Picture it: You're away on vacation and touring the famous sites when two people catch your eye. You want to take a picture of them, but there's no way to sneak the shot and you don't know if you should ask their permission, or if you even speak the same language.
What's a novice photographer to do?!?
Photographing strangers is often quite the challenge, but it doesn't have to be. Knowing the ins and outs of photographing strangers will ease your fears and help you capture great travel photos that will last a lifetime.
Ask For Permission
Just like you wouldn't appreciate some tourist randomly snapping your photo for their vacation photo album, the same goes for locals in the country you're visiting. If you see someone that you would like to take a photo of, give them the same courtesy you would want and simply ask their permission. Of course asking for permission will not necessarily get you a guaranteed 'yes.' A refusal can be disappointing but should be accepted with as you scout for another person you find interesting. Be sure to find out if there are any religious or cultural reasons that discourage or prohibit photography. If in doubt, ask a local.
Learn 'Tourist Sign Language'
You're in the middle of a souk in Marrakech, Morocco when you spot a mother playing with her kids. You would love to ask her permission to photograph them but she speaks Arabic...you don't. Here's where knowing a little tourist sign language will help you out. Simply smiling and holding your camera up is usually sufficient to get your intention across. Also motioning for them to sit or stand in a certain place or pointing (if it's not culturally unacceptable, like in Thailand for example) will help you get the exact shot you desire. Just approach the person with confidence and a smile.
Often times we're so nervous about how to approach our intended subject that we often forget that they might be nervous about having their photo taken. If people stiffen up in front of the camera, it’s up to you to get them to relax. Take one frame however they have posed themselves, then wait or talk to them before trying again. Get them to relax by showing them how they look on the LCD screen, it's sure to help break the ice and make getting that great shot much easier.
In some instances you might be asked for money in exchange for taking a photo. Depending on how you feel you could see this as fair or annoying. If money is not asked for, don't worry about it, but if it is asked for either be prepared to walk away or agree on the price beforehand to avoid problems afterwards and make sure you’re working in the local currency, not yours. Also, as a safety rule always have coins and small denomination notes with you in an easily accessible pocket (a different pocket from where you carry the rest of your money) so that you don’t have to pull out great wads of cash, which would no doubt catch the eyes of thieves who would be more than happy to take it all from you.
Say Thank You
After the awkwardness of your tourist sign language and the mutual nervousness have worn off and the photographic mission has been accomplished, don't forget the most important part of the experience: saying thanks! You may not speak the same language or live on the same side of the globe, but 'thank you' is something that is universal and goes a long way in leaving a positive and long lasting impression.
Danielle Pointdujour is a native Brooklynite living and writing in the Big Apple. You can find Danielle sharing her personal outlook on love, life and travel on various publications across the web.