How to photograph smiley happy people

monk in Ladakh India by Steve DaveyNearly 100% of travellers will tell you their favourite real life experiences involve people. Meeting a kind local who pointed you in the right direction, enjoying a spirited haggling session with a charismatic shopkeeper or making new friends during a village homestay. But how do you hold on to these memories and photograph these lovely people? Travel photographer extraordinaire Steve Davey to the rescue with tips on how to take great portraits and capture those smiley, happy moments…

“You don’t want every portrait you shoot to be a happy smiling face, but the smiles of people you meet on the road are a major part of most people’s travel experiences. Getting a relaxed and non-gurning smile can be really difficult, so how do you avoid that grin turning into a grimace – or worse still the subject of your picture standing to attention like a soldier outside of Buckingham Palace?

The simple answer is through the strength of your own personality, but there are a couple of professional photographer’s tips that you can employ to make it a little easier!

In a portrait people react to you, which is why my favoured style of shooting is up close, as if you are in a conversation. If you want someone to appear relaxed and happy, you have to make them feel at ease. Approach them in a relaxed and happy way. Look them in the eye and smile and they are more likely to agree to being photographed, and be relaxed when you do so.

Family in Ladakh India by Steve Davey

One thing to avoid is hiding behind the camera too much. Get everything ready photographically before you approach your subject, so that you are concentrating on them and not on your camera. Take a few shots, then move the camera out of the eye line so you can maintain eye contact with them, and talk for a while. Then move the camera back to your eye and take a few more shots. In this way, you can maintain the link with with them. Anyone, even your close friends, will soon feel self-conscious and uncomfortable if you point a camera at them for more than a few seconds without saying anything.

Novice nuns in Ladakh India by Steve Davey

Another photographer’s trick is that people will often mirror you. So if you want someone to look serious, then look seriously at them. If you want someone to look happy, then smile warmly at them. It doesn’t always work but it can be a powerful tool.

Monk at Leh, Ladakh, India by Steve Davey

Look for ways to redress the power imbalance between you and your subject. Even the crustiest backpacker will appear fabulously wealthy and privileged compared to many people in the developing world. Anything that makes you look more normal, or preferably less intimidating and simple, will help to break down the barriers between you. If they are doing something like a local handicraft, then ask if you can have a go. You will no doubt mess it up to great hilarity. The chuckling abbot shown at the start of this article was convulsed with laughter because I had just split my trousers: a radical, but somewhat risky solution for provoking mirth!”

All of these pictures were taken by Steve Davey in Ladakh, a mountainous region in the north of India, with a vibrant Tibetan Buddhist culture. Steve is a renowned travel photographer and author and he escorts special photography trips, with all land arrangements provided by Intrepid Travel. His next trip will be to Jordan in April 2014 and for more information go to

Steve Davey will also be providing his unique mix of encouragement and photography tuition on our special Spitsbergen Explorer departure on 9 June, 2014. This is your opportunity to experience the Arctic with the experts and enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime photography adventure!

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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I always have difficulty with capturing people and faces. Thank you for sharing this really useful post on tips to shoot people. I’ll give it a try and see how I improve. Will let you know 🙂

I would add, show them the picture you have taken ASAP, then they might agree to further pictures – preuming you want to take more.'

I have difficulty taking portraits because I feel as if I am intruding. Thanks for these easy tips that I hope will make my portrait photographs more natural.

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