Shepherd, Sapa, Vietnam.

How To Photograph People When Travelling

How to photograph people when travelling so that they engage with the camera and, more importantly, you don’t offend them, isn’t all that hard. Yet every day in Hoi An, Vietnam, I witness some very disappointing behaviour.

On my early morning photo-taking walks through the local Hoi An markets I rarely spot a foreigner.

The market opens well before dawn and most visitors arrive a few hours later as part of the obligatory pre-cooking class market tour when groups bump into each other, annoying local shoppers, while being quizzed by guides as to whether they know the names of fruit they’re holding up. It’s a shit-fight worth sidestepping.

A couple of hours earlier though, around 6am, the markets are still busy but are way calmer. It’s my favourite time to visit as there’s just enough light to start shooting.

Today, however, I literally bumped into a group of tourists out taking photos. Expensive DSLR cameras were slung over the shoulders of the four amateur photographers and each photographer was pointing a colossal zoom lens at an elderly lady sitting in a doorway.

The woman was wearing the classic printed pyjamas, favoured by Vietnamese ladies as daywear, and she was yawning, as if she’d just woken up. Or perhaps she’d been up since 3am, rising early to do a bit of shopping or trading, and was ready for a nap.

At first the old lady appeared oblivious to the several frames-per-second bursts of the cameras and the clack of the shutters stopping briefly as the visitors examined the backs of their cameras — before firing off another volley of shots like they had spotted a white rhino on safari.

While this group was with a guide, at no stage did they ask the guide to speak to the old woman and ask her if it was okay to take her photo, let alone continue shooting her like this. Instead, they inched even closer, and fired off even more frames, blazing away as if they were covering the diving at the Olympics.

The elderly woman was, by now, very aware that they were there and what they were doing. She didn’t move and she didn’t change her expression for the whole 10 minutes — yes, they stood for 10 minutes training their lenses on her. And she was not happy.

Just before they moved on, one photographer began to approach the woman, but stopped just a few feet from her, and fired off yet another volley of shots before turning on her heels and returning to the rest of the group. But not before she had checked to see that she had the shot she wanted.

The whole episode made me embarrassed to be a photographer.

How To Photograph People — Candids and Portraits

There are street candids and then there are portraits. Know the difference.

When you shoot a street candid of someone at a market you shoot quickly and move on. You want to photograph them doing what they naturally do before they notice the camera and change what they are doing.

The idea is to capture a slice of local life, not intrude on their lives or disrupt them from making a living.

When four photographers are banging away like they’ve just spotted Brad and Angelina, that’s not a street candid anymore.

Engage with people you are photographing

You need to engage with your subject — and you don’t do that with a 200mm lens from six metres away.

One of the founders of Magnum Photos, Robert Capa, famously said: “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

I have a pretty good idea of what the photos shot by this group turned out like.

I can guarantee you that their images would have been better if they’d connected with the woman, if they’d smiled and said “xin chao” (good morning), and if they’d asked the tour guide to talk to her first — to find out how long she’s lived there, the changes she’s seen, how many children, grandchildren, and possibly great-grandchildren she has.

Then they might have seen some engagement with the camera. They might even have seen a twinkle in her eyes. Acting like great white hunters in an everyday situation makes you look like you’re actually scared of engaging with ‘the Other’.

If you’re going to act like a pro photographer, behave like one

If you’re going to start acting like a professional photographer, some further advice on how to photograph people in Hoi An, or people in any similar tourist destination in any developing country: if you make a portrait of someone who clearly is ready for their close-up, the right — and polite — thing to do is to pay them.

As a professional photographer shooting for publications that are paying me, I will generally give local people here in Hoi An, in situations like I’ve described above, US$1 or 20,000 Vietnamese dong. That’s the going rate, so if you don’t want to pay it, don’t go acting all professional and setting up a shot.

Those strong little women who carry the yokes with baskets of fruit or snacks on their shoulders all day every day make as much money from posing for photos as selling pineapples. Having said that, it’s not very much money at all. Especially for you, if you’re slinging a $1000 camera on your shoulder. Pay them. If you object to paying them because you’re not a pro then buy a pineapple, they’re delicious.

