Capturing Humanity: 10 Tips for Great Street and Market Photos

Do you pay for your photographs? Do you ask permission? Have you had any problems taking photographs of people on the street?

We field these sorts of questions often. Several readers also recently requested that we write a post about how we get our photos, especially of people in street and market settings.

In response, we share ten tips for taking engaging photos of the humanity that colors our planet.

Little Indian Girl with Make-Up - Kerala, India
Love the eyes. Kerala, India.

Rather than focus on camera settings and technical tips already enumerated on 1000s of photography websites, we’ll characterize our approach to subject-seeking, shooting, and presentation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, you’ll find that it closely resembles our approach to travel.

1. Go where the people are.

Elaboration of the obvious perhaps, but so many travelers don’t do it. If you want people shots, you have to go where the locals go. Seek out the places where they work, where they walk, and where they hang out — and you’ll likely get your best shots. And don’t just wait outside the door of that funky cafeteria or pool hall. Go inside, make some friends and get into the action.

Corn Vendors at Tashkent Market - Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Corn competition at a market in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

One of our first stops in any new location is the local fresh market. It’s the way we orient ourselves. With a few exceptions, markets are loaded with real people who are friendly, photo-worthy and informative. Parks, street food stall areas and bus stations also provide endless subjects.

The places you’re least likely to see large numbers of ordinary people going about their day? Museums, tourist sights and tourist ghettos.

2. Make a personal connection.

Show an interest in a person as a fellow human first, and a photographic subject second. For example, ask a market vendor what that exotic fruit or vegetable is called. Ask a mother about the age of the child she’s holding and whether she has other children. These simple questions will usually lead to other conversations. And more than likely, to the photo you are seeking.

Once you have developed a level of trust, ask to take the person’s photo. For parents with children, ask permission from the parent before photographing the children.

Burmese Mother and Child - Toungoo, Myanmar
Proud mother in Burma (Myanmar).

Of course, speaking the local language helps. But even if you don’t share a common verbal language, positive body language – smiles, respectful nods – goes a long way in greeting someone and establishing a connection. Once you’ve made the link, you’ll have an easier time requesting photos by motioning with your camera or performing other charades.

When our train in Toungoo, Burma was delayed by an hour, we used the opportunity to engage with vendors and fellow passengers. Most were unaccustomed to foreigners and virtually no one spoke English. But we started with the kids and turned the delay into one of our most enjoyable photo sessions yet. Everyone had a good time and the photos reflect this.

And shouldn’t the point of any exercise be that everyone enjoy the experience?

Note: If someone does not want his/her photo taken, respect those wishes. And don’t take the rejection personally. There are lots of interesting subjects out there.

Speaking of interesting subjects, we’ve never paid for a photo. If someone asks us for money to take his photo, we don’t take the photo; we move on. Other photographers feel differently and pay. It’s a personal choice.

3. Ignore the first shot.

Sometimes the most charismatic person in the market will turn serious – reminiscent of turn-of-the-century set shots of the royal family- when the camera is obviously turned on her. Go ahead, take the photo – serious expression and all – even though it’s not the one you want.

When the person realizes that the photo is taken (i.e., the ordeal is over) – she will relax and get back to business. That’s when you turn around and take the second or third photo. These are the images you want.

4. Don’t ask people to pose

Don’t ask people to do what they normally wouldn’t do. Shoot them in their natural environment.

Indian Coffee with a Smile - Pondicherry, India
Coffee with a smile in Pondicherry, India.

We once witnessed a professional photographer (two cameras around his neck, obscenely huge telephoto lenses) in a market in Burma coercing a vendor to pose with her scales. He poked at her like she was a doll, ignoring the fact that she was human. The look on her face said it all; she was disgusted with the process (and rightly so).

We peeked over the photographer’s shoulder as he was reviewing his shots in the LCD screen: as awful as the look on his subject’s face.

