Travel seems to bring out the shutterbug in most everyone. Digital camera owners take more pictures during vacations than at any other times except seasonal holidays and family events. And what do most folks shoot while visiting Paris, Boston, Mumbai or Manhattan? Usually, they take snapshots of the family or friends posing at a famous landmark.
Of course, many digital shooters also take time for some serious photography while traveling. What’s a bit surprising is that those images rarely include people except in the occasional wide-angle street scene.
In his book, Spirit of Place - The Art of the Traveling Photographer, Bob Krist provides an interesting perspective about that issue. “If your friends are all architects and landscapers, they’ll love your building and scenic photos. Otherwise, people want to see pictures of people,” he insists.
Especially when travelling in distant countries, or in areas with unique cultures, it's great to come home with photos of the local people. After all, the residents are the essence of any location so they're an important part of travel photography. Photo (c) Peter K. Burian
Whether travelling within your own province or further afield, plan to include human interest in some photos as the pros usually do. That can help to express the heart and soul of any destination, whether it’s a familiar city or a remote village in the rain forest. Take shots of the usual scenes but begin to add subjects such as street artists and colourful characters, vendors selling their wares at a market and performers in exotic costumes.
Develop Rapport: Most everyone finds it awkward to approach strangers. That can lead to a temptation to sneak a grab shot with a telephoto zoom lens. Problem is, that tactic is usually considered to be rude and it will not produce the best possible photos. Become involved with the people you meet however and the resulting pictures will become more intimate.”
That intimacy is easier said than done, of course, but it is possible. When you notice a photogenic person, use a genuine smile and a bit of charm while making small talk. In other words, establish rapport before turning your camera on. If your potential subjects are vendors, make a small purchase. Engage them in a conversation about their products before asking for permission to take photos.
Overcoming Shyness: Everyone suffers from some degree of reluctance about starting a conversation with a stranger. If you just can’t get over a hesitance to engage the local residents, perhaps one of your travel companions (or a tour guide) would be willing to help. Most of the people will respond to your courtesy with cooperation. When you do get a “no”, accept it with respect. Smile graciously, say “no problem”, and move on to find a more willing subject elsewhere.
Some travellers are simply less hesitant than others to engage the people they meet. If someone in your group is as comfortable with strangers as my wife Bev is, take advantage of their rapport-building skills for your travel photography. Photo (c) Peter K. Burian
Must You Get Permission?: In most situations, basic courtesy demands that we get consent to take photos of strangers. After all, how would you feel if a photographer walked up and suddenly started shooting pictures of you, or especially your children? No photo is so important that it’s worth offending your subjects or risking an even stronger reaction of anger.
Hint: There are many situations where there’s really no need to ask for permission: when taking photos of performers during street festivals and other events, for example. The participants are like actors who generally love to show off for the cameras.
By “permission”, I don’t necessarily mean specific verbal approval. In fact where there's a language barrier, that won't be possible. In that case,rely on the universal signal: a genuine smile and a raised camera. Often, a busy person will express agreement with a nod of the head as he continues working. After taking some photos, express appreciation with a nod and a smile.
Take Portraits and Candids: Most people will automatically strike a pose and smile when you’re ready to take a photo. Start with a wide angle shot to include their surroundings: an artist’s tools and canvas, for example. Then move in tightly, or use a longer zoom setting for a tightly framed portrait.
Show the posed photos your subject on the camera's LCD screen to cement the relationship. Take a few more shots from various angles. Then, lower the camera and say, “Thank you; I got some great photographs”. At that point they may return to their activities and you can get a couple of semi-candid shots but don't overstay your welcome.
Tipping Etiquette: Sometimes, you’ll be asked for some payment in order to take a person’s photo. The good news is that your subjects will make it clear if they expect compensation. In that case, you may decide to pay, but be sure to confirm the exact amount that they're expecting. Street entertainers or artists make their living from unsolicited tips so it’s only fair to make a donation when taking their pictures.
The Bottom Line
While advanced photographic techniques are certainly useful, rapport-building is even more important. That’s confirmed by professional photographer Rick Sammon, who wrote the following comment about “dual vision” that's worth taking to heart:
“Whenever you take a picture, you're also taking a picture of your relationship with the subject,” Sammon insists. “How you feel and act – the image that you project – will make them feel and act and respond in a certain way. These projected and received feelings are the key to good travel pictures of people.”
- Peter Burian teaches two terrific online photo workshops - Mastering the Digital Camera and Photography and Mastering the Canon EOS Digital Rebels - at BetterPhoto's digital photography school online.
- In addition, Peter's excellent photography appears in two books co-authored by Jim Miotke and Kerry Drager: The BetterPhoto Guide to Creative Digital Photography and The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light.