Capturing Culture Digitally

Night Photography | Wildlife Photography | Capturing Culture

This article focuses on my favorite travel subject: photographing and experiencing different cultures. As illustrations, I’ll use some of my favorite images that I have taken over the past 30 years of strangers in strange lands.

This is the final installment in my series of articles on travel photography that I’m writing for Hey, don’t panic! I am not going away, it’s just that I am wrapping up this series to move on to other topics, which will include digital darkroom enhancements, nature photography and other cool stuff.

If you like what you read and see, check out my latest book, Digital Photography Secrets.

Let’s go.

Gain Acceptance

One of the first things you have to do when traveling on site is to gain acceptance. You need to get the subjects to like you, or at least to accept you. I often do that by spending some time doing magic tricks, as I am doing in the intro photograph of the article that my wife Susan took of me in Bhutan. My goal was to take some nice photographs of the Buddhist monks, but I knew I could not just walk up to them and start shooting.

My time playing magician paid off. The next two photographs were taken outside the dzongs (temples/forts) where the monks live.


Make Pictures

I am a travel photographer, not a photojournalist. I often make pictures, arranging elements and subjects in a scene, as opposed to a photojournalist who photographs what’s in front of the lens.

Here I made the picture by posing the monk on the left side of the frame and composing the scene in such a way that the dzong filled most of the right side of the frame (Image 1). I got everything in focus by using a simple technique. I used a wide-angle lens (24mm), set a small f-stop (f/11) and set the focus 1/3 into the scene.


Be Alert

You’d probably never guess what these monks are doing. Well, they are doing something that you and I do ever day: they are going to lunch (Image 2). Less than a minute before I took this photograph, I was in the Buddhist temple observing the monks praying. Suddenly a bell rang and they all grabbed a white sack and started to move, quickly, outside. I knew something was up. I dashed outside and took this shot as they were leaving with their sacks of what turned out to be rice. It’s one of my favorite shots from the trip.

In case you were wondering why I was observing and not photographing inside the temple, here’s why: Photographs are not allowed. The Buddhists in Bhutan believe that if a photograph of a Buddha statue or of a painting that is in a magazine that ends up in the trash (or recycling), it is disrespectful to Buddha. You learn important stuff like that by doing research on your destination before you leave home. You also learn stuff like what shoes to wear (easy slip on and off when photographing in temples). Spend time researching your destination and subject and you will cut down on the number of surprises on site.


More Research

Here is another shot from my Bhutan adventure. It was taken at a small festival outside Paro, the main town in Bhutan (Image 3). In my research, I learned that the monks (seated on the wall in the background) bless the ground on which the dancers are performing. Knowing that, I was prepared for the scene with the right lenses (Canon 17-40mm in this case) to capture all the action and excitement.

Here, too, you see everything in focus. That’s because I used the same technique that I mentioned above.

You’ll also notice that this picture has a nice sense of depth. That’s because I photographed the building in the background on an angle, as opposed to straight on, and because I composed the picture with a foreground element, one of the dancers, close to my camera.


The Camera Looks Both Ways

“The camera looks both ways; in picturing the subject we are also picturing a part of ourselves” is one of my favorite photo expressions. If you realize that the feeling, the emotion and the energy that you project will be reflected in your subjects faces, you’d get a higher percentage of pictures with which you are pleased.

I have no doubt that you know exactly how I was feeling when I took this picture in a schoolyard in Lombok, Indonesia (Image 4). Guess what I was doing before I took the shot. Hint: Abracadabra (not the Steve Miller Band song).


Check Every Detail and Object in a Scene

I took this photograph inside a yurt (movable hut-like dwelling) in Mongolia (Image 5). Notice anything that you would not expect to see in a movable hut in the middle of nowhere? I include those two items in my picture because they make the picture more interesting—because they are unexpected items.

Check every detail and object that surrounds a subject in a scene, and determine if you want it in or out of your photograph.

By the way, this is a flash photograph. I bounced the light from my flash off the ceiling of the yurt for a soft and even type of lighting.


