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Cultural photography is one of the most fascinating genres that seeks to tell the stories of people’s lives to its audience. There’s a vast range of ways that a photographer can capture the essence of a culture which include the people themselves, their clothes and their food. It can also explore the way that people work, play and worship.
Any aspect of culture can become the focus of a project and despite what you might be thinking you don’t have to travel to foreign countries to do cultural photography! Of course, it can often be more interesting for your audiences to learn about cultures they don’t know about however you can also document the cultural life of your home as well.
The most powerful cultural photography illustrates the way that people live and shows the context against which their social relationships develop. There’s often an underlying narrative element in cultural photography although simple portraits, shots of food markets and stores are also important parts of any culture.
Cultural Photography is an Adventure.
Although you can take cultural photography anywhere that you find yourself the most exciting work usually involves travelling to new countries and places. While you are there you can take photos that give your audience information about the culture you are exploring.
When you’re taking photographs in a new place there are a few things to know which can really help you make the most of the experience and come away with the best possible images.
10 Top Tips To Shoot Cultural Photography Like a Pro.
Leave Yourself Time at the Start of the Trip.
When you first arrive in a foreign country you don’t want to leap straight into shooting photos of everything you see! It’s always a better idea to give yourself a few days at the beginning of your trip to explore the scenery, find your feet and get a sense of the feel of the place.
Everything is going to be new when you first arrive and you might find yourself a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of capturing the essence of the culture. So instead of panicking, just take your time at the start. Spend the days doing guided tours or just following your feet. Try to eat out in different types of restaurants and cafes to give you a broader understanding of how things work from day to day.
In a few days time you’ll start to feel more relaxed and comfortable in the new culture you’re exploring. Usually, it will take about 3 days to get used to your new location after which you’ll be in a much better position to set out to capture the culture with your camera!
Meet the Locals.
One of the best ways to learn about a new culture is to talk to the people who live it every day! Try to meet and talk with as many locals as you can while you’re on your cultural photography trip. Not only will this give you a unique insight into their society but they will also be able to give you priceless advice as to where you can find special photo opportunities.
If you’re wondering how you can meet or talk to the locals then the answer is just be friendly! Ask questions about the produce at the local market, speak to the waiters in the restaurants and even the staff at your hotel. Everyone will have their own take on where the best photo spots are so you’ll end up with a good mix of sites to shoot some cultural photography.
If you like you can stay in touch with your new friends even after you’ve left the country; and you never know, if they’re ever visiting your home town then you can show them around in return!
Hire a Personal Guide.
Often referred to in the world of photography as a ‘fixer, you can hire a personal guide to show you around the country. They will arrange all your travel for you and deal with any fees, taxes or tolls that have to be paid on the way.
Before you get started with your guide, have a conversation about the kinds of things you are looking for. This will help things to run smoothly and you to get the most out of your trip.
You can hire a guide when you arrive in the country although if you possibly can it’s better to arrange one in advance. This way you can communicate with them before you arrive so that they can plan a schedule for you on your arrival.
If you arrive in the country and haven’t arranged a guide in advance but then change your mind, you can speak to the staff in the hotel, or at the local travel office, for advice on where to find a suitable one.
Learn Some Basic Words in the Local Language.
Now you don’t need to master the entire language but simply learning a few phrases like ‘Thank you, ‘Please’ and ‘Hello’ can really go a long way! If you greet the locals in their own language you’ll see their faces light up with a smile and they’ll be far friendlier and more willing to pose as subjects in your photos.
As well as learning some basic phrases, you could learn a few extras such as ‘Can I please take your photo?’. This will help things to go smoothly for you and will also put your subjects more at ease. Remember, just like in the West, in most cultures it is considered rude for you to simply approach a stranger and then start taking photographs! So it’s always better to ask their permission first.
Always Backup Your Photos!
When you’re taking photos in a foreign country the chances of you being able to go back any time soon are probably going to be pretty small. So while you’re out there on your cultural photography trip get into the habit of backing up all your data every night before you go to bed.
If you have the facilities available to you then it’s also a good idea to not only back them up in physical form – on a USB stick for instance – but also to load them to a safe place on line. That means even if you lose the USB sticks or the files are corrupted you can still access your previous photos via the internet once you get back home.
