• How to stop feeling anxious about photographing people when you travel

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.

Portrait of woman in NYC

This stylish New Yorker asked me why I wanted to photograph her and was reassured by my answer, so she gladly posed for a few shots.

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 taking photos of 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.

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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 and make better photos of people in your travels:

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).

Street scene in Jaipur

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.

Old Naxi ladies wearing traditional dress in Lijiang

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.

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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.

Street scene in Rome

They obviously knew they were in the photo, but they didn’t seem to care.

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.

Two Chinese women, Lijiang

They stared at me after I took this shot without asking, but I simply said “thank you” and smiled, and they smiled back. The girl on the left even posed for me afterwards.

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.

Old Chinese woman, Lijiang

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?

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, 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.

Portrait of old Indian man

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.

Portrait of a young Japanese woman

I sent a copy of this photo to this young woman and she appreciated my doing so.

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?

8 Comments

  1. Great tips. I would love to take good photos of people but like you (were) very aware of the intrusion and I feel rude. I am going to use your tip to get better at it. Thanks.

  2. Taking photos of people without their knowledge/permission is shockingly invasive, even more so if you plan to post them online.

    When I lived in Japan, I’d travel to small towns where not a lot of tourists go and would have people try to take sneak photos of me. I hated it so much and would never do something to others that I found so awful myself.

    I do think it’s okay to ask permission, get a couple of posed photos then take a few more when their guard is down. And crowd shots you can’t really ask every single person’s permission.

    I think being uncomfortable with taking someone’s photo shows a degree of empathy which can result in better photos (hopefully) than the run and gun tourists will ever take.

    Paying for photos is dicey. I did a photo tour in Phnom Penh and went into a really poverty stricken area. It felt really uncomfortable to me to take photos that was like ‘look at these poor people suffering’. Some of the kids asked for money but I think if I’d gotten out my wallet, I might’ve been mobbed. On the other hand, I’d have liked to have done something to help.

    1. Thanks very much for contributing so thoughtfully to the discussion, Kathryn.

      You raise some really important points. I have thought along those same lines quite often (still do from time to time).

      There is undeniably an invasive aspect about taking photos of people without their permission. My take on this is that photography is an invasive medium, but we can modulate this by using it responsibly. I’m interested in people and portraits, but I’m also interested in documenting daily life and places, and there are many daily life situations that simply disappear, or transform into entirely different ones, by asking for permission. Also, as you point out, when there’s more than a few people in the shot, it would be impossible to ask for permission to every single one of them.

      If we look at the history of photography, there are dozens of masterpieces and hundreds of excellent photos that tell us a lot about the time and place they were taken, and that would have been impossible had the photographer asked for prior permission. However, in those cases I think it’s essential to interact with the persons concerned after taking the shot, rather than simply walking away. At the very least, to show respect and say sorry if they look annoyed that you took their photo. I find that this happens to me less and less, but it still happens every now and then.

      Most of the time, though, people don’t care or are just curious to see the result. As discussed, reactions can and will be different depending on the photographer’s attitude and the place or situation. I totally agree with you that sometimes it feels wrong to take pictures (poor areas, people obviously suffering or in extreme need), and I consciously try to avoid those.

      There many sides to this discussion, and we could probably spend hours talking about it, but I’ll add just one more thing that warmed my heart and gave me food for thought.

      A while ago I watched a nice documentary about the pioneers of photojournalism and documentary photography in Spain. In it, they interviewed a middle-aged woman who, two years earlier had been shocked to find a black and white photo of herself with her parents in a publication or at an exhibition (I can’t remember exactly).

      Once she overcame the initial shock, she told, some powerful emotions took hold of her. The photo had been taken in the streets of Barcelona in the 50s (I believe), and showed her, a 4-year-old then, happily riding on her father’s shoulders with her mum walking alongside. It was just an ordinary family scene like a hundred others we see every day in a big city, and ostensibly, the photographer didn’t ask for their permission first. It’s true that back then we were not, as a society, so overly sensitive to having our photo taken, and we didn’t have the Internet which so amplifies the potential implications of anything we do.

      But here’s the thing. It turns out that this woman didn’t have any photos of her as a child with her parents. None. She had many other photos, taken later, but none of that period; until she found this one by pure chance. So she felt incredibly grateful that this photographer had taken that photo one day, thereby allowing her to retrieve, half a century later, a precious moment in time that she thought forever gone.

      Now, I realise this kind of thing will happen rarely; and the odds are slim of my, or someone else’s photos, being relevant or interesting to anyone in 50 years’ time. But if there’s any chance at all that someone, like this woman, might be so surprised and moved in the future by one of my photos, I’ll take it.

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