Art Wolfe’s 5 tips for taking great photos of people and local cultures

Master photographer Art Wolfe has photographed different cultures around the world, from Tibet to Tanzania. Here are his 5 practical tips for getting great photos of people

7 mins

1: Engage in direct communication

Art Wolfe in India (Art Wolfe)

Rarely are the people I’m photographing capable of speaking my language, or me theirs, so there’s often a non-verbal communication of looking at them, and they can either nod ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and they know exactly what I’m asking. If they say ‘yes’, then I show them what I’m doing as I’m shooting them. I am bringing them into the process.

There are two distinct ways to photograph people: the candid image and portraiture. If it’s a portrait photo, I will definitely have eye contact with the person I’m photographing. I’m going to lay my heart open to them, with eye contact and smiling. I’m not going to work in a sneaky way, but instead I make it clear that this is what I am doing.

Sometimes if I’m in a really remote community, like in Ethiopia, where there are young tribal men that are curious, I put the camera in their hand and let them take pictures first. They take pictures of me and see it on the back of the camera. The day of the digital cameras now makes it so much easier to break down cultural barriers.

I don’t have the luxury of camping out with people and getting to know them before I take out the camera. Usually, I’m moving through quickly or have been to those villages before, and I know some of the people or they recognize me. There are some people who feel obligated to get to know the people before they bring out the camera, and I admire those people, but I simply don’t have the time to do that. So I try to break out that kind of barrier in a very short and fast way. Using smiles and gestures usually works.

Check out our full Q&A interview with Art Wolfe


2: Be respectful

Prayers in Ganga Aarti, Varanasi, India (Art Wolfe, Photos From The Edge)

If people are watching you and you’ve got a camera and they get a little agitated, don’t try to sneak around and take shots. That leads to consternation. There are many people in the village, there are many people on the street, and if one just doesn’t want to be photographed, try the next person down the road.

If you’re going to photograph people, don’t be in their face. Always stay at a respectful distance. I think using a les that's around a 70- 200mm works, or at the very least 24-70mm, using the 70mm lens. If I came over to you and got really close, you would say “This is weird. This is uncomfortable,” and its true that if you photograph people from a close-up distance, you just put them on edge.

Don’t intrude on peoples’ personal space. A 70-200mm lens is great for portrait work, especially if you use extension tubes. That way you can get a nice intimate portrait, but still remain four or five feet away.


3: Work together and arrange the shot you want

Samburu warriors silhouetted in sunset, Kenya (Art Wolfe, Photos From The Edge)

If I’m really investing time in taking a photo of someone, I want the background to be pretty simple. If someone has agreed that I'm going to photograph them, then I'm going to place them where I want them. Often there is really bright sunshine, so I’m going to put them in the shadows and use that sunshine to reflect back in the shade, so I place them in dark entrances to a house or hut. Or maybe I'll use the sun to create a silhouette effect. 

Once people are committed, they usually follow your ideas. I’m usually working with an interpreter, especially when I’m on a cultural shoot. Usually,  I will talk to the interpreter and ask the person politely if they will do something. It's about getting permission, being respectful and arranging the photo with the setting and lighting that you want.


4: Never use a flash

Tribesmen in Papua New Guinea (Art Wolfe, Photos From The Edge)

Never use flash. Flash is very obtrusive to wildlife and it is very obtrusive to people. You can use a bounce flash, but with a cultural photo it’s analogous for me. When I am photographing an animal, I want natural light, and I want the same when photographing traditional cultures. This is not like a bar mitzvah in a building or a portrait in an annual for high school. It’s a cultural portrait.

I can use natural light, reflected light, candle light, lantern light, fire light, and those are seen in my mind as commensurate with shooting traditional cultures.


5: Seek out big personalities

Sadhus at Kumbh Mela (Art Wolfe, Photos From The Edge)

I’m looking for somebody who has something unique about them. It can be eye colour. I photographed really old ladies recently with wrinkles when I went to Tanzania with a monograph monochrome camera by Leica, which is all dedicated black and white, and I had the idea of finding chiseled old people - the more wrinkles the better.

I’m always looking for people who make me happy looking at them. They could be, for example, the strangest people that I can find at the Kumbh Mela in India, like sadhus and snake charmers.

I don’t want to find somebody who looks like they came straight out of Hollywood. I am looking for personality.

Art Wolfe’s latest book, Photographs From The Edge: A Master Photographer's Insights on Capturing an Extraordinary World, is out now. See for details.

Migrations: Wildlife In Motion by Art Wolfe is out now, published by Earth Aware Editions. See for details. 

For more on Art Wolfe, see

Main image: Theyyam dancers, Kelala, India (Art Wolfe, Photos From The Edge)

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