TBEX Speaker Post: Want to be a better travel photographer? Stop sneaking shots.

 

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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.

Comments

  1. Please give me some insight on whether candid photographs, like the ones you have just shown, require photographic releases in order for them to be published. I focus on ‘in the moment’ style photography, and have no releases from those I photograph. Am I forever banned from sharing these kinds of photographs in print or on the internet?

    • Hi Todd!

      It actually depends on how you want to use the images. If you’re using them for editorial purposes – i.e. to illustrate articles, photo spreads, or slideshows, you usually don’t need a model release signed.

      If you plan on using them for commercial purposes – i.e. selling to companies for advertising, stock agencies, sometimes through mass printing, then you need a model release signed.

      So yes, you can still use them in print and on the internet but you need to clearly define if they’re going to be used for editorial or commercial purposes.

  2. I desperately need to be less shy and get better at this. Such an important tip and your photos are just incredible.

    • Thanks so much Andrea! And I fully understand about being shy. I am too in some situations and it’s only be through trial and error and continual learning that I’m getting better at approaching people.

  3. Wonderful post! Great tips :)
    Hope I could hear from you on TBEx but I’ll be travelling and won’t be able to attend.
    Cheers,

  4. Thanks for this, Lola!

    What sort of model release do you get from your photo subjects? Especially in foreign countries when you don’t speak the language — or they can’t read your English-written printed release?

    I am guessing you do somehow get their permission to use their photos in publications on the web, etc.

    Also, does anyone ever ask you for payment? Or something in return?

    • Thanks Kara!

      Up until recently, I have been using all my photos for editorial purposes which doesn’t require a model release. Now that I’ve recently signed with Nat Geo’s Image Collection to also use some photos for commercial purposes, I’m now required to have a model release for anyone whose full on portrait I’ve taken (if it’s a sweeping environmental portrait where they’re interacting with someone else or something, then model releases aren’t usually needed).

      I do have some model releases (for example, the “indifferent” girl and “angry” boy above) because I got the permission from their guardian.

      And it took me a year and a half to get signed model releases from this Sami elder and members of his family because he was always used to (and open to) photographers taking his photo for editorial purposes without needing to sign anything so me asking for his signature was met with suspicion – http://geotraveler.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/People/G0000INXm_Ojhxok/I0000Li01gD1_2Es/C0000SIlW_WlE8Lk

      Like I mentioned to Todd above, it depends on how you want to use the photo. Model releases aren’t usually required if you’re using them for editorial purposes -> articles, photo spreads, slideshows, etc. Model releases are required if you intend to sell them commercially for advertising, in stock agencies, mass printing, and more.

      In terms of payment, I’m usually not asked for payment mostly because I try to spend some time with the individual before taking their photo if I can. The only time I’ve ever been asked for payment and actually gave the guy money was in Morocco which inspired this short post – http://lolaakinmade.com/2013/02/13/profiles-from-morocco-disarming-saheed-the-snake-charmer/. (Check it out for the quick backstory).

      In terms of people asking for something in return, many people who have access to email actually ask for a copy of the photo when I show it to them on the viewfinder.

      And most of the time, I send them copies of their photo when I get back to my desk.

      Hope this helps.

      • Just to add, this is also why it’s important to try and interact with people if we don’t speak a common language because their dispositions alone in the photo can communicate if they gave us permission to take their photo or if we snuck the shot.

        So even if we don’t have a signed release, at least we’ll feel a bit more comfortable knowing they agreed – verbally or non verbally – to be photographed.

  5. Nice post and great tips. And photographs of course. As a makeup artist I naturally study peoples faces and am often moved to photograph someone I see. I almost always approach them – just depends. If they are children I don’t want to seem creepy. How do you deal with that?

    • Thanks Penny!

      Regarding photographing children, a few tips – if they’re around an adult or guardian, interact with that guardian first before turning attention on the kid. If the kid is with others, focus on the group first before focusing on the particular portrait you want. If the child is alone, I suggest actually leaving the child alone and reinforcing what their guardians have probably taught them – “Don’t talk to strangers”.

  6. Your suggestions are spot on. I just returned from a couple of weeks in Japan and while moving quickly through crowded areas encountered amazing faces that I couldn’t resist snapping pictures of. They were never as successful as spending a moment or two connecting before. Now, I have to figure out how the intriguing (and angry) monk with the broom at the Inari gates in Kyoto managed to delete my quick picture of him from the camera… Lesson learned.

    • Haha, thanks!
      I’m glad you were able to test this out yourself while in Japan. And like you mentioned, even spending a moment or two can be all it takes to get a better shot.

  7. Wow you make great points. I’m looking forward to the Photo Walk session with you at TBEX!

  8. I completely agree. Great tips Lola, thanks. I look forward to hearing you speak at TBEX Toronto.

  9. Some great points. I’m guilty of sneaking in shots that, at the time, seemed great but didn’t have any emotion. Some of my fav portraits have come from people I’ve spent a great deal of time getting to know.

