Improve your travel photography: Ten Tips and tricks to establish confidence with locals

Improve your travel photography: Ten Tips and tricks to establish confidence with locals

Published on 2015/09/15 - Text and Pictures by Alberto Mateo, Travel Photographer for The Last Footprint.

When we photograph during our travels we usually tend to photograph from the distance with telephoto lenses. One of the secrets of getting a good reportage and improve your Travel Photography (as well as good wildlife) imagery is to get nearer to our subjects and try to photograph them with a wide angle lens. If you are working on Asia or Africa locals will be able more open to be photographed that in your own country. In this posts I share some tips experience have taught me about how to deal with locals and how to try to photograph them with their consent and help. People are friendlier than you can expect in many countries and if you manage to stop being perceived as a casual tourist who is never going to go back, your photographic possibilities will improve for sure.

Vietnamese CoTuong game near the Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Be always respectful and try to be open when approaching strangers, and never hide your intentions (or your camera) are the main basics to photograph locals in their enviroment.

1. Do not try to hide your intentions. If you are going to shoot pictures, ask permit, take your camera out of the backpack openly so that they can see it, and they will decide what to do. Be frank and say openly when you’re asked: “I’m photographer”.

2. Show respect, you are in their home. Ask permit and, if they reject any photograph, keep your camera back in the backpack and continue talking with them.

3. Accept frankly their hospitality. If they offer you a tea, by all that is Holy, take it!

4. Do not expect them to know English… in many countries people who do not have a job oriented to deal with foreigners do not speak English, but do not care, symbols language will work, you can always use your hands to make gestures. In addition, you can rely in that the words “photo” and “photographer” are known in all the known Universe.

5. Never speak about these subjects: Sports, Religion, Sex or Social aspects. These subjects always bring primary (too emotional) reactions.
OK, I broke this rule in Istanbul (please read the previous post of this series) where I used football, a sport, to begin talking with the owners of a shop, but took a lot of care not to say that Galatasaray was better or worse than Fenerbahce. Saying that my team was “Real Madrid”, a team that do not play in Turkish league, I declared myself as IMPARTIAL international observer of Turkish league. However, you have to put in the balance the effects of sports (and these other subjects) and see if the risk is worth taking.

6. Have something ready to say to break the ice, something that you know they are going to reckon. In my case it was football. I knew the local teams… if you know local players playing in your country it’d be much better. NEVER TAKE SIDES for one team or the other. In this case I said that my team was “Real Madrid”, a team they knew… if you do not like football you can always talk about local food, tea specialties of the country…

7. If you are travelling in a group in an organized trip… the reaction of locals when they see a big group of tourists is very different than when they see a solitary person in a street. Many organized trips get part of their income acting as ‘commissioners’. They send tourists to a place where they can buy carpets (typical trade object in Arab countries) to the zouks in cities like Marrakech and sell overprized items and get a commission from the sell (beware the scam!). In this case, for many people, you are a bag of money.
If you travel alone and they see you everyday the relation begins to change. You begin to be seen as ‘the neighbor’, the foreigner who has something to do, and you will begin to see how do they are in reality, the unseen (good or bad, same or different than yours) society traditions and circumstances they live in.

8. If you are reading this and you are from a Western country: remember, this is not Europe or America. I can assure you that people in Arab countries are by far more friendly and hospitable with unknown people, and the country generally speaking is much safer. People are not afraid about being photographed. Most of them will answer openly and sincerely as they’re happy that you have gone far away from the crowds to enter their small shop. Just be polite and friendly and accept their hospitality.
At this point some of you may argue: “I have been to many of these places and ALWAYS have been asked for money or a tip for ANYTHING I wanted. I have been offered (and sometimes even have been pressed to buy) carpets, papyrus, jewelry… What is the difference between how you and I were treated?”
Simply stated: you were in a touristic place and you were treated as a tourist (usually a bag full of money that can be overcharged) while I had gone deliberately to a place only for locals, and I was treated ina different way.

9. NEVER (I repeat NEVER) offer money after taking the pictures when you’re saying goodbye. Wait for their reaction. For most of them you are their guest; they’re happy because you have taken tea with them, that’s all. If you do it, you are doing something that is simply out of place.
When you’re saying goodbye just act for a moment, be expectant at their reactions, and see what they say, and how do they behave. There are not many possibilities, but it might happen that they asked for money for the pictures. In that case BE READY TO NEGOTIATE. You may be asked a big amount of money in dollars or euros, so have in mind a price beforehand that you consider correct.

10. Know where you are. In some societies photographs are not welcome, in others (as Turkish) there is not much problem about photographing people. If you feel that something is going wrong, just keep your camera inside the bag, apologize if needed and say politely goodbye and go out.
As everything in life this technique requires some practice. Each society is different, each person is different, it is a matter of knowing where you are. As Oscar Wilde wrote: "Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes."

I have learnt these tips the hard way. I can say I have never had a real problem with anyone, only some situations I would have managed in a different way had I got the experience I have now. I hope these lines help you to know beforehand what you can expect when you are photographing someone in a foreign country.




My subjects, although were near the camera, were not moving fast; only their hands were. 1/40 was enough to freeze the small movement.

APERTURE: f6.3I closed a bit to have some depth of field. I would have liked to close to f8, but we were under a roof in a small temple, so there was not much light.

ISO: f6.3

I closed a bit to have some depth of field. I would have liked to close to f8, but we were under a roof in a small temple, so there was not much light.

MODE: A - Aperture Priority

I had checked what shutter speed gave me an aperture of f6.3.... 1/40 was the minimum due to the closeness of my subjects to the camera body.

FOCAL LENGTH: 12 mm on DX (Sensor Size), equivalent to 18 mm in Full Frame 35mm Sensor

I wanted to photograph this scene 'from the inside', so opened up my Nikon 12-24mm wide angle to the the widest focal length, 12mm,  and tried to locate the camera as near as possible to the scene.

Have you had any embarrassing situation while trying to photograph someone during your holidays? Was it in a touristic place? Have you ever get lost somewhere deliberately looking for a different picture than the ones you might find in a very touristic place?

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