A travel photographer’s guide to photographing people

Top travel photography tips and techniques for the best people shots. Learn how to approach locals, when to offer money and how to take portaits packed with character

Even the mere thought 
of taking pictures of people on your travels is enough to send chills down the spine of many a photographer. Approaching complete strangers and asking if they mind being photographed can take some bottle. Persevere, though – it’s the people that make a place after all, and some well-crafted local portraits will lift your portfolio.

Whether you feel it’s right to pay for pictures is a personal decision, but don’t take them if you have no intention of paying

1. Be culturally aware

Be aware of any social attitudes towards photography. In some places people can be fearful of long lenses; in others, taking photos of women is taboo. Most guidebooks include a section on photography that should flag up any major considerations. A faux pas could result in you being spat on or you could even find yourself being arrested.

2. How to approach people

Most people you meet while travelling will be happy to oblige when you get your camera out – they might even be flattered to have their picture taken if it’s a destination that hasn’t been over-exposed to photographers. Sometimes 
all it takes is a friendly gesture with the camera and a smile to get the response you hope for, and in countries where there’s a language barrier this is probably the only option.

It always pays to be polite with a potential portrait sitter. Don’t just walk up and point your lens at them. They need time to get used to your presence. Strike up a conversation first if you can and it will really pay dividends. Talk about their country, how beautiful it is, 
the weather, what their name 
is and so on. Don’t be afraid 
to tell them about yourself 
and where you come from. Chatting like this will really break the ice and gives your potential subject the chance 
to say no to having their picture taken. Some people don’t like being photographed for religious or cultural reasons, and you should respect this.

If your subject seems willing, politely ask if they’d mind being photographed – almost treat 
it as an afterthought – and try to explain what you would like them to do. Non-Western folk often pose in one of two ways: thumbs up with cheesy grin, or rigid and upright. So spend time with your subjects to help them relax for a more natural shot. Suggest ways for them to pose, show them some photos you’ve already taken and offer to take their address and send them a print.

Marcus Hawkins/Future

3. Make sure your camera is ready

Once you’re at the point of picture taking, 
you don’t want to be trawling through your camera menus and fumbling with settings. As with everything, preparation is key. Make sure you’ve analysed the situation before you start interacting with your subject and have your camera set up ready.

First, make sure you’ve got the right lens fitted. A short telephoto zoom with a focal length between 85-135mm is the ideal lens for head and shoulders portraits. Remember to set a
wide aperture – f/4, for example – to throw any distracting backgrounds out of focus. If your subject’s environment is interesting, reach for a wide-angle lens instead. If the focal length is wider than around 28mm then don’t place anyone near the edges of the frame, otherwise they’ll appear horribly distorted.

Shoot with a low(ish) 
ISO setting and set the lens aperture wide open, which will give you a fast, handholdable shutter speed. Switch the camera’s autofocus to single focus mode and lock the focus on the person’s eyes. Use your camera’s high-speed drive mode so that you can shoot several frames in quick succession to ensure you don’t miss the best expression.

Although you want to work fast, do take your time to get the details right. Many photographers mess up here. Having found a willing subject, they rattle off a few quick pictures without thinking about the background, the subject’s expression, what to include in the shot and what to exclude, the quality of the light and all the other things that would be instinctively considered when shooting portraits back home. So before firing off multiple shots, try to forget your nerves and think: 60 seconds spent setting up the shot will be rewarded by photographs that are infinitely better.

Ben Birchall/Future

4. To pay or not to pay?

In many countries the local people have realised that they can make money by posing for tourists – with the potential to become their main source of income in some cases. Often this is quite blatant and money’s discussed before 
any shots are taken, whereas elsewhere it’s a much more subtle rubbing together of fingers and thumb after you’ve taken them. Whether you feel it’s right to pay for pictures is a personal decision, but don’t take them if you have no intention of paying. Perhaps consider buying something from a trader as a token in return for taking a picture instead. Don’t be intimidated into paying a small fortune by 
a demanding subject, and politely walk away if the situation gets heated.

5. Photographing kids

Children are the same the world over: they’re inquisitive, lively and make excellent subjects. Get down to their eye level and fire off several shots to get them used to having their picture taken. If you can’t get them to pose long enough for a decent portrait, pull back and shoot them at play.

Whatever your subject’s age, treat 
the subject with dignity and respect. A shoeshine boy in rags may look like a colourful character to you, but he will still be a shoeshine boy working hard to earn a meagre living when you’re back home enjoying your holiday and vacation photos, so don’t exploit or patronise the people you shoot. If you 
do, you’ll make it more difficult for the next photographer.

Marcus Hawkins/Future

6. Candid portrait photography

If you find the idea of asking strangers to pose just too nerve-wracking, your only option is to shoot candidly. In crowded places, such as markets and squares or during festivals and busy events, this can produce superb results, so don’t look upon it as second best – people are usually more relaxed when they’re not aware of you and your camera. If you dither with camera settings or worry about being spotted you’ll miss the best expressions and attract attention.

A longer telezoom – around 200-300mm at the top end – will be ideal, enabling you to take frame-filling shots from a fair distance. Shooting at a maximum, wide-open aperture will provide a shallow depth of field that will throw any messy backgrounds out of focus.

Another option when you’re photographing in crowds is to get into the thick of things with a wide-angle lens and shoot at close range. Thanks to the wide field of view you can include people in your pictures without them realising because they think you’re pointing the camera elsewhere. Live View (available on many of the latest cameras) opens up the opportunities further, as you don’t even need to look like you’re taking a picture.

7. Consider the light

Use the soft, warm light of early morning and late afternoon when photographing people, and carry a small folding reflector so that you can bounce light onto your subject’s face. The magical appearance of a Lastolite will raise a few smiles and relax your subject, but a newspaper can work just as well if you’re pushed.

Beware of flare. too. If you’re photographing people in exposed sunny locations you can end up with hazy, low-contrast images if you let the sun shine across the front of the lens. Fit a lens hood or use your hand to shield the front element to reduce this and get the best from your camera lenses.