I still remember the first time I photographed somebody while traveling and was presented with an open, waiting hand. Truth be told, I was a little offended. I was young, new to photography, and on my first solo travel experience.
It was a time when I was working in Africa as a volunteer, not a photographer. I had no idea what I was doing with my camera, but enjoyed capturing the experiences that were often a sensory overload.
I never expected that somebody would expect money for a photograph. It threw me a little. But it is a common practice.
So should you tip your travel photography subjects?
Years later, and many more experiences photographing people, places, and cultures around the world, and I have wised up a little. These experiences (and a little more maturity) have taught me that things are never as simple, or as black and white, as they seem.
If you ever find yourself photographing people in developing countries, you’re likely to come across this scenario. It’s worth considering what to do before you’re presented with an open hand.
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to tipping for photos, but each situation calls for a different approach.
What’s the Norm?
It’s likely that in a given culture there’s already an expectation or norm regarding tipping for photos. If you’re not sure, ask. I guarantee you’re not the first person to visit that place with a camera, so do a little research.
Find other travel photographers who have taken photos of people there and ask them. Ask around on travel forums or find a fixer.
If it’s clear that tipping for photos is expected, make sure you carry some small change with you. It’s always hard to know how much to tip, but don’t be cheap.
My rule of thumb is the cost of a local meal. This is usually not much for you, but can be a lot to a local who has mouths to feed.
Whatever you do, don’t throw money at people who don’t expect it. There are a couple reasons for this. It can be very offensive in some cultures. Also, you don’t want to create a habit or expectation where there isn’t one.
This behaviour by well-meaning travellers has destroyed the authentic interactions that once existed in many places. I love the moments that can be shared with somebody through photography when there is no expectation of payment.
Why You Shouldn’t Assume Money Is the Expectation
It’s easy to view these exchanges through the consumerist lens we’re used to. We think everything can be bought, including experiences.
Unfortunately, too many travellers carry this worldview with them into other cultures and don’t realise what they’re missing out on.
I’ve had many experiences where an exchange with somebody is so genuine that if there was ever an expectation of money, it’s quickly forgotten. Often people only expect money because you’re not offering them anything that’s worth more.
No matter what part of the world somebody is from, authentic human connection will always be worth more than money.
You can’t manufacture genuine moments, but you can try to find a way to connect with someone. Even with a language barrier, it’s amazing how much you can communicate.
Often the language barrier is the open door. Practicing the few words or phrases you know can drop someone’s guard and often even get a laugh out of them.
Playing games with their children will make people realise you’re not that different to them.
Try leaving your camera in your bag and engaging with people first. If they see you as more than another tourist who wants to take their photo they’re far more likely to be open to an interaction.
You may also find that if you leave your camera in your bag until you’ve engaged in some way, your portraits will convey far more personality.
What If People Try to Sell You Something
Chances are that on your travels you’ll be interacting with people who are going about their daily lives. Watch them to see what it is that they’re doing and try to engage with them in a way that serves their needs.
Buying something from somebody in a marketplace before photographing them will often eliminate the need for tipping. Assisting somebody who looks like they could use some help could open the door to taking a photo without them expecting money.
It’s worth mentioning that everyone’s needs are different, but in most cases if someone is asking for money it’s because they need it.
I’ve heard arguments against tipping for photos by people who believe that anyone who asks for money in exchange for a photo is being greedy, or doesn’t really need the money at all.
Even worse, some people refuse to tip children for photos, arguing that their parents are using them to make money out of tourists.
There may be a very small minority of people who try to scam travellers to make money, but I genuinely believe that the large majority are just trying to survive and feed their families.
As I’ve said, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to tipping for photos. You need to treat each situation as unique and be mindful of the effects that giving or withholding money might have on the people and cultures you photograph.
There is one rule that applies whenever you’re photographing people, and that’s that everybody has the right to decide whether you take their photo or not.
If someone expects money in exchange, that’s their right, and if you don’t want to pay, don’t photograph them. Simple.
The other side to the question of whether you should tip for photos is to ask yourself how you can create more authentic connections.
Instead of asking yourself how much a portrait is going to cost you, ask yourself what you might miss out on by making the interaction purely a business arrangement.
What can you do to walk away from the interaction with a bigger smile and fuller heart? Both you and your subject will be better for it, and you’ll come away with even better, more personal photos.