We're often asked, "How do you get such great people photos?"
Here's a hint: it's not the size of the camera we carry or the number of megapixels. The technical aspects of good photography do play a role. But the real advantage has more to do with developing relationships and the non-technical intra-personal skills of demonstrating curiosity and communicating and engaging in a respectful way -- skills that we are constantly trying to improve over the course of more than three and a half years on the road. For us, engaging with ordinary people helps us understand the places we visit on our around-the-world journey.
You may notice a similarity between these photography tips and good travel practices. That's not a coincidence -- we believe the two go hand in hand. By being conscious of these principles, you'll not only end up with better and more interesting photos of people, but you'll return home with a richer set of travel experiences because of the human interactions you've had.
1. Go Where the People Are
If you want people shots, you have to go where the locals go. This may sound obvious perhaps, but so many travelers don't do it. Seek out the places where they work, where they walk, and where they hang out -- and you'll likely get your best shots. And don't just wait outside the door of that funky cafeteria or pool hall. Go inside, make some friends and get into the action.
One of our first stops in any new location is the local fresh market. In addition to how we orient ourselves, markets are loaded with real people who are friendly, photo-worthy and informative. Parks, street food stall areas and bus stations also provide endless subjects.
The places you're least likely to see large numbers of ordinary people going about their day? Museums, tourist sights and tourist ghettos.
2. Make a personal connection
When you find someone you'd like to photograph, treat the person as a fellow human first, and a photographic subject second. Start a conversation and develop a rapport and build trust. For example, ask a market vendor what that exotic fruit or vegetable is called. Ask a mother about the age of the child she's holding and whether she has other children. These simple questions will usually lead to other conversations.
Once you have developed a level of trust, ask to take the person's photo. For parents with children, ask permission from the parent before photographing the children.
Of course, speaking the local language helps. But even if you don't share a common verbal language, positive body language - smiles, respectful nods - goes a long way in greeting someone and establishing a connection. Once you've made the link, you'll have an easier time requesting photos by motioning with your camera or performing other charades.
It should be a good experience for everyone involved, so show that you're having fun.
Note: If someone does not want his/her photo taken, respect those wishes. And don't take the rejection personally. There are lots of interesting subjects out there.
3. Ignore the first shot.
Sometimes the most charismatic person in the market will turn serious - reminiscent of American Gothic - when the camera is obviously turned on him/her. Go ahead, take the photo - serious expression and all - even though it's not the one you want. Keep the camera ready though.
When the person realizes that the photo is taken (i.e., the ordeal is over) - he/she will relax, sometimes smile or laugh, and get back to business. That's when you take the second or third photo. These are the images you want.
4. Use your LCD screen to show the result.
People all over the world are curious about what they look like on camera, especially in developing and transitional countries where many people do not have access to a camera...or possibly even a mirror.
Showing the subject the image you've taken will usually evoke a response that in itself is worth photographing (if you have a partner with a camera, this can be another great shot). The whole process gives back and builds trust. The hub-bub and laughter can also help recruit other people nearby to have their photos taken.
5. Know your white balance.
We know, we know. We promised something other than technical tips, but we had to sneak this in.
Understand your camera's white balance settings. You may have the most amazing subject and composition in the world, but if the mood and color temperature are off - an unintended bluish tint, washed out or over-saturated colors - you still have a bad photo. Yes, post-processing can help a bit, but it's best to get the color temperature right in the original image.
DSLR cameras have numerous white balance settings you can adjust, as do most hand-held cameras. Play around in advance with these settings so you know which to use in heavily shaded market stalls, under fluorescent lights, in fog, in bright daylight, etc. We tend to use the cloudy white balance setting most to yield warmer colors without over-saturation.
Read more tips on taking great people photos on your next trip here.
If you have your own street or people photography tips, please share them in the comments section below.