If you like photographing people while travelling, but feel anxious about it, or even rarely dare to do it, this is for you.
I used to be like that. To be fair, I still feel anxious sometimes. The thing is, while I’m not socially awkward, I can be a little shy in some situations. So, approaching a stranger and ask to take their photo or, worse, take the shot without asking isn’t exactly easy for me.
For many people this is no big deal, as I learnt years ago when I was attended a couple of photography workshops. I just couldn’t understand how they could simply go out and come back with two dozen photos of complete strangers, while getting just a couple of decent shots felt like a huge achievement to me.
My defining moment in this regard came about five years ago, when I attended a street photography workshop in New York (by the way, if you missed my post about how to choose the right workshop for you, check it out here). The schedule was very simple: talks and discussions in the morning, and freedom to roam the city in the afternoon in order to come back with good images to share the day after.
It is fair to say that for the first four days I struggled. I was so paralyzed by the prospect of photographing strangers, I only did it from a distance (not with a telephoto lens, I hasten to add: that wouldn’t be street photography), or in contrived poses that showed they sensed my anxiety and were reacting accordingly.
It’s not like the instructor hadn’t given us some tips on how to go about it. He did it on the very first afternoon of the workshop. It’s just that, while the tips sounded great in theory, I was having a really hard time following them. It was a huge leap out of my comfort zone, and I couldn’t hack it.
In the meantime, the majority of workshop participants, a diverse group of people coming from five different countries and covering a 40-year age range, were completing the assignments more or less successfully; some of them even brilliantly. So with each morning group session, my frustration grew, and I didn’t know what to do about it.
Eventually, on the eve of the last day of the workshop, I got my act together. I don’t know what it was. Maybe some measure of embarrassment at “flunking” the workshop and failing myself. Maybe the tips we’d been given finally clicked in my head. Most likely, it was a combination of both factors. Anyway, what matters is that I came through, and got a half-decent set of photos (today, I think I could’ve done better) after approaching several dozen strangers and asking to take their picture.
Ever since that afternoon in New York, I approach the whole business of photographing people in a much more relaxed and confident manner. I still haven’t reached the point where it is second nature to me (which probably explains why I still don’t nail the more technical aspects of it, like composition), but I’m slowly getting there.
6 tips to beat your anxiety about photographing people in your travels
Now, there are places and environments where you’ll find people better disposed to being photographed. I find it takes more guts to photograph people in most Western countries (where we tend to be over-cautious about who and why wants our picture) than in many other parts of the world. But the same principles apply anywhere.
Here are some straightforward, fail-proof tips to help you overcome your anxiety about photographing people in your travels and come back with great portraits:
1. Have a clear reason in your head of why you want to take someone’s picture
And, while you’re at it, think beforehand how you will explain it to them if they ask, which some will.
There can be more than one reason, obviously. Some of your motifs can pertain exclusively to you (“I love photography/ capturing moments..”), and others can be related to the person or scene you are trying to capture (“I just thought your dress was beautiful”, “I find this place amazing, you’re lucky to work here”…). If you can articulate this succintly and calmly, many people will be ok with your taking their picture, even if you didn’t ask for permission before (see below).
2. Be relaxed, smiling, confident
Easier said than done, right? I know, believe me. But if you have done your homework on the previous point, you will instantly feel more relaxed and confident. Not only you’ll be reassured that you’re not doing anything wrong (which you aren’t), but you’ll also be able to convey that to strangers.
If, on the contrary, you look anxious, that’s what you’ll receive back from the people you approach. They will think you have ulterior motives, and be much more uncomfortable and reluctant to let you take their photo.
Smiling is very important too, much more so if you’re in a foreign country where there may be a language barrier with the people you’re trying to photograph. Whether it’s before or after taking the shot, you need to smile to let the other person know everything’s ok. Chances are, even if they are not entirely happy that you took their photo, they’ll smile back at you and forget about it, or engage into a conversation with you that may be even more rewarding for both people involved.
3. Ask for permission, yes or no?
It really depends on you, and the kind of photos you want to make. Some people think it’s downright rude not to ask for permission and would never dream to shoot without asking first. This can be ok if you’re looking to shoot posed portraits, rather than street scenes. It is also a great approach when you have the time to chat, if only for a few minutes, with the people you’re photographing. It makes the whole thing so much more rewarding than just taking a couple of shots.
