Experiencing a new culture can be an overwhelming experience as a photographer. You’ve seen incredible photos posted by others and you want to capture similar images, but once you’re thousands of miles away from home and you feel intimidated and uncomfortable. Sound familiar? This post will help prepare you for that moment. It will make you feel more confident, and ultimately help you to walk away with an enriching experience and great images on your memory card.
We at Muench Workshops have led hundreds of workshops to foreign countries (including more to Mongolia than anyone else on the planet) and we’ve put together some tips on how to take better cultural photos in far off places:
1. Research Before You Book Your Trip
Do some research. If you’ll be traveling on a workshop, identify companies like Muench Workshops that have repeatedly visited a location and know it intimately. You should also research images from photographers that have been there before you. What do you like and what don’t you like? Create a folder of images that inspire you, and show them to your guide so they understand what interests you.
2. Do Cultural Research
Being aware of cultural differences in everyday situations can help you avoid cultural faux pas and misunderstandings. For example, you likely didn’t know that pointing your finger at someone in Mongolia is telling that person that you want to kill them, right? It may sound strange, but the motion of pointing your finger has historical significance and is definitely a cultural faux pas. You also should never ask three Asians to stand together to be photographed—the origins of this one are unclear, but it features heavily in superstitions of the region and you would do well to avoid it.
Clearly, not knowing basic cultural rules can land you in some hot water, and make it more difficult to form a connection with your subject(s). At a bare minimum, be sure you have educated yourself about the etiquette of another culture—your efforts will be appreciated.
Also, when it comes to taking pictures of people it is always advisable to ask permission beforehand (this can be done verbally, or non-verbally with eye contact and gesture). Respect the right to privacy if your request is declined. Remember, you are a visitor with an intimidating camera. Most of us do not like to get our photos taken by strangers.
3. Be Prepared Ahead Of Your Shoot
Do not just show up, take some quick photos, and head on to the next location. Once you’ve been granted access to your subject, you owe them the consideration to be prepared. Make sure you are prepared with the right gear and have your head in the game. When you are with us, we make sure you are prepared with the right gear and understand the best settings to use. The best images come from preparation.
Another thing to remember is model releases. We take care of these on our workshops for you but its always a good idea to have your own, especially if you intend to sell your images.
4. Make The Personal Connection
Establishing a personal connection is often an integral component to producing great images. Think of it this way. You’re at home, you have invited a friend to bring over people from a foreign land. These people don’t interact with you, but rather show up and stick a camera in your face while you sit in your living room. As soon as they arrive, POOF they are gone, and you didn’t even get a chance to show them anything of importance to you. How would that experience make you feel? Put yourself in your subject’s place, and try to imagine how they might perceive your behavior.
To form a personal connection, ask your guide about the proper way to make an entrance and introduction, and do that. Sit down and talk, before you bring out the camera. Ask questions, and share ideas and commonalities about your lives. Once you begin shooting, use your guide to find humor, or share stories, to elicit some natural expressions.
5. Share The Images You Take
We encourage the people that travel with us to share the images they take with our hosts. Bring a Polaroid camera if you’ve got one, or let them see their image on the back of your camera. You might even get their contact information so you can send images by mail or on social media—just make sure that you follow through on your promises!
Visit www.muenchworkshops.com for a meaningful experience in Mongolia, or in dozens of other destinations around the globe.