How to capture people pictures that are creative, interesting, respectful and allowed.
Most travellers like to be photographed in the places they visit. Unfortunately, this can lead to a sequence of ‘Jim posed in front of the (insert landmark)’ images that are profoundly boring to viewers. As a photographer, you can change this.
Be creative when taking shots of people in a tour group. Posing them in the context of one of the places you visit together will make the shot much more meaningful than the standard ‘line-up’ photos.
Most people who view your shots will already know what Jim looks like so you don’t need a series of formal portraits. Get Jim in action: talking to the locals, walking down the avenue in front of the tower or as a figure conveying scale in the picture.
Japanese high school students are encouraged to ‘interview’ Western visitors to improve their English communication skills. Shots like this one make a worthwhile addition to your trip portfolio.
Don’t be afraid to photograph people in profile – or from behind or as a small figure in a large landscape. While the glazed smile of the full-face portrait can be off-putting, there’s nothing wrong with a full-face shot that shows the subject relaxed and comfortable.
Maikos (apprentice geisha) train to be entertainers so they must learn to welcome being photographed. Happy to pose for photos, this 16-year-old maiko is in her first year of training, indicated by the lipstick only on her lower lip.
In many countries, amateur photographers can take pictures in most public places, although they may require permission to shoot in some situations (such as railway stations). However, in Hungary, the Czech Republic, France, Japan, South Korea, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland it’s illegal to take photographs of people in public places without their permission (although there may be some exceptions in some of these countries).
Publication of street shots is a different matter. Very few countries sanction the publication of street pictures without the subject’s permission, although circumstances can play a role in whether publication is straight-out banned or simply discouraged. Pictures taken for your own use or for sharing privately with family members and friends are exempt from this requirement.
You only require permission to take shots of people going about their normal day-to-day or weekend activities if you plan to sell the images for publication (or to a stock library).
Professional photographers and film-makers who shoot to sell their work must obtain model releases from all recognisable people in their shots before the image is published. This is also true for images entered into competitions and is usually listed in the Terms of Entry.
Model releases are also required for images published in magazines or newspapers, sold through image libraries or posted in public websites – or any other ‘commercial’ purpose from which the photographer stands to gain. They must be signed by any subject depicted if they can be identified.
Pictures of entertainers, like this drummer in Sri Lanka, can be taken for your own collection – but not for commercial use. © Jocelyn Millett.
If you enjoy shooting in the street, take care not to interfere with other people’s rights to use and enjoy public spaces. Getting in somebody’s way is bound to attract anger – and will likely see you evicted from the area and/or facing a legal claim against you.
Setting up a tripod on a busy street or public thoroughfare in a way that impedes traffic can be seen as causing public obstruction. Although police can arrest anyone creating such an obstruction, it’s more likely the photographer will simply be asked to move on. Failure to comply, however, may result in arrest.
It was easy to engage with this litter monitor in the Japanese city of Sapporo, during the annual Snow Festival in February. She was friendly and happy to chat about what she was doing as well as posing for a photo.
Where it’s appropriate, engage with your subject(s). Show interest in what they are doing and ask permission to take pictures. Then show them your shots and tell then why they attracted your attention. (Everyone likes to feel important.)
Be respectful. Put yourself in your subjects’ shoes and ask: would you feel comfortable being photographed in their situation? Consider their cultural background; what might pass as an unremarkable situation for a Westerner may be deeply offensive to someone from another culture.
When shooting in the street with longer lenses (250mm in this case), you may not be able to seek permission to use the shot or provide payment for the subjects. Provided the end result is not used for advertising, it should be acceptable to publish it in a magazine or online blog.
When photographing ‘the locals’, show respect for the people you photograph and don’t take shots that are unattractive or unethical. While you should ask permission before taking portrait shots, it’s not necessary when photographing people in a general scene – unless the people are easily identifiable and the images will be published.
Sometimes the most interesting shots are back views of subjects in a particular setting, where permission from the subjects is not normally required. Nor are model releases if the subject(s) are not readily identifiable.
Sometimes photographing people from behind can result in a more interesting picture than snapping them from in front.
In some places you will be expected to pay to photograph local people. Many poor people in third-world countries earn a significant percentage of their income by posing for tourists’ photographs. Ask your guide what amount to give people in return for their willingness to pose.
Inconspicuous equipment is the smartest choice when taking photographs in cities.
Be prepared to negotiate payments and walk away if demands are excessive. Deals that are settled beforehand allow you to take time planning and executing your shot.
Trust your instincts. Your camera should be an extension of your artistic vision. If it feels right to take pictures, it probably is; don’t shoot when it feels wrong or dangerous.
This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Travel Photography 3rd Edition