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The way to approach people

An Up-close portrait of a Hmong woman on a black background in North Vietnam - Pics Of Asia Photos Travels Tours

The way to approach people

Getting closer to your subjects.
The relationship between the two people involved in creating a photograph can be a delicate one. Let’s take a look at how to maintain a respectful balance.

Remember that when travelling, you are the foreigner.

You are the foreigner – not the people you meet. You should be adapting to their cultures, not the other way around. Go into their houses, ask them personal questions about their lives, and so on. And get close to them!

So how to do you actually get close to people?

Man in Bangladesh portrait

In a word, it’s all about your attitude. Be polite, friendly, patient, outgoing, curious, open-minded. In other words, be yourself! Make people smile, make them laugh, make them interested – then take their picture!

But this takes a lot of energy, and time – luxuries you don’t always have. You could of course just walk up to people, snap a shot and walk away. But this would make you an a**hole. If you’re reading this and you suspect you are an a**hole, please don’t contact us to find out more our photography education tours.

If I finish a photography class in Hoi An and my jaw is aching from smiling a lot – and my students are feeling the same – then I know it was a success, and we’ll have some great pictures.

Wherever you go, learn the basics of a language, and when I say basics I mean the two most important words: hello and beautiful. Use them – a lot. You’d be amazed (and depressed) at how many people I meet who have been in Vietnam for a week or more, without even managing to say “hello” in Vietnamese. Use your hands when you talk, and if I didn’t mention this already, smile! In South East Asia, smiling is everything. Get interested and curious about the people you meet, what they are doing and the things surrounding them.

If you open yourself to people, they’ll respond in kind.

If you open yourself to people, they’ll respond in kind.

Once contact has been established and you get a good feeling about the situation, it might be time to take that first picture. By this point you don’t need to ask – cradling a giant camera means they already know what you’re planning to do! Once you’ve snapped a photo, show them and say “beautiful” in their own language. You’ll usually end up with 10 people around you, all highly amused at how their neighbours look on the little screen.  

Portrait of a woman in Myanmar

One thing you need to realise is that for many of the people you meet, it’s not obvious why we want to take their picture. It’s important to help them understand that we love taking photos simply because we love it! Explaining that it’s about beautiful images rather than some sinister form of surveillance makes all the difference.

Asking people, “Can I take your picture?” is the worst thing you can do.

If you do so, they’ll stop what they were doing, pose and smile. Even worse, in a tourist area, they may think, not again, and walk away.

In places where tourists regularly pay people to take their photos, the introduction of money into the equation can completely change the vibe. You just have to decide if you want to play along. Rather purchase something from their market stall – that way, you’re engaging with them, and helping them without patronising them. And don’t forget to smile!

When I come back to a place I’ve been before, I give people prints of the portraits I took of them on my previous visit. Suddenly I have a queue of people wanting to have their photo taken. I just make sure they line up in great light!  

Portrait of an old lady in Vietnam

Busy people are less likely to mind you taking pictures, and kids are generally more patient and love having their pictures taken.

Don’t let your frustration show if you’re not getting the images you want – a grumpy photographer who isn’t smiling won’t persuade anyone to let themselves be photographed!

I’ve always found that being in a village, visiting homes and enjoying life’s simple pleasures helps me relax and decompress. Then I become a happy, smiling photographer and people respond to that. I get great pictures, and then I’m even happier!  

I asked the mother of these kids if I could visit their home the next day. She felt honoured that I wanted to see the way she lives and told her neighbours I was coming. Everyone was well dressed and welcoming, making things easy for me.  


Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.


  1. Ron Salmon on February 5, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    Great artical, I had no trouble photographing people in South East Asia especially after your morning tour last year. Since then I have been to India and for some reason found it uncomfortable photographing people and hence I did not get many good shots out of the 1200 shots I took, the landscapes were good, but people not so, it became an atitude problem with me, I had ideas of what I wanted to achieve but never achieved that whow factor.
    Thanks again for the article, hope to see you again this year.

    • admin on February 6, 2013 at 2:01 am

      Hey Ron, What’s up with Indian people? What stopped you from taking their photos? Is it more something they showed you or a personal feeling?

