I never considered myself a photographer. In fact, I still struggle with the fact to call myself a writer though I guess a printed book with many words is proof enough. But photographer? Nah.
My brother is an amazing photographer and while we work on very different subjects I always shied the comparison.
So for a long time in my travel blogging life pictures were not my focus. Until I realized that a blog needs pictures. People attention spans need pictures to break up a text. And I to my biggest surprise realized I like taking pictures.
Step by step I learned. I read, I did a lot of trial and error and I made use of my photographer friends and yes, even asked my brother for help.
And I invested in my equipment (I am currently using a mirrorless camera, the Fuji X-T1 and I am absolutely loving it!). Still, little, compared to what other travel bloggers carry with them but enough to give me and my images room to grow.I like to think it shows.
But the one thing I always struggled with the most was portraits. Not so much the technical aspect but the personal one. How do you approach a person to take their picture? I couldn’t find any proper tips for taking portraits that went beyond the recommendation of using a 50mm lens. How do you break the ice or how do you clandestinely shoot them?When in doubt I would always opt out. I felt shy and embarrassed when it came to taking a stranger’s pictures. Sometimes I would be okay with my decision and sometimes I would regret it. I wanted to know people’s stories and even if I couldn’t communicate I felt that a picture brought me closer and helped me to remember a moment more vividly.Is it a strange notion that I like strangers’ faces? That I find them interesting with or without knowing their story or themselves?
Interesting enough to want to capture them, their smiles, their frowns, their uniqueness, their being part of the place I am visiting. However, for the longest time, I couldn’t get over my shyness. Over being embarrassed for being so curious, such a tourist and for not just being cool enough to simply walk up to people chat, make friends and snap their picture like ‘true’ travel photographers seem to do effortlessly.
But luckily Kerala happened and everything changed. In Kerala, I was not only surrounded by amazing photographers amazing photographers who inspired me and challenged me to do better but people actually came up to me and asking me to take their pictures.
Usually walking around with the camera in my hand looking at someone was enough. Other times teens would just walk up asking for a selfie and I used the perfect opportunity to ask them to return the favor.
Slowly but surely I built my courage to be the one asking first. It started while we were walking around in Fort Kochi and I saw an old man coming out of his driveway. He was pushing his bicycle, a cigarette hanging from his lips while he fixed his lungi. He was old and weathered yet looked incredibly cool, it may have been the casual cigarette or the fact that you could still tell he must have been a heartthrob in his days. So I went up to him, sporting my biggest smile. “Excuse me, sir, may I take your picture, sir?!”
He stopped and nodded and the moment I put my camera down he ushered me inside his house. The rest of our little group followed and we were introduced to his family. Pride in his voice as he gestured to his children and grandchildren, his cousin and his mother. We waved and smiled and tried to explain that no, we weren’t cousins but just mere strangers maybe becoming friends who had only met a few days ago.
I couldn’t stop looking at his mother. Her face incredibly wrinkled, but her eyes bright and her smile crooked. She seemed the lady of the house but shy, letting her son do all the talking. Would she allow a picture? I had to ask. Her grandson helped with the translation and she chuckled, quickly grabbing a scarf. For a moment I was disappointed – was she going to refuse and hide her face? No. She merely draped the scarf around her head to pose.
I showed her the photo afterward wanting to tell her how beautiful I thought she was. She gave me a little head bobble, her interest waned now that the interaction was over. After all, what good is a picture when the moment is gone she seemed to imply.
After that day my shyness was gone and somehow taking portraits has become one of my favorite things. Not so much for the result but for the moment. The moment of connecting to a person without words.
Tips for taking portraits
1. It will depend on the country you are traveling in how open people are to having their picture taken. Morocco, for example, is known for people who make their living by posing (sometimes in costumes or with props – don’t take pictures of the snake charmers please!) and if you are not willing to pay some may get quite aggressive.
I was pleasantly surprised in countries like China as well as how keen people were to have their picture taken even asking me out of the blue to do so. You will usually realize quite quickly how the majority of people tick.
2. I always ask for permission first unless the person is really far away or I am shooting a big group. Usually showing your camera and giving people a quizzing look is enough. Needless to say – respect a no.
3. I once met a girl who traveled through Cambodia with a Fuji Instax camera. She would take one picture to keep for herself and give one to the person she photographed to keep. While this kind of camera is really not suitable for me, I loved the idea. In lieu, I make sure to at least show people the pictures I take of them or even offer to email a copy if possible.
This way it becomes a proper interaction and is more than just a one-way street.
4. And of course, that means I will return the favor and pose for pictures too. Either with people or by myself, I will also pay it forward. In fact, it makes me feel better about my own curiosity when it seems to go both ways.
5. I came to realize in Kerala that photographing children is a tricky subject. Even if you ask a child if you can take his or her picture, a minor cannot give you their legal consent. A child doesn’t know what taking their picture entails and especially in the age Facebook & Co that is an issue. Even if you mean no harm, others may.
In some countries, it is even illegal to share images of children that aren’t yours or when you cannot get written consent from a parent.
Check this insightful post from Your Next Big Trip about the matter of photographing children.
With all that said, I had a lot of fun photographing and interacting with kids in Kerala. When it comes to kids definitely make sure to show them the pictures and if you are daring even hand them your camera for some snaps of their own. For the most fun, I recommend Snapchat filters. I have yet to meet a child who can refuse a puking pineapple.
And as my friend Brent reminded me – you don’t have to post the pictures anywhere afterward. Trust me, even without sharing something on social media, it still happened!
6. Which brings me to my last tip that seems a bit ironic for a post about photography but – put your camera down. Repeat after me and do it now. Put your camera down. Regardless of whether you are a regular traveler or a travel blogger, put it down more often than not. Not only will the moment still happen even if you don’t have a visual reminder, you will also make sure you are not missing it when hiding behind a camera.
Keen for Kerala but you are rather looking for your next great Instagram spot? Check out the Expedia Insta Guide to India I contributed for.