  10. Thanks Lola!

    As a sometimes shy photographer when it comes to photographing people in public, I really needed to hear this. I love playing the “flaneuse” when I travel, but it doesn’t always make for the most interesting photos. I took a look at your BAD photos and I’ll admit, I’m guilty of those. So I’m promising myself that I’ll be attempting your suggestions on my upcoming travels next week. Let’s see if I can conquer my shyness. Thanks!

    • Yes!! That should be your challenge over your upcoming trip. Spend a few seconds/minutes interacting. Anything from eye contact to a smile to engaging people in light (or heavy) conversation.

  11. Thanks, this is an interesting insight. I always wonder if, especially when dealing with subjects like street kids or people in poor countries, do you offer them a ‘tip’ in thanks for the photo?

    • In most cases, you really shouldn’t be handing out money or offering to tip as thanks. In fact, don’t tip if you aren’t asked because it can be deemed offensive and disrespectful by your subject. I often find that it is when I’m sneaking shots and subsequently caught is when people may try to ask for something. So spend a few moments interacting with your subjects. The chances of them asking for money after are a lot lower.

      • Thank you very much, Lola.
        I look forward to seeing the slideshare since i won’t be at TBEX Toronto, but I hope you enjoy my native city :)

  12. I can be shy with people I don’t know so don’t always feel comfortable asking people to interact with me to take their photo, but this beautiful post is inspiring me to do so. Great tips, Lola! Thank you.

    • Thanks Jenna! I think we all are on some level quite shy when meeting people we don’t know for the very first time and then trying to photograph them. When I’m shy in some situations, I have a giddy smile on, and meeting people with smiles first (as cliche as it may sound) does begin to warm people up.

  13. I’ve been guilty of sneaking the photo but you’re right: talking to your subjects and gaining their trust not only results in a great photo but a better sense of place and a connection you didn’t have previously. Great post!

  14. I love Bruce Gilden’s, and Gary Winogrand’s work. I wonder how many people they engaged before taking the photo?

    • Hi Nate,
      The point of this article isn’t about getting posed shots. Both Gilden and Winogrand are fantastic street photographers who take environmental portraits, and even those require some type of human connection. Just checking out some of their images reveal a lot of “front view” environmental portraits. Their photos certainly aren’t what I call “back photos” of people.

      • Hi Lola,

        I disagree. No contact or interaction is necessary to make a great photo. There are many great shots made with no connection, and many poor shots made with a lot of connection.

        There’s also plenty of good back photo shots out there.

        Nate

        PS, personally, I think the first “posed” example shot in the article is much better than the vignetted shot of the two guys on the street. IMHO.

        • Hi Nate,

          I understand and appreciate your point. I do think we’re talking about two different things here. To be a better photographer; moving to next stage in one’s career as a travel photographer; we need to learn to interact with people – especially those who specialize in environmental and travel portraits.

          It’s the difference between the occasional great sneak photo (and there are many examples) than more calculated shots and opportunities to better compose shots. Handing a photo editor a portfolio of only great back shots just isn’t going to work from my point of view.

          The point of this article isn’t about “posed” shots. Far from it. During my presentation, I’ll be sharing post-interaction candid photos too. Interaction can be as fleeting as nonverbal eye contact or engaging in conversation. Interacting means you can get closer to your subject and they can go about their tasks because they momentarily feel comfortable with your presence.

          The same way an embedded photojournalist works. Their subject is already comfortable with their presence.

          The photos above were chosen to illustrate my points and photography – like any art form – is definitely subjective.

  15. This is the kind of advice I was asking for… :)

  16. Glad you found it useful Piotr!

  17. HI Lola, Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s something I’ve struggled with too. Your tips and the comments stream are invaluable because no one wants to offend people and this sort of guidance reduces the trial and error. Do you know if the model release rules you describe are more or less the same in all the countries you’re published in? I’ve had work published in the UK, US and Australia and I get paid for my writing, but more recently I’ve been paid for some photos. I was paid directly by the magazine for photos I supplied (with an article) and the people in them were friends so it’s not an issue this time but would be great to know for future.

    • Thanks Tracey! Regarding model releases, chances are if they’re needed for editorial purposes in some countries, that photo editor/art director will ask you for them so do some research especially if you want to publish photos in a particular country. Generally speaking for editorial purposes, model releases aren’t usually required.