5. Talk and shoot. If you are two, employ tag-team photography.

Many people are understandably uncomfortable with having their photo taken. Distract them from the presence of the camera by talking with them and you are more likely get a natural shot. Chat, ask questions, tell a joke, use self-deprecating humor. Use your inner clown to elicit laughter or your inner psychologist an emotional response.

This works even better if you are two people: one photographs while the other carries on the conversation.

This technique came in handy with microfinance borrowers in India and Guatemala. In both cases, many of the women we photographed were unaccustomed to having their photographs taken. Some became visibly intimidated by the sight of our DSLR camera. But one of us asked questions while the other took photos. For the most part, our subjects forgot about the camera and relaxed. And we got the chance to hear their stories.

See the results here and here.

6. Take a step back. Stop and wait.

Once you’ve found where all the people are (#1), you might just be overwhelmed by it all. A sea of humanity – the activity, colors, sounds and smells – can do that. At this point, take a step back from the action and find a corner, bench or outdoor café to observe it all from a distance.

Guatemalan Indigenous Man with Traditional Dress - San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala
A colorful character at the San Francisco el Alto market, Guatemala.

Temporarily retreating to the sidelines helps make you and your camera a little less conspicuous. It also affords a broader perspective. This is where you take your overview shots. You can also photograph people from afar, without having to ask for permission.

7. Know your white balance.

We know. We promised something other than technical tips. The tip is this: if you seek to understand any technical bit about your camera, understand its white balance settings.

You may have the most amazing subject and composition in the world, but if the mood and color temperature are off – an unintended bluish tint, washed out or over-saturated colors – you still have a bad photo. Yes, post-processing can help a bit, but it’s best to get the color temperature right in the original image.

Even most hand-held cameras allow you to adjust white balance. Play around in advance with these settings so you know which to use in heavily shaded market stalls, under fluorescent lights, in fog, in bright daylight, etc. We tend to use cloudy and shade white balance settings most to yield warmer colors.

8. Get close.

Many of the best people shots are close-ups. Sure, you can always crop an image afterward, but try to get in close for the original shot.

If you’ve made a connection with someone (see #2), use that mutual trust to get closer. Or, make use of that telephoto lens…respectfully.

We’ve seen photographers armed with foot-long telephoto lenses almost poke their subjects in the eye with the lens. (True story of Cambodian children at Angkor Wat.) This is rude and disrespectful. There’s also a good chance your shots will reflect this.

9. Use your LCD screen to show the result.

People all over the world are curious about what they look like, especially in developing and transitional countries where many people do not have access to a camera…or possibly even a mirror.

Showing the image you have taken will usually evoke a response that in itself is worth photographing (if you have a second photographer, this can be another great shot). The whole process builds trust. The hub-bub and laughter can also help recruit other people nearby to have their photos taken.

Village Boy Takes a Closer Look - Luang Prabang, Laos
Everyone likes seeing their image, especially kids.

And, it’s just plain fun. This is one of our favorite parts of taking photos of people. Children go nuts. And older people are often pleasantly surprised by the result. Belly laughs are common. And the smiles and reactions are priceless…even if we don’t always record them on film.

10. Edit, edit, edit.

We’re not talking about post-processing, but about developing a critical eye to select and display your best photographs. While you might think that all 300 photos from your recent trip are worthy of the Ansel Adams award, consider perhaps uploading and sharing a smaller batch.

Select a variety of images (e.g., people, landscapes, food) from a place that together tell a story. If you can, provide a few titles and descriptions so that viewers can understand the photographic context and learn something along the way.

——————-

If you have your own street or people photography tips, please share them in the comments section below.

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Comments

  1. Agne says

    I loved the 9th tip and the picture that comes with it :) It’s really true that people love to see what they look like.

    Thanks for all the tips. Now I understand why you have such a great pictures!

  2. Sarka says

    Hello there, that’s a nice spot on summary, indeed. Thanks for sharing your tips and posting some great pictures!