      • Elena Elia on May 26, 2018 at 1:15 pm

        Well, I do not know if you heard about it, but the “amazing” and “skillful” portrait photography of Asian people that you see, is usually NOT the product of skill, competence or even accident! It is actually an industry of its own! People will dress up in their local costumes, open their homes or even their whole villages, and they will pose for you exactly as you instruct them, for a fee!!. This may not be fixed, it is usually left at the photographer’s discretion, but rest assurred that it has to be generous! It goes without saying that all this involves a personal local driver who knows to which village to take you and at which time of the day because, hey, we need the right lighting conditions as well, don’t we? To all budget travel photographers, very bluntly: it will take a hell lot of universe conspiracy for you to create that perfect shot of Asian people!

        • Etienne on May 28, 2018 at 9:44 am

          Elena, you are perfectly right and this is a topic I have been discussing many times before and will be writing about much more in the near future (check out my tutorial called “the ethics of travel photography”). The thing is though, this will happen if you set it up and organize it with a local guide or even as you mentioned a local driver. This will also happen when travelling in the main touristic spots. Being a travel photographer means being a traveller first, and that means going to explore more authentic and exciting locations, away from the main tourist tracks.

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  3. Duncan Thomson on February 19, 2014 at 9:39 am

    Hello Etienne,

    Nice article and lots of good points. Have to admit it seems much easier as a tourist in Vietnam (Hoi An), but still takes a certain confidence on the part of the photographer, I guess this is related to personality, experience, and practise.

    China is a little different again – where I live is very developed and although photo opportunities are many it does feel more intrusive and I feel quite sensitive to how people are reacting to the camera (perhaps more like your example of New York !!).

    Anyway it’s clear I need to practise more and develop more confidence – I’m working on it !!

    • Etienne on February 22, 2014 at 12:17 am

      thanks Duncan. Of course you are right, my article applied more to developing countries of South East Asia. There are a lot of street photographers in China, Hong Kong and Singapore, and that makes it more difficult. Imagine what John Free has been doing for 40 years: street photography in Los Angeles. I have so much respect for this man, who is, in my opinion, doing what’s the most difficult in photography. He manages to take photos of people in a difficult environment. Make sure you check out his videos, so inspiring.

  4. Milda on February 19, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Really good article! Very comprehensive yet with real life examples. One of the best photography tips I had in a while!

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  6. Fred on February 28, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I agree with you : taking time is the key, to take good pictures and especially to share good moments.
    Have you tried to cook french snails to Vietnamese (on sunday if it fits your “tradition”) ? There’s a good chance they’d like it !

    • Etienne on March 1, 2014 at 6:34 am

      Well Vietnamese already have their own and tasty receipt for snails: a lot of chilly and lemongrass! Yummy!

  7. […] my opinion the best way is the one that suits you: if you love the contact with people then getting close will be more fun (we are not only shooting to get great shots, but it also is a […]

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  11. Owen on November 3, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    Great article, my wife and I are in Vietnam and Cambodia in December and Jan, we may come and spend time shooting on one of your workshops 🙂

    • Etienne on November 16, 2016 at 5:15 pm

      thanks feel free to be in touch!

  12. […] and right. They are happy, then curious, then scared, then sad. Generally, because busy people are easier to approach, we tend to photograph subjects who are dynamic. And even when our subject is static – […]

  13. […] smile – know when they are joking! And if you can joke back, you will quickly understand that all is fine. Do not be defeated, intimidated, or turned off by someone if they ask you for money – the […]

  14. Sharon Ritchie on June 3, 2019 at 6:10 am

    Hi great article, ewe are travelling to Vietnam in September would love to join in any day trips you have going I Hanoi and Hoi An. How do we contact you?

    • Etienne on June 5, 2019 at 11:19 am

      Hi Sharon, sure please be in touch with us via Hoi An Photo Tour and Workshop if you’d like to join one of our half day photography tours around Hoi An 🙂

  15. Susan Moss on August 8, 2019 at 6:43 pm

    Hello Etienne, great article, I love taking street portraits and always a smile goes a long way to communicate with people when you don’t speak their language, Seems to work for me!

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