How to Approach Strangers & Get Great Travel Portraits

By Geoff Harris

Indian Portrait

Hire an Interpreter

If you are travelling to a country and can’t speak the language, or even if you can, I would still recommend hiring a guide or interpreter.

You will often get better cooperation from the locals, when they are asked if they will pose for a photograph by someone they trust.

You are also giving employment to the local population and in addition, a guide will deter begging and stop you being unduly pestered.

Make sure your guide understands exactly what you require before you start the shoot.

Explain that you will pick your subjects and they are required to then approach them to ask permission.

Get your guide to request a model release and ask them to witness the signature.

If you intend to give a small payment to your model then give the money to the guide and get them to pay a pre- agreed amount when you finish.


To Pay or Not to Pay?

This is a controversial question and one you will have to decide how to handle for yourselves,  Some photographers argue that you shouldn’t pay people for their photographs as you raise expectations and encourage begging.  For me, when travelling to some of the poorest parts of the world, where people are living off only a few dollars a day, giving them a small thank you for their time will often get a more enthusiastic response from your models.

Ask your guide the appropriate amount to pay: Its easy to pay too much and then create unrealistic expectations for future photographers. Too little and you risk offending people.

Get your guide to pay the money rather than you, as this stops any begging and possible pestering.

In poorer countries, expect to be asked for money if people see you taking their photos.

You will find locals who make a living out of having their photos taken.  So if they are dressed in national costume or have an animal or other prop with them, then expect to give them a small donation.


Ask Permission or Just take the Photo

This depends of the situation.  You get a very different shot when someone is posing to when they are going about their daily business.  I am always looking out for the candid shot but am also interested in taking portrait head shots and for these I need the cooperation if the model and this is where your guide will be invaluable.

Different cultures react differently when having a photo taken some will look serious while others will smile.  Get your guide to direct your subject as to how you wish them to look

Venice 0391

Do I Need Model Release?

If the photos are for your own use then no you don’t need permission:  If you are taking candid shots and you get seen, a smile goes a long way with many people and a nod thank you will also help.

If you intend to use the photo commercially you will require a model release.  Your guide can ask your model for their signature and also act as a witness.


Camera technique and photography etiquette

Portraits often look better with a catch light in the eye.  You can achieve this with a little fill-in flash stopped down by –2 stops so it just lifts the shadows and adds a twinkle to the eyes.

Alternatively carry a small reflector to bounce light back on the face.  Show your guide how to use it before you start so they can help you in the field.

If the sun is too bright, ask your subject to move into the shade.  This will stop them from squinting and allow  more even contrast lighting across  the face.

Always take more than one shot! This a is a common mistake when photographing strangers often because the photographer feels embarrassed or doesn’t want to put the model to any more trouble than they have to.

Remember your model has agreed to pose for you, so try and remember to  take 5-6 shots, both landscape and portrait and always to show your subjects the results on the LCD screen when you have finished.

Be aware that in some countries it is inappropriate to photograph women! Ask your guide for advice.  If the woman is wearing a burqa that covers her face, it is best to respect that they do not want their photograph taken.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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