  3. says

    Thanks for your comments! Respect and curiosity go a long ways for taking good people photos. If you’re having fun as the photographer, the subject will likely enjoy him/herself as well.

  4. says

    I always shy away from taking people pictures mainly because I don’t want to be disrespectful. You give excellent advice for dealing with that.

    We also have a small cheaper camera that Lila uses and will sometimes hand that one over to people we meet (usually kids) for them to take pics. I love seeing what they see.

  5. says

    This is a wonderful post! I just went to a Friday market a few days ago with my small digital camera in hand and looking back I think I could have got some better shots than I what I ended up with. I’m no professional photographer but I’m always looking for something better to put up on my website.

    I would say that one of the reasons to ask permission to take a picture instead of just hiding far away with a telephoto lens is that you usually end up with photos where the subject is looking at the camera. These are the kind of pictures that draw me in as a viewer and the very kind I wish to capture.

    I’m pretty new to this site but I loved this post. Just stumbled it…thanks for the tips.

  6. says

    @Leigh: It can feel uncomfortable asking permission to take a person’s photo or that you are intruding by taking a person’s photo. When I look at our old travel photos it’s clear by the lack of people photos that we were not comfortable doing this. We’ve developed these skills over the last couple of years on the road.

    It must be a blast to let local people you meet use your camera to take photos of themselves. Also, I imagine Lila would have a special connection to other kids and would get some really interesting and personal shots.

    @Lola: Thanks for your kind words & stumble!

    @Josh: Glad these tips may come in useful for you in Xinjiang, China. We loved taking photos around Kashgar – the faces were fascinating.

    You are absolutely right that photos with the subject looking at the camera tend to be some of the best; they usually come from when there is a connection and some level of trust with the subject. Good luck and thanks!

  7. says

    Great advice. My husband Dave loves to take photos of people and we find that going where the locals go and interacting is by far the best way as well. I see you were in Burma. We loved it there and the people were so friendly. They loved having their pictures taken and like you we always showed them their photos on the LCD. Happy travels. Deb

  8. says

    Thanks for this. Photographing people is still something we struggle with, although we’ve had some better opportunities in the past few weeks. I think for a lot of people, or at least people like me who are naturally a bit reserved, it just takes a whole lot of doing it before you feel comfortable. Your photos are so wonderful; they inspire me to be a bit braver in asking!

  9. says

    @Dave and Deb: Sounds like we had similar experiences in Burma; we also found the people incredibly warm and friendly. And, it was a fantastic country to photograph. Safe travels to you both as well!

    @Theresa: Glad you found this post useful and our photographs as inspiration. It took us a while to develop the confidence and skills to photograph people and ask for permission. And, there are still some places where we feel uncomfortable or awkward; you have to trust your gut with photography.

    @patriciaj: Good luck in getting the white balance right – it really can make a big difference!

  10. says

    Hmmm – good tips – I think (know) I struggle a bit with tip 10 – it was so hard for me when I was in India and didn’t quite get a good shot of someone but wanted to post it anyway! Good advice though – I like hearing it so it will sink in! :-)

  11. says

    it only takes a smile, a handshake, interest. I always keep in mind how very uncomfortable I am in front of the lens, then apply that to everyone I’d like to photography. You’re right on with all the pointers! Great post!

  12. says

    @Shannon: The editing process can be difficult, especially as each image has a memory or experience behind it. But, it is a really important process to get your best photos across.

    @Tammie: You are right – relating with people as people (instead of subjects) is most important. Since there are two of us, we are lucky in that one of us can talk to the person and take his/her attention off the big camera and put the person a bit more at ease. I also am self-conscious in front of the camera, so I try to put myself in other people’s shoes.

  13. says

    Do you have any suggestions for taking street shots of people in the United States? It seems like people in foreign countries are much more friendly about having their photos taken than they are here.

  14. says

    @Amber: We don’t have extensive experience taking street photos in the United States, but we have found that people tend to be more suspicious of having their photo taken and shy away. This is doubly true of photos of children.

