Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. I earn a small commission of product sales to keep this website going.
I recently announced on my Instagram and Facebook feeds that my photography resolution for 2017 was to include more people in my travel photography.
My agent (back when I had an agent in 2012) encouraged me to focus on people, not landscapes, while I was on my Caribbean sailing journey. What did she know, she was only a magazine photo editor.
But I had always been into landscapes and nature, and including people was always an afterthought. Yet some of my favorite photos include people in them.
Travel photography is about the people. But knowing how to take pictures of strangers can evade many travel photographers.
Why Should We Include People in Travel Photography?
Provide a Sense of Scale
When taking pictures of immense landscapes, a person in the scene will help give a sense of scale. They’ll help you to convey just how grand the scene is.
Take the two photos below, the first from Mather Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the second from The Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah.
Cover the people with your finger and look at it again. Totally different, right? You really can’t get an idea of the scale without the people. In these photos, the people were random strangers that I never even had to talk to because they were so far away. Go ahead, wipe your fingerprints off the screen and keep reading…
Tell A Story
These handmade boats and fishing nets make for some neat photographic subjects. Include the men who mend the nets and we see the faces behind them, the story of how they live, and the amount of work they put into this task that is their entire livelihood.
Traditional rug-making in Morocco. What are all the stories here?
Tips For Including People in Travel Photography
These are some things that I had to keep reminding myself as I stepped out of my comfort zone and started photographing more people.
Approaching people is an acquired skill
It’ll take some getting used to approaching people for photographs, especially in foreign countries. Many award-winning photographers have said that it took them years to get comfortable with it. Don’t feel discouraged if you can’t get with it right away.
Always be ready
Don’t ask for someone’s permission to take their photo and then spend the next five minutes getting your gear ready. They’re doing you a favor by indulging your request so try not to waste their time.
When I see a scene where I’d like to photograph someone, I study it to figure out my composition, which lens I’ll use, what angle to shoot from for best light, etc. I’ll set my aperture to something low, crank up the ISO, set my focal length, and then move in for the shot.
If you’re going to be in one location with one group of people for a while, leave the camera packed for the first day or so. Get to know the people and let them get to know you. This will help everyone become comfortable with each other, which can be extremely important when the camera comes out.
I did this during my second trip to Haiti and boy did it make a huge difference for everybody!
Asking for Permission
Always respect your subject.
If you don’t have the time to get to know them, at least approach them and make some small talk first. Introduce yourself with a smile on your face. Don’t be the callous tourist. Ask questions about what they’re doing. Show some curiosity. If they’re a vendor of some type, buy something cheap from them first or at least compliment their wares. Feel each other out.
When the time is right, politely ask if it’s okay for you to take their photo. You’d be surprised with the amount of people who feel flattered by the request!
The man working a lathe earlier was a little hesitant about having his photo taken at first. But I genuinely took interest in what he was making and asked him if he’d like a photo of himself working. He was more than agreeable to have multiple photos taken after breaking the ice. The little Instax printer is great for this.
After the Request
If someone agrees to have their photo taken, have them pose for the camera. Tell them to forget that you’re there. You want them to be natural. Often times I’ll just walk away, let them go about their business, and then take some candid shots. I may or may not tell them that I’ll be doing this.
Show them the photos you just took on your camera and offer to exchange contact information so that you can send a photo or two later. Having the printer I mentioned in the previous section is even better.
If they don’t agree to have their picture taken, don’t push it. And certainly, don’t go against their wishes and take one anyways! I took a photo of an interesting woman in Haiti who didn’t want to have her picture taken. I got caught and it turned into a huge scene. Thankfully my guide was able to diffuse the situation.
Oh, that reminds me, if you can get a guide that’s even better! Your travel photography will improve with local knowledge and increased trust.
Kids Love Having Their Photo Taken
Cameras are like toys to them. They love to goof off in front of the camera.
Especially if you have candy or a soccer ball or something. They’ll show off while you click away. Then they’ll all run over to you and crowd around the camera as you show them the photos. The process repeats until you can’t take it any more – they won’t be the ones to stop!
If parents are around, always ask for permission.
Kids in many tourist cities, like Cusco for example, love having their photos taken for money. I’ve stopped doing this once I realized that these “opportunities” are taking them out of school, where they should be. So I give them small prints now instead.
Assimilate Some More
Learn the culture first. Talk to some travel photographers who have been to the country you’re going to. In some countries it’s perfectly acceptable while it’s taboo in others; it’s important to know this ahead of time.
Also, learn at least a few words in their native language. Like Hello, How are you, May I make a picture of you?
I’m fairly decent with Spanish and taking photos of locals in Spanish-speaking countries is a breeze. They view me as someone who took the time to learn about their home before going there, and not just another indifferent tourist. It really pays off!
Practice Practice Practice!
This wasn’t intended to be a technical guide for taking great travel photos, but rather some help to just get you comfortable with taking pictures of strangers. Go forth and conquer! Believe me, it gets easier the more you do it.
Now somebody please remind me at the end of the year to evaluate this goal of mine!
Does anybody else have anything to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!
Tuesday 14th of February 2017
That is great advice, John. I really struggle with taking pictures of people - I never know how to aproach them. Thanks for posting, your photos are inspiring. www.fionatrowbridge.com
Tuesday 14th of February 2017
Thanks Fiona, I hope it works for you! I've considered this a great evolution in my photography and keep striving to do it more and more - I'm sure you'll feel the same!