How to Photograph Responsibly on Your Gap Year

Go Pro, seoul, south korea

Taking a picture used to be a ritual. With film cameras, you had to choose carefully -- you really gonna waste one of your 25 shots on that? You had to gather the group, pose them properly. You had to wait to get the photos developed and then you had to store them meticulously in a binder adorned with sequins and worn edges. It was a process, but it was a delicate and intimate one, one that helped immerse you in a situation, not remove yourself from it.

And then the smartphone got popular and ruined it for everybody.

Now, taking a photo is as simple as pulling out your iPhone and swinging it wildly around you, tapping the shutter button as quickly as your poor little thumb can manage before air compression causes it to burst into flames, hoping to God you caught your own duckface in focus in at least 37 of the shots so you can upload them to Instagram (with a tasteful filter of course) and rake in those sweet, sweet likes.

Through responsible travel photography, we respect the subject, the art, and the people around you.

It’s become a bizarre lightning act where the subject of the photo doesn’t matter, so long as other people know that you were there to take it. Don’t even get me started on concert videos.

So many people don’t think about what taking a picture can mean -- especially while traveling. But worry not, fair reader -- we can fight back against the madness. We can ensure that through responsible travel photography, we respect the subject, the art, and the people around you. We can make sure we stay in the moment, and in doing so, we can make our photography better too. Here’s how:

Respect your subject, tarsiers

When I was in the Philippines during my gap year, I went to see the tarsiers on Bohol. Tarsiers are one of the smallest primates in the world, more like a mouse than a man, and their eyes are roughly the size of their own torso.

Obviously, they’re nocturnal. During the day, tourists flock through their sanctuary where workers point out the little guys sleeping in low-hanging trees. And they tell you, signs tell you, common sense tells you, DO NOT use flash when you want to get a photo, because their bug eyes are sensitive, especially during the day. It disgusted me how many people ignored that.

Sure, it’ll be more difficult to get a good photo. The flash lets you have a shorter shutter time, ensuring less motion blur. But is it worth it? Is it really ok to potentially blind one of the rarest animals on the planet because you wanted a crisper picture to show back home? We say no.

Travel photography is about telling the truth, not creating your own.

When it comes to photographing nature, it’s all about the footprint. Don’t leave one. I took plenty of pictures -- none of which used flash. So I stopped up the ISO and threw open the aperture to get the shutter speed as quick as possible, but under the thick jungle canopy, with little natural light, there was still some motion blur.

But you know what? I’m proud of what pictures I do have [Editor's note: like the amazing one above!] By respecting the rules and the animal, I was able to get a much more natural shot (the tarsiers weren’t frozen in terror, for example), and feel better about my craft.

It’s the same reason documentary filmmakers don’t rescue the baby penguins about to fall into the seal’s mouth. We are mere watchers. Once you step beyond that line, you can’t go back again.

Next time you’re taking travel photos, think about this. Don’t try to move stuff around, don’t try to provoke that animal into doing something fun, don’t climb on the ancient treasured artifact to get a better angle. Travel photography is about telling the truth, not creating your own.

women in Philippines, marketplace

Even still, part of that truth is uncovering it. The people who make their own are often the ones who don’t bother trying to learn the reality. So even though you should remove yourself from the equation, you should get some perspective before you do.

Will you be the kind of person who takes a snapshot of the locals across the street before going on your way? Or will you stop and talk to them? (Hint: the latter is the responsible thing to do.)

Photography is the act of simultaneously reciting and creating a story. The pieces are already there – it’s putting them together in the right order that’s the challenge, a jigsaw puzzle of blue sky. Sure, you could put them together incorrectly – snap that photo of the Cambodian woman without asking what she’s doing, why she’s doing it.

You should always speak to, engage your subject before you take the photo. Not doing so turns them into a spectacle.

But you can make it look so much better by following the instructions, imbuing the photo with a little actual personality of the subject. It makes everything look more natural, more right. It’s the reason Humans of New York is so successful. It helps capture more than the scene.

You should always speak to, engage your subject before you take the photo. Not doing so turns them into a spectacle, a prop to validate your trip. It’s rude, completely irresponsible, and undermines the point of wanting something to remember in the first place.

I’ll admit it, it took me some time to learn that lesson.

I’ll show you two pictures: the first (featured above), I was shy and removed. I snapped a quick picture of a Filipino woman selling fruit, but I was self-conscious about my language skills and my very presence. So I promptly turned and left with my tail between my legs, hoping nobody saw me.