However, I prefer to portray people in ordinary life scenes and therefore shoot a lot without asking for permission (and believe me, sometimes I do it against my deepest instincts). What I never fail to do in these cases, if not before, after I press the shutter button, is to try to make visual contact with the people I just photographed. Even if they weren’t looking at you when you took the shot, people often know that you have taken it and will look straight at you right after.
At that moment, if you don’t look at them, or worse, look away, they’ll think something’s not right about you and feel somewhat disrespected. That particular instant is also a great moment to smile, and maybe raise your hand and say “thank you” before moving on, if that’s what you want to do.
Finally, if you ask for permission and they say “no”, also smile and say “thanks”. If you didn’t ask and they look annoyed, again, smile, raise your hand and say “sorry”. Most people will be fine with that.
4. Show respect to the people you photograph!
I know, most people are decent human beings and don’t need to be told this. But I’ve seen too many times, particularly in less developed countries, tourists who go around practicing run-and-gun photography, and showing an extremely disrespectful attitude towards the people they make photos of. You know what I mean, the kind of attitude that makes local people feel like they are part of a theme-park or tourist attraction.
Don’t be that guy/gal. Respect can be shown in many ways, some of which we’ve already discussed here: smile, talk to people, make friendly gestures, don’t act like you’re entitled to take their photo (even if, in many countries, but not others, you legally are) but more like they are giving something to you.
Also, keep in mind that some people don’t like being photographed at all, or are sick and tired of the rude tourists I mentioned earlier, or are simply busy or having a rough day. Respect that. Try to read people’s faces and the situation before clicking the shutter or even asking for permission. You’ll be far less likely to face rejection if you do so.
5. To pay or not to pay when photographing people?
My views on this have somewhat evolved over time. I didn’t use to think it was ever ok to pay to take someone’s picture. After all, I’m not a professional photographer [edited 2018: I wasn’t when I published this post; now I am starting my career as a professional!], and I make a point of never making photos of beggars or people who are obviously going through a rough patch and need the money.
However, in many less developed countries, the line between those who manage to make a living and those who don’t is much less clear to me. And, in any case, many of the people you come across and photograph would live for months on the money you payed for just one of your lenses or cameras, or even the plane ticket that brought you there.
This is further complicated by the fact that, in many tourist attractions and locations, you will find people who make money out of posing for photos. Some of them will be wearing traditional local costumes and will be easy to spot. Others, not so much, and I used to get annoyed and frustrated when they’d ask me for money after taking the photos. With very few exceptions, I used to apologize and tell them they should’ve warned me beforehand. It was more of a matter of principle than anything else.
But of course, that always made me feel guilty after the fact, and I kept wondering if I’d been callous and unfair.
Therefore, now I do things differently, especially in poorer countries. If I can tell from a distance that the person is there to make money from being photographed, I usually won’t approach them. In other cases, I sometimes give a small amount of money if asked, and if it feels right and the person looks like they could use some help.
It’s kind of a grey area, and I don’t have a clearcut answer to give you. Just do whatever feels right to you.
6. Give something back
This ties in with the previous point. If people are kind enough to let you take their picture, you need to give something back. As i just explained, I’m not necessarily talking about money.
In many places around the world, and particularly if you’re a decent photographer, people will be pleased, or even amazed, to look at the photo on the LCD screen of your camera. When it’s a posed portrait that I asked permission for, I make a point of showing the photos to the person afterwards. Sometimes this is the most rewarding part of the experience, and can lead to a longer conversation with that person.
You can also simply make a kind comment, accompanied by gestures if needed, to explain why you took their photo: “nice shirt!”, “you look really smart”, etc. If it’s true and people can tell you’re being genuine it, they’ll be flattered. Most of us would, right?
When the person shows clear signs of liking the photo, and I reckon they are likely to have an email address, I offer to email copies to them as soon as I can. Many people will take you up on the offer. Although in my experience half the people won’t bother replying (maybe my photos sucked, or my email was filtered as spam, who knows), I never fail to do it if I promised to.
In summary, if photographing people in your travels makes you nervous: smile, convince yourself that you’re not doing anything wrong, and engage with and respect the people you photograph.
It won’t be easy at first, but you’ll be taking better people photos in no time or, at least, be in a position where you’ll have to worry about the technical aspects rather than the emotional ones.
I’d love to know what you guys think. Is photographing people something you often do in your travels? Do you find it challenging in any way? Do you have any tricks or tips of your own?