How To Shoot Portraits in India [Examples Explained]
Well, here's the thing. There are so many different opinions on the internet about traveling in India. Some people love it and just as many hate it and that's just traveling around in India and visiting famous sights and attractions. But what is it like to take portrait photos in India? Well, I loved it!
I'm not going to talk about how safe it is to take photos and walk around with a camera in India because I already did; but just how you should approach someone. Here are some examples of portrait photos of our trip to India with some information on how I took the shot.
How to approach people for portrait photography
This is an easy technique and one you can use when just starting out or when you're still too shy to walk up to people for a photo. It works in basically any country of the world too. The reason why this is an easy technique to approach people is because you're not doing it for the picture initially. So how does it work? Easy. When you see a street vendor that looks interesting and you want to take their picture you just buy something from them. Have a simple conversation. Pay for what you bought and then just ask if you can take their photo. I've never had anyone saying no because you bought something from them and they're happy to pose for a quick portrait.
This lady was selling mangos and we just love mangos. I loved how she looked and what she was wearing so after we bought the mangos I asked her if I could take her portrait and even though she was shy, she was more than happy to do it. Portrait photography doesn't always have to be just about the photo.
Tour guides or staff
This is a similar concept. You're going to be talking to tour guides or hotel staff anyway so there's a connection already. Especially if you're staying somewhere for a little bit longer. The difficulty here is that they're often used to having their photo taken, especially selfies so they might pose weird or funny. You'll have to guide them and give some directions if you want a serious portrait.
When we were doing the camel safari in Jaisalmer we had some awesome guides and when I asked them for a portrait they were baffled that I just wanted a photo of them and not a selfie. It takes some directions and guidance to make your portrait photography. In this case I just had to worry about the light and position him in the best light. His face was epic anyway.
How to take portraits of random vendors on the streets
You don't want to buy something every time you're going to take a portrait of someone so you'll have to approach people just for the purpose of taking their portrait too. Now, the difficulty here is that you don't now if they'll like to have their photo taken without you buying something. It's a bit of trial and error and often a smile goes a long way.
This guy was selling cotton candy on Marina Beach in Chennai. It was a very peculiar and surreal sight to see him walk around with a pink cloud so I wanted to take his portrait. I made eye contact, smiled and then pointed at my camera, gesturing that I wanted to take his photo. He said it was OK but afterwards, of course, he asked me if I wanted to buy some cotton candy. I said no and smiled and he walked away. Some people will get a little grumpy if they get nothing in return but most of the times those people will already ask for money before you take their picture. If they allow you to take their picture and don't ask for anything you're good 99% of the times.
Photos of people doing stuff
Especially in India there's a lot going on on the streets. There are people everywhere and sometimes even too many to feel comfortable walking around. Taking a portrait of someone who's doing something is really easy because normally they don't mind. Don't just quickly snap and sneak away, that's just creepy. Observe them for a while, make eye contact, smile and when you see an opportunity take a photo. Thank them and walk away. You'll feel soon enough if they are going to be OK with you taking their photo.
Maybe it's not real portrait photography here but street photography. The thing is, whatever they're doing adds a story to the picture and their portrait, especially when it's their job.
Portrait photography in India: Conclusion
How you approach people is the most important thing. Don't be sneaky and awkward. Don't hide yourself. When it comes to portrait photography, people have to know you're there and they have to allow you in their personal space. A smile is probably the most important thing when approaching someone.
Joris Hermans is a portrait, documentary and travel photographer based in Belgium. Since 2009 he has been combining personal and freelance work and won several awards, among them a Nikon Press Photo Award in 2017. In 2018 he set off on a journey around the world with his girlfriend documenting everything on The World Ahead Of Us...