Those little girls who sit cross-legged in the cute flowing silk ao dai selling candles in paper lanterns? They’re wearing the national costume so you can photograph them, and, you guessed it, they expect you to pay them.

Now, I wouldn’t normally be telling travellers to pay children, because as responsible travellers we know that we shouldn’t be giving money to begging children as it encourages their parents to keep them out of school to make money. See this post for our views on why you shouldn’t give money to begging children.

However, in the case of these kids in Hoi An, I know them. The work they do in the evenings with their families is the equivalent of the part-time jobs we did after-school and on weekends as kids: delivering newspapers, stocking supermarket shelves, waiting tables.

The kids are from very poor fishing families who live in modest homes that are little more than shacks. I’ve seen where they live. I also see them going to and returning home from school every day when I’m out taking photos. If every person who took their photo bought a candle-lit lantern or gave them a dollar, they’d be able to finish work early and go and do their homework or get some more sleep.

If you have a deep conviction that you should not pay children for photos, that’s understandable. But don’t ask them to pose for your photos and then just walk away. Better yet, don’t shoot their portrait.

Proudly pointing out to someone that you’ve just taken their photograph by showing them their image on the back of the camera is not payment. They have mobile phones with cameras and they also have mirrors at home. They know what they look like. You’re not visiting a remote hill tribe who has never seen a soul-stealing device called a camera. They’re not going to freak out and think you’re some new god. Or even photographer Steve McCurry.

Don’t be rude, show some respect

I thought about writing a list of do’s and don’ts, but to me all of this is just common sense.

You’re going to get better photos shooting on your own (rather than in a group), not being obnoxious, engaging with people, and just generally showing some respect to the people whose town you’re visiting.

I guess what I’m saying in short is: don’t be rude jerks. Show some respect.

If you found this post helpful, you might like this one on Taking Portraits — Tips for Travellers

The image that heads up this post is from the hills of Sapa, where we ran into this young man herding buffalo. Our guide, who is used to working with pro photographers, asked him if we could make his portrait first.

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There are 25 comments

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  1. Meruschka

    Thanks for this post Terence. Great explanation of the difference between portraits and candid street photography. I’m always amazed how inconsiderate travellers can be especially when they photographing people in poor areas. You wouldn’t point your big camera at a person in your own city without asking them. I think it is just common courtesy to offer to buy something from a vendor and ask if you can photograph them and if they request some money, these requests should be respected.

  2. Terence Carter

    Thanks Meruschka, absolutely. A particularly obnoxious tourist told me yesterday that “we can’t possibly pay everyone for a photo”, after harassing a poor girl after he refused to pay for a portrait. I replied, “just choose your subjects more carefully and don’t be a dirtbag”. I’m not going to stand by while someone harasses an eight year old girl.

  3. Paige Conner Totaro

    Great points. I’m going to share this with my daughter, an aspiring photographer. I once was yelled at when I tried to get a candid shot of a street corner dishwasher in Saigon, and my daughter has been after me to quit trying to get those candid shots with my iPhone. She, and you, have a point. People are much friendlier when you ask!

  4. Terence Carter

    Thanks Paige, you will get people who don’t want their particular occupation being photographed, it varies depending on the person. In Vietnam I’ve had streetside barbers smile and pose for me and I’ve had others wave me away when approached. I never take offence, I just move on…

  5. Anita Mac

    You make some excellent points…I agree with everything that you have said! I wonder if the guide was a guide for a photo tour. Doesn’t excuse the behaviour, but it seems a little odd!
    Taking candid street shots of people is something that I would love to do – but to do it well, that is an entirely different kettle of fish to what I currently shoot! I get the occasional good shot…and I am sure if I rudely stood there firing off a zillion shots, I would get something – but I just can’t imagine behaving that way! No wonder people dislike tourists so much! I would be offended if someone did that to me!

  6. nicole @thewondernuts

    I agree with this. It’s so awful to see someone taking photos as if that person is a thing, not a human being. It’s objectifying and makes the person feel uncomfortable. That photographer is lucky the lady didn’t do something drastic.

