Photo etiquette – tips for photographing people

Air Namibia
October 21, 2016
Wetlands of international importance
October 27, 2016
Air Namibia
October 21, 2016
Wetlands of international importance
October 27, 2016

Text and Photos by Mark Nonkes

Everyone wants a picture-perfect holiday. Capturing the perfect picture, though, can be tough.

A woman burns down her shack. She’s been cursed, she believes, by the traveller who has just snapped a bright light at her home. The only way to extinguish the curse is to burn down the building. And so she sets her home alight, destroying everything inside – and is left with literally nothing.

Meanwhile, the camera-holding traveller watches with mouth open, in disbelief. This is the worst-case scenario. One no one could have imagined it. But it happened recently to a friend of mine while on holiday in Southern Africa. Because of the photo she took, she was left with guilt and an order from the community to compensate the woman financially.

Knowing when it’s acceptable to use a camera and when it’s not, takes skill and a bit of knowledge. As visitors to another land, we want to capture new faces and places, exotic culture and local colour. We want the photos from our travels to tell a story and be something that we can proudly show our loved ones.


Often the people we encounter on our travelling path are the most interesting. But is it okay to take photos of local people?

In my quest for the perfect shot, I’ve taken thousands of photos of people across Southern Africa. Yet, during this search for picture perfection, I’ve made grievous offences. I’ve been chased out of fish markets by a mob of angry women, told off by cyclists carrying enormous loads of wood and sworn at by mothers who had babies attached to their backs.

These missteps in the land of photography could have been avoided if I had adhered to a few basic principles of photo etiquette. Here are some tips to consider when you want to photograph local people in Namibia.


If you spot someone you would like to take a photo of, approach them gently, greet them and ask if you could take their picture. It also helps if you explain who you are, what you want to do with the photo and what made you interested in taking it in the first place. This will help avoid suspicion, avoid confrontation and build trust. Who knows, it could even land you a new friend.

Be light-hearted

When approached in an open and friendly manner, most Namibians are agreeable to have their photo taken. To make your subject feel at ease, tell a joke or make fun of yourself as a tourist with a big camera. The result: natural-looking photos of people who don’t look self-conscious.

Be quick with your camera

Most often, the best shot you get of a person is the first. It’s the one where personality comes through the best. In particular with posed portraits, the longer you take, the more people become restless, lose interest and lose the expression on their face.

With children

Children are generally all too happy to oblige a foreign photographer. Often the strongest photos are the ones where children are not posing at all, but involved in some activity. Children playing on the beach, for instance, or engaged in their favourite activity often makes for stunning photography. However, before taking a photo of a child it’s important to ask a parent and receive permission. Remember to treat the people you are visiting as you would choose to be treated in your home.


People at work

You can get an immediate and intimate look into someone’s life, when you see them at work. By asking people about their work, they will talk more candidly and are usually more willing to have their photo taken. Plus, workplaces have built-in props that help people feel more relaxed and give them something to do with their hands.


There’s a constant debate for the travelling photographer: to pay or not to pay to photograph someone. In many Namibian communities people do not have much money. Also, the amount they want is very little, in comparison to what a traveller has. However, to give or not to give is entirely a personal choice. Often, I have taken down the address of someone I’ve taken a photo of and mailed them a copy of the image once it was printed.


If someone refuses your request to take a photo, either verbally, by turning away or running for cover, move on and find another subject. This might mean that you may not get the photo you want, but do not try and sneak a photo of someone who has indicated they don’t want to have it taken. This builds mistrust and anger towards future travellers. Remember, there will be other opportunities in other places.

This article was first published in the Flamingo September 2009 issue.

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