Travel Photography How-Tos: Directing Subjects

08/05/2014 04:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


I was on assignment in Fiji when I met a reputable photographer who had no compunction about demanding his subjects remove their shirts. I was shocked the first couple times he made his big ask, but then it started to make sense.

This photographer enjoyed capturing timeless and authentic representations of culture. One of his biggest challenges, he said, is that in every country it's near impossible to find a subject who isn't wearing some form of branded shirt. "There's nothing I hate more than an image of someone living in the rainforest and all you notice is Nike written across their chest," he said.

He elaborated on a great point: a photo can't be timeless if the subject is wearing brands that signal what era the picture is from, and that goes for sneakers and watches as much as t-shirts. As I traveled with this photographer around Fiji, over and over I'd watch him set up a shot and ask the person to remove things. Most times, they would be surprisingly compliant and I could see the difference it made in the shot. So, I began to experiment with this tactic as well, noticing that it isn't just what the subject is wearing but also what could be in the background. My advice is this: if you have the time to set up the shot, take it and don't be afraid to boldly direct your subject as well as anything else in the frame.

On my final day in Fiji, I was on a boat with some local men who could catch fish with their bare hands. One of the men had already darted off the bow and resurfaced with a catch before I could even grab my camera. I bet him he couldn't catch another, just so he'd be up for the challenge again. Only just before he attempted to catch another fish, I asked him to take his shirt off. The resulting image, above, was worth making the ask.

Travel photographer Megan Snedden's work appears in BBC, National Geographic Traveler, and Fodor's. She teaches regular travel photography workshops in New York City.