This article was originally published on September 9, 2016 and has been updated to include current product information.
By Ted Hesser
This article will walk you through the art of capturing photos of people in distant cultures. To augment a few general concepts, I’ll share the story in the context of a recent trip to Northern Ethiopia during Easter.
Laughter is the key. If you can make someone laugh, then you’ve brought them into the fold. You’ve welcomed them onto the stage that you are setting. Your body language and smile are an invitation, their laughter and body language an acceptance. This is a dance. Always be respectful, never forcing, and be willing to lose the shot if it doesn’t feel right. You probably won’t speak the same language, but if you’re observant, you will pick up their vibe. As you walk closer, with camera ready, settings prepared, evaluating the shape, direction and feel of the light, screening for distracting background objects, wait for that unique moment, that look in the eye, a certain body position, a flash of humanity, a resonance of geometry.
When you capture a moment beyond expectations, you know right away. Fortune favors the prepared more than the bold, but you must be both. You must be at the right place, at the right time, with a visual concept already in mind, and a willingness to wait for that concept to be disrupted into something beautiful and unexpected. It sounds irrational, but Art is Dionysian.
Canon EOS 5DS, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @16mm, 1/800th sec, f/2.8, ISO 100, -1/3 EV
For those who don’t know, Easter is a very important holiday in Ethiopia. I was not aware of this fact prior to visiting, but it turns out that Ethiopia was the first Christian nation in the world, around 330 AD. That’s before the Holy Roman Empire. Imagine an African empire nationalizing Christianity before any European power? Going all the way back to the 10th century B.C. The legendary Queen of Sheba brought Judaism back to the Axumite lands from Israel. She was King Solomon’s favored queen for a time, and bore a son who later absconded with the Arc of the Covenant and brought it to Ethiopia. The Arc of the Covenant! In Ethiopia! Even today, in the modern day city of Axum, a small sacrosanct group of monks guards the holy object, completely hidden from the public’s prying eyes. And then of course there was Balthazar, the wise man of Nazareth, and the King of Ethiopia, who traversed two continents to bring frankincense to baby Jesus upon his birth. In short, the horn of Africa has been a staging ground for the entire Judeo-Christian arc, both threads of western religion occurring in parallel and without the disruptive forces of colonization from the 10th century B.C. through to present. It’s fascinating to see the religious influence on everyday life. This photo series aims to expose that influence.
Canon EOS 5DS, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 16mm, 1/400th sec, f/2.8, ISO 400
Places to look for people shots
One of the most important elements of success is picking the right location once you are in a country. Could be a busy market, a church, a tourist site or an epic landscape with visually interesting people just going about their day-to-day. The best photos are often the most unique, and the most unique often require the most effort to research and location-plan. Web search on 500px or Instagram is a great quick baseline for idea generation. Once you’ve narrowed in on a few locations, physically scouting ahead can make a big difference between good and great photographs. Understanding the natural ebb and flow of people, the sun, and the right geometric frames for a photo ahead of time can allow you to perfect the shot.
Canon EOS 5DS, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 24mm, 1/40th sec, f/2.8, ISO 800
While in Ethiopia, my focus was on religious sites. It was Easter after all, in the African holy land. Normally, it is very difficult to take photos in a religious setting. People are generally not okay with it. However after arriving at the Holy Trinity church in Addis Ababa, I quickly learned that if I was discrete and respectful, people did not mind the western Mzungo taking photos in the pews of the centuries-old church. This mutual understanding occurred gradually, over many hours in the church. Only taking one photo at a time also helps, so that people do not feel like the paparazzi are in the building. One trick is to hold the camera below eye level, at waist or chest level, and to carefully orient the camera correctly for a shot. It takes some practice to get the back-button autofocus to work this way. I usually pick a 9-point or Single Shot AF mode when shooting from the hip. This method plus a quiet shutter tends to offend people less than holding a big camera up to your eye and moving closer for a shot. Also, by holding the camera lower, you tend to cast subjects in at a heroic angle, which is often preferable to shooting at eye level.
Canon EOS 5DS, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 27mm, 1/25th sec, f/2.8, ISO 800, -1/3 EV
Eye contact or no Eye contact?
This is an age-old question in photography. Many of the most iconic photographs or pieces of artwork all possess nuanced and expressive eye contact. Think of Steve McCurry’s Afghani girl, or the Mona Lisa. Eye contact clearly brings the photo into the realm of portraiture, but sometimes eye contact can keep a certain candid feel. Like in the photo below, where amidst the throngs of Christian masses, this one Ethiopian girl with almond shaped eyes turned around in the middle of the frame for the briefest of moments. Caught a glance, and boom, magic.
Canon EOS 5DS, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 16mm, 1/125th sec, f/2.8, ISO 400
When shooting on assignment for magazines, I find out their preferences in advance. For example, National Geographic opposes direct eye contact and won’t publish it; however Outside Magazine is okay with eye contact. Influenced by Buddhism I tend to view eyes as the gateway to the soul. So my favorite photos of people all tend to focus on eyes. Or, more accurately for the photos above and below, ‘an eye.’
