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Sunday, April 07 2013 @ 11:12 PM EDT

Capturing Cultural Portraits

As I have been traveling frequently over the past two+ years since I have lived in Singapore, I have had the chance to photograph many distinctive places in Asia. I have always been a fan of wildlife and landscape travel photography, but one of the subjects that I have been shooting more and more of lately are the amazingly unique people and cultures. The diversity of these natives in this part of the world is truly amazing and taking their portraits is becoming a major part of my travel portfolio. I have had others ask me how I am fortunate enough to capture these shots, thus, I thought I would take the time to jot down some of my techniques and experiences.

The Wigmen of Tari, PNG

I was able to join a trip a few years ago with several excellent photographers. As a beginner at the time, one of the best experiences on the trip was witnessing their techniques and methods for capturing people. There were some photographers who captured close-up, in-your-face poses of people at a wide angle to capture their details while including the surrounding environment. There were others who purposely posed each person before shooting. Several shot in multi-shot mode firing off many shots at a time. All of these methods certainly were effective as I was able to view some outstanding images. From this experience, I basically created my own style based on my personal beliefs and skills with the camera.

Now, were these comfortable styles for me? Not completely, but not because of the quality of the images, but mostly my personal comfort level in shooting people. This is the one recommendation I would therefore make: Find out what makes you comfortable and improve on that. After all, you are trying to bring a style to your portraits that differ from others and approaching a shoot utilizing your own approach is a major contributor to that goal. From my own personal standpoint with these approaches above and not always shared by others, right or wrong, is that I felt it was an invasion of each person’s “space” and many times, the subject seemed quite uncomfortable. I am also quite shy with approaching strangers and to start shooting up close. In addition, I found that I could not stage people that well without making it look overly posed. So, although I picked up valuable lessons on background, light and other things from others on the trip, I could not personally practice these methods. So, after several trips of which I continually experimented, I started creating my own methods and comfort zone which I divided into two primary approaches. (As a side note, one of the practices I now follow personally is to carry two cameras with me; a Canon 24-105 wide angle lens attached to one and 100-400mm attached to the other.)

The Kids of Flores, Indonesia

Now when I am at a site where photographing culture and people are important, I first determine what of my two approaches to take by mingling around the area to get a feel for the environment. Are the locals friendly? Are they tourist-savvy? Is it a location known for being difficult (research ahead of time helps)? Are there interesting props and/or backgrounds to enhance the image? Any activity occurring that is interesting? It is amazing how a little time up front, sometimes just a minute or two, watching the scene allows me to understand the environment and adapt accordingly. If I am with others in a group, I also let them shoot first and see the reception they are getting. Therefore one lesson I would make: Do not go somewhere with guns blazing and be patient. Get a feel, and also have the locals get a feel for you too. Be nice. Smile. Show interest in what they are doing or wearing. Anything to break that comfort barrier. But mostly: Be respectful.

The first approach I may take is to shoot the subject unknowingly. Candid photography for me can often be rewarding as the source is more relaxed due to their unawareness or are doing something you do not want to be disturbed. If I am in a less friendly environment and/or some of the activity is better suited for this approach, then this is the preferred way. People sleeping, playing cards, a couple holding hands, a craftsman doing their thing…these are all things I shoot from a distance or “shoot from the hip”. Every once in awhile, the person notices, but 9 times out of 10, a smile appears to even add further warmth to an image. For the most part with this method, I approach this by staying back with my 100-400mm lens to watch and wait until I see an interesting situation. You have to be really patient.   Make sure if you do this, you also position yourself for optimal lighting and background. Move around to get the best angle.  If the primary focus is to get in tight with the head and face then I do not have to worry too much about the background, although you do have to worry about the light and making sure the face is exposed in a way to bring out the features.  

Alternatively if I am in a challenging and fast-paced environment, I have learned how to literally “shoot from the hip”.   It is quite fun and challenging, but knowing your camera is so very important if you want to do this. Know the camera settings up front and KNOW your camera’s “sights” or view direction. When I do this, I typically set the ISO up a little higher than the setting would be normally as there is a possibility of increased movement.  I also generally set my 24-105mm to 24-35mm as I like to actually get as close as I can.   Shooting at a longer focal length is quite challenging to capture the image effectively when shooting blind.

