Photographing the Locals – Smiles from Around the World

In the fourth of a series of articles on travel photography, Senior Travel Expert Photo Editor, John Esser, gives advice on how to get those extra special shots of local people.

Smile - Street restaurant girls in Accra, Ghana
1. Street restaurant girls in Accra, Ghana

Taking pictures of the locals you meet when travelling is an important part of creating a record of your travels, but can be a daunting prospect to many photographers. Asking complete strangers if they would mind you photographing them isn’t an easy thing to do, particularly if you know little of the local culture and customs.

Of course being a senior can often help, as the elderly are held in high regard in many countries. In Tanzania I was often addressed as Mzee (esteemed elder) or Babu (Grandad). I believe this sometimes enabled me to get photographs that a more pushy, intimidating younger person may not have been able to capture.

Smile - Spider seller, Cambodia
2. Spider seller, Cambodia

Whilst some people will object to being photographed, others will be more than happy for you to go ahead. The essential thing is for you to be polite and respect their wishes.

Chat with them first and get to know a little about them before lifting the camera. If you don’t speak the language, then a smile accompanied by a few gesticulations indicating you would like to take their picture often yields a positive result. Achieving eye contact is the key to a successful travel portrait, particularly when accompanied by a broad smile.

The last thing you want to do is stick a camera in someone’s face and take a picture without the subject’s consent – at best, this will result in a disappointing photo, at worst it might result in unpleasantness.

In some places locals are very used to being photographed and may request a small payment for posing for you. Whether you agree or not is very much a personal decision, but do ensure to agree a price first.

Smile - Ganesh festival in Hyderabad, India
3. Ganesh festival in Hyderabad, India

If for example you wish to photograph a vendor in a market then an alternative approach might be to purchase some of their produce before asking them for a photograph.

After you have taken your pictures it is usually appreciated if you show them to your subjects  and if possible obtain their email address to send copies to them later.

In some situations, it may be possible to take pictures of people unawares. Such ‘candid’ photos often provide more natural results than posed photos and are best achieved using single lens reflex camera fitted with a medium to long telephoto lens.

Smile - Mandarin vendor in Suva, Fiji
4. Mandarin vendor in Suva, Fiji

In many cases, however, pleasing candid photos of the locals can be obtained using the telephoto end of the zoom lens on a compact or bridge cameras, which appear less threatening than more ‘professional’ gear. All pictures shown here were taken using a Canon or Olympus compact camera.

Whatever approach you take, try to use your photography as a means to engage and build bridges with your subjects. That way you’ll gain some insight into their lives which can only enrich your holiday experience.

Some more details on the photographs featured

Smile - Fish workers in Andhra Pradesh, India
5. Fish workers in Andhra Pradesh, India

1. Street restaurant girls in Accra, Ghana – I was driving through Accra, the capital of Ghana, when I noticed the uniforms of the staff of a street food restaurant. The girls really hammed it up for the camera which makes for a very cheery pic.

2. Spider seller, Cambodia – Deep fried spiders are a delicacy in Cambodia. This picture was taken in the market of the town of Stoeng which is major centre of fried spider production. The spider seller was more than happy to have her picture taken, particularly as the students I was accompanying proved to be very good customers.

3. Ganesh festival in Hyderabad, India – Festivals provide a great opportunity for taking pictures of the locals. This picture was taken during the Ganesh festival in Hyderabad, India. Everyone was relaxed and more than happy to have their picture taken.

4. Mandarin vendor in Suva, Fiji  – This shot was taken in the busy Central Market in Suva, Fiji. Before taking the picture, I engaged the vendor in conversation and bought some of her produce – the mandarins were delicious.

Smile - Woman and child, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
6. Woman and child, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

5. Fish workers in Andhra Pradesh, India – I was working on a fisheries project in Andhra Pradesh, India when I took this picture of ladies scattering fish to dry in the sun. Moving close to the action and using a wide angle lens adds impact to the picture.

6. Woman and child, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – A grab shot taken, this time, in a coastal village in Tanzania. The mother’s smile and eye contact with the camera add to the picture’s appeal.

See also the first article in this series by John Esser which gave advice on equipment the senior traveller should take to get the best photographs when travelling abroad, the second article Photographs in Languedoc and the third article Photographs from Tuscany.