Every travel photographer wants to catch that perfect shot of ancient temples, architectural wonders and captivating landscapes when exploring a foreign land. But in our experience of over 8 years on the road it’s often the photos of the local people that prove to be the most powerful and inspiring images.
We believe that it’s because no matter how magnificent a country is, it’s always the hosts of a nation that leave the greatest lasting impression.
Capturing the beauty of unique cultures and the warmth and hospitality of people is a challenging, yet rewarding aspect of travel photography.
Taking photos of people can be an intimidating prospect, especially if you don’t have an outgoing or overly confident personality. But with a few tips and some practice you’ll be able to return home from your travels with images that will constantly remind you of those amazing interactions abroad.
#1 Ask For Permission
It may seem obvious but the first step to taking great photos of people is often to just ask for permission.
Something as simple as a kind smile, a gesture to your camera and the word “photo” can be all it takes for someone to let their guard down and pose for a shot. You’ll be surprised at just how welcoming many people are of having their photo taken.
Besides breaking the ice, it is also just common courtesy. Some people may really dislike having their photo taken, or it may be against their cultural beliefs. Asking for permission first helps prevent any awkward situations.
Sometimes the person may even ask you to post the photo to them. In developing nations this can be difficult, but taking an hour of your time in a capital city to print and post a photo is a wonderful gesture and way to say thanks.
#2 Spend Time With Them Before Taking Their Photo
Great photos can take time, so spend a few minutes talking to your subject before you point the camera in their face.
Sitting down and asking them about their family, work or life helps to break down barriers and form trust. Even if you don’t speak the same language hand signs can go a long way in communicating.
Once you’ve formed a friendship asking for a photo is a lot easier. And with that trust built up they may even show you a unique side to their personality that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen.
#3 Incorporate An Object Into The Shot
A pure portrait shot is a work of art, but it can lack elements that gives your image a certain spark. This is where incorporating secondary objects into the composition can set it apart from the rest in your portfolio.
It might be a farmer posing with their cattle or a craftsman showing off one of his creations, there is no limit to what can complement the photo. Simply bringing this into the shot will transform the image entirely.
This can also be another way to break down barriers. Someone might be hesitant or uncomfortable with having their portrait taken, but will happily do so if they feel that they are not the point of focus.
#4 Keep Your Camera Low
If you’re looking for an all-natural shot, having your camera in front of your face will instantly give away your intentions. And nothing puts someone off their task quite like seeing a huge lens pointed in their direction.
For this reason consider shooting from the hip or the chest, especially in markets and bazaars. Keeping your camera low allows you to be discreet and provides a unique angle for the shot.
Keeping your camera low also makes it easier to take photos while walking. Just move in a slow and determined manner and position the camera for the shot. One good tip for this style is to shoot wide, which helps reduce the chance of clipping your subject out of the frame.
#5 Bring A Telephoto Lens
If trying to get natural photos of people is a priority during your travels then having a telephoto lens is an essential tool to have.
Even though they tend to stick out like a sore thumb, telephoto lenses will allow you to stay far enough away from your subject so that they won’t notice you taking their portrait.
These don’t work well in tight environments like bazaars, but if you are wandering the streets being able to zoom in on someone across the road can create gorgeous, genuine scenes.
#6 Ask A Friend To Pose Next To The Frame
If you are travelling with a companion a very nifty trick is to ask them to stand just in front and to the side of the subject you wish to take a photo of.
To everyone around it appears as though you are taking a photo of your friend, which gives you time to properly compose your shot. Then simply focus on the subject matter and click the shutter.
You can always crop your friend out later in post-production, or place them out of the frame from the beginning.
#7 Be Patient
Powerful images are a result of refined skills, good foresight, patience and a little bit of luck.
Sometimes you happen to fall in to the perfect place at the perfect time, but more often then not you may have to wait for the shot to come together. If you are not the kind of person who likes to manipulate a scene then having patience is the best attribute to have.
If you see potential for a great photo but the image isn’t quite ready, simply sit and wait. Maybe you need the background to clear of traffic or someone to step in front of a door. Whatever it is spending a few minutes waiting could be all it takes to get that winning shot.
Alesha Bradford and Jarryd Salem are the award winning writers and photographers behind the adventure travel blog NOMADasaurus. Travelling the world together since 2008, adventure travel is their passion, and through their stories and images they promote exciting off-the-beaten-path destinations and fascinating cultures as they go. Follow their journey on Facebook and Instagram.