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Photographing People

May 24, 2011

A Mongolian horseman at Khovsgol Nuur

So I guess it’s no secret that I like taking pictures.

I joined Flickr right about the same time I started travelling – some of the first photos I ever posted were of my very first trip overseas. Happily, photography and travelling are hobbies that go hand in hand.

In addition to taking pictures, I also like looking at them. Before life got too busy when I was completing my Masters degree, I was pretty active on Flickr and I followed several photobloggers religiously. And one thing that always makes me jealous?

Great photographs of people.

It’s a skill I’ve never quite acquired. No matter how much travel I do, I just can’t get those shots.

You know the ones. The ones where the photographer has so obviously connected with the subject. Whether they’re close-ups or environmental portraits, I’ve just never had the courage to interact with people and photograph them at the same time.

I feel like I’m intruding.

So I take my photographs from far away, or I take them of people’s backs.

A monk and his friend on a day out in Lhasa, Tibet

Worshippers at the Lama temple in Beijing, China

Rarely do I get up the courage to ask for a shot, like the one below.

Making friends makes taking photos easy in Burma

Even in India, a photographer’s dream, I was timid.

A honeymooning couple in Fort Cochin, Southern India

And I look jealously at the photos of others and wonder just what it is they’re doing to connect with people that I’m not. I wonder where they get the courage to snap their pictures.

So, for my upcoming trip to Latin America, my challenge to myself is to shoot more people (you know what I mean!).

Maybe I’ve not chosen the best place for this – I hear there are particular communities in South America who hate having their picture taken.Β  And I’m of course worried about having my gear stolen.

But if I can start moving beyond landscapes and marketscapes and architectural details, I’ll be pretty happy.

Do you have any tips for taking photographs of people? Does it make you feel awkward? Have you had experiences photographing people in Latin America? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: I posted this on Reddit.com to get some feedback from photographers – there are some great comments (and a couple of silly ones!) over here.

Some of my favourite recent people photography:

Getting mobbed by kids in Hampi by FOGG Odyssey
A mother’s day photo slideshow by Uncornered Market
Photographing Hemlta’s Family by The Siracusas


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29 Comments

  • Reply Naomi May 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    I empathise with this post ENTIRELY. This is also something that I’m trying to get better at, but I feel so timid and awkward. Do you read Uncornered Market? They have some of the best portrait shots I’ve seen!
    I think the trick is, honestly, just opening up as a person, and opening up to other people. This is something I’m working hoping to work on during my next trip πŸ˜‰

    • Reply MeganRTW May 25, 2011 at 6:46 pm

      Hey Naomi – I love Uncornered Market’s photos – would love to be able to capture people the way they do. Any idea yet where your next trip is to??

      • Reply Naomi May 27, 2011 at 10:22 pm

        It’s currently up in the air. Summer vacation’s coming up and the front-runners are Istanbul (if i can find reasonable tickets, which is sadly unlikely), the Philippines, or Mongolia! Or anywhere that I can get a cheap flight to πŸ™‚

        • Reply MeganRTW May 28, 2011 at 9:08 am

          Ooh, sounds like some exciting options! Obviously I will fully encourage you to head to Mongolia πŸ˜€ If you do end up heading that way, let me know and I’ll give you all the details of the place I stayed.

  • Reply Marina K. Villatoro May 25, 2011 at 1:04 am

    I find photographing people the hardest, not so much in the picture itself, but in the asking permission.

    Sometimes I end up buying from them, just so they allow me to do it.

    • Reply MeganRTW May 25, 2011 at 6:49 pm

      Hi Marina – yep, I agree with you there. I can get the shot technically, but where I fail is connecting on a level that I feel comfortable enough to ask for the photo.

      I’ve never paid for a picture (nor have I ever been asked to). When I was in Nepal, for example, I just didn’t take any pictures of the Sadhus, the holy men who charge for shots. It’s something I would consider in the future, but to be honest I’d rather avoid doing it.

  • Reply Dave and Deb May 25, 2011 at 1:12 am

    Photographing people is certainly an art form. If you would like some good tips I did an article over at picturetheplanet.com that should help. Good luck

    • Reply MeganRTW May 25, 2011 at 6:50 pm

      Thanks Dave and Deb! Will check out the article. Hope your Mongol Rally plans are coming along well – can’t wait to read all about your adventures.

  • Reply Nomadic Chick May 25, 2011 at 3:42 am

    I am exactly the same! Timid about pulling out my camera. I’m getting better and smile, point to my camera and ask before snapping. If they shake their head “no”, I thank them anyway and move on.

    You’ve captured some nice shots here. πŸ™‚

    • Reply MeganRTW May 25, 2011 at 6:51 pm

      Thanks Jeannie!
      I think the smile is key – so much can be said with a smile. It’s the first thing I’m going try when I get back on the road again!

  • Reply Adam @ SitDownDisco May 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Yeah, sometimes I find it just impossible to ask people to take their photo because the circumstances aren’t right. But when the circumstances are right, you’ve just got to go for it.

