It’s often said that the people make the place, and nowhere is this more true than when travelling. A destination my have the most beautiful scenery in the world, but it’s the people and the culture that really bring a place to life.
However, taking photos of people can often seem fraught with risk – many photographers would never dare point their camera at an unknown person for fear of pointed fingers and all kinds of accusations. On the face of it, the 21st Century would appear to be an unwelcoming place to photograph people, whatever your geographic location might be.
The fact remains, though, that any good collection of travel photos should include pictures of people – the locals, the tourists, and even yourself, and while it’s sensible to take steps to ensure no one is offended, it really needn’t be as awkward as it is sometimes made to seem.
From behind the camera
To start with, there are 2 different kinds of people you will come across when travelling; there are those that are there to be photographed, and those that are simply there. The former includes the usual tourist suspects such as London’s Buckingham Palace guards or the street artists and performers of Montmartre in Paris, but in some locations you may also come across locals dressed up in traditional clothing who will happily pose for a photo in exchange for a few coins of the local currency. These people will almost certainly not be offended if you stop to take photos of them, even if they subsequently ask for a donation.
These confirmed photo subjects should not be confused with those people getting on with their everyday lives who just happen to be there. That elderly woman haggling with an olive-skinned market trader over the cost of his cloth may look like a superb photo opportunity, but just stop to think for a second how you would feel if, as you reach the checkout in Sainsbury’s to pay for your milk and bread, some eager tourist popped up, stuck a lens in your face and starting taking photos. That said, the world of travel and documentary photography would be a sad and much less colourful place if these kinds of photos never got taken. Therefore, don’t be too hasty to abandon the shot – a little common sense can go a long way.
The open and honest approach
Here’s an idea; if you want to take a photo of somebody, why not ask them? Assuming language isn’t a barrier you can always take the direct approach and ask your subject if it’s ok to take a photo of them. Even if you “no speaka da lingo”, it’s not difficult to demonstrate to the person or people that you wish to photograph them.
A series of simple gestures should suffice, and more often than not you’ll get a positive response, although in some poorer areas it’s not unusual to be asked for a coin or two in return for the favour!
Where even this approach may de a little difficult is when taking pictures of children. Yes, they might be the sweetest, cutest most delightfully smiley children in the world but, rightly or wrongly, some people can take a dim view of strangers photographing their children. However, once again common sense should be able to dictate what is and isn’t appropriate. If the children are with their parents, you can always ask permission.
What’s more, while travelling in some areas you may come across children who are quite used to being photographed and will happily pose for you, even if they pursue you for several minutes afterwards chirping “unos soles, unos soles señor” – persistent little blighters.
In general, you’ll need to make your own mind up, but my advice is that when it comes to taking pictures of children, if in any doubt, don’t.
If you decide to do the honest thing and ask permission before taking a photograph, then it goes without saying that you must always respect the answer, and this might mean forgoing some great photos. Of course, there is another way…
I should probably start this section with a disclaimer. These are methods of capturing photos that I have taken in the past and will probably use again in the future. To date I have never been accosted, arrested, verbally abused or physically assaulted. Maybe I’ve been lucky or perhaps I’ve just been sensible. The point is that if you’re going to take a photo of somebody without first checking it’s ok to do so, there are potential consequences. These should be considered before you consider taking the photo. Some people may be of the opinion that these pictures are morally questionable, others may believe that it’s a perfectly acceptable approach to candid reportage type photography. I fall into the latter group which is why and how I’ve taken some of the pictures I have, but you’ll need to make your own mind up.
The zoom in: Perhaps the simplest method – if you have longish telephoto lens you can stand well back and take photographs of your subject from a distance. While this may give you more time to compose your shot, if you’re spotted you’ll look even more conspicuous, so pick your subjects carefully.
The wide-angle-inclusion: A relatively risk free method by which you place your subject towards the outside of your frame. This works particularly well if your subject is standing next to or in front of another potential photographic subject such as a monument, building or picturesque view. The downside is that your subject may be relatively small in the shot, but clever and careful composition can make this a feature rather than a limitation.
The walk-past: This tends to work better with compact cameras which are more discreet (and often quieter) than SLRs. With your camera casually in your hand by your side and the lens zoomed out to its widest setting, simply press the shutter as you walk past your subject and hope for the best. It’s not an ideal way to take a picture; you’ll have virtually no control over the composition (expect to have to do some corrective straightening in Photoshop) and, depending on your cameras focusing and metering performance and shutter-lag, you may miss the shot all together.
The un-aware: Quite often the thing that makes a great candid shot worth taking is also what makes the shot easier to get. Somebody that is 100% focused on the task in hand, be that completing their chores or a particularly involved conversation, is far less likely to notice you casually pointing your camera at them. That’s not to say that they won’t stop and take a little more notice of you if you start firing a flashgun off in their face or stroll up and pull a stray lock of hair away from their face, but if you keep your distance and don’t loiter too long or suspiciously, you should be able to get some great shots without the subject ever being aware.
These slightly covert tactics may or may not appeal to you, and the results you get will be as much down to your assessment of the situation and judgement as your photographic skills, but just sometimes the photographic opportunity is too good to pass up.
