Photo Tip of the Month: 5 Ways To Take Beautiful Portraits – Even If You Don’t Speak Their Language

Atacama Father And Daughter

This father and daughter in the Atacama Desert of Chile were joking, having fun, goofing around. I chuckled, and they smiled at me. After a while, we had developed a rapport, and they were only to happy to continue the clowning while I took their photo. Nikon D90 with an 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens, 18mm, 1/125 second, f/3.5.

If you make a connection with people, you’re likely to have them agree to have their photos taken.  You’re likely to get really great photos.  And you just may make a friend or have memories you’ll treasure, whether you take their photo or not.  And much of this is almost a “how-to” on how to have more fun when you travel or even explore your own area!

Smile and Ask First
Sneaky shots and far away shots don’t always come out so well.  If you are exploring a market, at an athletic event or concert, walking around a city, and you see someone that you’d like to photograph, it’s better to smile, make eye contact, and ask first.  It’s more respectful, and people usually respond to that.  And if they don’t, then they wouldn’t have wanted their photo taken anyway. If you want to photograph their kids, who are often more willing to pose for photos at first, ask permission first.  If you don’t speak their language, that’s okay.  The universal pointing to your camera and a smile does the trick.  Show them the photo if you have a digital camera.  Some photographers will offer to send them a photo or bring a camera that allows them to print photos, such as the Polaroid PoGo, a digital camera with a built-in printer.  Great ice-breaker.  Consider shooting with a compact camera first.  Some people find these less intimidating.  Then if you wish, you can move to an SLR or DSLR later.

Show An Interest In People and Their Culture
Good manners and respect for people and their culture goes a long way.  When people see that you are respectful of their culture, they know that you put in the time to learn some of their ways.  That shows respect.  That shows understanding. It shows interest in who they are.  If I don’t know about a certain routine, ritual, custom, or whatever, I find out in a guidebook, ask a local, or stand and watch for a while so I can see what others are doing.  This also allows me to enjoy the moment and not rush through everything as if it were simply a display.

Get Involved
A sure ice-breaker is to join in on the fun.  What’s going on?  Attend a local church or temple service. Join a game.  Go shopping at a market. Watch a local football match in person.  Go rafting, take lessons, do something.  I’ve gotten some of my best people photos when I’ve joined in.  I’ve made friends with sadhus in the Himalayas when I we hiked up to a temple together for three hours.  I’ve met people while getting a shave on the streets of New Delhi.  I’ve helped plant tomatoes and dry food on rooftops in Kashmir.  I’ve tried to learn local dances in a small village in Peru.  I couldn’t speak more than a few words with any of these people, but that was okay.

Don’t be afraid to look silly.  If anything, that only helps break the ice.  People don’t expect you to do everything well or be able to dance their traditional dances perfectly.  But joining in and trying can create memories that will last a life time and make for fascinating stories to tell your friends or family.  And those interesting photos that you take back will remind you of those amazing times.

Establish Rapport
Going to temple or a concert or standing in line or wishing someone happy birthday when they are celebrating or eating at a restaurant are all enjoyable, and all are further opportunities to establish rapport.  I was waiting for food at a budget restaurant in the Atacama Desert in Chile.  I saw a father playing and joking around with his young daughter, making funny faces and having fun.  I chuckled, and they looked up and smiled.  That was fun.  We had also ordered similar food, and asked each other how it was.  We started a conversation.  I took photos of them together, still joking around, still having fun.  This photo still brings back great memories.  I’m not always looking to take photos of people, but I don’t like to pass up great opportunities either!

Learn a Few Words in Their Language
Learn the language of the country you are visiting, or at least a few words. This will often earn respect of people, particularly if it’s a more obscure language, and serves as a wonderful ice-breaker, helping you to connect.  I’ve had people invite me to their homes, their temples, or their place of work simply because I learned a few words in their native language and they were touched.  Making these connections will help you capture the spirit of the people, achieving far better photos…and maybe making a friend.

Think, Know, Plan (Okay, This Is Basically a Sixth Tip!)
You need to work quickly to be spontaneous. Therefore, you need to know your camera and equipment well. If you fiddle faddle with your equipment, adjusting settings, messing with this and that, you risk losing the spontaneity of your subject.

Before you approach your subject, think about what you’re going to do. Plan your shot. Think about the lighting at hand, your composition, focal length, viewpoint, and the position you wish to shoot from based on how the light falls on your subject.

Equipment used for photo:  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens