Do you avoid people in your travel photography?

I do. I am one of those photographers who are always waiting for the people to get out of the way.

I will set up with a beautiful scene in front of me, find the right angle, and wait for the perfect light when some dude with a white shirt walks in front of me.

I have attempted to included people in some of my city photographs. I try to get people walking in front of a mirrored building maybe creating a motion blur as they go by. But inevitably that will be the one time people refuse to walk in front of my camera. They will see me and think they are doing me a favour by stopping and even changing direction to walk behind me. Why doesn’t that ever happen in landscapes?

A couple of times I have approached a person to ask awkwardly if I can photograph them and then take my shot as quickly as possible and run away. When I look at the photo later I will wonder why I didn’t spend an extra minute and get a better pose. It’s just not my thing.

But I am trying to grow as a photographer so, in an attempt to broaden my horizons, I read a new photography ebook I have been hearing a lot about “Rabari: Encounters with the Nomadic Tribe” by Mitchell Kanashkevich.

Rabari: Encounters with the Nomadic Tribe

I was immediately captivated by the cover image of a young girl staring right into the camera with the most beautiful backlight and shadows. Inside the book Kanashkevish walks through it and 9 other images detailing exactly the steps he went through to make each one. He explains what he saw, how he envisioned the photograph, and how he made it happen.

Rabari sample images

The book is beautiful. That is very important to me since I made a personal decision to only photograph beautiful things. It helps me become a happier person. But I find that many travel documentary images include stereotypes, shock imagery, or images of poverty. While it is important to increase awareness of issues like poverty, I feel there are not enough positive images in the world. It is always an image of a bedraggled, homeless, sad person with wrinkles in black and white.

Kanashkevish’s ebook contains images of beauty, wisdom, emotion, youth, and colour – it is refreshing to see such a positive view.

Here are a few things I learned from the ebook:

  • the face tells the story, you have to be close enough to show details of the face
  • include unique things that tell something about the person such as their surroundings or their clothing
  • use light to sculpt facial features to create depth in the face
  • using a pose that is natural to the person brings out their personality. Often the pose is observed at a prior time or happens in between shots and the subject is asked to take the same pose.
  • the reason I run away too fast when photographing people is probably because I have self-imposed doubts. I think I am going to make the person uncomfortable when really it is me that is uncomfortable. Rationalizing the situation in my head should make this go away. I am photographing a person for a purpose and asking them to pose is not asking too much if they indicated they were willing to be photographed in the first place.

So now the tough part, putting what I have learned into practice. After making an image of this bridge reflecting in calm waters I noticed a man fishing from shore. While I didn’t actually speak to him, I did make an image with him in it.

Fort De Soto, Florida

Baby steps, baby steps :) Please click the image to view a larger version.

Next time I am determined to actually talk to a person, make a connection, focus on the face and use light to sculpt the features.

If you want to improve your travel photography, or indeed portrait photography, try reading “Rabari” which is available from Light Stalking.

Note: this is an affiliate link so if you decide to purchase a copy you will be supporting my blog at no extra cost to you.

If you like photography ebooks, don’t forget to download a copy of my free ebook “8 Types Of Natural Light That Will Add Drama To Your Photographs.”

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  1. Alexander says

    Hello Anne,
    I had a look at the light stalking website and noticed they have some great stuff on their site.
    By the way I have very much the same problems, it takes courage to photograph people…

    • says

      Hi Alexander, yes Light Stalking is great, they have a wealth of information and are one of my favourite resources for photography. They also do a great weekly roundup of the best photos and blog posts from the week and I always find some good stuff in there that I missed. There is just so much information on the internet, it is hard to sift through it all (or a tiny bit of it) so the weekly list helps me find the best stuff.

  2. says

    No way; if you plan on selling images to magazines, people are what sell far more than straight landscapes.

    I know how you feel. I once got upset when an entire family sat down exactly where I wanted to take a photo. Then I changed my mindset and decided to take a picture of the family. It turned out to be one of my top portfolio shots.

