One of the most frequent questions I get asked by people is “who takes your pictures when you travel alone?” And most of the time, it’s random people who I don’t know. If you give them a bit (a lot) of guidance, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to take a decent one. Here’s how to get good quality photos from strangers:
(N.B. all of the included pictures have been edited by me; editing is a large part of obtaining a good picture which I will discuss in a separate article)
1. Choose a good frame
The most essential part of getting a good photograph is to envision your frame from beforehand. So if you see somewhere you’d like to take a picture, first take the picture yourself and see where you would position yourself there.
Here’s a picture that I made someone take of me in Kyoto. It was pretty simple because I wanted myself on the right of the temple. I saw exactly where I wanted the ground to start and the sky to end, which made it clear to them how to frame the image. I then cropped the final image to make the frame that I wanted.
2. Check the settings
When I ask people to take my picture, I generally give them my phone because most likely they don’t know how to use a camera. It’s a lot easier, as they don’t have to focus and just have to press the button. But I’m starting to give my camera to people more, because I don’t want to compromise on picture quality.
Whichever you are using, be sure to adjust the settings before you start. For example, check the zoom amount you want, the focal area, and display brightness. If you are taking it on your camera you can set it to auto, or otherwise adjust your settings on manual before handing it to your temporary photographer.
3.Choose an appropriate person
Now you have decided what your picture should look like, you have to identify someone appropriate to take it for you. Personally, I tend to favor laid back travelers who are easy to chat to and won’t mind sticking around to take a few more if they can’t follow your instructions first time around.
And I think this is the most important thing: finding someone who is willing to listen to what you want rather than brushing away your suggestions with an ‘Oh I know what I’m doing’ type of arrogance. Because ultimately, the idea is in your mind, not in theirs (unless you don’t have any of your own).
Solo travelers, relaxed tourists, and friendly locals are all good candidates. Figure out the vibe of the person and choose someone who looks like they’re not in a rush to get rid of you. One question I get asked is, “aren’t you scared of people running away with your phone?” No, I’m not. Because I’m standing right there and I talk to them beforehand.
Don’t be afraid to ask a few people if you end up asking someone who you’re not satisfied with. It doesn’t cost you any money to stand there a bit longer, and take a few more shots.
4. Show them EXACTLY what you want
So now you have chosen your person, show them the frame that you want. You should point to spatial details like the position of main landmarks and where you will stand in context of them. For example, “Can you take it like this, so that I am centered in the middle of the valley and you can see the bottom of this rock?”
It happens very often, that even after asking people to take it in a certain way, they simply change it. They will zoom in for no reason, tilt the screen or take a completely different angle. So without sounding condescending, specify beforehand that you don’t want them to move the phone/camera from the position you showed them. I actually make them stand next to me exactly where I want it taken to reduce chances of screwing up.
Of course there is always the odd person who thinks I’m too finicky or they brush you away because they are convinced they’re an amazing photographer. These people are annoying. If so, politely tell them, “I know you are a great photographer, but these are just my ideas about the frame so I would appreciate it if you can take just how I showed you.” And you can always find someone else – the good thing about travelling is that there an abundance of very positive and open people to engage with.
Here’s a picture I struggled with a fair amount. I asked three different people to take it again and again until it was correct. They were either taking it too close or straight on, when I wanted it from above. After explaining a bit, I got something satisfactory.
5. Ask them to take a few
Another thing that messes up the process is if people only take one or two photographs. It’s obvious that the chances of getting a shitty photograph are pretty high if they are just taking one – your eyes could be closed, you could be making a weird face, or they could have taken it wrong. So I always ask people politely if they can take a few, normally around 10.
If your phone or camera allows you, you can also get it to shoot continuously on burst mode. This way, they just press once and the camera/phone will take a bunch of photographs so hopefully one of those is satisfactory. This setting is good for dynamic movements, for example if you are twirling or walking.
I also ask people to take pictures from different angles, for example standing up and sitting down. You never know which you will prefer until you see the frame. I take a lot of pictures with my back facing the camera because that’s the easiest, but one position always gets boring. It doesn’t have to be a total photo shoot but if they are friendly enough, no one’s going to say no to taking a few extra photos.
For this picture, I simply asked the person I was hitchhiking with to stop and take a few pictures of me. I also took a few pictures of her, and we became friends as well. I asked her to take pictures again and again, of me facing forward and backwards, and at different positions on the tree. Ultimately I settled with this:
6. Be their friend
One of the things I love about travelling is meeting interesting people, and I can’t even count how many dope people I’ve met in random encounters like asking them to take my photo or give me a ride somewhere.
A lot about how people respond to you, depends on the vibe you give off. If you’re nervous and uptight, people will perceive you as such as the process becomes harder. So just be casual, chat to people normally, make them laugh, and they will become your friend you took your photo instead of someone who you feel like you owe something.
Solo travelers often have the same concerns you do – so offer to take their pictures as well. I meet people like this all the time and often end up hanging out with them for some time. Spontaneous encounters are the best, and you don’t feel like you’re using them either.
Here’s a picture that I asked a waiter to take of me. He couldn’t even speak English much – but through sign language and some laughter, there was nothing that couldn’t be achieved! Goes to show that even if you are alone, and even if you are in a place without travelers, if you have some initiative and a decent camera, you can still produce good content.