Snapping on the Street: 8 tips for travel photo etiquette

November 12, 2015 Peter West Carey

Travelling far from home often means we’re immersed in a different culture and set of customs. And while this change in perspective can inspire us to capture our experiences through our camera’s lens, we might not be fully aware of the appropriate etiquette when snapping photos.

Pack these tips with you on your next journey and take the question mark out of taking photos while you’re on the road.

1. Be kind, ask permission

Often, the worry is if you ask for permission, you might lose the shot. And sometimes that is exactly what happens. In my book, getting the shot should never come before being polite. Instead, try to connect with your subject (see No. 6 below). You may run the risk of ruining that golden moment, but consider this: you could be swapping a photo for a real connection with someone.

As for how to ask for permission, in almost any language smiling and pointing at your camera conveys your request. Again, err on the side of politeness. If you can’t discern the answer, don’t take the photo. If you feel uncomfortable, your subject likely does, too.

Getting the shot should never come before being polite.

2. Share

Permission’s been granted, and the photo has been taken. Now it’s time to share that photo with your subject. Kids especially love to see their image on the digital screen of a camera. I have found this is the same for some teenagers in the United States or toddlers in Thailand. And if you’re quick, you can get another shot of their reaction to seeing their photo, which is often very genuine.

Kids love to see their image on screen.

Kids love to see their image on screen.

3. Be thankful

You learned how to say “thank you” in the common tongue of the country you are visiting, right? It’s one of the basics you should know and one of the most helpful. When you’re taking someone’s photograph, you are asking for something and likely not offering a lot in return, so a little bit of gratitude will go a long way to help even the scales.

And remember, if your subject has interacted with rude and demanding travellers in the past, you will feel their lack of trust, even though you don’t fit the stereotype. We all benefit if we follow the habit of being kind with our photography while visiting foreign lands.

4. About religion

Don’t take photos of people while they are praying. Sometimes you can, and sometimes you cannot, shoot inside a Buddhist temple, depending where it is located. Do not use your flash in Catholic cathedrals during mass. And so on…

Just as specific practices vary from religion to religion and location to location, so too do the rules about when you’re allowed to take photos. When in doubt, be conservative with your photography and ask when practical. If you’re on a tour, your guide should know the dos and dont’s. Ask them for their expertise.

When in doubt, ask if photos are allowed.

When in doubt, ask if photos are allowed.

5. Privacy works differently in different countries

I’ve been told not to take photos of women while in Oman and that street photography is frowned upon in Paris (but still perfectly legal). In the United States you aren’t allowed to take photos through someone’s home window, even if you are standing on a public sidewalk.

You’ve probably heard of more country-specific rules, both written and informal (if so, please share them in the comments section below). Research is helpful when travelling abroad, even if the people in the country you are visiting speak the same language as you.

6. Sit a spell

So that magical moment you hoped to capture is gone because you followed my advice and asked permission for your photo. Now what? How about visiting with your subject? This is, after all, one of the main reasons to travel.

Showing your subject their image, or other images from your trip, can help break the ice. Or, share some pictures of your home or family. Thankfully, photos speak in a universal language and are a great tool for communicating.

Don't be against sitting and waiting for the shot.

Don't be against sitting and waiting for the shot.

Sitting with your subject also shows you’re not just here to take their image and run. I’ve had access to conversations, and also gathered local information, I would never have acquired had I not treated my subject like a human being instead of an inanimate trophy. If they are creating some kind of craft, sit and watch with the camera down. If they are cooking something, buy a sample.

7. Don’t overwhelm

The photo below shows what, to me, was an unfortunate scene in Bhutan. A group of photography-minded tourists had flocked around a group of the local kids. It was such an overwhelming scene that the caregivers in this location made it known that the photographers were not welcome. It made me feel like the kids were a zoo attraction, not people to be interacted with.

Don't overwhelm. Be respectful of the communities you're visiting.

Don't overwhelm. Be respectful of the communities you're visiting.

8. Remember, you’re a guest

For me, the ethics and etiquette of travel photography come down to one golden rule: do unto others as you wish done to you. Unless you’re a masochist, this means treating others well, especially when you are a guest in their country or hometown.

Let’s face it. You’re not shooting with the aim of winning a Pulitzer Prize. You’re on vacation or maybe an extended trip. Travellers should be gracious guests, happy for the opportunity to visit someplace new and learn a few things in the process. Maybe even make a connection with other people far from home.

What about you? What specific photography etiquette tips can you teach us from your travels?

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