    When life gives you lemons….

    • says

      Hi Gary, When life gives you lemons … chuck ’em at people!!! :) That’ll get them out of my frame! Ok, obviously I need to change the way I think about people. You are quite right though, if I ever want to get my images in magazines I am going to have to learn how to include people. I was thinking it might be easier to hire a model to work with first since they know what they are doing as far as posing and it will give me some experience putting people in my landscapes.

  3. says

    I really enjoy taking pictures of people, but I find them my hardest subjects to include in landscapes and nature shots. Whenever the person is just right something else is usually wrong :)

    And I entirely agree with you on the travel photography cliches – the world doesn’t need more black and white images of time- and poverty-hardened people (well, it needs more awareness of poverty and hardship, but yeah …)
    Marc Perkins recently posted..Behind the scenes: How I took my poinsettia flower closeup pictureMy Profile

    • says

      Hi Marc, ya exactly, it’s hard to get the light and composition just right AND get the person at the right moment. Well I guess if it was easy everyone would be doing it. Like I said to Gary I’m thinking about hiring a model to work with first to get some experience photographing people. Thank you very much for leaving your comments, much appreciated!

      • says

        What about just asking another photographer? I bet a bunch would be happy to trade off (awkwardly) modeling. And, of course, taking pictures of photographers taking pictures is just classic :)

        About the only people I’ve had luck including in landscapes were other photographers. For instance, while shooting a sunset in Corona Del Mar another photographer was working on the beach with an assistant for what looked to be a quinceañera shoot. As with Gary, just going with the flow created a much more interesting photograph.
        Marc Perkins recently posted..Behind the scenes: How I took my poinsettia flower closeup pictureMy Profile

        • says

          Hi Marc, I would try that, but I’m travelling, so unless I meet up with other photographers… I have tried putting Ray, my husband, into the photos, but he usually puts on his “I am being photographed” face (sorry Ray). Actually one time at the beach I got him to jump around so I could get him mid-air and that seemed to work. Hmm… maybe I’ll have to ask him to do something while I try to photograph him…

  4. says

    When I first started licensing images, a travel editor told me I needed to include more people in my photos because that’s what they’re looking for. And also I think it’s a way to set yourself apart because it’s harder to duplicate a good people in scene shot than to do another Golden Gate Bridge scenic postcard view with nobody in there.

    So I avoid if I want to hang something up on my wall. But if I want to do serious travel photography then I include people when appropriate. The key then is to simplify the scenes so it still looks good and tells a story because the problem with having people in your travel scenes more often than not is that there are too many of them and no real order to the scene.

    • says

      Hi Richard, thank you so much for your very helpful tips! I think a lot of readers will appreciate the advice you received from the travel editor. You have some excellent points about creating a more unique image with people in the scene and about simplifying the scene as well. It’s so easy to forget all you know about composition techniques when you have the complication of people taking your attention.

  5. says

    As others have mentioned Anne – people sell!

    But more importantly, from an aesthetic point, they often add interest to an otherwise static image and give it a sense of place. This is especially true of action or cultural shots where the activities of daily life are an integral part of the surroundings.
    Russ Bishop recently posted..2011 – The Year in PicturesMy Profile

    • says

      Hi Russ, thanks for your comments! Yes, I think you are right, without the people much of the culture is missing. And the candid shots I often see do not have nearly the impact as the images where the photographer made a connection with the subject and got them to cooperate. I still don’t know what to say to people though. I’m going to New Orleans tomorrow so I’m going to try…

  6. Divina says

    Hi Anne! I can’t blame you if you doesn’t feel people surrounds you when taking your photos. I know there are lot of photographers feel the same way as you do. And yes, you can concentrate on your subject. The photos above are the evidence that you are one talented photographer.
    Divina recently posted..Home Security SoftwareMy Profile

  7. says

    Why oh why am I always reading your great blog posts Anne and wanting to comment when my only access at the moment is this little phone screen and keyboard? More later when I’m on the real computer. Your article really, really resonates with me!

