I’ve been taking photographs of people during my travels for the last seven years.
Before that, my pictures were all about landscapes, cityscapes, and on rare occasions, some tiny figures in the background. I was also interested in fashion for a long time and I worked with models. They were mostly female, but sometime also male and couples. That’s how my confidence in working with people started to grow.
With time, I have learned how to cope with my shyness, how to approach people and above all, I have developed a keen interest in each single person as a human being, with stories, passions, dreams and feelings.
Approaching people and taking pictures of them is not an easy task. It’s challenging and it requires you to go out of your comfort zone.
From my experience I noticed that everybody wants to take pictures of people. It’s the most common subject that attracts the majority of those that start to learn photography. The human figure is a powerful subject in a photograph. It can absorb the viewer’s eye in the frame as it is usually the point of interest that has more visual mass than everything else.
But unfortunately is also the most difficult one. Taking pictures of people is not an easy job. It’s highly complicated and full of challenges. You are approaching a subject, especially while travelling, that even if you think you can relate easily because is a person as you, he or she has a soul and should be respected.
That’s why you need to practice a lot and learn from your mistakes. If you are not willing to face and commit yourself to these challenges then it is better you choose other subjects for your photography.
While travelling I have seen many people with cameras trying to take pictures of locals, and in my opinion, most of the time, they should have stopped and changed their subject of focus.
Here I will share some mistakes (ones I’ve also made myself) that can make your people photography superficial and soulless. But if you commit yourself, and try to avoid them, I assure you that you will be more satisfied with your work and that the people (the ones you are photographing) will maybe become eventually new friends.
You move too fast
Slow down. Look around. Breathe. Be there. Mindfully.
Approach people with calm and serenity. Look at them in the eyes, introduce yourself, and sit down if you can. If they are sitting, go down to their level. Don’t look at them from above. Freeze the moment. The more time you spend with the people you would like to photograph, the more they will open to you. You will notice more details, how the eyes will be brighter if they laugh, the creases on their forehead when you tell them your name, you will also notice how they move their hands, their gestures that are so important in communication.
When you arrive at your location, try to spend as much time as possible in the same area. Every morning walk on the same neighbourhood street or go often to the same market so the locals will start to recognise you and you will develop genuine trust. Great things are achieved with time. Slowing down will be beneficial to your photographs.
You carry too much equipment
Nowadays the majority of photographers go around with a big, heavy and expensive DSLR. The camera makers brainwash you into thinking you need a massive camera to look like a professional. You might look like one but for sure you are intimidating people when you travel. Usually people are not comfortable having a massive zoom pointed at their face. You just annoy them and make them feel embarassed.
Use a smaller, more discrete camera. I switched recently to a mirrorless, a Fuji X-T1, and I can tell you that many locals don’t even notice me. Having a bag with a DSLR and lot of lenses, tripods and other equipment slows you down and at the end of the day, you are exhausted from the weight carried on your shoulders.
You don’t look at the background
The background is as important as the subject. You should focus on the people, but also on what there is behind them. A picture with trees or street lamps coming out from a person’s head is not nice to look at. And some time the colour of the wall behind is simply not matching.
Focus your attention on what there is behind the subject and if necessary, move a bit left or right, or ask the person to move. Use a shallow depth of field if the background is not helping. The frame is like a canvas and the photographer like a painter who must be aware of every element in the picture.
You don’t care about the person
If you visit Luag Prabang in Laos, and you wake up early in the morning to take pictures of monks collecting their daily alms, you might find yourself in a crowded street full of photographers firing their flash at monks’ faces. This shows lack of respect and it happens everywhere in the most touristy spots around the world.
This should not be the way you take pictures of people. By doing this, what you really want is a souvenir, not a photograph of a person.
The person should always come first. When you approach locals, ask their names, listen to their stories.
What is more important to you? The person or the photograph?
You don’t ask permission
This is related to the point above. If you do candid street photography, sometimes it’s difficult to ask permission. Furthermore, photos are better when people are not aware of being photographed. But if you do portraits, you are closer to your subjects, so asking permission is the way to go.
In some countries people don’t like being photographed, like in Morocco for example, but usually everywhere they are more than happy to appear in photos, as long as they agree to have their picture taken. Respect them if you want to be respected and avoid troubles.
You don’t give back
There is lot of debate among photographers if they should give money to locals when photographing them. I think what is important is to use your common sense. I don’t always pay someone, but sometimes I do. Or I support them by buying local products. A lot of the time I’ve sent them their photo, printed or digital.
People give you their time and their smile and for lot of them that is the only thing they have, so be grateful and make this moment of interaction something for them to also remember.
You visit always the most tourist-filled areas
In some touristy places with famous landmarks, or with locals wearing traditional costumes or performing religious rituals, you can usually find more cameras than people (considering that you always have with you your camera and your smartphone, and maybe a second camera body). So the magical atmosphere of uniqueness is usually lost.
If possible try to explore non-touristy places like small villages far from the main cities or secluded natural areas. People are more keen to welcome foreigners, and you might even become a celebrity in a tiny, remote village where all the locals know each other.
These are the main mistakes I try to avoid while travelling and photographing people. I hope they can be helpful also for you.
If you have any other suggestions to share please leave a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.