Capturing the Culture

by Joel Wolfson

Joel conducts photo workshops worldwide from his native Southwest to Italy, France and other locales. His roster of notable clients include Newsweek, Elle, Seventeen, Houghton Mifflin, and corporate clients such as Apple, AT&T, 3M, United Airlines and Pillsbury. His technical articles on digital imaging have been translated for use in more than 30 countries. Yet he is best known for his artistic images and unexpected views of everyday places around the globe.

Fiat MeccanicoWhile conducting a workshop in Tuscany I met this man in one of the small villages where we take our participants. He spoke no english and in spite of my sparse Italian vocabulary we managed to discuss the old Fiat he was working on. This is an example of simply being friendly, smiling and engaging your subject. He was very obliging about letting me shoot his portrait. He seemed further pleased when I showed him the black and white image on the LCD of my camera.

Capturing the Culture

In my last two articles (Traveling for Photography and How To Capture Stunning Travel Images) I addressed equipment, logistics, gear lists, and how to deal with the various types of light and weather conditions, and other tips for when we travel for photography. For this part of my travel photography series I want to offer a few tips and examples of capturing the culture as well as creating compelling images. We travel to experience places, people and food that are different from where we live. That could be overseas or maybe just another city in our own country. Here some ways to show this through our photography.

©Wolfson_BLOG_Travel_Pt3_500px_02Here are some locals in the Chianti region of Italy watching a bicycle race from their window. With a big event like this going on in their home town the local people are so involved they hardly noticed me shooting photos. Such events often provide a nice opportunity for candid expressions.


I think the most important principle in photographing people is to be respectful whether or not the person is initially aware that they are being photographed. Your smile goes a long way as does asking permission in their language. As I mentioned in Traveling for Photography this can just be the simple phrase “May I?” and pointing to your camera. If someone tells me they don’t want their picture taken, I don’t. Also if the person you are photographing isn’t aware of it but becomes aware of it, be sure to smile, wave and say thank you.

If traveling to a foreign country it pays to do some research about the culture ahead of time to find out if there are any taboos,customs, or even regulations regarding taking photographs of people, people in places of worship, etc.

I’ve found that most of the time people are amenable or even flattered that you want to photograph them. If someone gives you permission, make the most of it. You don’t want to take too much time but do take the time to try a few different shots. For example someone might have a great face and you want to do a very tight shot of just their fact but also try some variations moving in and out or zooming, integrating the environment to provide a context for the viewer. You can try detail shots that help say something about that person or people such as the hands, feet, hair, etc. Try both verticals and horizontals. Even try group portraits or candids.

EyesThis little girl’s mother was a street vendor selling vegetables and spoke no english. I asked permission to shoot photos of her daughter simply by pointing to my camera and asking “OK?” I couldn’t resist the little girl’s curious yet intense look. Although there was a lot of color in the scene I chose black and white to eliminate the distraction from the color.

Find out about local events such as festivals, competitions, sporting events, parades, and such. These can provide great opportunities for interesting shots.

Markets and Food

©Wolfson_BLOG_Travel_Pt3_500px_003One of the most striking aspects of Mediterranean cultures is beautiful presentation. You see it in their cuisine, homes, their attire. I wanted to capture that innate sense and was pleasantly surprised to find it in a simple fruit stand in Italy. I made use of late afternoon sun that fell off to the side of the building illuminating just the fruit with a tickle of light on the facade allowing the window and door to frame this simple yet beautiful presentation.

Most villages, towns and cities have markets where food, wares and artwork are sold. This can be a great way to capture some of the local culture. Try photographing the food in restaurants and shops. The food alone can help describe the culture, country or place you in. These can be broader shots or details.

©Wolfson_BLOG_Travel_Pt3_500px_06We don’t always think of using our cameras to shoot the food we order in a restaurant but it can help us say something about the local culture too. This was a dessert I ordered in Provence while taking a break from scouting for a workshop. This, like the fruit stand above shows us the importance of food and presentation in the local culture.


We often put our cameras away after the sun sets but think about going out and shooting at night. Because architecture varies with different regions it can be a great way to illustrate the feel of a place. You can shoot one part of a building or a whole cityscape. Sometimes you can incorporate people in your shots as well. Bring a small flashlight so you can see how to set your camera. And of course bring a tripod and shutter release to handle the long exposures that are often necessary for night shots.

©Wolfson_BLOG_Travel_Pt3_500px_004When shooting something that’s photographed as often as the Eiffel tower I try to really think about what strikes me about my subject and how I can tell a story or convey an emotion. I knew I wanted to shoot it at night to accentuate the dramatic feel. I was also struck by the sheer number of people and activity so late at night. Using diagonals in my composition conveys a sense of movement. By tilting the horizon I accentuated this sense along with using a slow, but not too slow (1/2 second ) shutter speed to show movement in the crowd without completely smearing them.

Travel Photography Wrap-up

Although I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of this passion of mine for travel photography, I hope these last three articles/posts I’ve done have provided some insight, tips and most importantly motivation to go travel and shoot!

Feel free to email me with questions and comments or post comments here. If you aren’t already receiving my articles, blog posts, and information about our workshops and would like to, you can subscribe to my e-news right here.

Happy Travels!


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Joel’s blog has this article with additional example photos with corresponding captions and techniques.


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