    When we visited a fresh market in Jacksonville, Florida earlier this year, the vendors thought we were journalists or inspectors. We explained that we just enjoyed fresh markets all over the world and started taking photos of produce only. Once people became comfortable with us, then we asked if we could take photos of them. Not all agreed, but a few did.

    So, some of the techniques from the list above still apply for the United States (or Europe) but it may take longer to develop trust.

  15. says

    Gorgeous photography here- I especially love the shot of the little girl with the painted eyes (great cropping too!)
    I think one of the greatest things about digital cameras is being able to show people the shot you’ve just taken. I especially enjoy this with children and their parents, and anytime anyone provides me with an email address, I do indeed send them a copy!

  16. says

    @alex: Thanks for stopping by. We’re glad you found the post useful. Good luck with your photography.

    @Margaret: Thanks for the kudos. That girl is mesmerizing, isn’t she?

    Funny, we ask for email addresses all the time, but it’s surprising how few people (at least whose photos we take) have an email address. When we traveled through Central Asia (the ‘Stans), we literally ended up with a pile of hand-written chicken scratch addresses scrawled in Cyrillic on various scraps of paper. We taped the scraps to envelopes and sent photos, but wonder if any actually arrived.

  17. says

    Hey Dan and Audrey…

    Great article! I’m theoretically a “professional photographer” and even I found this useful!

    Thanks again… keep on writing!

    Jenn

  18. says

    Love those 2nd and 3rd shots, when they forget to pose!
    Recently a shopowner fussed at me while I was asking a subject’s permission, saying I should have asked her first. I usually just ask the subject. What do you do when inside a building or shop?

  19. says

    @bibliotraveler: Very good question.  We’ve never had a shopkeeper tell us we need to ask permission from him/her before asking the subject for permission. That seems odd to us as well.

    If a person (other than the shopowner) is the obviously the primary subject, we will ask the subject directly.  It strikes me as odd that a shopowner would care if one of their visitors is being photographed.  Anyhow, if the shopowner has problems with that, he will let you know (as apparently, he did).  The idea is to balance respect with capturing the moment.

    When the subject is just produce (i.e., not a person), we normally just shoot.  We have found that when we ask if we can photograph someone’s fruit or vegetables, it can produce more confusion than anything.  If the shopkeeper has issues, he or she will let you know.  That said, most people seem to either enjoy it or find it curious.  We usually explain that the market/fruit/vegetable/dish/etc. is different from our own country; this can lead to conversations about us, the shopkeeper, their produce and their lives.

  20. says

    Great tips – your tag-teaming to capture people up close is incredible. You’re photo collection is really beautiful, especially the Kiva photography. Are you working toward a project of some sort?

    I love taking pictures of people in their natural environment, but I tend to stick to shooting from a distance. I feel guilty transitioning from talking to taking their photograph, like I’m only doing it for some photos. Maybe that just comes with time and experience, but I usually air on the side of sensitivity.

  21. says

    @Bessie: Thanks for your kind words about our photography, especially the images of people. We have several project ideas in mind for our photography, but this will likely wait until we can complete our collection with images from Africa and the Middle East. Stay tuned…

    The confidence to transition from talking to someone to taking his/her photo does get easier with time and experience. But, there are always cultural issues to take into consideration. For example, we found that Bolivians in indigenous areas really did not want us to take their photo when we asked. However, in many parts of Asia we never had a problem when we asked. You just have to feel out the situation.

