Travel Etiquette: Photographing Locals

The rules are pretty clear on what you can and cannot shoot when travelling.

Mountains. Bridges. Bodies of water. Yes.
Taj Mahal. The Louvre. The Sistine Chapel. No.

But when it comes to people, well, there’s a little more to it.

We’ve all known those travellers who use zoom lenses or covert camera tricks to snap photos of locals without their knowledge and permission. Admit it, you’ve probably taken a few in your day too. The thing with taking surreptitious shots of unsuspecting people is that it’s not only risky, but you miss out on personal interactions that often lead to memorable experiences—and shots.

Follow these rules of etiquette to make sure your candids and portraits are met with nothing but a smile and nod of approval.

Assume you’re being seen

This automatically encourages you to act appropriately and act accordingly. With your intentions clearly on display for the world to see, your body language will in turn project a more disarming manner for potential subjects.

Put yourself in their shoes

How would you feel if you were walking down your street and a stranger dashed across the road to ask you if they could take some photos of you doing your groceries? Or dropping your kids off at school?

Be overly sensitive in every situation and approach only as you’d want to be approached. This doesn’t mean simply being polite and courteous. Often it might mean leaving the shot entirely out of respect for their time, privacy and practices.



Be culturally sensitive

Every culture is different, as are the individuals within them. If you aren’t travelling with a guide or local friend, do your due diligence and read up as much as you can about the ins and outs of your destinations.

Not only do you reduce the likelihood of you running into any drama, but you increase your chances of connecting with a willing subject.

Ask permission

This really is a tricky one simply because there’s no right or wrong answer.

Some firmly believe that photographers should always ask for permission out of respect and courtesy, even if it’s a simple nod of the head and a gesture with the camera. Those who disagree argue that certain moments dictate that you need to take the shot when you see it and that some of the most famous photos of people wouldn’t have been possible if permission was asked first.

At the end of the day, it’s a judgement call. Following the other etiquette rules and reading the situation will more often than not lead to the right call.

Ask yourself: Does this photo depict a stereotype of people?

Think about the common imagery associated with your destination and its people, images that you have been exposed to online or on the news. Before you take that photo, ask yourself if it is contributing to a negative generalisation, or is it offering a fresh new perspective?

Ask yourself: Does this photo depict your subject with dignity?

Again, would you want strangers photographing you in situations that you deem invasive or compromising? Choose only to take and share photos that frame people in a good light.

Share with your subject

Permission’s been granted, and the photo, taken.

Share your shots with your subjects as a way of thanking them for letting you into their lives. This small gesture is such an intimate icebreaker, allowing you to connect with locals in a way that is liberated from things such as language barriers.

Inform them of the intended use of their photo

This last one is important because it involves the law and, unlike asking for permission, is not up for debate.

Firstly, always ask your subject(s) if they mind if your shot can be published. If you aren’t able to communicate this, at the very least make sure your subject is aware that you may use the images. If you wish to commercially use your photos, you might even need to submit a model release form to make it all legal. As a rule of thumb, be sure to do your homework first and bring along any forms, passes or licenses that might be required of you.

To gain more practical knowledge into the wide world of travel photography, join our online course ‘Travel Photography with Richard I’Anson’ here.

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