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IanSewell 01-08-2005 01:35 AM

Taking portraits of strangers - do you compensate them?
I've seen some incredible portraits on TE, and I don't have much experience taking them so I've learned a lot. However, I still feel very nervous pulling out my camera and asking people to take their photo. When you take a portrait shot of a stranger, do you give them something as a thank-you? How much (compared to say how much bread costs in that country). What is the average reaction you get? (We're thinking of taking a trip to India or China next summer, how do those cultures react?)

I'm kicking myself over not having been more willing to take portrait shots on our trip to Egypt. In particular, while we were in Aswan, we took a local ferry boat to visit some Nubian villages. The boat was filled with about 50 locals, mostly men. (we were the only tourists, and every set of eyes was watching us the whole trip - not menacingly, just out of curiosity). There was one older gentleman with a great, kind, weathered face that spoke volumes. The sun was just beginning to set and the light on his face was beautiful. The background was the feluccas sailing the Nile. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect photo op, but I just couldn't gather up the courage to take his photo.

I think if there'd been fewer people on the boat, or more tourists, I might have felt more comfortable... It seems the only time I've felt comfortable taking portrait shots is if I buy something from someone, then I ask to take their photo.

Any comments appreciated. Help me muster up courage! :)

Rinie_Hoff 01-08-2005 02:39 AM

Re: Taking portraits of strangers - do you compensate them?
Hi Ian, welcome to TE, and welcome to the world of shy people ;-)
I recognize your story, as I share your feelings, but making portraits was such a great wish for me, that it helped me to overcome my shyness. I still take portraits of people who don't know that their picture is taken, because sometimes you see an expression that you will never get when you ask them or know that you take a picture, but in general, I like to ask it.
I never dared to make portraits, but when I came to TE myself and saw so many portraits, I knew that was what I really wanted to learn. I once went hunting with another member, and we tried to take pictures according to a certain list, and on that list were a few shots of people. Then I really thought I had to try (if you want to look it up, the picture is called:<a href="">'Meet my first model'</a>), and usually people react very kind. What helps is a friendly smile. When I was in a country where I didn't speak the language, I just pointed at my camera, and to them, and they always understood (I am posting pictures right now from my last trip to Russia, Mongolia and China).
In Russia in general people did not like to be photographed, but near Lake Baikal, in a small village, they suddenly agreed, and with the first one I was so surprised that I didn't pay attention to my camera settings, and the picture was a mess.
If you care to look at <a href="">Darren</a>, he started with taking pictures of guards, they are not allowed, usually, to move or talk, so they can't protest, but I would even be more nervous, doing that. But that's the way HE learned it. Other really great portrait photographers are <a href="">Claude</a>, <a href="">Manny</a>, and <a href="">maciek</a>

Well, this is about how I tried to take more often pictures of people, I more or less pushed myself, may be you can try it yourself too. The worst you can get, is a 'NO', I think.
I wish you good luck.

Rinie_Hoff 01-08-2005 02:47 AM

Re: Taking portraits of strangers - do you compensate them?
Ian, I forgot to answer your first question, I focussed on the nother thing, the courage. I have never compensated anyone, but maybe I was never REALLY in that situation, so in a very, very poor country for instance.

IanSewell 01-08-2005 03:06 AM

Re: Taking portraits of strangers - do you compensate them?
Thanks for your comments, Rinie. Your portrait shots are incredible, I only hope to eventually take some as good as yours! How long do you take setting up your subjects? The few portraits I have taken, I am usually so embarassed, I take it so quickly and it doesn't come out looking good.

sengir 01-08-2005 03:27 AM

Re: Taking portraits of strangers - do you compensate them?
hey! In Asia people are far more relaxed about being photographed than in Europe.
Very good idea is to start photographing kids in Asia - they just love to be photographed, and it will be rather you that will have enough not them ;), and often they will actually ask you to take their photo.
But never do pay for this, especially if you're in a place that nobody asks you for it - because it in some way "spoils" them. Friendly smile, a little chat - it's a perfect reward. They take a pleasure in being photographed. If you start to pay for it, the next tourist will also be expected to pay, and this pure friendliness of this "multicultural contact" will be lost - there will be only business left.. and what is worse, kids can become even aggressive (in many touristic places you can find very importunate kids demanding money, pens, sweets) or stop going to school preferring to hang around touritic places in hope of some rewards (like it happens in killing fields in Phnom Pehn).
Call it cultural difference, but people in Asia, esp. in those areas not spoilt with mass-tourism, really do think in some other way, I mean a better, not so commercial, and are really ready to do something without the thought of reward :) And let us keep this state, and learn from them, because I believe it's the most beautiful thing about travelling in Asia - to meet people for whom slightly different virtues are the most important ones.

