Photography Tips: What is Ethnic Photography?

What is Ethnic Photography?

Ethnic photography is an incoherent, almost archaic, term that does not always have a precise definition. In general, ethnic photography tends to refer to photography types that deal with people of color either in conventional or genre-specific types of situations. In a more classical age, ethnic photography meant an almost anthropological approach to photography that went and looked at cultures that seemed foreign to Euro-American cultural standpoints. That has an antiquated feel in the modern world, and ethnic photography can now refer to a variety of different approaches. Here is a look at a few of the different types of modern incarnations of ethnic photography, including how it refers to photographing people with darker skin tones and instances of photojournalism.

Anthropological Photojournalism

Ethnic photography has often translated to a form of visual anthropology, the popular forms seen in publications like National Geographic. What

National Geographic Logo

this intends to do is find indigenous cultures or "ethnic" cultures, which in this context is ethnocentric in its implication that ethnic refers to non-white cultures. The term, though not necessarily linguistically accurate, does immediately draw into a tradition non-interventionist photojournalism in a way to draw out cultures that may be foreign to the audiences. This can especially be used to look at tribal societies, areas of international poverty and war, and essentially a position of photography used to expose the onlooker to a world that is not immediately like their own.

In this context, ethnic photography does not necessarily have specific technical features, unless it intends to follow the ethical limitations of photojournalism. This may mean that it needs to be captured as it is and the kind of photographic equipment that is used needs to be limited to ensure mobility. This can indicate technical choices, like a faster shutter speed, since it will allow you to forgo a tripod and compensate for the bright outdoor light that could be occurring. This would most certainly prohibit the use of photo editing programs like Adobe Photoshop.

Dark Skin Tones

In a different sense, ethnic photography could just refer to the photography of subjects with a non-white skin tone. This can often be difficult since many of the lighting patterns and make-up application rules have been designed with a euro-centric model that only considers lighter skin tones. In general, you are going to want to have the subject lit from the front and not with strong light sources behind them, which could drown out their detail. In general, you will also have to bring up the exposure, which is fine if you intend on just focusing on the subject and if they, and the background, are clothed in dark colors. If not you may just need to back up the light front the non-focused areas and have the subject dress in earth tones, which is often a good choice anyway.


Source: Author's own experience.

This post is part of the series: Learning Digital Photography

Different articles to teach you about, or inform you about educational opportunities around, digital photograpy.
  1. Wedding Photography Home Study Course DVD
  2. Help for Amateur Photographers
  3. Digital Photography Terminology Glossary
  4. Modern Photography
  5. Ethnic Photography