South Africans are generally happy to have their pictures taken. Here are a few handy guidelines for photographing people if you’re keen to improve your photography skills. The key to getting great pictures is to be prepared, to be alert and to have the right equipment.

Did you know?

In South Africa, model release forms are generally not used except for formal commercial purposes.

As a traveller, you’ll probably have found that photographing people, particularly strangers, in foreign countries can be a sensitive issue.

In some parts of the world, people will absolutely not allow you to take their photograph. In some cases it is for religious or belief reasons. In other places, people want payment.

Most South Africans, especially children, love having their photograph taken. Most, including adults, will pose freely, happy with the attention and interaction. And these days, with digital cameras, it’s so much fun showing them their images afterwards.

But there are some photographic guidelines you should loosely follow.

The most important is to engage with the people you’d like to photograph. You'll always get a much better image, and a more enriching encounter, if you first talk to the people you’d like to photograph. If you can’t speak their language, a smile, sign language and some kind of effort go a long way.

The easiest place to photograph people in interesting dress is at a cultural village, where this is expected. This is also true of festivals and cultural dances.

But whatever the circumstance, ask permission if you are taking a picture of an individual or a small group. If you can’t speak their language, holding a camera up with an enquiring look and a smile is usually enough.

Try to contextualise the people, including the background – especially if it’s dramatic. To avoid stiff poses, have your subjects carry on doing what they do: weaving baskets, adjusting bridles, talking to their friends, lighting a pipe.

Now comes the question most often asked: should you pay your subjects? Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule. If your subject is a poor person, they will most likely not have a picture of themselves or their children, and would dearly love a copy. One of the best gifts you could give is to send them a print of the image you’ve just taken.

Sometimes, people are simply happy with the attention paid to them, and to glimpse the photo on the camera’s screen. Other times, depending on the people and the situation, you may feel it’s suitable to give a small gift of cash. A pen, a chocolate or a T-shirt might also be welcomed, but be sensitive and be careful not to be patronising.

If you’re photographing a craftsman, a purchase of their produce would be appreciated.

If you want to capture more spontaneous situations, it’s best to photograph people while you are unobserved, and this is where a telephoto lens and quick reflexes are needed.

Either way, images of South African people may end up being some of the most memorable and interesting of all the pictures you return home with.