As a travel photographer, one of the questions I get asked most frequently is ‘How do you photograph people?’. I take a lot of portraits of people when I travel, and this is the type of travel photography I love the most. But for many people, this is one of the most difficult things to do. Understanding how to approach people, respect them and capture them in a unique and relaxed way is something which is very important if you’re keen to start taking more photographs of people. Here are some of my top tips on how to go about it…


Always ask permission

If you are taking a close up of someones face, then it is essential that you ask permission to do so. This is not only important to ensure that you respect the person you are photographing, but it will also dramatically improve the end photo. With a portrait, you usually want the person’s eyes engaged with the camera and you want them looking comfortable – you’re not going to get this by either using a huge zoom or shoving a camera in someone’s face.

So how do you ask? Well, think about how you’d like to be approach if you were going to be photographed in the street. Simply, approach the person, with a smile and ask politely if they would be OK being photographed. If they speak a different language, gesture to your camera- it’s always understood what is being said. I often find it easy to try to make eye contact and smile at the person before you approach them; if they smile back then they are probably curious about you and open to a quick portrait and perhaps a conversation too.


I spotted this baba in Varanasi, India and instantly wanted to photograph him. After a short chat, I choose this composition and he was very calm in front of the camera.

But also know when it’s OK not to ask permission…

With a face on portrait, of course ALWAYS ask permission. But there are plenty of circumstances when it is OK to not ask- this includes street photography, festivals and parades and if you are photographing people from behind (so they are unrecognisable) or in motion. All of these things will add a great sense of humanity to your travel images – but in order to get the image you always ask permission. Say you are watching a parade at a local festival; it’s impossible to ask each performer in the parade if it is OK to photograph them. But in those situations, people expect to be photographed, and unless it’s a certain religious or cultural occasion where you have been told not to photograph – snap away!


A young girl at a dancing performance in Rajasthan, India during the Pushkar Camel Fair. An occasion where the girls expected to be photographed (indeed, there were a lot of photographers there!)

Have your settings ready and be quick

Landscape photography gives you time to think about your settings and you can have lots of second chances to get the perfect shot. When photographing people, you don’t have this luxury! You need to be quick and ready to capture the right expression. Before I approach someone who I want to photograph, I make sure my camera settings are ready, and I also look out for the best light in the scene. That way, when I get permission, I can quickly position the person and myself in the best way and then snap a few shots. I often find that people not used to being photographed will look into the camera for a few shots, but then start to feel uncomfortable and look away. As I like the eyes to be engaged in my photos, it is these first few shots which I like the best – and I need to make sure everything else is right to ensure the shot comes out just as I imagined it.


These men were waiters at a Berber camp in Wadi Rum, Jordan. Because they were busy at work, I had to be quick to capture the shot I wanted. 

Think about different ways you can photograph a person – it doesn’t always have to be a portrait of their face…

Photographing people comes in lots of shapes and forms. You might first of all think of a face in portrait format, and I love these too – but many other kinds of human-based photography will add to your work. Think about street photography, photographing people at work, and environmental portraits (capturing people in their natural environment). All of these things can produce beautiful images, which often will say more about a place and culture than a simple portrait.


I also took portraits of this man, who I met in Essaouira, Morocco. But it is this shot, in the natural environment of his shop that I like the most!

Seek out places and countries where you are inspired to capture the culture and people

In terms of photographing people, some countries are simply more accessible than others. In Europe, I find that people are generally more suspicious about cameras and where their picture might appear. Many people are also very uncomfortable in front of a camera. In India, I find people are open, curious and offer beaming smiles to the camera. People don’t mind where their photo will appear, they are just delighted to see it on the back of a camera screen! Other great countries to photograph people are Nepal, Morocco and Vietnam. But there are people everywhere in the world, and you can capture faces wherever you go. If you want to improve your travel portrait photography, think about the people and cultures that fascinate you the most, and when choosing your next destination, base your decision around this.

Like wise, when you are in the country, look out for interesting markets, festivals and events going on where there might be lots of people in traditional clothing to capture.


Burma (Myanmar) is one of my favourite places to photograph because I am fascinated by the people and their unique cultures and festivals.