Take Natural-Looking Flash Pictures

My goal in flash photography—indoors and out—is not to have my pictures look like flash pictures. I do that by balancing the light from the flash to the available light. This photograph of a Hima girl (Image 6), taken in Namibia, is a good example of a well-balanced flash photograph, as is the preceding yurt photograph.

Here’s the technique:

  • Set your camera on manual and dial in the correct exposure for a natural light picture.
  • Turn on your flash, which will still work on TTL.
  • Dial down the flash exposure, using the +/- settings, until there are no shadows in the scene.

Use a Reflector or Diffuser

If you are serious about your people pictures, you should never leave home without a reflector and diffuser kit.

Reflectors bounce light on to a subject, as illustrated in the portrait of a Himba woman on the left, and diffuser soften the light, as illustrated by the portrait I took in Kenya of the Maasai woman on the right (Image 7).

These are essential accessories for controlling the light outdoors.

I actually have my own reflector/diffuse kit. Check it out! Click Here.


Capture Subject Details Too

A few tips back I suggested capturing the details around the subject. Here I am suggesting capturing the details of the subject, the decorated ear of a Maasai woman and the hands of a Kuna woman whom I photographed in Panama (Image 8).

Detail shots like these help to tell the story of a culture, and add interest to your slide shows of your travels.


Make a Donation if Possible

When I travel, I often pay adults a small fee ($1-5) in exchange for taking their picture. I feel that if I’m getting something out of the photo session, so should the subject. However, when photographing a child or a group of children, I try to find out if I can make a donation to a local school or charity, rather than pay the kids. That’s what I did when I was photographing in Khajuraho, India (Image 9). I recommend this approach especially when traveling in countries such as India, where poverty is rampant, and you could get mobbed if you take out your wallet on a crowded street.


Get a Good Guide

Guides and translators are most helpful when traveling in foreign counties. Not only can they actually save you time in searching for a particular photographic site, but they also may be able to help you see places and people you normally would not have the opportunity to see. If you don’t arrange a guide through a travel agent, you can usually get one through your lodge or hotel.

I know for sure that I would not have been able to get into the remote village in Brazil where I took this photograph of a Taraino woman (Image 10).

A good guide is worth what is often the least expensive part of a trip.


Work Hard, Get Lucky

When some people see a photograph of mine that they like, they say that I’m lucky to get to do what I do. I usually respond, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” So, work hard at your photography and your travels and you might get lucky, too, as I did when I captured the direct eye contact of this Maasai girl in a photograph (Image 11).


Look for Body Language

This is one of my very first travel photographs, taken in 1975 on a trip to Hong Kong. I had just paid the man one dollar so that I could take his photograph. Well, when I went to take a second photograph, he raised his hand and indicated that he wanted one more dollar (Image 12).

This picture is a good example of body language. Look for it and you’ll see how it can help your pictures—and your subjects—to tell a story.


Model Releases

I am often asked if I get model releases for my pictures of strangers in strange lands. I don’t, because I use my pictures for editorial work and not for advertising. What’s more, I’d need, in the case of these three photographs (Image 13), a model release written in the languages in the languages they speak in Papau New Guinea (where they have more than 700 languages), and in Bhutan and Cambodia the releases would have to have been in their languages. Even then, I am sure that not all the subjects in my photographs would understand whey they are signing. Finally, having them sign a document would take some of the fun, to say nothing about the spontaneity, out of the photo session—for both of us.


All that said, I have lost out on more than a few bucks because I could not sell my pictures for ads.

Have Fun

I try to make my photo sessions fun, for my subjects and myself. I always show the subject their photographs on my camera’s LCD monitor. In addition, I always have my picture taken with a subject, as illustrated here with pictures taken (clockwise from the top left) in Panama, India, Mexico and Panama (Image 14).

Keeping the photo session fun puts your subjects at ease, giving you a higher percentage of “keepers” during your travels.


