Travel Photo Thursday: The Problem with People in Photos

Travel Photo Thursday: The Problem with People in Photos

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In  “Travel Photo Thursday: ‘People-ing’ Your Trip Photos” I stressed the importance of having people appear in the photos that you take when traveling.

And in “Travel Photo Thursday: ‘Scaling’ Your Shots with People” I showed you how having people appear in a photo can help the viewer visualize the size of hills, trees, and man-made structures.

But getting those people into (or out of) a shot can present several problems that photographers, including leisure travelers snapping away with a smartphone, usually don’t encounter when taking photos of landscapes or inanimate objects.

People in Motion

When people gather, whether in a big city, little village, beach, or national park, they tend to move around.

As you press the shutter button on your camera, they come into “the frame” where you don’t IMG_0608want them to be, blocking the view of your subject. If you’re lucky, maybe only an arm, a leg, or both will appear at the edge of the photo, which you’ll later be able to crop those body parts out using photo editing software.

At other times, when you want them in the shot, they’ll see your camera, and out of politeness, dart away before you can take the photo, as this woman did when I attempted to capture her standing near the trailhead to Lassen Peak.

One way to deal with that problem is to find a vantage point where you’ll be able to get the shot you want, have your camera pre-focused, and wait. Wait until your wanted “models” are positioned right where you wish them to be, wait until the “undesirables” have passed out of your camera’s view.

Burst Mode
(Photocapy Flickr Photo)

Setting your camera on “Burst” of “Continuous Shooting” mode (which allows you to quickly take one shot after another) and capturing several images in a few seconds will increase the odds that you get at least one image that is “peopled” or “unpeopled.”

Seeking Permission

When is okay to photograph someone without their permission?

In a recent episode of “This Week in Travel,” the show hosts and special guest Shannon O’Donnell, National Geographic “Traveler of The Year,” discussed the rules and etiquette related to photographing people. Listening to that show prompted me to write this story.

The “Rules”

As a former practicing attorney, I’ll give you a lawyer-like answer. (Disclaimer: I’m not giving you “legal advice” and you and I don’t have an attorney-client relationship.)

The answer (which lawyers will tell you can apply in a myriad of situations that have nothing to do with photography) is: “It depends.”

For example, it may depend on the country/state/jurisdiction/place where you are taking the photo.

Hungary recently passed a law requiring photographers to obtain permission before taking a photo of a person in that country. Whether or how the law will be enforced, whether it is utter nonsense, and who, if anyone, especially photojournalists, will obey it, is open to debate.

In the U.S., it’s probably okay to take a photograph of someone in a public place, such as on the street or in park. But, “publishing” that photo without the person’s permission may not be.

And it is probably okay for that photograph to be used for “editorial” purposes, such as to illustrate a news or “Travel” story. But it wouldn’t be proper to use it for “commercial” purposes, such as putting it on the cover or a magazine or book, since you would be using the photo to sell that product.

But what is a “public place?”

Is any place which admits “the public” a “public place” where you can photograph people without their permission? What about restaurants? Or churches? Or court rooms?

Think it’s okay to take a photograph inside of an airplane? Suppose you were flying in Business or First Class and just wanted to post a shot of your cushy, lie-flat bed seat on Instagram. Doing so could be such a serious “no-no” that you might be kicked off the flight.

And in some situations, a person other than the one being photographed may be the one from whom you’ll have have to seek permission to take the photo.

A couple of years ago, in a California state park, I was asked not to shoot of photo of a group of children because (if it were published) “someone” who shouldn’t know might find out where the kids were that day.

Laws often state that children below a certain age cannot enter into legal binding contracts. Only their parents or legal guardians can do so on their behalf.

The same “legal disability” may extend to children whose agreement to to allow themselves to be photographed will be null and void. And those with a mental disability may not be able to consent to having themselves photographed, either.

Of course,  someone other than the person being photographed must be able to identify the person in your photo. If you’ve shot at a distance, in dim light, or from behind the person, their face may be indistinct or not show at all.

Common Courtesy

Some people, particularly kids, may be thrilled that you want to take their photo, and want to “ham it up” for the camera.

In some locales, people may have a “cultural” reason for not wishing to being photographed. And in others, people may be angry, feel used or humiliated, or believe that you are invading their privacy (even if the photo is taken in a public place).

So out of common courtesy, should you always seek permission before taking a photo of someone you don’t know?

(Sometimes even friends or family will say “Don’t take my photo!”)


How do you go about getting permission to take someone’s photo?

One way, of course, is to verbally ask them.

Suppose they say “Sure”? How to you “document” (ah, another legal process) that they actually gave permission?

You can ask them to sign a “model release.” There are several sources from which you can obtain a “model release,” and you can print them out, or even have them loaded on a smartphone.

But someone who is agreeable to being photographed may balk when asked to sign a release, particularly one written in “legalese.”

So another way to document permission to photograph would be via audio or video recording. Some videographers may simply ask people to give their permission “on camera.” (Note that in some places, making an audio or video recording of someone without their permission is illegal.)

But that won’t work if you don’t both speak a common language. Under those circumstances, you might, with an inquiring look on your face, make eye contact with the person, raise your camera (and maybe point to it) and then seek permission through pantomime. If they nod, or say “Ok!” (even those who don’t speak English may know that word and what it means), take your shot.

Taking Your Best Shot

So while one way to get bypass any “people problems” when you take trip photos is to never have people in your shots, to paraphrase what Shannon O’Donnell said on “This Week in Travel,” photographs of people tell often tell the story of the place.

Many photos capture “The Moment,” which means you have to take them now or “The Moment” will pass, especially if you put down your camera and seek permission before shooting the photo.

Then there’s the problem of posed vs. candid shots of people.

Sometimes a posed shot will be great. Some photographers will probably tell you that if you sit and chat with the person for a while before shooting, they’ll feel relaxed and you’ll get a better images. I think that will work quite well if you plan to take several photos of the person, perhaps while talking to them.

But candid shots are often best. Sometimes people tense up, rather than relax, when they know that they are going to be photographed.

And once, when I was on a “photo shoot” with several other photographers, one of them stepped between me and the two people whose candid photo I was about to take, so she could ask them to pose, thus wrecking my “The Moment” shot.

(For more tips on photographing people, see “Travel Photo Thursday: Secrets of ‘Street’ Photography” and “Travel Photo Thursday: Keeping People in Focus.”)

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