Respect the culture you are in

Photographing people often means becoming more absorbed in the local culture than other tourists might. I often seek out local markets and festivals, some which aren’t attended by many foreigners. I always respect the local culture by dressing in a way which reflects theirs. In Muslim countries for example, I will cover my whole body and usually have a loose scarf around my head. I find this helps a lot when approaching people- they can see you are respecting their culture and therefore are more likely to be friendly to you. If you walk around Northern India in a mini-skirt, then locals are likely to think you are being rude (and you are) and are less likely to want to engage with you and be photographed.


A boy in a Tibetan monastery and a woman in rural Northern India, two situations where it was important for me to be covered up and respectful in order to in turn gain their respect.

Opt for a prime lens and a low aperture

Now for some technical details! By far the most important part of photographing people is the expression – but there are other things which are important too. I often shoot portraits with a prime lens, which is a lens with a fixed focus length. 50mm lenses are great for this, as are 85mm. I also like to shoot with a low aperture – between f/1.4 and f/2.8 often works well. This means that the person’s face will be strongly in focus and the background will be blurred. This will bring the viewers attention to the face, and capture the crisp details of their skin and clothing. Zoom lenses are also fine for portraits, but wind the aperture down to its lowest point- often around f/4.0. For street photography or environmental portraits, you’re going to want to use a much higher aperture to make sure the person and background are both in focus – try f/8.


An image in Sapa, Northern Vietnam, shot with a 50mm lens at f/1.8.

Show the person you photograph the results

When traveling, I often find that people love being photographed. They are thrilled that you are curious about them and their life, and that you want to capture a memory of them to take home. It’s a great idea that after you take a few shots, to show them the picture on the back of the camera, then they can see how beautiful they look through your lens! I often find that if someone is uncomfortable being photographed, it is a good idea to capture a few images, show them, then usually they soften up and smile after they see you are capturing them in a beautiful way.

I’ve also started travelling with a polaroid camera, this means after I’ve snapped a few digital photos and I am happy with the results, I can take a polaroid of them which they can take home and keep.


A shot I took of a man on a beach in India, he was very happy with his polaroid!

Find great light

Whatever you are capturing, the first rule of photography is light. Light is your best friend, it’s going to make or break an image. It’s often where I see amateur photographers go wrong. They have a great idea to capture a person or a scene they see, but they photograph it in harsh daylight, or inside a dark room, or partly in a shadow. Perhaps you’ve seen these things on your photos too?

When photographing people the most important thing is that they are in even lighting, or contrasting lighting that is soft and creates a unique effect. During the day, I find it easier to photograph in shade, so if you find a person you want to capture, take them to a shaded spot and have their face looking towards the light source. If you are inside, a door frame or beside a window is a good idea. There are so many rules of light – and it’s hard to give you just a few. But if you are aware of light, where it’s coming from and the effect it’s having on your images – your pictures will improve in leaps and bounds.


The image on the left was taken in a door frame at the enterence to a Sake Brewery in Japan. The inside was too dark for a crisp image, so I asked the man to stand in the doorway to get this image.

Give something back

So you’ve captured a great portrait, one you are really happy with and going to treasure, show your friends and family and perhaps share on Instagram or your blog. So, it’s time to give back to the person you’ve just photographed. You can do this in a number of ways – sometimes a thank you and a smile is enough. Sometimes, the person might ask for money – don’t think this is rude or unexpected, they are just trying to make a living. Give a small amount of money – in India I often give 20 rupees, the equivalent of around 30p. It’s nothing to me but can mean a lot to that person you captured. If you are photographing a person in a market, it is reasonable to buy something from their stall – even if it’s only small.

Another way to give back is by printing the pictures and gifting them. As I mentioned above, the easiest way to do this is by using a polaroid camera but it is often also possible to print images from a memory card in most towns and cities around the world. If you photograph a family or group of people extensively over a couple of days or weeks, then if is a great idea to print the images and give them a photo album of the work. In many countries, I have found that people have no photographs of themselves or there family. A small cost of printing to you means a lifetime of memories for them.


I photographed this family in rural India, and when I left the area, I made them a small photo album full of intimate shots of their family life. 

What else are you interested to know about photographing while travelling? I’d like to write lots more on this topic, so let me know what might interest you in the comments below!

All photographs by Annapurna Mellor