good German food and beer at the start/finish point. We went to several every month.
It was a great way to meet people; practice our German; and see beautiful sites that most tourists never stumble across. I carried two cameras – one loaded with Kodachrome and one with Ilford black and white. I shot lots of people photos, including this one of Ernst. This photo ran in the newspaper and was my first published photo.
Buy stuff. A market place or outdoor cafe is a common subject in travel photos. You’ll see lots of interesting wares and colorful displays in the booths. Just keep in mind that the vendors aren’t there so you can get interesting photos – they are trying to sell things. Help them out and buy something. If you want to make a photo of a fruit vendor, buy a piece of fruit. Now, when you ask for the photo, you’re a customer, not just another annoying tourist with a camera. Sit down in an outdoor cafe and relax with a beer and appetizer. While you’re relaxing, take some photos. You’re supposed to be enjoying this, too. Don’t just photograph others enjoying this fine destination – enjoy it yourself.
Use a guide. If you’re in a foreign country and your language skills are poor, consider hiring a guide. A local guide can take you to beautiful local sites you’ve never heard of. He can help you talk to people you want to photograph. He can keep you away from potential dangers that you might stumble into on your own. This is not an expensive option. I have an upcoming trip and have set up a guide for my first day there since it’s in a country I’ve never visited. He will pick me up at the hotel, with a car, and take me out for five hours and lunch. I use the concierge service with American Express and haven’t been disappointed yet. Total cost is about $100. It is worth every penny.
Sometimes, you should walk away. When you’re in a foreign country and a subject you’re trying to photograph indicates that they do not want to be photographed, don’t take the photo. I just smile, wave, and walk away. That is a pretty simple rule, and it can keep you out of trouble.
Before you go out there with your camera, you should know the country’s laws and prevailing attitudes concerning photography. In some cultures, you never take photographs of the citizenry without their permission. To do otherwise is rude and may be against the law.
Most police don’t harass tourists because they want the business that tourists bring, but you don’t need to ruin your trip with trouble. There are other photos out there for you. You don’t want to photographs of angry people anyway, or, at the worst extreme, get into trouble with the authorities. This is NOT the time to challenge the local authorities with your big-bad-American-rights speech. Chances are they aren’t relevant there, and the police may feel compelled to educate you on this point (sometimes harshly). Just this month, photographer Kenneth Bae was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in a North Korean prison. While this is, definitely, an extreme example, my advice is avoid the trouble.
Enough of that. If you use common sense, you’ll be fine. I’ve lived overseas for more than six years and taken my cameras all around the world. I’ve never had any incidents with police. Most people are more than gracious with tourists and want you to enjoy their country. So, get out there and see the sights; meet the folks; eat the food; and have fun.