  22. says

    Great tips and great photos! I love taking photos of people but have the greatest anxiety about it to the point of where I now get shy and sometimes pass up some amazing opportunities. Another reason is I may be in a hurry for whatever reason — appointment, bus, friend getting away from me — and don’t have the time to be personal with the subject. Two memorable subject experiences, the first of which was unpleasant. I pulled out my camera and was going to ask a girl in Aswan for permission and before I could even take one step she started SCREAMING in rage No!!!!!! NOOOOO!!! Like the whole world turned to look and I wanted to crawl under a rock. Same country, different place, a woman came up to me and my two companions and said something about a photo. I said, Yes, no problem and reached for her camera thinking she wanted me to take a photo of her with her friend in front of the site. Nope. She turned to her friend, handed off the camera and jumped into line for a group photo with the strange foreigners. Well, she DID ask permission. :)

  23. says

    @Kevin: It does get easier and more comfortable – with practice and time – to approach people and photograph them. If I look at photos from the beginning part of this trip (or previous trips), we don’t have many people photos because we were unsure about approaching people. But, we started to overcome that fear and our photography benefited tremendously.

    There are some cultures and people who really dislike cameras. We’ve had similar experiences where someone has made a scene because we pulled out our DSLR – sometimes we had no intention to photography the person. I usually try to laugh it off and shrug to diffuse the situation. Then, we move on quickly.

  24. says

    Great tips. I was in Kyoto a couple of years ago in the geisha area and was so disgusted with some of the tourists – jumping in the poor girl’s faces every time they appeared and making a nuisance of themselves, that I walked away. People aren’t tourist attractions – taking a photo of them isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. Your #2 point is brilliant :)

  25. says

    @GotPassport: Just realized this is a belated reply to your comment. Glad you found these tips useful and hope you have ample opportunities to use them in your new home of Chiang Mai!

    @dc: You’re welcome!

    @Kathryn: We’ve seen similar situations where tourists just swarm around with their cameras. However, we’ve also seen this with professional photographers almost poking the subject (e.g., a Burmese vegetable vendor) in the face with the long lens. When we saw the images in the viewfinder, they weren’t good. We’re firm believers in that the best photos come from where you’ve established a relationship based on respect.

  26. says

    So glad you reposted this on FB. Such great advice! I enjoy your photos so much. You have such skill at catching the most beautiful, natural expressions. It really makes you feel like you are there with the people, experiencing the place.

  27. says

    @Lori: Thank you. We’re glad our feelings come through in the images of the people we’ve met.

    @Kamiel: You are welcome. We’re happy to share our experience.

  28. says

    @Christy: This is a tricky issue. When we’re taking photos for ourselves (i.e., non-client work) we don’t ask for model releases. There are language and other issues that make it complicated and it can ruin the trust/moment we have with the person we’re photographing. Yes, this limits how the photo can be used and sold – i.e., for editorial purposes it’s technically OK without a model release, but for a sale that involves a company profiting from the image (e.g., advertisement) then it’s not.

    If a client requires model releases, then we let them take care of it because they already have a relationship with the people involved, can speak the local language and can handle the paperwork better than us.

  29. says

    Thanks for your reply! I took a photo class that freaked me out about model releases. They did mention that it’s wise to get your model releases translated into the language of the country you will be visiting. Even with that info in hand, I would still feel a little uncomfortable asking some people to sign it. I have a lot of shots that I wish I had releases for though!

  30. says

    @Christy: People can get suspicious when they see model releases because they don’t understand exactly what it means. So, what we’ve found is not only have the model release translated, but have a local person who can explain what it’s all about. We talked with a National Geographic photographer earlier this year and he said that although technically NG doesn’t require model releases for most photos because they are used for editorial use, the photographers now try to get them anyway to avoid potential lawsuits. Good luck figuring out the balance that works for you!

  31. Gloria Bingenheimer says

    Thanks for the tips, white balance is something I have trouble with. Thanks for reminding us all that we should respect any and all potential subjects.

  32. says

    @Gloria: Thank you for your comment. Respect — always bears repeating. As for white balance, that’s thankfully available at the flip of a switch.

  33. says

    Some great tips and advice. Just one other that I would proffer. Sometimes the subject will ask for a print of the picture. Either say no, or make very sure that they get it. You do have some wonderful photos and the looks of the future on their faces is priceless.

  34. says

    @Jim: Thanks for the very thoughtful comment. Great to see you here. “The looks of the future on their faces is priceless” — I like that.