From in front of the lens
If you’re anything like me, you’ll often return from trips away with a seemingly endless portfolio of shots of people, landscapes and other travel must haves, but virtually none including you. Then, if you’re friends and family are anything like mine, they’ll take great please in pulling your leg and suggesting you never actually took the photos because they haven’t seen anything to prove you were ever actually there. The only solution then is to make sure you appear in at least a smattering of photos, preferably in a manner that easily identifies where you are.
However, handing your camera over to a slightly suspect looking stranger to have your photo taken is always a risk, but there are some situations where the camera’s self timer just isn’t enough on its own. If you want to appear in your own photos, there are ways to go about it.
Your time starts…….now.
You’d be hard pushed these days to find a camera that doesn’t offer some kind of self timer function. Some of the more sophisticated compacts are particularly clever and offer self-portrait functions that will only fire the shutter once the required number of faces are in the picture, everybody’s smiling and nobody’s blinking, while others be triggered via an infra-red remote, allowing you to fire the camera from in front of it. Often it’s easy enough to place the camera on a handy flat surface, such as a table or a wall and all that’s involved then is to point the camera in the right direction, check the framing and use the self timer to get in position before the shutter fires.
But if you find yourself away from civilisation, finding a convenient placement point for your camera might not be so straight forward. Of course, a decent photographic tripod would solve this problem, but if you’re travelling light, or any distance on foot, then a full sized tripod is unlikely to make it onto your essential packing list. However, there are a range of significantly more light weight options that are well worth considering. Personally I’ve always loved the Joby Gorillapods; they’re small and compact enough to be taken almost anywhere and their fancy gripping and bendable design allows them to be put in places other tripods simply can’t compete with.
Another great camera support device for self portraits when travelling is a good, old fashioned bean-bag. If you take an unfilled bag, you can then fill it with sand, dirt or even snow when you need it, but it takes up virtually no space when you don’t. Although a bean bag doesn’t offer much height, it does provide a stable and level base which can then be placed onto a rock or post as a vantage point for the camera.
The advantage of using this method is that, providing you have a suitable base or device on which to place your camera, it doesn’t require anybody else’s assistance and is relatively safe. However, there are some occasions where the self-timer option simply isn’t going to work.
It might be that there is simply nowhere suitable to set up your camera on timer, even with the use of a travel-pod or other such piece of kit. Perhaps the location is just far to busy and there’s a risk of the camera being knocked over or of somebody getting in the way of the shot. Alternatively, perhaps the position you are in means that getting from the camera to your pose in time could prove difficult. Whatever the reasons, sometimes you just might need that human touch.
For this shot above, all six of us wanted to be in the picture, but given that getting into position meant a dash of several yards across loose rocks and boulders followed by a scramble up some larger fallen rocks before getting into position on the Cantilever Stone, the camera’s self timer wouldn’t give us enough time and we’d be too far from the camera for a remote to work. No choice then but to ask a passing stranger to take the photo.
There’s always a risk when handing over your camera to a total stranger, so it pays to use a bit of common sense. The top of Glyder Fach where the above photo was taken requires a fair amount of effort to get there and as a result it’s unlikely to be frequented by somebody out for a spot of petty thievery. Other locations are less risk free, though, so choose your photographer carefully. It helps if you’ve been able to strike up a conversation with them first, and if they’re in a group or with somebody else, you can always offer to return the picture taking favour.
If you really don’t trust anyone in the vicinity enough to hand over your camera, or there is nobody around to help you out, you might just have to help yourself.
If you’re travelling in a group and each of you wants a picture taken in a particular location, then you can take it in turns to take photos. Cameras get passed around and everybody gets the photo they want – ideal.
The other option is the old “camera at arm’s length” technique. This relies on your camera having a reasonably wide-angle lens (particularly if you want to get more than one person in or include the background) and being able to focus at relatively close proximity. The advantage of this method is that it can be used almost anywhere and doesn’t require the assistance of anybody else, but due to the hit and miss composition, results may vary.
But suppose you want a photo where you’re both/all in the shot, it’s not possible or practical to use the one-handed self-portrait approach and there’s nobody about to ask for help – what then? The simple answer: cheat.
It requires a tiny amount of Photoshop skill, but I do mean tiny. The idea is this: you take it in turns to take a picture of each other from as close to the same place as possible, ensuring that each of you stands in a slightly different place when having your photo taken. You can then combine the images in Photoshop (or other basic digital manipulation software) to make it appear that you were all there to start with. It’s a relatively simple process, but relies on careful placement of subjects and the camera being kept in the same position each time. The more people involved, the more difficult it is to get a natural looking shot, but if there’s just two of you, it really is a piece of cake.
Love thy neighbour (but don’t ignore thyself)
People are an essential part of the joys of travel, both the people you’ll meet on your travels and the people you travel with. As such, as far as I’m concerned, capturing photos of them is essential. Where would the world of photography be, and for that matter, the world in general without pictures of the people that inhabit it?
So my advice is this: take those pictures – pictures that will always remind you of a time and place and the people that made it special. Include the people you see, the people you meet, the people you travel with, and be sure to include yourself. Photography is all about capturing a moment in time and making it last forever, and I can’t think of a more appropriate way to do just that then by including fellow members of the diverse and fascinating species that is the human race in your photographs.