How Photographing Locals Can Give a Sense of Place in Your Travel Photography


There can be many elements that go into making a good travel photograph. These include light, location, composition and of course people. To define a location you need one of two things, something iconic to that place or a person or people that define the location. Photographing locals brings us colour, a sense of the culture and perhaps a greater understanding of the person themselves. I, among many photographers, know that photographing people is not easy and photographing people in an environment that is alien to you is even more difficult. Today we are going to look at some tips on how to photograph people to give a sense of place.

Vietnamese woman seeling fruit in a Danang Market
Vietnamese woman seeling fruit in a Danang Market

How Photographing Local People Will Result in Better Images

People more than anything define a location. From Arab street traders in a Cairo souk to Inuit fishermen in Greenland, a good travel portrait immediately suggests to the viewer not only the location, but also a little about the life of the person or people in the image. For the photographer it can also be a way to connect with people in new places, sometimes you will build a rapport with your subject, building a trust that will open doors into a world where most tourists will never go.

Locals help define a location
Yemeni Fisherman: Locals help define a location

Overcoming Inhibitions: Perhaps the biggest hurdle to getting great shots of locals is our own natural reticence to approach strangers. When you are travelling, either to shoot, or just for a holiday, take a look at how and how often tourists really react with local people. Other than a few words of thanks in a local bar or restaurant, it is sadly very little. It can be difficult to break that cultural barrier. Often the driving force that prevents us communicating is communication itself. We do have however two very powerful tools at our disposal, a smile and a gesture.

If like me you find it hard to photograph people, look for someone who looks relaxed, appears to have time then simply smile at them. If the smile is returned or acknowledged, gentle raise the camera and gesture to suggest that you wish to take a photo. Nine times out of ten, the answer will be yes. If it is a no, don’t push the person, gently nod an acknowledgement and walk away. There will be plenty of other opportunities.

Who to Photograph

Whilst a good portrait will often get close-in to the subject, a good travel portrait often leaves some space around the person to suggest the location. By showing the surroundings we immediately suggest not only where that person is, but also what the person does or what kind of life they have. In the example below, the close shot shows a beautiful young Indian woman, yet by pulling back we see that she in fact lives on the streets. The picture not only shows that she is beautiful but that she has a dignity that belies her personal situation.

A beautiful Indian woman
A beautiful Indian woman
By pulling back we show her circumstance and dignity
By pulling back we show her circumstance and dignity

Don’t be afraid to use local icons in the background of a picture. Photograph an elderly Caucasian woman and she could be anywhere in Northern Europe or North America. Shoot with a red bus or yellow cab in the background a sense of place becomes more apparent.

What Are the Ethics of Photographing Local People?

The ethics of shooting locals is hugely important and becoming more so in this selfie and self absorbed society that we live in. Until recently the worst thing tourist did was to simply walk up to a local, point the camera in their face and shoot. No engagement, no request. This has become worse with the dreaded selfie stick where people now place themselves into the lives of others without permission. In popular tourist areas this makes it increasingly more difficult for real photographers to engage with locals. Treat locals with the same respect that you have for your own friends and families. Ask to take photos, if the person clearly makes a living from being photographed, give them some money or find a different subject. Most locals will not ask you for money but if they do, have some change to give them.

The more contentious side of ethics is candid or street photography. This is a more difficult one to answer. There are some photographers that say never shoot locals candidly however to my mind if a shot presents itself that is perhaps amusing or a great composition then I'll shoot it. If the subject spots you, go over to them and show them the image. If they ask you to delete, do so.

Candid photography has its place also
Candid photography has its place also

Locals are an important part of travel photography. Shooting them can be hard, especially for those of a shy disposition but by getting out there, approaching people and not taking rejection personally, you will soon build your confidence and find yourself shooting more and more people.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

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