    • Reply MeganRTW May 25, 2011 at 6:52 pm

      Hey Adam – you’re right, you have to act quickly when circumstances are in your favour! I, however, tend to falter and get nervous and miss the moment!

  • Reply Tijmen May 25, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Taking good photos of people is definitely an art by itself, not very good at it either. It can be so annoying that you see someone that you know you can take a great photo of, if only I wasn’t to shy to walk up to that person and just ask. It stupid in a way, the worst thing that can happen is that they say no.

    • Reply MeganRTW May 25, 2011 at 6:53 pm

      Hi Tijmen! I know exactly what you mean about missing the shot – sometimes I was even timid when I was travelling with friends and I’d point people shots out for them to take, so I didn’t have to embarrass myself! Stupid, huh?

  • Reply Emanuele May 25, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    Hi Megan! I know what you mean – sometimes Romana and I have the same problem and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the person to ask for tips, but I can tell you that a simple smile with a finger pointed at the camera can go a long way πŸ™‚ after all, what’s the worst that can happen? Other ideas you might want to try are to hang around the same place (if you can) when you see someone photogenic there, so you can make yourself familiar with the environment and the people you want to photograph, and perhaps to learn some words in the local language to break the ice. A travel photographer I’ve met recently said once that he used to travel with pictures of his family, which helped him build some sort of relationship and gave him something to talk about with his subjects (though this may not work in all cultures :)) – last idea (always from the same guy): if you come across a people-story that really interests you and you’re dying to shoot it, why not saying you’re a photography student and doing a project, or something like that?
    On the technical side it’s important to look for textures, good backgrounds, elements that help you tell a story about the subjects and interesting, directional light. But you already know that!
    Hopefully that’ll help.
    Good luck with your shooting in South America (and thank you for meeting us the other day :))

    • Reply MeganRTW May 26, 2011 at 5:38 pm

      Thanks for such great tips Emanuele! I’ve thought about saying I’m a photography student before – but I think I need to be an actual real student with an actual real assignment to get up the motivation to do it πŸ˜€

      I think ‘just smile’ is turning out to be the most frequent, and probably best, advice!

      It was great to meet you guys the other day, too πŸ™‚ Hope your Aussie roadtrip goes well.

  • Reply Giulia May 26, 2011 at 7:23 am

    I am too shy to ask people for permission, but at the same time I feel bad to snap pics without them noticing (I think it’s kinda rude), so I always end up with photos of backs (happened to me the other day!) or without good people pics. Pfff.
    I would love to overcome this, because I also love photos of people! They are so meaningful and interesting.
    By the way, the portrait of that woman is a great shot:)
    Good luck with your trip to South America – would be great to catch up there and overcome this little problem together. πŸ™‚

    • Reply MeganRTW May 26, 2011 at 5:40 pm

      I hate taking sneaky shots with my zoom lens too, Giulia! I have soo many back photos – as illustrated by the pictures above!

      I really love the portrait of the woman in Burma, too – I think it’s an example of what can happen when you have a genuine interaction with someone. She was so friendly and helped my friend and I try on longjis and she was more than happy to pose for some snaps after we’d been giggling together for twenty minutes.

      Such a shame we’ll miss each other in South America – will definitely pass on some tips though πŸ™‚

  • Reply Peter West Carey May 28, 2011 at 10:30 am

    What Adam said. Sometimes it’s not the right time. And sometimes you have to break out of your own fear of being rejected. Yes, it’s a bit like dating in a microcosm.

    I struggle with it as well and it simply takes repetition, like so many things in photography. Just do it over and over and over and over again and the fear wears away, especially when you connect with people and really capture them well.

    Possibly remembering you have far more to gain than you do to lose. You lose about 5 seconds of time if they say no. You gain a connection with another human if they say yes. And if they have time to chat about their home country/city/village? Bonus.

    Just remember to try to make some connection with people before asking them. Smiles work.

    • Reply MeganRTW May 29, 2011 at 9:38 am

      Hey Peter – just like dating, love it! I think you’re right – as with anything the more you do it the easier it becomes. And hopefully eventually if you do it often enough it becomes second nature and you wonder what you were worried about in the first place (though I don’t think dating quite follows that pattern!).

  • Reply Ryan May 31, 2011 at 6:03 am

    Megan, I can totally relate to you on this. Although I’ve shot quite a few people in my travels I just could not find the courage to do so on my recent trip to Egypt. I found it so difficult and intimidating this time around. I was fortunate enough to get a few portraits of my friends while I was there but it’s just not the same as capturing people on the streets. Anyways, I’d love for you to check out my new photo blog and my latest work from Egypt. Any feedback you have would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

    • Reply MeganRTW June 2, 2011 at 10:42 am

      Thanks for commenting, Ryan! Don’t sell yourself short – your photographs from Egypt are great! Particularly the ones of the little girl in Dahab.

  • Reply ann June 1, 2011 at 7:43 am

    Hi!
    i went to Argentina, Uruguay and Peru a few years ago with the specific purpose of taking photos of people. I agree, sometimes it can be intimidating to take pictures of strangers but here are some tips i have learned over the years and specifically some tips for south america.

