Taking photos of people while traveling is not as difficult as you might think. If just the thought of walking up to strangers and taking their pictures causes you to break out into a cold sweat, this blog is for you. I encourage you to focus on the reward. How better to demonstrate to friends and family the charm of far-flung places than to show them the faces of the people who live there? Too many scenics without the faces of people (and animals) will bore your audience after a while.

Which of these photos below will leave a lasting impression of Yemen?

Row of Tower Houses in Sana'a, Yemen
Row of Tower Houses in Sana’a, Yemen
Sana'a vendor chewing qat in market
Sana’a vendor chewing qat, yes it IS spelled with a Q and no U.
Sana'a resident in traditional dress, page 278, The Long Way Back
Sana’a resident in full traditional dress, page 278 The Long Way Back.

Which of these photos of Indonesia will intrigue the viewer the most?

Rinca Island, Indonesia
Rinca Island, Indonesia
Indonesian sailboat
Two-masted Indonesian sailboats called pinisi. page 90 The Long Way Back.
Petal girl, Riung, Indonesia
“Petal Girl,” Riung, Indonesia, page 98 The Long Way Back.

Here’s how to find interesting faces and characters. To convey a sense of place, you want to give the vicarious experience of being there. Now that you’ve moved from scenics to people, how do you achieve that? First, you need to go where locals congregate, such as the market, a dance or theater performance, or any park or museum that’s open to the public.

Chinese exercise in a Beijing Park.
Chinese exercise in a Beijing Park.
Performers on Yangtze River Cruise, China
Performers on Yangtze River Cruise, China
Dancer who preformed at the dedication of a new school in Tonga, page 136, Sailing the South Pacific
Tongan dancer who preformed at the dedication of a new school in Tonga, page 136, Sailing the South Pacific.

Next, you need to break the People Barrier.To get over your fear and that of your subject, adopt a positive, cheery attitude. Relax! Approach your subject with a smile and make him or her comfortable with small talk before you ask permission to take a photo.  Set the scene by taking photos of your subject in the wider setting to convey a sense of place. Then when your ready for the close-ups you want, either come in close or use a telephoto lens. I shot the photos below at a 100mm telephoto range with a Canon EOS digital camera. Some iPhones have an excellent Portrait setting, but that requires you to come in close. Eventually, you’ll develop a sixth sense about how much Up Close and Personal a subject can tolerate.

Stilt Fisherman, Sri Lanka, page 227 The Long Way Back
Stilt Fisherman, Sri Lanka, page 227 The Long Way Back.
Guide in her '80s, Adams Peak, Sri Lanka, page 249, The Long Way Back
Guide in her ’80s, Adams Peak, Sri Lanka, page 249, The Long Way Back.
Mohammed, our go-to man in Eritrea, page 292, The Long Way Back
Mohammed, our go-to man in Eritrea, page 292, The Long Way Back

Keep your eyes wide open to find opportunities. While taking a river walk in a Chinese village, I stumbled upon a father taking birthday photos of his daughter. I stood my distance and photographed him taking the photos. Since I didn’t speak Mandarin, I signaled that I wanted to come closer by waving, smiling, and motioning with my camera. He smiled and waved me in—apparently flattered that I wanted to take a photo of his pretty daughter!

Birthday Girl poses for me
Birthday Girl poses for me.
Another pose by the Chinese girl.
Another pose by the Chinese girl.

Avoid “wooden” group portraits. Antonio,an entrepreneurial fisherman, sold us fish for lunch while our yacht Pacific Bliss was anchored near the island of Mamitupu, San Blas Islands. Later, he came back to display the molas his wife had made, and we purchased a few. He then invited us to a Coming of Age Ceremony for his niece. When he saw me taking photos of the event, he asked whether I would take a photo of his family. “Of course,” I agreed, and added, “I’ll print them overnight and give you a set.” After the Ceremony he led me to his hut. The family posed, serious and still as statues. But they loosened up when I joked around with them. Eventually, I obtained one of my best portraits ever—of his daughter, granddaughter, and puppy:

Fisherman Antonio's Family
Fisherman Antonio’s Family
Mother, child and puppy, Mamitupu, San Blas
Mother, child and puppy, Mamitupu, San Blas.
“Wooden” family portrait vs. proud mother with baby and puppy. Maiden Voyage, pages 126 and 130.

If you’re photographing a group of children, don’t line them up in rows.  Just let them enjoy themselves; keep snapping while they do their thing. If props are nearby, like a picnic table or grassy knoll, group them around, some sitting and others standing. 