I took the second picture after a cruise through the northern Palawan archipelago in the Philippines. After a day spent between islands, we stopped on a beach for lunch and prepared lunch. While the guide cooked up squid, mangos, fish, and rice, we chatted in broken conversation about the islands, the history, his life -- all that jazz. And eventually, mid-story, I asked for a photo. I brought up my camera and caught a quick glimpse:

Filippino man, fish

The second picture is, in my opinion anyway (beauty of art!), the better photograph. The posture of the subject is much more natural and relaxed, and the camera is a much more casual part of the moment and not a wall to hide behind.

By talking to your subjects, you can improve both sides of the coin. When I look back at this picture, I can remember not just how I took the picture, but the person in the frame.

And, guys, it’s a quid pro quo. If you don’t have the time or energy to offer some good conversation and a new perspective, some change out of your pocket works just as well (normally -- obviously use your common sense about this one and don't encourage begging in the process).

Girl, avenue of baobabs, madagascar

Responsible photography extends beyond the moment you take the picture. After all, depending on what you do with it, the photograph will last far longer and influence far more perceptions of a place. And there’s more to telling that story than the first draft.

Nowadays, with Photoshop and Lightroom becoming essential parts of the photographic workflow, it’s important to think about how you process your pictures.

Altering your photos does more than making them look better. It alters the audience’s perception of them. You have so much control -- you can make a scene look more bleak by washing out the colors. You can make somebody look better with a few simple touch ups.

Look at these two portraits, for example:

In the left one, I’ve turned down the clarity of the picture, which, while not affecting the sharpness or contrast, eliminates some detail -- lines, pores, etc. In the context of the photograph, it makes the subject look younger and more vital. He’s a good looking guy, no? But in the right photograph, I’ve turned up the clarity. Those details -- wrinkles, teeth, dirt -- become more apparent.

Here’s where that becomes problematic: because I’ve enhanced the details on the face of my guide through Sapa, Vietnam, you can suddenly make more inferences about her life. She looks older. She looks like she’s been through more than she would had I not drawn more attention to the details on her face.

It’s the job of a responsible photographer, traveler, and gapper to know what kind of message they’re sending.

And because she’s an older Northern Vietnamese woman, maybe you’ll start to wonder about her history, what she’s been through with the war a few decades ago. Those lines in her face start to say a whole lot more than if I had touched her up like a magazine model. You may not even realize you’re doing it -- but that’s the power of photography.

When you process your photos, keep this in mind. What will cropping out a person say? What will turning up the saturation do? It’s the job of a responsible photographer, traveler, and gapper to know what kind of message they’re sending.

Some More Quick Tips

  • It should be obvious, and go in line with the “be engaging” rule, but, guys, kids -- don’t take pictures of them unless their parents say it’s okay. It’s the rule in Chuck E. Cheese’s, and it’s the rule in other countries.
  • And, for those in the voluntourism industry -- don’t make kids a photo prop to make yourself look worldly to all your friends.
  • If somebody does ask you to delete a photo you’ve taken of them, delete it. It’s their mug. They have the final say.
  • Paparazzi get a bad rap because they exploit bad situations. Funerals, deaths, church services, weddings they weren’t invited to, etc. Don’t be a paparazzi. You may experience these situations on your gap year, but take your photos when it’s appropriate only.

Be Adventurous

At the end of the day, there’s a difference between taking a quick picture from your gap year to toss up on Facebook and taking a photograph that you use in a portfolio. It’s okay to get those quick pictures, those easy memories to remind you of a time you fondly enjoyed. The important part is just taking pictures in the first place.

So no matter what you’re trying to say, no matter what the subject is -- bring your picture. Photograph that cockfight you got dragged to by a local. Snap a picture of your new gap year friends on the beach. Take candids. Take selfies. You'll want to remember your gap year years from now!

The most responsible way to use a camera is to use it in the first place, to show the world the things they didn’t get to see themselves. Just, and I’m begging you here, stop taking pictures of concerts.

Now, why not mosey on over to our list of gap year abroad programs.

Photo Credits: Ellie Taylor, Colin Heinrich, and Jessie Beck.

Colin Heinrich
Colin enjoys traveling slow through whichever country will have him. He's considering changing his middle name to “Adventure,” and enjoys music...