This is part 2 of a 2-part series about travel photography. Click here to see the first post!
In the last post, I told you about that very first (terrifying) time I talked myself into approaching a stranger and asking if I could take his photograph. Today I want to share a few practical tips to help you get out there and take authentic travel photos.
There are a couple of ways to photograph people while you travel, and which approach you use depends on what you’re trying to create.
The first is street photography. We’ve all seen photographs that capture interesting street scenes from around the world. Whether shot on black and white film, a dSLR, or a smartphone, the most compelling photographs draw the viewer into a sliver of time that is captured in a single photo.
The perspective in street photography is that of an observer. The photographer watches the movement and colors and shapes, and looks for an interesting juxtaposition, interaction, or unusual perspective.
What does it feel like to be on a street in Antigua, Guatemala, versus Havana, Cuba? Is it bustling and chaotic, or peaceful and laid-back? What does it sound and smell like? What are the details that you notice?
This approach doesn’t usually involve building a connection with the people you’re photographing. It would be impossible to introduce yourself to everyone in most of these situations, right? But the thing that many of us are nervous about is that people will notice that we’re photographing them. It’s a balancing act to shoot intentionally, be respectful, and be discreet in street photography.It’s a balancing act to shoot intentionally & be discreet in #streetphotography.Click To Tweet
A few street photography tips:
First, a note: being discreet is not about being sneaky or doing the drive-by sniper method (something I mentioned in my post about travel portraits). People have different feelings about street photography, but my approach is the desire to capture the essence of a place and people in their natural environments. It has to be done with a posture of respect.
Here are a couple things to keep in mind with street photography as well as some tips for being discreet:
- Safety, of course.
Are you in an area where it’s safe to have your camera out? And do you have anyone with you that can watch your back? If you don’t have anyone else with you, be extra-vigilant about your surroundings.
- Do you already stand out as an outsider?
I could much more easily shoot street photography in many U.S. cities or towns than I could in a Latin American city. No matter how good my Spanish gets or how much like a local I try to dress, my skin will always give me away as an outsider. I’ll always stand out. This doesn’t necessarily stop me from shooting, but it’s an extra safety concern. If your physical appearance allows you to blend in, consider also how you’re dressed and your mannerisms.
- Use a long lens (or zoom in).
“Long” refers to the lens’ focal range. General purpose lenses come in 3 lengths–wide angle (21-35 mm), normal (35-70 mm), and telephoto (70 mm and up). The “longer” lenses act like binoculars to focus in close on your subject. You might have a zoom that covers all or some of those ranges, or you could have a fixed length (“prime”) lens. One of my favorites to use is the Canon 100 mm lens.
Again, this is a balancing act. If your lens is really large, you might draw more attention to yourself than something smaller and more compact. On the other hand, you’ll also be able to stand farther away, so this can help you be more discreet.
- Use a wide lens.
Capture the environment as a whole rather than focusing in on a particular scene by using a wide angle or normal lens.
- Look for someone involved in an activity or conversation.
They’ll be less likely to notice you if they’re chatting with a neighbor, waiting for a bus, or hard at work. Areas that are bustling with activity (like a city street) are better for this than rural areas. Usually if someone does notice me, I acknowledge them back and give a friendly smile–I sometimes offer to show them the photos if we’re close enough to each other. If they look irritated, I simply move on.
- Don’t invade someone’s privacy.
It would probably be weird in any country to use a telephoto lens to photograph someone hanging laundry in their backyard or sitting on their porch, so don’t be a creeper. Use common sense, and remember that even though everything feels exotic and foreign to you in another country, it’s someone else’s home. People always come before “getting the shot.”
- Do your homework on local culture and customs.
In some cultures or religions, it could be offensive to take someone’s photograph. This is why it’s super important to learn about culture and history before traveling.
While street photography can be fascinating, engaging with someone one-on-one, knowing their name, and involving them in the process of creating a photo is a rich and beautiful experience. Creating this kind of portrait was what I had in mind when I approached Miguel Angel.
You don’t have to be a professional to do this. It’s all about building relationships, and what I love about photography is that it allows me to meet people who make places unique, to be changed by them, and to carry their stories with me across the globe.Travel photography allows you to carry stories across the globe. #travelphotographyClick To Tweet
If you’ve ever seen the Humans of New York portraits, you know the power of a simple photograph and a glimpse into someone’s life. There’s an intimacy that brings understanding across cultures and race and religion and all of our differences. We connect because we’re human and we see a bit of ourselves in others. That’s the power of establishing a relationship and creating a portrait.
Here are a few tips to get started when you want to take a photo of a stranger:
- Engage with the moment and your environment.
Don’t feel like you have to rush it. Observe, listen, feel. Walk around until you find someone you’d like to photograph.
- Engage with the person you want to photograph.
Take time to chat with him or her. Ask him about his work, what he’s selling, and a little about himself. Is everything she’s selling her own work? How long has he been doing this? How long does it take her to create one piece? How is business? Is she from this town, or does she have to travel far to come here? It’s important that you have a genuine interest in the person and you’re not just interested in getting a great photo.
- Ask for permission.
When you’ve built a good rapport, tell him you’re a photographer, and ask if he’d mind if you take a few photos of him.Be okay with a no.
- Take a few photos, and respect their time.
Until now, your camera has been tucked away. The focus isn’t on the photograph–it’s on the relationship. Take a few frames with them looking into the camera. If the person is involved in an activity like painting or weaving, ask them to continue and take a few shots from different angles of their hands at work. If they’re at work, like a shop owner or cab driver, capture some of their environment, as well as a close up portrait.
I like to take 4-10 photos at most, especially if they’re at work. This may vary depending on your experience and each situation, but the point is that you’re not on a portrait session and it’s important to respect their time.
- Say “thank you,” and follow up on your promises.
Thank her, share the images on the LCD, and perhaps make a purchase, especially if you’ve taken a few minutes of her time when she would otherwise be trying to get customers. Depending on context, you can ask if she has an email address or any way you can send her a photo. Some photographers take along a small portable printer for situations like this so they can give a copy right on the spot. I’ve actually been able to track down a few people on subsequent trips to give them a photo I had printed while at home. Just make sure you don’t make promises you won’t keep–if you say you’ll email them the photo, make sure you really do.
We connect because we're human and we see a bit of ourselves in others. #travelphotographyClick To Tweet
A note on language
I realize these tips assume that you speak at least some of the language of the place you’re traveling to. I speak Spanish and generally travel to Spanish- or English-speaking countries, but I’ve also traveled to indigenous communities in Guatemala where many of the people didn’t speak Spanish.
Language is a tool for connection and relationship building, so I think it’s really important to learn some basics. At the very least, you can learn the word for name so you can ask a person’s name. Making an attempt to say someone’s name in another language shows them that you care enough to take that time, and it can help to build a rapport. And sometimes not being able to say it quite right can create a lot of laughter! (Quick tip: I always write down the person’s name right after I photograph them so I don’t forget it.)
You can also point to your camera in a way that asks if you can take a photo, and share it with them once you take it. Again, be okay with a no. In many indigenous communities I’ve traveled to, the women have shyly declined when I asked if I could take their photo.
The combination of street photography and travel portraits brings depth and visual interest to your photos. You’ll have individual photographs that can stand alone, but viewed together they’ll tell a richer story.
The most important thing is to just get out there and do it. It will probably be scary. You might get a no. Your photos might not be amazing.
Do it anyway. You’ll learn and grow with every experience.
I’d love to hear your experiences with street photography and travel portraits. Have you tried either of these approaches in travel photography before? What holds you back? Do you have any tips you can share? Let me know in the comments!