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One of the most challenging aspects of travel photography is photographing people. I mean truly photographing people and capturing their spirits, not just sneaking a shot when they’re not looking. And this is often magnified when we travel through regions where locals have unique and striking facial features as well as vibrant native attire.

We tend to get excited yet put up a subconscious “no-interaction” wall which means we keep tiptoeing around them in a fragile fashion, sneaking shots here and there.

But the problem is we keep ending up with shots like this:

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Or, like this:

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Or, like this:

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Shots I now call “useless back photos that you really can’t use anywhere.”

I’ve seen so many travel photos – though colorful – which can be boiled down to:

  1. Backsides of monks in Southeast Asia,
  2. Side view profiles of old men and women in India, and
  3. Peruvian women in traditional garb walking away from the camera. Sometimes carrying a baby on their back.

For photographers serious about taking their craft to the next level, you need to start getting much closer to your subjects.

Making Contact

When I was starting out as a photographer, I was always amazed by portraits I’d seen in National Geographic where I was pretty sure no common language was spoken between the photographer and their subjects, yet I could see and feel their connection through the shot.

How did they do it?

Many photographers will argue that if a person looks at you, then the photo feels posed and not as authentic as if they were caught in a candid moment. My argument is that eye-contact or at least some form of front view contact tells me that the photographer made some attempt to connect with the subject – either verbally or nonverbally.

To me, it means the photographer acknowledged their subject as a fellow human being first. An instant connection was made, and for a short span of time, your subject didn’t see you as a threat to their sense of privacy and personal space.

And the resulting image doesn’t have to be a posed shot like this.

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It could be shy.

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Moody.

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Indifferent.

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Even angry.

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But it’s human contact nonetheless.

Not only that, you get to catch that “light” – that vibrant spark that momentarily shows their soul to you – in their eyes. Remember that famous National Geographic Afghan Girl photo by Steve McCurry?

What you need to strive for is that connection. It could be a fleeting moment or a prolonged interaction, but to move to the next stage as a travel photographer, especially one who is interested in taking better environmental portraits and people shots, you need to start connecting with people.

You should always be aware of and sensitive towards local customs when it comes to making eye-contact. Some cultures might find it aggressive; others might find it too intimate. So make sure you’re aware of cultural norms before you start making creepy prolonged eye contact with locals.

Your key to better people shots?

Most people want to be acknowledged. It could be a simple “Hello!” interaction, and better yet, you can take it a step further to asking “So, what did you do today?” if you share a common language.

If no shared language is spoken, a prolonged smile, getting closer to observe what they’re doing, maybe participating alongside them and helping out before bringing out your camera, can instantly build that connection you need to get a better shot.

Good travel photography isn’t about technical perfection. It’s about evoking a feeling and sense of place. It’s about showing human connection through snapshots of their everyday lives. It’s about photos that consciously tell a story while being sensitive and respectful of the stories they share.

Case in point – The photo of the two brothers at the top of this article.

I tried photographing them from a distance but their reaction was cold when they noticed me. At that moment, I realized I was doing what I didn’t like travel photographers doing.

Objectifying people.

So I walked up to the boys, got down on their sitting level, and spent a couple minutes talking to them – asking for their names, what they did, if they were brothers, gaining their trust. Those few minutes of acknowledgement were enough to warm them up to me to get a few natural photos of them.

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So, never ever sneak a shot ever again?

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say I still sneak the occasional shot every now and then, but now instead of focusing on just the individual, I study their environment, how light is flowing and playing through the scene, how they’re interacting with it, and if I can capture that organic interaction without having to walk up to them.

So if you are going to steal a quick shot, at least make it worthwhile, respectful, and a well-composed shot.

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I’ll be sharing this along with more practical tips and resources in my TBEX session – “Telling your travel stories through photography.”

Author bio: Lola Akinmade Åkerström is an award-winning Stockholm-based writer, photographer, and blogger whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler (both UK & US versions), BBC, CNN, Travel + Leisure, Lonely Planet, AFAR, San Francisco Chronicle, Sherman’s Travel, New York Magazine, Fodors.com, National Geographic Channel, several in-flight magazines, and many more publications.

She recently signed on to be represented by National Geographic’s exclusive stock image collection (currently loading photos), and she was also in South Africa on a photography assignment for National Geographic Channel shooting a vignette called “Through The Lens” that airs on Nat Geo channel across the globe.

She is the editor-in-chief of newly launched editorial site Slow Travel Stockholm and runs a travel media and consulting company called Geotraveler Media. Find her on Twitter at @LolaAkinmade.