Darren 01-08-2005 04:40 AM

Re: Taking portraits of strangers - do you compensate them?
Hi Ian. I don't pay people to take their photos as a rule. Sometimes if the person is a vendor, and is selling something I actually like, I will buy from them, but simply paying for the shot, I don't do. Also, with kids, especially in Asia, I tend to carry some candy with me. I don't give the candy out until after I take the photo though, otherwise, the naturalness of the shot is affected IMO. I don't give candy because I feel I have to, I do it as much because it makes me feel good as anything else.

As for gathering the courage up to take photos of people, it is difficult. It took me time to get over it for certain. However, now I am much more comfortable and at ease. My increased comfort seems to put my subjects at ease as well. The best thing you can do is to practice. Also, my general suggestion is to not bring the camera to your eye immediately after seeing your subject. Hang out, even for a minute or two, and your subject will be infinitely more comfortable with both you and your camera.

Rinnie mentioned that some of my first successful portraits were of guards who couldn't really react to my camera. They worked for me, but I think the most important thing to remember is to start out in a situation you are at ease with. Once you have had success there, you will feel more comfortable and get better results in a wider variety of situations. Shooting people you know might be another good spot to start.

Take care Ian.

kinginexile 01-08-2005 08:16 AM

Re: Taking portraits of strangers - do you compensate them?
Hi, Darren, i agree with what you said.

As a pro, yes, as a traveller no: The photo taking should not be the reason why one gets up in the morning, it becomes too obsessive, an "idee fixe", and i can sense this compulsion to be a photographer first, a traveller second in a few galleries.

Notwithstanding candid shots where the subject is unaware of the photo being taken, a rapport, any kind of, must happen, and yes, i believe it should not be based on giving money. Though we may have all done it, it is a bit cheating, IMO. doing this, there is just no travelling anymore, just affluence buying non-affluence, west meet east and the twins shall never meet, as M Twain said.

It also encourages greed, as you noted.

What I really like about TE, is that each portrait of a gallery adds up to give me an idea of how the member relates to the people he/she meets or crosses, traveling. And here, i dare say that i may disagree with who is a good portrait photographer, who goes beyond the technique and the good catch. Some of the best portraits can be made by very shy people (there won't be too many, that's all), or by technically defficient people. Because it is the empathy one feels towards one's fellow being that comes thru at this point.

No matter how great the pictures are coming out, once you have a body of work from a photographer, you can feel if it's all plastique (well-shot/composed) or if the heart of the photographer was in his/her camera as much as the film/card.

I improved my approach to people by telling myself i am a nice guy, I love people and kids, and darn if i am not going to let them know!!! Just smiling helps a lot on one's shyness, and when you feel limited by this "hello, look at me" approach, you have at least acquired a "socializing" technique that can serve for more candid, more composed, more instant close-up shots. Here, it's important that one's technical chops have improved as much as one's approach towards people. This is where I lag behind, very sloppy and lazy technician...

philip_coggan 01-08-2005 10:09 AM

Re: Taking portraits of strangers - do you compensate them?
Don't give candy to kids.

sohrab 01-08-2005 01:13 PM

Re: Taking portraits of strangers - do you compensate them?
portraiture depends on how much of a connection you can make with the people.. most people put their guards up when they see a camera.. it will depend on you to make them feel at ease.. how you do it.. you've to figure it out.. i dont think it's something that can be written down in words.. but the more you interact with the people the more you'll understand what im talking about..
no disrespect meant to anyone on TE but most portraits that i see here, although very nice to look at, tend to have been taken in a hurry just to capture a face.. if thats what you mean by a portrait.. then i guess you just get friendly with someone and click away.. i've done it too quite a few times.. however for me a portrait goes beyond a face.. and tries to capture the essence of the person.. tries to capture the story behind those eyes or that smile or whatever else..
for that you need patience.. not only to capture the moment but also to understand what you're trying to capture..
plain old travel portraiture i think is one of the simplest things to do.. you don't need that much time and there is not much of a story to capture.. but if you're trying to capture a portrait which will be a part of a social documentary or something like that i think patience is what you need.
also note that im in india and i haven't photographed in europe or the states.. maybe that's why im feeling so confident about what im saying.. :)

philip_coggan 01-08-2005 02:26 PM

Re: Taking portraits of strangers - do you compensate them?
Ian, to give a more in-depth answer to your question:

In the Photography forum there's a thread called My Breakfast Wuith Sebastiao Salgado. The "I" in the title isn't me, it's Bennett Stevens, who runs an on-line magazine that I contribute to. Ben attended a small breakfast/workshop with the great man in San Fransisco recently. What Salgado has to say is fascinating, and very germaine to your concerns.

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