Roasting Chestnuts in Songpan, China

When shooting from the hip, I use various positions for this. When standing or walking, I often drop the camera down to my side with one arm and stand sideways to the subject or face forward and extend one arm down with the camera down below the waist and hold on to my forearm with my other arm in a casual way.   This gets a low angle, which is sometimes rewarding, and is always in portrait mode. I am getting used to this approach, although doing well for me is to get 1 out of 10 images correctly. Takes practice! If I were sitting, I often cross my arms with the camera in one hand and underneath my other arm. This tends to be more of a landscape image naturally, but I like my chances better with this approach as I get a better sense of where my camera is pointing. Usually I can get something 4-5 times out of 10.   I really enjoy these “shoot from the hip” challenges and have been rewarded many times.  

The second approach I take is making the subject aware of what I am doing.    I NEVER walk up and start shooting.   Most of the time a smile and showing interest in what the person is doing is most effective and especially if you show respect for that person(s).   Using this approach also differs sometimes based on where I am. For example, at the Papua New Guinea Sing-Sing’s, the local tribes are fully aware of the photographers and actually liked to be photographed. I did not walk up to someone and just start shooting as I saw with many photographers there. I find this rude. I first smiled and asked if it was ok for me to shoot a picture. In almost all cases in PNG, this was well received. Once you started shooting, you could then roll on for several shots.  Also in PNG, I used my Canon Selphy portable printer that prints great 4X6 prints to give out.   I highly recommend this as a real highlight for me watching them see the print being produced.

A different example was in Flores Island, Indonesia. These people were not at all used to tourist and photographers as this island is relatively unknown still in the tourism industry. With the people here…again, the smile worked, but I also tried to get more involved in what they were doing or how they are dressed or whatever fit the situation.   English hardly works for many of the people, so I would point to a bracelet or if they seem interested, show them something that I have.   Then I would ask to shoot them after a short time once I felt the connection, and if you are like me, you do feel the connection. Sometimes I walked away as that connection really never existed…but that is fine.

Floating Market Vendor, Bangkok

People’s age also contributes highly in being receptive as a subject. Kids…no matter where you go are a great subject and you can have a lot of fun with them.  The only time it can get difficult is if they start asking for money in return, but I almost always know that ahead of time before I would take the picture. They see the camera and out comes the hand.   I tend to bypass this unless there is something absolutely priceless in the shot, which does occur occasionally. The small “fee” for getting a shot is generally worth it. Elderly people are also quite accommodating and make excellent subjects and if like me, just like the thought that someone has taken interest in them. The middle-age generation typically presents the most challenges and requires more patience before a shot can be fired.

In all cases when the subject is aware of what I am doing, I will never pose them other than to step back, smile and shoot when they smile back. I will at times turn them to maximize the lighting by generally asking them politely.   Kids always have great natural poses as they are uninhibited and the elderly love it, so their smiles are generally rich and honest.   Once I am done, I almost always will show them their picture on the camera as others in the area see this which can often open up other great opportunities. No matter what approach I take, I actually only shoot one shot at a time and try to time the shot as I peer through the eye-piece.  This really works better for me as I seem to concentrate better on what the person is doing and focus better on the composition. The only exception to this is if I want to shoot a series to capture the moment, such as releasing a dove or having a puppy lick a child’s face.

Yangon Girl

Oh yes…FOCUS ON THE EYES…ALWAYS!! Friendly reminder. 

Hopefully this is helpful. As an American (or whatever nationality you are) and more importantly as a photographer, I find that it is important to be a good ambassador. I do not want to be an Ugly American with a camera. It is not a one-way give and take. It is so important to also give something in return…showing respect and a smile with interest can go a long way.   And…..a polite ‘thanks’ at the end helps me feel better too!

Editor's Note

See more than a dozen cultural portraits from Richard in his photo album "Capturing Cultural Portraits".


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The comments below are owned by whomever posted them. TPN is not responsible for the content therein.
Authored by: Walter Rowe on Tuesday, December 04 2012 @ 03:24 PM EST Capturing Cultural Portraits

Richard - wonderful article. Thanks for contributing.

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