    If you have the time spend a lot of time in one location. shoot tons and tons of photos. eventually the people there will get use to your presence and either engage you or ignore you. either way it’ll become easier to approach people.

    Documentary photography is mostly about access- being in a place and/or being accepted.

    talk to shop keepers and people on the street. don’t start out taking their photos, just chat with them. they’ll see your camera and after a while they’ll understand that you’re cool and allow you to take their photos.

    south america is super cheap, buy stuff from shop keepers and craftsmen. they’ll be happy to let you take their picture after you buy a scarf or a doll. then as you circle the neighborhood some more they’re happy to see you come back. you can also flat out pay people for their picture. for the U.S. equivalent of .33 you can get an amazing photo.

    a friendly smile will take you further than you ever imagined. i think that if you respect people and a place it shows in your vibe. exude confidence, joy, and respect. people will sense you’re demeanor and respond cheerfully. this sounds really dumb but i swear to god it works. walk around a crowded market with a smile on your face. watch people arrange vegetables and butcher meat. just watch for a while then take the picture. enjoy and respect the people and what they do for a living and you’ll find it easier to gain access.

    smile and wave at people when you make eye contact with them. wether or not they indicate that it’s ok for you to photograph them. don’t be sneaky, be respectful.

    don’t use telephoto just because your chicken, that’s cheating and it shows. use telephoto if the aesthetic suits your purposes.

    photographing children in south america is great, people aren’t as creeped out when you photograph their kids. one trick i learned when photographing kids is to sit on the ground. be at their level.
    * remember, if someone yells at you for taking your picture it’s an awesome thing. you just got dissed for making a photograph. if that’s the worst thing that happens to you in a day then you’re having a really good day.

    i’m sure i’ll think of more tips later. good luck and have an awesome trip!

    • Reply MeganRTW June 2, 2011 at 10:45 am

      These are great tips, Ann – thanks so much for sharing them. I think you make a really important point in your last tip – what’s the worst that can happen? Someone will say no or get angry that you’re taking pictures. And you’re right – if that’s the worst thing that happens to you in a day then you’re doing pretty well.

      • Reply ann June 3, 2011 at 12:26 am

        i understand your hesitation though. i’m taking a class at ICP, i’m suppose to photograph a neighborhood in new york and i’m having a really hard time getting started. it takes a lot of nerve to get into people’s faces. sometimes before i go out i watch the documentary “War Photographer”, it’s very inspiring.

  • Reply Mike Lenzen | Traveled Earth June 3, 2011 at 3:32 am

    Great comments here. I too have a really hard time photographing people. Even my own family. Somewhat recently at a family gathering I thought I could be sneaky and grab a bunch of casual shots. It didn’t work. There’s just something wrong with picture of people not looking at the camera.

    I’m convinced that you have to approach your subject, and ask permission. Like you, I’m going to have to work extra hard at overcoming my own fear.

    • Reply MeganRTW June 4, 2011 at 8:32 am

      Hey Mike – I know what you mean about even finding it difficult to photograph your own family! I have a few friends who are now immune to having my camera in their face but everyone else gets really annoyed. So I don’t really have anyone to practice on!

  • Reply Nancy October 25, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    Just takes practice, Megan! I never use telephoto as I feel it’s a bit sneaky, like spying on people. I just had to get used to asking for photos–and I don’t mean I don’t still get a little nervous each time! And it depends on the vibe you get back, but sometimes you can tell that when they give permission, they don’t mean you get one shot and that’s it. Usually I can sense if they mean “yes, snap away, and I might go back to what I was doing before when I caught your eye.” It’s certainly possible to still get active, non-posed photos even when the subjects are aware you’re shooting.

    Meanwhile, I can’t believe how long you traveled…that was a damn long trip and I’m jealous! Central/South America would normally be a great place to practice, because it’s easy to ask permission and have a simple conversation in Spanish vs. trying to learn the words for each new country. I did find the Middle East to be more difficult, particularly Egypt where people often wanted to be paid. Asia I find to be the easiest, but there’s a moment of self-consciousness for me when I’m faced with my subjects’ increasing fascination with the revelation that I’m not a local–haven’t been to South or Central Asia yet, where I’d stand out more. Africa I’ve found to be in the middle: not so easy, not so hard, high level of fascination with Asians which makes me uncomfortable…but it’s such a huge place it just depends on each country.

    In a big city, street photography is probably the way to go. I do find it’s harder to explain to people in New York why I want to take their photos (although I know photographers who are good at that), so usually when I’m at home I go for either being inconspicuous (but again, not with telephoto…I usually use a wide-angle) or getting implied permission (making eye contact, showing my camera). I’m sure you can figure out ways to practice in Sydney in preparation for your next big trip. Best of luck!

  • Reply Jen February 4, 2012 at 2:31 am

    Taking photo’s while travelling is nerve racking especially when taking people – something I am timid with but try harder. Here in Africa we also have a problem of the gov not liking us to carry a camera so it is even harder. The people are shy – except the kids – and dont really enjoy it – except for cash. So it can get expensive. I understand where you are coming from. I love street photography but also have many ‘back of heads” Wishing you the best.

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