Anyone who isn’t blessed with boundless self-confidence and a natural gift of gab will find it difficult to take pictures of strangers at first. I am fairly shy, but I don’t think much of pictures of people taken from far away with a big telephoto lens. All too often such pictures fail to establish a connection between the viewer and the subject, a bond depending on the documented person being able to decide how much or little to reveal about him or herself. Now what? The only way to get around this issue is stepping out of your comfort zone and, again and again, bringing yourself to ask the stranger if you may take his or her picture.
Create some sort of interpersonal contact with an inquiring look, a smile, a friendly gesture towards your camera, or simply with words. It’s always helpful to learn a few phrases of the local language before traveling in a foreign country; ideally, “May I take a photo of you, please?” should be one of them. Making this effort shows that you respect the person, that you have made yourself familiar with the local culture, and that you are ready to do something for a photo. In rare cases, when circumstances demand it, you might have to take a picture first and then ask afterwards.
Acquainting yourself with and learning a little about the culture, traditions, and practices of your destination before you leave on your trip is not only helpful, it’s essential. Doing so will help you avoid getting into uncomfortable situations, and will also help you understand the things that you see, experience, and photograph. Furthermore, in doing this sort of preparation, you may learn about special occasions or events that will coincide with your travels, such as a festival specific to a particular region.
In addition, photographing people engaged in their everyday activities has other advantages. In contrast to staged photos, in which subjects often appear uncomfortable, portraits of people in action tend to be more relaxed, dynamic, and authentic. Following this path creates an entirely different kind of portrait, the environmental portrait, which shows your subject in his or her normal surroundings performing his or her usual tasks