Boys, San Blas Archipelago
Boys, San Blas Archipelago.
Marquesan Cutie, Tahuata, page 41, Sailing the South Pacific
Marquesan Cutie, Tahuata, page 41, Sailing the South Pacific.
Palmerston Boys
Palmerston Boys.

Animals have faces too. When taking animal photos, do include the human element whenever you can.During an elephant show in Phuket, Thailand, my sister Loretta bravely volunteered to be “tickled” by an elephant. That became one of her favorite vacation photos. During a trip sponsored by Peregrine Adventures, I visited an animal orphanage in the interior of Thailand run by monks. They rescued baby tigers whose mothers had been killed. I asked our guide to allow me to have my photo taken with one of them. Often, such shows will allow tourists to take photos that include the trainers. That adds interest.

Tickled by an elephant
Tickled by an elephant, page 204, The Long Way Back.
Posing with a tiger
Posing with a tiger, page 438, The Long Way Back

Independent Travel and Walking a Village are the best ways to obtain photographs of locals. It was easy to take photos of locals during our sailing circumnavigation because Gunter and I could easily mix with the locals. That’s more difficult when you’re traveling with a group, and nearly impossible when traveling via cruise ship. We chose the independent travel option for many of our trips. You can customize your trip by looking at the agency’s standard itinerary, then skip some destinations and stay an extra day at others. That allows you time to assimilate to the culture of each stop, go off on your own on the “free days,” and write or type up your notes before moving on. Independent travel agencies usually offer a car-with-driver or a car-driver-guide combination. Often, when approaching a small village, we ask the driver to stop and let us off so that we can walk the village on our own, then join the car at the other end. I’ve written about this approach in my photo blogs: Walking a Village…Uzbekistan, Walking a Village in Myanmar and Walking a Village in India

How to make your own FACES slide show. When you’re traveling, you’ll find yourself gravitating toward landscapes and close-ups. Go ahead, but don’t forget to take photos of people for an additional sense of place. When you’re home and you’ve downloaded your photos, select the ones with people and decide which ones can be assembled into a slide show. When entering each new country during our circumnavigation, Gunter and I went to music stores to find CDs—preferably by local artists—to use as a soundtrack for our slide shows.

Here’s a link to a slide show I named FACES OF CHINA. It’s more than a selection of portraits. I’ve alternated close-ups and posed group photos with action and movement to (hopefully) keep the viewer interested. I’ve also interposed a few sculptures, and even pandas, ending with portraits of Chairman Mao at Heavenly Palace in Beijing. 

I wish you the best of luck, taking your own photos from around the world. Feel free to ask me any questions. I’d love to help you if I can!

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


“What you see is what you get.” Not necessarily. Henry David Thoreau said, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” As a philosopher, I think he was describing what we see internally.

It boils down to this: We only find the world we’re looking for. As photographers, we often search for that perfect landscape, the ones we’ve seen in the photography and travel magazines, only to miss what’s right before us. Instead, we should give up our preconceived ideas of what an image should be and open our minds to the unexpected.

I’ll give you a few examples from photos published in my new coffee table book called In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss: The Long Way Back.  

Visitors and residents flock to Darwin’s public beaches to view the glorious sunsets. While visiting there, of course, I planned to go there at sunset as well. Imagine my surprise and dismay when I arrived to find hundreds of people with the same idea as mine! Many of them had walked right into the surf to take their photos. Being short, I could never walk though that surf to get in front of them; nor I could I shoot over their heads! I decided to take a photo of everyone else taking a photo, and to describe what the people of Darwin came there to do.

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I used another example of this approach when I photographed a crew, Kate, on our catamaran, Pacific Bliss, looking back at the sunset behind her. We readers can then share in her moment of bliss.

DSCN0222 Kate watches the sunset to our stern 2.jpg

When entering the bleachers to see the dancers perform in the Festival of Pacific Arts in Palau, I caught sight of this dancer beneath the stands, putting on his make-up. That photo became one of my favorite pictures of that event.

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There was no way I was going to make it up all the way to the top of the pilgrimage to Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) without beginning that climb at 3:30 a.m. so I could photograph the view from the top. I could, however, photograph those who were coming back down. This 82-year-old Sri Lankan guide has been leading pilgrimages there for the past twenty years.

IMG_8265 Indian Guide in her _80s_ Adams Peak_ Sri Lanka

Sometimes, I see someone walking into the scene and I wait patiently until he or she is just in the right spot:

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Other times, I want to portray how small people seem in relation to the immensity of the structure.

IMG_9465 Palace complex built into rock

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Truly “seeing” requires that we slow down, wait, and get into a different space in our heads. Try that the next time you take a photograph.