      • says

        Yes, Anne – I had just commented on a photo by G Dan Mitchell on G+ of the California coastline that by itself was an extraordinary picture but Dan had included a near silhouette of a lone surfer walking along the beach and to me that really made the picture something the viewer could better relate to and gave it a better sense of scale. Then, in the spring of 2011 I had made a trip to Austin for a photography seminar and then decided to stop by the Texas Capitol building to get some night shots. I remember getting irritated at this multitude of people wandering around in front of the building and I was wondering why were there so many people on campus (later I realized it was a day from the commencement ceremony) but then I realized that they were adding to my photos and if I used a slow shutter speed the motion blur add interest to the photos. One of the images from that night that seemed to work well was this one:

        It was also funny how this group of people (in the above picture I think) acted apologetic and tried to get out of my way but I told them that no, actually I was trying to get them to appear in silhouette against the background of the Capitol building.

        • says

          Hi Ken, I really like your image of the Capitol building, the blurred people in it really add the image, you did a great job there! I just need to go with the flow a bit more and if there are people there, just let them be in it rather than waiting for the moment they are not in the frame. I really like the blurred technique, I am going to give that a shot. Thank you so much for your great comments.

  8. says

    An image of a bedraggled, homeless, sad person is not travel photography. That’s photo journalism. Such an image can be as beautiful as a smiling kid, but is much more of a challenge to pull off successfully. There maybe many awful such images, but the best of this kind display empathy and dignity, which are positive emotions.

    As for images with people selling more, that’s what I’ve read and been told too, but from my own record of licensing several thousands of images, it’s not been my experience.

    • says

      Hi QT, yes, I see what you mean about those photos being photojournalist and I think you are right that the image with empathy and dignity is harder to pull off. I think because you have to make a connection with the person rather than photographing from afar. It is interesting that your experience in selling the images with people is very different from many of the other commenters. It just goes to prove though, you can be successful and not photograph people. Thank you very much for taking the time write your insightful comments.

    • says

      Hi Karla, Sometimes I am concentrating so much I don’t notice that I have stopped traffic – you know how people will stop so they don’t walk into your image – except I am taking forever and a huge crowd of stopped traffic starts piling up! It’s funny that a camera has the power to stop traffic like that. Thank you very much for your visit and comments.

  9. Hugh Wolfe says

    Just purchased the book “Rabari: Encounters with the Nomadic Tribe” by Mitchell Kanashkevich… looks like it’s full of wonderful information.

    • says

      Hi Hugh, that’s great, I really loved the book, it is full of inspiration and I am so motivated now to include people. It’s still hard though. I think I need to somehow get a willing participant rather than approaching a complete stranger. In one part of the book Mitchell talks about how his guide helped him find people who were willing to be photographed. Of course Mitchell didn’t speak the language, but I think I might need someone to help connect me with a willing subject. I really hope you enjoy it. Let me know!

  10. says

    What about getting written permission from strangers? Most photo licensing websites require a signed model release from the person being photographed. If a family walks into your frame and you decide to sell the photograph, do you pull out a form and ask them to fill it out? What about photography in a public place or event but you focus in on one person who becomes the main subject of the photo? Do you chase them down and get permission to sell the photo? This is what keeps me from photographing people/strangers more than asking them to pose.
    Christine recently posted..Sunset on the fenceMy Profile

    • says

      Hi Christine, Here’s the deal: if you are going to sell the image for commercial purposes such as selling it for an advertisement you need a model release. So yes, if you take an image that you think might be purchased by a corporation for some sort of advertisement you run after the person and try to get them to sign a release :) I think it’s probably easier if you can set up the scene using a model or a friend and get them to sign a release ahead of time.

      BUT, if you are using the image for editorial purposes you do not need a model release. That’s how newspapers can take photos of whatever they like and not require a release. It’s an editorial story. I put photos I take of people on my website and in my ebooks and they do not have releases (most of them). But I couldn’t sell them for an ad.

      I hope that helps.


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