  7. Terence Carter

    Anita, the guide did not seem like a photo tour guide, the guide was quite disinterested. Most photographers just in town for one day would use a local ‘fixer’, who would be a cross between a guide, a translator and a location and ‘talent’ scout. These were clearly photo enthusiasts with too much money and not enough empathy.
    Thanks for your comment,

  8. Terence Carter

    Nicole, I have seen a fruit vendor react verbally when a woman stood in front of her for a couple of minutes (!) composing a shot. After the tourist made the photo she tried to show the vendor the photo and the woman went ballistic, yelling at her and waving her arms to tell the woman to get lost. Most locals are pretty cool as long as you’re not affecting business by standing in front of their stall for too long…
    Now there is a vendor along the same strip who loves having her photo taken, she’s very photogenic and has a lovely smile. She makes a (relative) fortune charging one dollar a shot in-between selling bags of rice flour. A safer way for visitors to get your classic lady with printed pyjamas and conical hat portrait!
    Thanks for you comment.

  9. Barbara

    Hi Terence, thanks for this article, I am glad I am not the only one with some morality. During my 8 month trip through Asia I had to ‘learn’ how to overcome the frontier between me and the person in front of my camera. In the beginning I was not able for weeks to make pictures of persons as I always felt as an intruder. Never felt comfortable with it, so unfortunable I have very little pics of people…I did not feel comfortable paying them, not paying them, showing them the pic or just doing a fast shot and moving on. If I imagine being in their situation it likes pretty much like a zoo, and specially the market in Hoi An is very touristic, so if they have to dress up for tourists so that they can see some traditional clothing, I don’t know, it feels like Walt Disney to me.

  10. Liz M. de Mattos

    Terence and Lara, thanks for sharing this text! I’m not a photographer but I’ve seen and faced some of the same situations – sometimes, disgusting! Terence, even if I did not understand the words (and agreed with your thoughts) your shot heading the post would be enough – it is superb – you grabbed the boy’s beauty and ingenuousness!!

  11. Lara Dunston

    Hi Barbara

    Thanks for your comments. I think the points that Terence makes above about the different kinds of shots – candids and portraits – is an important one. Don’t feel obligated to pay anybody if you’re discretely taking candids where they may not be the focus of an image but are part of a scene. However, if you’re behaving like a professional photographer, as the people Terence describes above are, then act like a professional and reimburse them for their time and inconvenience if they are poor traders or vendors trying to make a living. Payment for photos should not be automatic. Terence’s situation is very different as he’s shooting professional images.

    I’m curious which market you’re talking about in Hoi An…? We have been living right by the main market for the last two months and it doesn’t remotely feel like Disneyland to us. We pass through it at least once or twice a day and while tourists wander through – often a bit overwhelmed by the chaos – it is most definitely a local market where locals shop and trade every day, starting from as early as 3.30 in the morning when they begin to set up. I’m wondering if there’s another souvenir market we don’t know about…?

  12. Terence Carter

    Thanks for your comment Barbara. There are a lot of tourists that visit Hoi An and as Hoi An is known for its cuisine, most tourists visit the food market. But it is a real, living, breathing market that certainly does not exist for the sake of tourists. I’ve visited there with chefs who get all of their produce there twice a day. Tourists go to look during their cooking school and that’s generally it. As far as traditional clothes go, there are many types, most women at the markets wear the traditional printed pyjamas (áo bà ba), that’s most certainly not for the tourists (apart from the lady I mentioned in the story), it’s what they wear every day. Women who work in tourism will wear the áo dài, the more formal national costume, however it’s not some throwback to a bygone era – it’s still the school uniform for many girl’s schools! And sure the little girls wear the áo dài to attract the tourists, but guess what costume local girls wear when they want to make ‘formal’ photos of themselves? The áo dài.

  13. Kim

    Thanks for this insightful post.