    Good point about prints. We do our best to communicate “it’s only digital” because in some circumstances, subjects seem to be expecting instant paper gratification a la Polaroid instant camera. Outside of that, if we are in reach of a place that makes prints from digital, we’ll do them on the spot. Or, if we can keep the commitment, we’ll say we’ll send them later. People will be patient…and thrilled whenever they happen to see the tangible result.

  35. says

    What wonderful tips!

    I’ve just returned from Peru and Ecuador and was quite disappointed that, for the most part, the local people did not seem to want to have their pics taken.

    I did manage to get some decent pics, but not the knock-out ones I’d been hoping for.

  36. says

    @Lorenzo: Not asking people to pose is a necessity, agreed.

    @Matt: The goal is a smile, not even necessarily for the camera, but for the interaction itself.

  37. says

    @John: Glad you enjoyed it.

    @Esme: All things being equal, shooting in RAW certainly helps with the end image quality Having said that, shooting in RAW doesn’t affect the relationship photographers have with their subjects.

  38. says

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I’ve just began traveling myself haven’t yet built the courage to approach people and really be at ease with the locals. I always feel as I’m intruding and I don’t want them to feel that they are being gawked at. These are wonderful tips to establish a real connection and I will make sure to use them next time I’m out shooting about!

  39. says

    @Elena: So glad you found this article useful. It does take time to work up the courage and get into a groove approaching people and photographing them. I also find that explaining to people why you are taking the photo sometimes helps – often people are proud that you want to use them as an example/ambassador for their country or town. Good luck and happy photographing!

  40. says

    @Mariane: Excellent. We totally understand. From the standpoint of respect, your approach is better than the other extreme.

    Having said that, it’s surprising how approachable people are, especially after you’ve made some sort of connection with them on a human level.

    Enjoy!

  41. says

    Thanks Audrey – I agree with everything you say and really appreciate all the great tips and advice (much needed by me!). It’s important to go where people are, and to make that connection.

    I would add one thing: beware what’s in the background. In Lagos (Nigeria) I was chatting with a vegetable-seller in a market, we were both smiling, relaxed, and I asked if I could take her picture. She immediately agreed and as I put up my camera, a huge yell came from behind her, followed by a woman wielding a machete!

    “No picture!” she screamed, clambering over stalls in her effort to slice off a piece of me. I was of course terrified and managed to take refuge in a nearby building. I eventually understood that she had been in the background and saw me taking a photograph. She couldn’t tell whether I was shooting her or anyone else, and was afraid I was stealing her spirit – so she wanted it back, or something along those lines. I truly hadn’t noticed she was there, but felt a bit better when I was told she was prone to outbreaks of violence – it wasn’t just me.

    Moral of that story… look at the entire frame…

  42. says

    @Leyla: Yes, great piece of advice and story. Having a woman come after me with a machete would certainly shake me up!!

    It reminds me of when we were in Bolivia and visiting the indigenous market in Tarabuco. The people in the town do not like photographs taken of them and there are stories of tourists getting tomatoes thrown at them and such. One guy we met had taken a wide angle photo of the street, not realizing that there was a man at the far end of the street. That guy came after him, started yelling at him and looked like he was going to beat him up. Fortunately, a shopkeeper came out to help the tourist and brought him back into the shop. So yes, always be sure there isn’t someone in the background :)

Trackbacks

  1. [...] With time this will become second nature and you’ll also find that it will heighten your perception skills, making it easier for you to spot great photo opportunities where others may see very little potential. Added to this, I find that having a small camera helps you blend in much more than if you’re holding a bulky one and pointing it uncomfortably at passers-by. It’s easy to keep your compact in your pocket, scan your surroundings, identify a particularly photogenic man or woman in front of an interesting background, quickly take it out, point, click and slip it back into your jacket without that person even noticing. For more tips on taking photos of people on the street, check out this post from Uncornered Market. [...]

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