Whether you are traveling or living in a city that’s not your own, like many of City Weekend's readers, you surely take a lot of photographs of things and places that catch your attention. Taking photos of buildings, landmarks, parks and museums is of course very important, but your photos will look so much better if you include people in them. You will really capture the essence of a place if you show its people.
Every culture is different: In some countries on the American continent, the locals will refuse to have their photos taken for fear of ‘having their souls taken away’. It may be a true belief, or just an excuse to get money from tourists.
In other countries people don’t mind having their photos taken. I find that in China, generally speaking, most people are ok with it, as long as you are respectful. Even if you don’t speak the language, make an effort to communicate. Sometimes a simple smile, a nod, a gesture, lifting up your camera and asking ‘Is it ok if I take your picture?’ is enough to make yourself understood.
But taking photos of strangers on the street can be quite difficult. There are two main ways of doing it: “Street Photography” style, where you try to steal a photo without the person noticing; or “Portrait Photography” style, where you approach them, engage with them and then take a photo.
I personally prefer the latter, because although it might take a little bit more time and effort, I believe it is a nicer, kinder approach. If you ever admired Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’ portrait and thought to yourself “I wish I could take a photo like that!”, this is the best way to do it. Your images will be more meaningful and show a better reflection of the person you are capturing.
I am more interested in having an exchange with the person, some other kind of social interaction than the photo itself. That is why after spending some moments with them and making their photo, I show them the camera’s LCD monitor. This works as an ice-breaker, everybody loves to see their photo and they will usually pose for a few more afterwards. Most people in China have phone-cameras and taking photos of strangers is not such a weird thing to do. How many times have I found myself trying to take a photo of someone, only to have them take out their phone and snap a photo of me!
If I go to a hutong, for example, to take some nice photos of the locals, I usually spend some time walking around, soaking up the place, trying to get a feel for it. It helps to let people see me and get used to my presence. Then I take out my camera, find a good spot and wait for the right moment. I take my time to understand the environment, because it always ends in better images. On several occasions I have been invited to go inside people’s houses, with smiles, giggles and offerings of tea.
If you decide to approach the person and ask permission, don’t be afraid that they will say “No,” chances are, they will agree. But if you get a negative response, don’t insist – it will only upset them. If you have their permission, after spending a few moments using your people skills and engaging with them, you can think about technical things like composition, lighting, clean background, etc.
Another good way to take photos of strangers is to buy something. You were probably thinking of buying a snack or souvenir anyway and once you have had that short interaction with the vendor, you can ask them to pose for a photo and they usually they won’t refuse.
It may not always be possible to ask permission and it is totally alright to take pictures of people without them noticing. For example, you may see a picture-perfect situation and if you stop and ask permission, the moment is gone.
If you want to do some true ‘street photography,’ to go incognito and take photos of people without them noticing, there are a few things to bear in mind:
• Safety first! Watch your camera and belongings. It is easy to get distracted and although China in general terms is very safe, it is always good to be cautious.
• Know the laws, and avoid getting into trouble with the police for taking pictures of a place you are not supposed to.
• Have your camera ready and take the lens cap off. Turn off the beeping noise if your camera has one.
• Be prepared to take hundreds of photos for every good one.
• Try to use a camera with a small lens. Sticking a huge lens on someone’s face will only put them off and provoke a bad reaction. Although longer lenses allow you to keep your distance and perhaps not be noticed, there is a different feel when you can get really close to your subject.
• Similarly, don’t put on the lens hood, it makes the lens look bigger and ‘serious.’ Try to blend in and look more like a tourist than a paparazzi.
And finally: always remember to be courteous, respectful and sensitive to other people’s feelings and reactions.
If you're unsure who would make good subjects, here are some photos I like to take:
• Children and old people – because it seems to me that they are not in a hurry all the time and therefore they will take more time to share something with you: a look, a pose, a smile.
• Wedding couples: there is a tradition in China, to take wedding photos before the actual wedding and you will see couples posing in parks, by the lake, etc. I can’t help myself and I always take a photo or two.
• People playing games on the street
• More than two on a bike
• People taking photos of other people
• People playing instruments or dancing in parks
• People staring at me
What kind of People Photos do you like to take? Let us know in the comments below.
Chelin Miller is a writer, photographer, mother and explorer. She feels very fortunate to travel with her family to extraordinary places, meet wonderful people and visit fascinating cultures. She tries to capture the moment, to remember the experiences and hopefully to be able to share with others.