    Inexperienced travelers may just not know better. On my first trip abroad ever, I made this mistake in a severe way! I still feel guilt and embarassment about it. I was literally too shy to approach people directly for portraits, and wasn’t sure what to think about paying (you wouldn’t pay a stranger in the street of your American hometown to take their picture, you know?). I wanted to capture every moment, everything I saw, so that I could share the experience with loved ones back home. After realizing how rude it is, I’ve never made this mistake again.

    But like an above commenter, I have also avoided shots with people as the main subject out of fear of offending. I find it a confusing and delicate process – you want a candid shot in this moment and you’re sure they will realize they have become the subject of your photo as you take it, but if you ask the subject if you can take their picture the moment will be over.

    I also don’t think it helps the situation if you are an inexperienced photographer. I sometimes have to make several adjustments to the camera settings to get the shot I’m after. Someone might think you took 6 shots in their direction, but 3 of them are white overexposure, 2 of them are black underexposure, and one isn’t focused. If I do go for a candid “people shot”, I usually go into it limiting myself to one try only to manage perception.

    Another thing is the big camera lenses and bodies typical to SLRs. I love my SLR. It takes much better photos than the high end point and shoot I have or my phone. But I have always felt that the sheer size of an SLR+lens in a developing country is often very intrusive and intimidating to people. I may be more comfortable with candid shots if I were holding a slim and compact point and shoot instead, but at a sacrifice to image quality. I’ve always thought that if I could get a slim lens for this type of thing that might help…

    Another thing is sharing the photos. One of the reasons I take photos on trips is to share them. I’m not that comfortable sharing photos of people online because I don’t particularly like people sharing photos of *me* online. I may think the subject is stunningly beautiful and interesting, but if the subject had the opportunity to offer their opinion they might disagree (who knows?).

    I would really be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on this subject. Feel free to email.

  14. Terence Carter

    Thanks for your comment Kim, I don’t normally pay for images as an editorial photographer. It’s a very complex issue depending on what country you’re in, the level of poverty, the level of government and local support etc.

    I’m not American, nor have I ever lived there, so I can’t comment on taking pictures in a home town there.

    As for street photography, you hit the nail on the head here:

    “I find it a confusing and delicate process – you want a candid shot in this moment and you’re sure they will realize they have become the subject of your photo as you take it, but if you ask the subject if you can take their picture the moment will be over.”

    If I spot a situation that I want to cover, I check my settings on my camera (including focusing point, if I’m shooting with auto focus) before raising the camera to my eye. I’m careful with composition take my shots and move on. Simple as that.

    The size of the camera is indeed another factor. In some situations you want to be seen as a photographer to get access, in others you want to look like a tourist taking happy snaps. It all depends on the situation. There are now smaller cameras from Fuji, Sony, Canon and Nikon (and of course Leica) that make great images in a smaller sized body. Maybe that’s a better choice for you.

    As far as whether the subject would approve, I’m always thinking that if this was me being shown, would I approve of how I’m being depicted. Does the subject have dignity? In the case of the group of photographers that was referred to in the original story, I would not publish those photos.



  15. Claus G

    Great points!
    I am not a photographer by any means, but do enjoy taking photos when I travel. I like taking candid shots, but I’m always aware of not insulting the people I’m taking pictures of… I do so by, as you mentioned, being quick and moving on, without grabbing their attention.

    I am surprised how much people forget their manners and common sense when they go traveling. I doubt they’d be doing the same, taking photos of strangers back at home with such little care as they do abroad.

    Thanks for sharing!

  16. Terence Carter

    Claus, thanks for your comment. I guess that form many people their senses are heightened, particularly when you get off the plane and are met with a totally different culture and just want to start photographing everything they see! Particularly those visitors on tightly scheduled tours, they appear to lose their manners and common sense, as you say. Indeed they would approach it very differently if they lived here like I’ve been doing the last couple of months…

  17. Anisha

    Really pleased you’ve pointed out the difference between general street shots and actual portrait Photography! And the fact you’ve tackled the inconsiderate tourists who point and shoot people, literally, like objects, without humanity or interaction. Good piece

  18. Terence Carter

    Thanks Sarah, there’s actually nothing as motivating to come up with a philosophy on this as being contractually obliged to provide images of local people for a travel guidebook publisher…

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