Friday Foto Talk: Photographing People ‘in Flow’ ~ Candids & Travel   Leave a comment

While shooting landscape in southern Utah, some hikers "rudely" inserted themselves into my photo. The nerve!

While shooting the landscape of southern Utah, these hikers “rudely” inserted themselves into my photo. The nerve!

If you haven’t been following along, I’ve been doing a little series on the idea of flow in photography.  Flow is that state of hyper-focus that we’ve all experienced, perhaps not enough in the modern era of distractions.  Last week’s Foto Talk looked at people photography in general, but was biased toward portraiture.  This week is a follow-up that focuses on my favorite kind of people photography: serendipitous candid shots done either traveling or while engaged with another subject (landscapes, as above, for example).

Two young Malawian boys who somehow didn’t become members of Madonna’s family.

Serendipity & Candids

Serendipity implies little or no thinking ahead.  But it’s okay to have a general approach.  It’ll vary depending on whether you know ahead of time that you’ll be photographing people.  And whether or not you like shooting without first asking permission.  But serendipity means at the very least that your subject(s) don’t know they’re going to appear in your photos until very close to the time you press the shutter.

  • Why should you do this kind of photography?  Say you’re traveling, whether on a short weekend trip close to home or half-way around the world.  You naturally want pictures, right?  Suppose on this trip you head out on foot to look for interesting stuff to photograph.  You might think you’ll be shooting buildings and “the sights”, but in most places you will come across people as well.  You already know they usually make the best images from a trip, and that’s because people speak to us of the place where they live much more strongly and eloquently than any building or mountain can.
I didn't even think about a shot of this Rasta woodcarver on the shores of Lake Malawi until he took a smoke break. I think he represents well the chill atmosphere of the lakeside part of that country.

I didn’t even think about a shot of this Rasta woodcarver on the shores of Lake Malawi until he took a smoke break. I think he represents well the chill atmosphere of the lakeside part of that country.

 

  • So whether or not your goal on a shoot is to photograph people, be ready anytime you’re out in even a lightly populated area.  I don’t always follow this advice, being somewhat shy most of the time.  But traveling in foreign lands is different; I’m much more outgoing.  I’ve learned that approaching people is easier than it seems.  For one thing they may be just as curious about you as you are of them, and for another many people want to help visitors, and that includes helping them get good photos.
Usually I have trouble approaching girls this pretty, but she and her friends turned out to be full of fun and easy to shoot.

Usually I have trouble approaching girls this pretty, but she and her friends turned out to be full of fun and easy to shoot.

  • The first question photographers who want candid travel shots ask themselves is, “to ask or not to ask first”.  While I do shoot the occasional picture when someone isn’t expecting it, I normally ask first.  But don’t make the mistake I made at first, which is to go right up and ask to shoot their picture.

 

  • Instead of letting your camera get in the way right off the bat, spend a little time with people before asking to shoot.  Minimize the fact you have a camera (I know, easier said than done when you have a big white lens!).  Be curious about them, advice that applies to all photography subjects.  And if you’re not genuinely curious, shoot something else.

 

  • As with all people photography (and in fact all photography), have fun!  When you approach strangers, joking around and even making a bit of a fool of yourself are sure-fire ice breakers.
This cute little Sherpa girl, who was shy at first, had such a big playful personality that I had to force myself to stop and get pictures.

This cute little Sherpa girl, who was shy at first, had such a big playful personality that I had to force myself to stop and get pictures.

 

  • All this engagement takes more time than if you simply shoot and move on to the next subject.  You may miss a shot or two by focusing on the person first and the pictures second.  And you’ll probably get fewer photos.  But the images you do get will hopefully be better, and most important they will mean more to you.

 

  •  Now it’s time to ask for pictures.  You can simply smile and ask, or you can take more of an indirect approach.  You could point out the aspects of the setting, light, or of your subject that attracted your attention and made you approach in the first place.  Whatever you do, be honest about what you want and respect their decision if they decline.
At first, this beauty in a remote little Zambian village said no. I didn't push, just photographed her friend who had said yes. Luckily she changed her mind.

At first, this beauty in a remote little Zambian village said no. I didn’t push, just photographed her friend who had said yes. Luckily she changed her mind.

 

  • There is one more issue that inevitably comes up when doing this kind of travel photography, and that’s how to express your gratitude if they say yes.  Your subject may request money, especially if you’re a tourist in a foreign country.  If it’s obvious that you are better off financially than they are, it becomes even more of a temptation to pay.  I generally don’t pay for pictures.  But there are a few exceptions, such as when someone has organized a way to direct a little tourist money to local people and I really want the pictures.  But I do believe that paying results in a less desirable relationship between photographer/tourist and subject/local.  I also think there are too many other ways to show gratitude (see below).  But ultimately whether or not you pay for pictures is a personal decision.
While I didn't pay this young Sherpa in a Himalayan teahouse directly, I did tip him well.

While I didn’t pay this young Sherpa in a Himalayan teahouse directly, I did tip him well.

 

  • Showing gratitude and sharing your pictures is about more than just showing the back of your camera.  While traveling I carry a small portable printer (Polaroid Pogo but there are others).  I print a wallet-size picture direct from the camera and it’s always a hit.  If they ask for emailed pictures, always always follow up.  I recommend you use low-resolution versions that are good for computer display.  Another great way to show gratitude if your subject is a vendor is to buy something.
Happy kids aren't hard to find in Cambodia, but I got great reactions from this group along Angkor Wat's moat when I handed out pictures. They are holding them and note my little red printer at lower left.

Happy kids aren’t hard to find in Cambodia, but these “urchins” along Angkor Wat’s moat were quite excited when I handed out pictures (which a couple are holding).  Note my little red printer at lower left.

That wraps up people photography & flow.  I hope you enjoyed the pictures.  Granted, some of the above points are not specific to the idea of flow.  It is good advice whether or not you experience flow while shooting candids.  But all of will help create a comfortable atmosphere, and to help both you and your subjects relax and have a good time.  It doesn’t guarantee experiencing flow but it sure helps.  Thanks for reading and have a grand weekend!

The sun sets on a southern Thailand beach as this fire-dancer practices for the evening performance.

The sun sets on a southern Thailand beach as this fire-dancer practices for the evening performance.

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