How To Take Someone’s Photo In A Foreign Country Without Being A Jerk

How To Take Someone’s Photo In A Foreign Country Without Being A Jerk
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The most interesting aspect of visiting another country is the people there, so it’s understandable if you want to snap some pics of locals while you travel. But it’s easy to get shutter happy and forget to be courteous while you do it. These tips will help.

All photos by Patrick Allan, taken in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Connect With Them First

Had a great chat with these guys over some tequila.

Had a great chat with these guys over some tequila.

While we explored Havana, one of the best pieces of advice I got from filmmaker and National Geographic photographer Renan Ozturk was to connect with your subject. If you’re taking photos of, say, a baseball player, that could mean being knowledgeable about baseball and knowing when the best time to snap an action shot is. Or, if you’re taking photos of a building, that could mean knowing architecture and snapping pics of the building’s more interesting features. Basically, to shoot your subject well, you need to know your subject.

The same is true of people. If you want to snap a good photo of them, you should get to know them. That means knowing a little bit of their language and striking up a conversation. Ask them about their culture, the area, and, if they seem friendly, ask them about themselves. Make an earnest effort to communicate with them and show that you mean no harm. To many, this just sounds like common decency — and it is — but you’d be surprised how many tourists will walk up to locals and snap a photo point blank without saying a word. Not cool. Besides, talking to them first will give you a great story to go along with your photo. And you never know what kind of advice they might have for kind travellers.

Always, Always Ask

OK, I didn't ask the dog... but I did ask his owner.

OK, I didn’t ask the dog… but I did ask his owner.

Once you’ve struck up a conversation and feel like you’ve connected with them, ask them if it’s alright to take their photo. This is very, very important. A lot of people will be totally fine with you taking a photo, but some people will be very against it. Either way, people will appreciate the fact that you asked.

If they say no, you can give them a little nudge — say they look great, mention how you want to remember your conversation, give a brief explanation of what their photo will be used for, and so on — but don’t push it. If they’re not into it, say thank you anyway, and move along.

Be Quick and Don’t Be Pushy

If, and only if, they say yes, shoot the photo quickly. They are already doing you a favour by being your model, so respect their time. That means you need to know your camera well and have your camera ready to shoot before you even start talking to them. You want to be able to ask them and go right into it so there’s no lag time. This keeps you from wasting their time, and it gives them less time to get nervous and change their mind.

When you shoot, it’s OK to ask them to pose, or smile, or look away from the camera, but don’t be too pushy. Remember, everything you ask of them is a favour to you. If you keep it light and fun they will probably have fun too.

Offer Them Something and Be Ready to Pay

This guy let me snap a pic after I bought some beautiful bead art in his shop.

This guy let me snap a pic after I bought some beautiful bead art in his shop.

Depending on where you are in the world, people might expect more than a please and thank you in return for taking their photo. You need to be prepared to offer them something in case they ask, and it’s nice to have things on hand to give anyway. A little money works, but it can also be a small gift of some kind.

If you’re not sure what would make a good, simple gift in the country you’re visiting, do some research beforehand. Things like pens and pencils, notepads, small toys, and other such trinkets can be good. Josh Haftel, the Adobe Lightroom mobile product manager, uses a small portable photo printer for his offerings. Kids love getting photos of themselves, and it’s a special treat for a lot of adults too. If you’re in a developing part of the world, not a lot of people will have photos of themselves or their families. If you can snap a nice pic of them and print it out for them right then and there, it’s a pretty sweet deal for both parties.

Also, be aware of people whose job is to get their photo taken and make tips. There were people all over Havana that did this. That woman in the nice dress smoking a cigar in a perfect ray of sunlight? She’ll let you take her pic, but she’ll chase you down for payment.

Give a Sincere Thank You

It should go without saying that you need to thank the person for even bothering with some tourist like you, but I’ll say it here anyway. Smile, shake their hand, bow, or do whatever is considered polite, and say thank you in their language. You’re a guest — act like one.