  18. I am most definitely guilty of sneaking shots, but I have to say that I have many that I really like (and have even gotten paid for). I like 2 of the 3 shots that you posted as BAD, especially shot #2 of the central american woman. Even though the money shot is mostly full frontal and faces, I believe you can have some good shots without them knowing. There are simply times when I don’t want to interact with the person or the environment in which I am shooting them in, as I only want to be an observer. So both types of photographs can be good, IMHO. I don’t typically like the poser and I do get “the hand in your face” like from uniformed type working people, an example is like in Mexico of mariachis or in Peru of the traditional dressed women. I did find that the locals in Ecuador were much nicer and easier to photograph (with no fee) than those in say Cusco, Peru. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Can’t wait to hear you speak at TBEX and this is not meant to be controversial, just a different way of looking at things.

    • Thanks for your comment Cindy and I really appreciate it! The point of this article isn’t to say that environmental portraits are bad. Far from it. My last photo illustrates this and most of the photos I publish are environmental portraits with a few close ups. The point of this article is that for us to be better travel photographers – moving to that next stage – we have connect and interact with people. There really is no way around it otherwise we’ll remain stagnant, taking tons of well composed and vibrant back shots like #2 above of the Peruvian woman.

      You also mentioned that people in Ecuador were “nicer and easier to photograph (with no fee)”. I’ve personally found that the more you genuinely interact and connect with people, the less likely they ask you for money. And you can still get your observer style shots because they are now comfortable with your presence and just continue on with their daily tasks.

  19. Great article and amazing photos! Although I have a few decent people photographs from my travels, I’m consciously trying to improve my portrait photography. Thanks for the tips and inspiration.

  20. Nice post lola, do you mind going through my post and comment on my attempt at travel photography http://thepathmedia.com/blog/4-blog/36-destination-cairo
    I would be so glad to get your comment

  21. I’m looking forward to incorporating your advice for better travel portraits, and am wondering if you could elaborate on best lighting and composition tips for photographing people head on.

    • Hi Sandra,

      There really isn’t a cookie-cutter response to the best lighting and composition for photographing people, especially as a travel photographer, because it mostly depends on the environment you find the person in.

      And I’m talking about organically meeting people as you travel, not scheduling a photo shoot.

      Here are three tips I’ll share if you’re photographing people on the fly as you travel:

      - Try to use a shallow depth of field (making a lot of the background blurry while attention focuses on the individual).

      - Study how natural light is flowing through the scene. This may require you changing your angle or even asking them to step closer to a light source. Because chances are you’re not going to be firing off an external flash in their faces.

      - Try to take two photos of them – a closer up where they fill most of the frame and one of them (zoomed out a bit) interacting with their environment.

      Will be sharing more during my session. Don’t want to give everything away here :)

  22. Great article, Lola. Ever since I began traveling blogging a year and a half ago, I’ve been thinking about the ethics of travel photography a lot. I used to try to take “sneaky shots” or avoid photographing people altogether because I was too shy to ask. However, these days, I’ve started to gain more confidence and sense when the moment is right. I do agree that my more successful portraits are a result of interaction before taking the shot.

    Do you feel like race and gender have an affect on your work? I recently traveled in the Philippines with my Chinese, male friend, and I noticed that, as a white female, many local people would stare at me and beggars would approach me for money, whereas he blended in. Because of this extra attention, I felt awkward trying to photograph my surroundings, and I wondered if my experience would have been different had I looked like him. On the other hand, when walking around New York City with my camera, few people bother to pay attention to me. From this perspective, how have your experiences and interactions differed throughout the world?

    • Hi Sarah!

      Really good questions, and honestly race can certainly affect my work in some cases. For example, I may not readily gain access to places that you as a Caucasian might “easily” have access to, and so I have to work twice as hard until I gain access.

      And trust me, I’ve had (and still have) my share of staredowns – http://lolaakinmade.com/2010/04/20/breaking-down-the-staredown/.

      Even feeling awkward because people are staring is an opportunity to get closer and connect. And in “most” situations I’ve experienced, respectfully approaching people, genuinely spending a few moments with them, and acknowledging them first – either through words or nonverbal gestures – opens them up for a few minutes to get the environmental (or close up) photo I want.

      And the point I’ve been making to a few comments above is that this article is not about taking posed shots. It’s about connecting with people that will help you get the best shot of them and their environment in a short time span.

      A portfolio of back shots won’t take a photographer to the next level of their career or craft.

  23. Lolade, you’ve inspired me since I came across your work. this post couldn’t have come earlier. Keep up the good work!

  24. I actually like the first two ‘bad’ shots! Sometimes I take shots like that with the intention of cropping/adding text to a blank space to balance it out, like for a header of a blog post. Great post!

    • Hi Marie!

      Absolutely, we need to be able to compose images with specific intent. I’m speaking generally. We all need to learn to start interacting more if we’re going to be better travel photographers.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] a teaser, definitely check out this guest post I wrote on TBEX’s blog about avoiding sneak shots if you want to be a better travel photographer. Check it out. It’s been generating a lot of [...]

  2. [...] Fantastic advice from @LolaAkinmade on travel #photography taking better portraits: http://t.co/H0OknLnNeW  [...]

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