3 Tips for Photographing Locals Respectfully

I’ve recently taken on a new challenge to become more comfortable photographing actual people when I visit a new place, whether it be downtown D.C., the California coast or some non-English speaking nation. I’d like to share a few experiences, which will hopefully give you more courage to do the same.

Golden rule: the goal of photographing people is to celebrate who they are and to honor their dignity. The intent of the portrait must be aligned with this mentality. With great “power” comes great responsibility (remember this).

Always be aware (do research if you must) of the local culture, religious beliefs, customs, laws, etc. For example, a public Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans is considered fair game to take travel photos, whereas a Mardi Gras religious celebration held in a more traditional South American village might be considered inappropriate. When in doubt, ask a local.

Scenario one: asking permission to photograph from behind

In both of these examples, I first approached the individuals. These were both in the US, where people often think it’s creepy and weird to be approached. You have to be SUPER professional and polite. In both situations, I told the subjects I was a photographer highlighting local tourist destinations. I asked their permission to take a picture and assured them they could just keep on walking. (*I exchanged information with the couple and was able to e-mail them their photos). Just be aware that if they are recognizable or you intend to use the images commercially you should have them sign a release (click here for a printable version). In these cases I told the subjects the images were for my personal portfolio and my social media accounts and they were very obliging. Just be brave. Worst case scenario people say, “Ummm no thank you.” And that’s okay.

Scenario 2: Actual portraits of strangers when you are only passing through briefly

Step one: Put your camera (or phone) away. Put it back in its case COMPLETELY. When you approach the person (assuming it’s safe and appropriate), it’s important to be friendly and non-threatening. They caught your eye for a reason and you are genuinely interested in what they are up to. So if you let them know you are interested in what they are doing, who they are or how they are, they will be much more open to letting you into their personal space. I like to research a few basic greetings in the local language and rely on hand and body language. When in doubt just smile and ask how they are. Be prepared to listen. Also be prepared to be blown off.

If you get blown off or some form of a blank stare (75% of the time), be prepared to introduce yourself. You may feel foolish at first, but the “childlike” wonder can buy serious friend points. Tell them your name and where you’re from. Find a way to compliment them/express your appreciation.

Once a comfort level is established you can gauge if they would be open to a photo. If you are NOT feeling the love, that’s okay. Put your hand over your chest, look them in the eye, smile and slightly bow. It can be done very subtly, but it’s a universal signal for expressing mutual respect.

Next, continue to walk around the area and take out the camera again. Take a photo of something landscape or food related. THEN return to your friend and share the photos you’ve taken. I guarantee they will be a million times more likely to agree to having their portrait taken. If you don’t speak the same language, simply hold up your camera, motion in their direction and say, “your photo please?” It works every time! (Be sure to show them their pictures…they will love it:)

Scenario 3: Candids and hip shots

You see them coming…the coolest people you’ve ever seen! But there’s no time to ask, you just have to snap…the moment is so fleeting. But again, you must be prepared to delete the photo and you must own up to your somewhat intrusive act. There’s a 50/50 chance they will be upset.

What I did with the women above was to smile and wave from far away. They seemed amused and curious so I went ahead and clicked away. BUT as soon as they reached me I was already holding my camera out for them to see. (Again, you have to be attuned to the local customs of the area and be VERY sensitive.)

With the two Sikh gentlemen at the Golden Temple I took the picture from my hip. To do this you have to practice aiming and aligning the camera levelly.

Full disclosure: On a couple of occasions, I’ve been confronted with hostile reactions, forcing me to to delete my photos, apologize profusely (and run). But I still believe it can be the best way to capture a moment…#worth it!

In all these situations the key words to remember are sensitivity and respect for your subjects. Good luck!