Catch People in the Scene

 Be grateful for mountains, bears, and small children. None of them cares whether they are being photographed. On the other hand, adult humans care. Men think you are invading their turf, and women think you are a pervert. This poses a problem. If you want to capture the spirit of a place, you have to include the people. Even children are not reliable, some seem to care.

 Children at pier

This was a school outing at a pier in Yokohama, Japan. In every crowd there is always one person who will stare at the photographer:

Staring child

The precocious lad aside, most children are cooperatively indifferent:

Girl with koiOne solution to getting people in pictures is to ask. This is always polite, but it risks getting the wrong answer. If the answer is yes, you may then get a stilted picture in which the person is obviously posing. This is not always bad. A shopkeeper or market vendor is in some sense always posing for the public. He wants to project an appearance that is attractive to customers, so he may keep up appearances for you. People dressed in costume for an event are there to present themselves to the public, so being photographed is part of that deal. But other times you risk rude looks.

Capturing cooperating strangers or family and friends is an occasion to use a zoom lens.  If you step in close with a wide angle lens, there is a fun-house mirror effect. If you don't have a zoom on the camera, stay back and be prepared to crop the image later on in the computer. Otherwise, use the zoom to feature the subject and exclude background. You may want to feature the background in the locale, and that is fine too. However, include some zoomed in closeups as well.  

Portraits outdoors are also an occasion to use the flash. The flash will fill in some of the dark shadows from the sunlight. Usually, getting rid of the flash is a continuing feat of camera gymnastics so that you can use the more gentile ambient light indoors. Outdoors you may have to fiddle with the controls to get the flash to come on when it thinks it should be off. There should be a reverse switch on the flash. Some cameras are so clever the flash pops up whenever it senses a subject is backlit, such as virtually anything is at sunset. This is a job for duct tape.

The more common challenge is taking pictures that include people who may not be eager to be photographed. One tip from a seasoned travel photographer is to pretend to be an enthusiastic camera idiot. Of course, if one happens to be an enthusiastic camera idiot, this is not a stretch. This involves smiling and babbling a lot while taking pictures of lampposts, doors, and, oh yes, the locals. They may think you are a bit annoying, but they will likely tolerate you in the same way the village idiot is tolerated. A variant is to be fully immersed in camera geekdom, and obviously so. For this it is best to have a camera with a gigantic lens and be hanging upside down from a guard rail while intently photographing something or other. Under these circumstances, people tend to dismiss you as a visitor from another planet, or perhaps a devotee of a harmless cult religion. In any case you are neither a threat to their space or a pervert, and that is a big step up.

If you pretend to be preoccupied with some obvious subject, like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty, people will tend to ignore you on the grounds that they are not the subject of your intrusion. So the trick is to find an obvious subject even if your are less interested in the subject than the people around it. The sought after obvious subject might be a parade, a festival event, an amusement park attraction, an animal, an interesting building, an item on display, or Mount Fuji.

In this famous Zen garden in Kyoto there were many people taking pictures, so one more tourist with a camera was nothing unusual:

Zen garden

Most people assume your camera has a normal field of view rather than a wide angle. If you use a very wide angle you can include people without pointing the camera directly at them. The extreme case is with a rotating lens camera that takes in about 150 degrees. People standing well to the side become part of the composition. Short of that extreme, even a moderately wide angle lens allows people to be placed far enough off axis that they assume that they are not subjects of the photograph. If you point a camera straight at someone, they take it like you are pointing a gun. But if you are clearly not shooting directly at them, they feel safe.

You can sometimes shoot people who are preoccupied with something, so they don’t notice you. They might be doing a job, playing a sport, talking in an animated conversation, or intently reading. For those occasions it is best to plan your shot ahead before raising and pointing the camera. Don’t move too quickly, because quick motion naturally draws attention. Smoothly raise the camera, and don’t worry about accurate framing or focus. Trust the camera to do its automatic thing, and fix the framing later in Photoshop. If all goes well you can have the camera back by your side without attracting attention. If caught in the act, drop into the happy camera idiot routine and move closer to the door as if you were really after a picture of the doorknob all along. Or smile and wave self-consciously.

Here a preoccupied shopper in San Francisco ignores the photographer. Is that really organic?


If you are traveling to an unfamiliar and exotic place, check out the local customs before photographing the people. The colorfully dressed people of Lower Ubekewanistan may believe that taking their picture captures their souls, which then in turn can only be released by perforating an important part of your anatomy. The world is increasingly cosmopolitan, but it may hurt less to check than not to check.