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Posing People Shots On The Road; Arranging For And Photographing Foreign Models Bookmark and Share

I learned a long time ago that I couldn’t rely on serendipity to get great shots of people when traveling. Once in a while I’d get lucky, but most of the time the background wasn’t perfect, the lighting wasn’t quite right, or the person wasn’t wearing clothes that told a story about the culture. In addition, I hesitate to point my camera at people without their permission. I can understand that they may feel I’m intruding on their space and their privacy, and I don’t want to do that. Grabbing shots of people without getting their permission also means that the chance of getting a model release is very small.

The approach I prefer is to arrange the models beforehand. The two great resources I use to get this done in most places in the world is a taxi driver or the hotel concierge. These people have knowledge, contacts, and experience in helping travelers find whatever they want, and if they don’t know whom to call they will know someone who does. As an example, when I was in Cambodia I hired a young man with a motorbike to take me around to the various ruins at Angkor Wat. I told him I wanted to photograph some traditional Cambodian dancers posing for me in the famous ruins, and he drove me to a dance school where he interpreted for me and helped arrange four young people in full costume for the afternoon of the following day. The shoot went very well. I got some great pictures (#1), and we all had a great time.

All Photos © 2010, Jim Zuckerman, All Rights Reserved

Whether I set up shots or shoot spontaneously—which I still do at times—it is important to know how to interact with the people in culturally respectful ways. It’s a good idea to ask your guide or driver about some of the do’s and don’ts you should be aware of before the photo session or when you want to photograph strangers on the street or in a village. For example, in Thailand you should never touch the top of someone’s head or sit with the bottom of your feet facing them. In a Muslim, country, never give anything to someone else with your left hand, and when you enter a Church anywhere in the world, take your hat off. In Israel the opposite is true. When entering a Synagogue, the head should be covered (this is true for conservative and orthodox Synagogues elsewhere, also). In many Asian cultures, it is considered terribly impolite to express anger publicly. Even when you are upset, a smile and a soft-spoken manner are not only very polite, it will help you get what you want a lot more than anger will.

If you want to prepare yourself before you go to a country, you can do a search on Google for something like “cultural mores Thailand” and you will find a lot written about any culture with which you want to become familiar.

Backgrounds And Locations
Never underestimate the importance of a background to make or break a picture. With travel photography, a background is especially important because it gives a sense of place. However, it can easily be distracting and/or unattractive if it’s not well chosen. For example, (#2) shows a classic Venetian background, and it enhances the portrait of the costumed Carnival participant. I balanced the exposure from the fill flash with the distant San Giorgio Island, and this is the kind of environmental portrait where the background plays an important role in making the shot so effective. The comparison picture (#3) doesn’t show enough of the background in my opinion, and the lamppost seems to be growing out of this person’s head. In addition, it’s a little too dark. This is the kind of background that is distracting rather than complementary. It still gives a sense of place, but there are too many problems with it. In both shots I had the same background but due to the composition, the exposure, and the shooting position one image looks good while the other one doesn’t work well.



How do you choose a good background for a subject? Research, pre-visualization, and trial and error. I do a lot of research before I travel because I am constantly looking for places to shoot models. I print out possible locations, and then when I arrive I try to make the arrangements for hiring the models and getting them to the places I found. I also buy local postcards for sites that serve my purpose. For example, I discovered Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, Korea from a postcard at my hotel, and I asked a young woman working at the reception desk if she would model for me in traditional Korean attire. She agreed in exchange for pictures that I promised to send her, and she also helped me rent the outfit from a local shop. The series of shots I was able to take (4 and 5) was a highlight of the trip.


Pre-visualization is the real key in choosing great backgrounds for the subjects you shoot. I start the pre-visualization process in my thinking by saying to myself, “What if…” or “Wouldn’t it be great if…” For example, when I was in the desert state of Rajasthan in India the Thar Desert is a sea of sand near Jaiselmer, and I thought it would be fantastic to have models positioned on one of the dunes. The brilliant colors of the Indian clothing against the blue sky would look awesome, so I inquired whether or not this kind of thing was possible to arrange, It was, and I got a fantastic group of images. You can see in (#6), that I used a wide angle lens placed very close to the foreground, and even though the defined ripples make up a predominant part of the picture, the models stand out beautifully and they are the focal point of the photograph.


I did the same thing with a camel train (#7). On the same dunes, I hired some men to walk their camels on the crest of the dune. The sunset sky wasn’t very good that evening, so I used Photoshop to replace it. The conceptualization of this started when I came up with a best-case scenario for this location, and then I asked my local guide to help make it happen.


Classic backgrounds that almost always make winning shots are doorways, windows, archways, and corridors. I look for these things everywhere I go. A palace door offered a sensational backdrop in the photo of a Balinese dancer (#8), for example, and a simple oval window in a Burmese monastery gave me a wonderful portrait of four novice monks (#9). Similarly, I photographed a woman in period dress in the window of a 19th century house in Missouri Town, a recreation of an 1855 settlement near Kansas City (#10). I used a much more ornate window design in the Muslim section of Jodhpur, India to frame two models (#11). This kind of composition forces our attention on the subject and, at the same time, adds artistry to the picture both in color and in graphic design.





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