Young buddhist monk getting prepared for a dance during a festival in the Nepalese Himalayas

To Photograph People — 7 Tips

When I first became interested in photography several years ago, I was focused exclusively on landscapes. I then saw photography as a hobby that could push me to reconnect with nature and discover the beauty of places that were unknown to me, but I didn’t care to photograph people. Thus years have passed and as I went on my travels I met people whose way of life, faces or background inspired me. But I didn’t dare approach them with my camera. How to photograph these people? Shyness was blocking me, I was petrified.

After a lot of readings and failed tests I persevered. Still today I don’t always feel comfortable photographing someone — and I think I will actually never be completely comfortable at it. Very often I still miss beautiful opportunities foolishly, by shyness, because I do not dare. The landscapes are for me so much easier to reach. You don’t have to ask them anything!

But the kick in the ass is the best way to improve. So gradually I convinced myself that I had nothing to lose anyway, that it didn’t matter if people said no to me. And it often paid off because people like it when someone gets interested in them. Then why do I always have this fear of apprehending someone for a photograph? Mere logic will probably never be able to solve this problem. It seems like it’s deeply rooted in my education or my culture… So over time I had to develop some tricks to approach people more easily. Here are some that work well.

Smile

This is probably one of the most important life tips ever — and of course it also applies to photography. When you smile, barriers disappear. Ice can easily be broken with a smile and many doors will then open. I’d almost be inclined to say that with a smile everything is possible! Be careful however as in some countries smiling can be considered as a mockery. So find out about the local culture before you leave. It would be a shame to get beaten up for a photo :)

Speak the language

Wherever I went, I noticed that people were happy to see me speak even a few words of their language. Even if it’s a simple hello, can I take your picture, thank you, goodbye it’s always nice to see that a foreigner makes the effort to adapt to the country (s)he visits.

Start a conversation

When possible, starting a conversation with the person you want to photograph or a family member can also help. Talk about where you come from, where you go, ask for their names, explain your photographic approach, speak about the weather, … Conversation is a great way to create a bond. This is not only beneficial for photography but also to discover the person in front of you and simply feel human.

Lend your camera

In the case of remote places in particular, where people see few to no cameras, lending yours before making photos can get rid of possible apprehensions. At a Buddhist festival in a small remote village in Nepal, I remember lending my camera to old ladies who didn’t want to be photographed. They played with it for a while, took my picture and had a good time. Then they asked me to photograph them.

Play with the kids

Feeling still like a kid myself, I always tend to play with other people’s kids. I gradually realized that it was a great way to be accepted into a village or a family and thus get the opportunity to take as many pictures as I wanted. All the apprehension they might have had towards the stranger had disappeared.

Taking the time and being forgotten

It is very important for me to get to know people before photographing them. Even if it is not always possible, I try as soon as I can to take the time to get acquainted. By discussing or drinking tea together for instance, even without a common language, you gradually become part of the landscape. Then you can start photographing without disturbing and get the most natural candid shots. That is why, during my month-long stay with a nomadic family in Mongolia, I only began to photograph after a couple of days.

Don’t take yourself seriously

Never. The best way to approach people is to take life lightly. Play the fool, tell jokes, make fun of yourself! This is the best way to relax everyone around you — you included — and thus open many doors, both wooden and photographic. Unfortunately, especially in our Western societies, we often tend to take ourselves for what we are not… Drop the act! Life is a game!

Accept ‘no’ as an answer — Bonus tip!

Some people don’t like to be photographed, which is totally OK. But sometimes it can be (very) frustrating. Accepting it and not taking it for oneself is the best solution. Why get mad about it? Life goes on and other opportunities will inevitably arise.

What about you? Do you have any tips for approaching people before photographing them? I’d love to hear them!

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