Taking Pictures of People

Photographing people can be nerve-racking to the inexperienced, but it can also be rewarding. Some people have no problem approaching strangers and politely asking to take their photograph; for others it's extremely difficult. (Regardless of the category you're in, always ask permission to take someone's picture. Even if you don't speak thelanguage, gesturing to your camera and then to the person while smiling is usually all it takes.)

Figure 5.48. Using a fast lens with a wide aperture keeps the background out of focus so it's not distracting. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)

Once you've been given permission, your best path to a good picture is to make your subjects comfortable. If you speak the same language, even a little, ask about their life. Most people will be flattered you asked, and talking with you will put them at ease. Such times often turn into ideas for great photographs. "Did you know," they might ask, "that this house has the oldest flour mill in Ireland?" and off you go to photograph someone using a piece of history.

Always look as if you're comfortable with your camera gear and know what you're doing, even if you don't. No one wants to have their photo taken by someone who is fumbling with buttons and wasting time. Let your subject participate, even if you don't want the photograph they're suggesting; shoot it first and suggest another pose afterward.

The best photographs of people are what I call "environmental portraits"pictures of people doing what they do for a living or for fun, in the environment in which they do it. Begin with a wide-angle lens, and then experiment with portraits and abstracts using a longer focal length lens to isolate parts of the action.

Figure 5.49. A stop in a small mountain town for lunch resulted in a nice photo and a memorable meal. Friendliness goes a long way in opening doors to people's lives. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)

Figure 5.50. Spending time learning about someone's job may also get you permission to take a few photos. (Photo by Reed

As you shoot, ask questions about what your subjects are doing and let them show their world to you. You're much more likely to get a good shot when someone's passionately involved in work.

There are no rules about whether your subject looks at the camera or away from it. Experiment, compose a variety of shots, and see what works. But pay attention: The best photograph often presents itself just as you're putting away your gear, and your subject relaxes.


Studio photographers may take dozens, or even hundreds, of pictures in an effort to get a subject to relax. During the first few clicks of the shutter, people being photographed are often nervous. As you shoot they become less self-conscious and loosen up. Inevitably, the best shots are made near the end of a shoot.

Figure 5.51. Try a close shot for a change of pace, if your subject is comfortable with it. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)

To Pay or Not to Pay?

One of the oldest debates among travel photographers is over the moral and ethical dilemma of paying people to take photographs of them.

Some professional photographers argue that paying sets a bad precedent. In some remote areas with meager economies, paying for a picture encourages people to shill for tourist groups, making them dependent on outside incomes. It's not uncommon in such places for parents to dress their children in "traditional" garb, and charge tourists to photograph them.

Others say that photography is inherently invasive, and that paying to take a photo of someone, especially in a poor country, is a fair trade for a lasting memory, and the invasion of the person's privacy.

Most people deal with it on a case-by-case basis. But if you have subjects who give generously of their time and their patience, give them something in return. Be courteous and respectful. If you are invited into a home, for example, to photograph the family preparing a meal, it is appropriate and appreciated to bring along food or something for the house.

One more thought: Street performers are not merely interesting photographic subjects, they're out there earning a living. If you want to get them at their best, make a contribution.

Figure 5.52. Snake charmers in India are out there to make their living; paying them a modest fee for photos is more than fair. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)


A studio photographer friend once told me that he likes to "fix" something on the clothes of the person he's photographing. He'll remove a stray hair or adjust a collar. This tells his subjects that he's is trying to make them look good. It doesn't always work. Some people don't like to be touched, but others find it reassuring and it relaxes them.

With so much to photograph, it's a challenge to keep from shooting everything on your trip. You'll be astounded at the opportunities around you if you look. Shapes, colors, motion, activity, and people are everywhere. Keep shooting pictures and keep experimenting for the best travel photography ever.

Figure 5.53. It's a big, beautiful world out there. Keep your eyes and, more importantly, your mind open to the possibilities. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)

Blue Pixel Guide to Travel Photography, The. Perfect Photos Every Time
Blue Pixel Guide to Travel Photography: Perfect Photos Every Time, The
ISBN: 0321356772
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 79
Authors: David Schloss

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