Rick Sammon has published 31 books, including his latest three: Rick Sammon’s Secrets to Digital Photography, Exploring the Light—Making the very Best In-Camera Exposure, and Face to Face—The Complete Guide to Photographing People. Rick gives more than a dozen photography workshops (including private workshops) and presentations around the world each year, in addition to presenting at Photoshop World. He hosts five shows on He’s also been spotted giving presentations at Apple stores in New York City and in San Francisco. Rick is also the author of the Canon Digital Rebel XT lessons on the Canon Digital Learning Center and is a Canon Explorer of Light.

Example Images from Rick’s Gallery

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Text ©2008 Rick Sammon. Photos ©2008 Rick Sammon.

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    • Thank you. I enjoyed the tips particularly.
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    • Very good article. As an expat who have spent 16 years overseas and with photography as serious hobby, two things for anyone on travels to consider: 1. Getting the subjecte engaged as described above is important. I use humor alot which is multicultural most of time (in some cases not). Same time... we need to consider if we want the subject to be looking natural and what out image strives to communicate and represent as their natural environment. Contact with subject is indeed essential. Telezooms do not bring you that... 2. Paying for photos. Most of time I do not but it depends. We need to be careful not to change many beautiful places where people greet us with dignity, respect and kindness in their hospitality, unlike the greed of "One dollar for a photo sir". It is sad once it has reached such a stage, and at such time I normally put away my camera. When coming from material world it is even more important to consider, or else we will change their world for something that is not necessarily better. We may think that material is better, but... are often greeted with more sincerity, kindness and respect in poor countries. If and when we do pay, it is important to think of local levels of money. If we pay them what we in material world consider reasonable, in many places it may well correspond to their hard earned money equalling a month or more! Above all... travels in poor countries is very rewarding to the soul. Anders
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    • I should add... getting their address and mailing some normal size prints will give them precious memories which they may otherwise not afford of themselves...
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    • Another good article.

      Rick, thanks for answering my question about model releases that I posted on your earlier article. That makes me feel a bit better because I don't have model releases for any of my travel photos either. It is just not practical to get them for the kinds of photos I generally take and the kind of backpack, close to the ground, no itinerary, no reservations travel I usually do.

      Regards, Henry
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    • Thanks for the article. I agree with you about engaging with the subject, if you just stand on the edge as an observer it will come across in your pictures. If like me, you are not overly proficient in close up magic then general tomfoolery seems to work just as well, as long as it is not disrespectful. I have to question whether paying someone to take their photograph is always a good idea as this may compromise the natural spontaneity, which often creates the best travel portraiture. I often find it a more rewarding experience to interact with people without money changing hands, but I always try to send them copies of the photographs where possible. Unfortunately the practice of paying ordinary people for taking their picture has now created an indelible link between cameras and financial reward in many poor countries. I returned to Asia after a 10 year absence and was surprised to see that when I took my camera out in a public place I was often accosted by people of all ages indicating that I should take their photograph and pay them some money. The result was that I put my camera away, I wasn't comfortable taking pictures under those conditions. I'm not a professional but I do agree that the subjects should get something out of the deal if the pictures are to be sold and a donation to a local cause is a good suggestion.
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    • Your tips are excellent. Thanks for sharing!!
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    • Great article Rick, I don't see the difference in capturing culture digitally or on film, it's all just photography. Also not sure about the photojournalist vs. travel shooter, as far as your example goes. You simply framed the subject a certain way, well within the confines of what photojournalists do. Photoshop trickery - which I am happy to see you seem to avoid for your travel shots - is certainly a taboo for photojournalists, but I don't know about framing
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    • Thanks Rick. This information is very good that i used the same method in 2007 while shoting a documentary for the UNDP in my home country Uganda a s small country in Eastern Africa..Creating friendship with the subject was quite very good plus the guide your select to take you around the foreign places.Iam interested to have more information on the documenatry photography. Rreagds, Wilfred Sanya E-mail
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    • hey you, panama photographer, where did you get that cool shirt (looks like patchups!) do i have to wait till EXPO to ask you? ciao, great article, and the tips rock for photostudents
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    • Rick, I read your wildlife photography and this one. I think you are not only a great photographer but also a great writer. New york city tourist attractions

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