Photo Tips: Breaking the Language Barrier While Shooting Photos in Foreign Lands

January 21, 2011
photo tips portrait
Lori Barbely

Speak in Sign

I wanted a portrait of a Vietnamese woman, but none of the street vendors spoke English. I’d approach one of them, buy a little something (usually a pineapple or baguette) and then use some pointing and smiling — my own sign language — to ask if I could take their picture. It took a couple of tries before this woman agreed to a photo — I ate a lot of pineapple that day. If someone declines your request, thank the person politely and be on your way. You never know who’ll come along next on your travels to give you that perfect portrait.

Keep It Simple
When you’re taking portraits on the fly, your subject may not give you a lot of time. Keep gear to a minimum and work efficiently.


Zero In
Shooting on the street often means the location isn’t ideal. Shallow depth of field softens distracting background elements.

Show and Tell
Let your subjects see their picture on the back of your camera. This gesture shows your gratitude and makes their day (kids especially love it).


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