Should You Pay Your Subjects?
Generally speaking you don’t need to pay your subjects for taking their photo although there are things that you can do to be polite. For example, if you’re taking photos of a tailor working in their shop then after you’ve finished the photo shoot you could buy a shirt that they made! Not only will this be a nice keep safe for the future but it’ll also be a way of indirectly paying them for the photos.
Another way that you can show your appreciation to subjects in your photos is to send them copies of the pictures once you get home. The best way to do this is via international airmail so the pictures should get to them within a few weeks at the most. Many people around the world still do not have access to cameras and so if you sent them a few high quality pictures of themselves they would never forget the kind gesture.
Do As Much Research As You Can!
You should already have done plenty of research about the culture before you arrived but once you do arrive you should still continue! Having been able to see things for yourself the research you continue to do will be more meaningful and help you to create more authentic narratives in your photos.
As well as researching online or in travel books you should also be asking locals questions whenever the opportunity arises. Keep a small notebook with you and jot down the answers so you don’t forget.
Try to Incorporate Unusual Perspectives.
To really engage your viewers you can use unusual perspectives to draw them into the narrative of the photo. Shoot from various angles and perspectives – for instance, you can take a photo of a market place from above so all the different fruits and vegetables are visible. Alternatively, you can shoot from below the subject to portray a real sense of place and atmosphere.
Take close ups, scene setting shots from farther away and portraits. To create the most interesting series of cultural photos you want to really mix it up!
Use Colors To Capture Mood and Atmosphere.
When you travel to new parts of the world you might be surprised to realize that different colors are dominant in the architecture, art, stones and landscape! For instance the dominant colors in the deserts of Africa are made up of the sand whereas in the Amazon rainforest the lush greenery is all engulfing!
These types of variations can also be found in clothing, food and the jewelry of different cultures. Scandinavian food and clothes are very different in color to the food and clothing of Asia or India. All these tiny details come together to form the wonderful tapestries of these cultures and so as a photographer you want to be able to hone in on these more subtle aspects to build atmosphere and create a unifying theme throughout your series of images.
Don’t Over Complicate Things.
When you’re presented with a new culture you might be tempted to try to cram every photo with as many details as possible however this can end up looking cluttered and too busy. Instead, remember what you’ve learnt about composition and keep things simple!
This will make it easier for your viewers to get a clear idea of the aspects of the culture that you are highlighting in your photography and ensure that your photos maintain the artistic style that you have built up over the years. Simple portraits are very powerful, as are close up shots of a bowl of regional seafood; so don’t feel you have to include everything in each photo!
Always Be Aware of Local Sensitivities When You’re Shooting Cultural Photography.
When you’re taking photos in a foreign culture you need to be especially careful not to offend your subjects or cause them to feel disrespected! The problem is though that you might find yourself doing so without even realizing it!
This is why it’s vital for you to do some serious research before your trip so that you can work in a culturally sensitive way. It will also help to keep you out of trouble!
In some cultures there are strict rules about taking photos in certain locations, such as temples or places of worship. You should always respect these rules even if it means missing a great photo opportunity.
As well as obeying the rules of the culture you should also be respectful of the local customs and traditions. If the local custom is to cover your shoulders, or wear a face scarf, then you should do so! Equally, as is the case in some parts of East Asia, if it’s considered rude to show the bare soles of your feet then avoid doing so.
You’ll be able to find out most of the information that you need to know in advance but just to be on the safe side you should also ask staff at the hotel or people at the tourist office if there are any cultural sensitivities that you should be aware of.
Of course, when you ask someone if you can take their photo and they say no you should immediately respect their decision and not push them further. Don’t try to debate, or offer them money, because this could be seen as aggressive and rude.
Cultural Photography – Bringing the World Closer Together.
There’s something truly magical about photography and you never see its power to bring people together, increase our collective understanding and highlight the wonderful diversity of our planet than through cultural photography.
When you’re away taking photos in another country you can make great connections with the locals, learn about their lives from their perspective and bring home some amazing photos that will really engage your audiences.
Remember to do your research in advance, learn a few handy phrases and always respect local customs and rules! As long as you get the basics right you can then let your creativity and curiosity run wild as you explore the fascinating aspects of a new culture!
Is cultural photography something that you are interested in?