Canon EOS 5DS, 50mm f/1.2 lens @ 50mm, 1/100th sec, f/1.8, ISO 100
Always scan for an interesting face
Once honed in on the right location, and in the thick of the action, one should constantly be scanning for interesting faces: proud faces, old faces, scarred faces, beautiful eyes, colorful clothes, cultural props. The best photos find ways to combine numerous narrative elements visually without making the composition feel contrived. Faces are the ultimate narrative element. Our minds instantly create stories about the person, their life, who they are, why they are there in that moment. It’s instinctual for our eyes and brain to latch onto faces above all else.
Canon EOS 5DS, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens @ 70mm, 1/640th sec, f/4.5, ISO 100, - 2/3 EV
Sometimes, I will wander around a site for hours before settling into taking my first photos of the scene. This tends to happen if I arrive somewhere in the middle of the day, and the light’s too harsh or not quite right. In these hours, enjoying the actual location, soaking it in and finding the best frames are all part of the process. In the back of my mind, I’m always looking for the right face, the right person, whose look and feel captures the essence of the scene. On one occasion in Lalibela, Ethiopia, we went to an open market in town. It was Biblical Bethlehem on full display. Everyone wrapped in cloth, donkeys trotting about with bells banging around their necks, men and women stopping to pray at random points, simple earthen goods for sale strewn about the ground on tarps. I was scanning the terraces. Looking for a powerful, symmetrical, older male face. Searching for a way to convey the scene. Searching for a Balthazar. And then, this man appeared. I approached, camera out. Asked him if I could take his photo. He smiled, almost bashful. I took a photo from 5 or so feet away at first. It was too far. As the famous Robert Capa saying goes, “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough.” I walked in closer, about a foot away, with a wider lens. He looked directly at the camera at first, but for a moment, glanced away, I presume reminiscing about his former journey to honor the birth of Jesus. Snap. There it was. The Balthazar I had been looking for.
Canon EOS 5DS, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 25mm, 1/400th sec, f/4.5, ISO 100, -2/3 EV
When to pay people, when not to?
When to pay and when not to pay is a tricky line to walk for practical and ethical reasons. Practically speaking, when you pay someone, it immediately changes the character of the photo. The subject can become stiff and the photo can instantly feel staged and stale. Paying also attracts a crowd. For these reasons, I try to avoid paying people ahead of time. However, ethically, I do believe that it is justified to pay people for the right to take their photo in poor places. They are lending their image, their life experience, to your camera so that you can share it with the world for your own pleasure or benefit. It’s only fair. Also, odds are that if you are in a foreign land with photographic aspirations then you are orders of magnitude better off than everyone around you. Giving some money to individuals in the community is just the right thing to do.
And so, the strategy that I try to employ is to not pay people up front, but to see who is willing to develop a bit of a relationship with me first. If I do spend a meaningful amount of time with someone, and take photos of him or her, then I pay them afterwards as a nice thing to do, and out of respect. As opposed to out of some form of tourist tax for simply being in a foreign land. This approach requires time, but it’s far more rewarding.
Canon EOS 5DS, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 27mm, 1/60th sec, f/8, ISO 100, -1 EV
More often than not though, I try to avoid places where everyone expects payment the moment you put a camera over your shoulder. These are the tourist spots, the over-photographed spots. Much better instead to venture forth to less traveled villages and locations.
Canon EOS 5DS, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 16mm, 1/25th sec, f/9, ISO 100, -1 / 3 EV
Another point to note is that when adventuring in a foreign land, you often have to pay for a local guide to climb a mountain, or visit the local tourist sites. In a lot of instances in Africa it’s mandatory. If I ever have any choice in the matter, I try to hire someone local, only once I’m there, and someone who would make a great photographic subject. For instance, a Maasii kid to hike a volcano with, or a local Axumite to tour around Lalibela with. Having paid these individuals as guides, they are often very open to being photographed during your time with them.
Best equipment/lens suggestions
My favorite two lenses for candid people photos are the EF 16-35 mm f/2.8 lens, and the EF 50mm f/1.2 prime lens. If you’re comfortable getting very close to people with a camera lens in a cultural setting, the first choice should be a slightly wide-angle lens. The second is ideal for portraiture, or simply getting up close for a candid cultural shot. If you want to keep a bit more distance, then the 70-200mm lens is the best choice for candid shots.
The equipment that I brought on this trip includes:
- Canon EOS 5DS DSLR body plus two fully charged battery packs & a 64GB memory card.
- EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM for landscape shots
- EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM as a bread and butter lens
- EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM for people and compressed landscape shots
- EF 50mm f/1.2L USM for portraits
- ProMaster XC525 tripod
- Peak Design camera slings, a handful of lens cleaning wipes
Canon EOS 5DS, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 35mm, 1/60th sec, f/2.8, ISO 100, -2/3 EV