Photography Etiquette: Respecting Other People, Religions and Cultures

Oct 11, 2014

As we enter the holiday season, it’s worth noting that it has many different meanings to many different people. For some, the holiday season is a time of deep religious reflection. For others, it is simply a time to spend with family and friends and exchange gifts. The United States is a melting pot. For instance, on December 8th Buddhists all across the U.S. celebrate Bodhi Day, a holiday that commemorates the day when the Buddha sat beneath a bodhi tree an attained enlightenment. Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight days in December as well. Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th. There are also many secular and cultural holidays celebrated throughout December.


Why does all this matter? Culture and religion are intertwined. As a photographer that travels the world taking pictures of people from many different cultures, I have to understand what is appropriate and what is not, what is respectful and what is considered rude, and so on.


Photography Etiquette 101


  • Do some reading

Though you can’t be expected to understand everything about a foreign country, its culture, or its history, you can learn enough to get by. Avoiding the most egregious faux pas — like ordering beef in India, where the Hindu population considers cows sacred — can be avoided in one or two day’s worth of research. Most travel guides will include a section on do’s and don’ts for any given country.

  • Smile and then nod at your camera

Some photography etiquette is universal and will serve you no matter where you are. Smiling and nodding at your camera is one example. If you have any fear about going to a new place and taking pictures of people from a different culture (or even in your own) do not fret. Simply making eye contact with your subject, smiling and nodding at your camera will cover you in about 90% of situations. You will know by their body language whether they want to be photographed or not. It will be obvious. They will return your smile and get back to whatever they were doing. You then take your picture and move on. As you become more experienced, you’ll come to understand that your demeanor has everything to do with the quality of the shots you are taking.

  • Opt for a shot from medium distance

To capture an authentic moment in time, a candid shot, you can’t be too close or too far. Too close and you risk making your subjects feel uncomfortable. You become the center of attention and your images won’t capture the authentic “moment in time” you were after in the first place. Taking pictures from too far away is a good way to convince people that they have a private investigator following them — also making them uncomfortable and suspicious.  Opt for a reasonably long lens, something between 80 to 200 millimeter zoom.

  • Learn the language

Understanding the basics of a country’s language is a necessity. Words and phrases like please, thank you, goodbye, etc. will go a long way toward easing your travels and putting your subjects at ease. The more of a language you learn, the more you will be able to engage and elicit reactions from your subjects. If someone is selling something on the street and you want to take a picture of them, a great way to break the ice is to ask them what they are selling. Start small and work your way up, focusing on useful phrases that will help you get through the day. Study continuously on your trip. Being immersed in a new language is the fastest way to learn, so take advantage of it!

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