The beautiful faces of Morocco in photos with things you need to know about people and street photography in Morocco and valuable tips on how to photograph the people in Morocco.
While I really enjoy shooting beautiful landscapes and cool street views, nothing excites me more than capturing people going about their everyday life.
Just by observing how they look, what they wear, how they behave and what they do in their natural environment gives me a valuable insight into the country and its culture. They are an essential part of the country’s character.
I understand that photographing people is way more difficult than taking photos of landscapes, buildings, animals, and food. Those subjects don’t necessarily require permission to be photographed, nor will they talk to you and/or judge you for taking pictures.
There are many people who also don’t want their photograph taken for personal, cultural and/or religious reasons. Especially nowadays it’s very important to take this into consideration as one picture can quickly reach thousands of people through social media.
The first and most important rule when it comes to photographing people is always to ask for permission.
I have to admit, it took me ages to overcome my shyness and ask someone if I could take his or her portrait. But by becoming more assertive, I learned that most people actually don’t mind. On the contrary, they will often feel very honored and pose proudly for my lens.
On top of that, interacting with the person often lead to interesting conversations in which I got to know him or her better and it created even better opportunities for photographing my subject in a more spontaneous way.
However, every country is different so it’s very important to understand and respect the cultural codes. While it was relatively easy for me to take portraits in destinations like Turkey, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, photographing the Moroccan people was a lot more challenging!
1. Why is it so difficult to take portraits of people in Morocco
The Moroccans are very nice, friendly and talkative people. They usually smile, offer their help and are interested in who you are and where you come from. But the moment you aim your camera at them, their attitude changes.
Some people will suddenly cover their faces and firmly object having their photo taken, others might even scream at you.
This happened to me while I was taking photos in Chefchaouen. I had my camera in my hand and was waiting for a woman and her child to pass me so I could take a photo of the blue street. The woman thought I was going to photograph her and made a huge scene.
Chefchaouen, the Blue city of Morocco
It made me very uncomfortable and embarrassed, especially when other locals came on the street to see what was going on. I’ll never forget the glares they gave me…
This wasn’t the only incident. The same thing happened when I was hiking towards the Todra Gorges and wanted to take an action photo of Niko and his friend Simon who were walking in front of me.
Right when I was about to photograph the moment, a woman came around the corner, spotted my camera and started scolding me from across the street.
It took me a second to realize why she was acting so mad and even though I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I felt like a naughty schoolgirl. Sensitive as I am, it took me a while to recover from this.
The villages near the Todra Gorges
Photographer friends had warned me that Moroccans aren’t very keen on being photographed. I also read that they are some of the most challenging people in the world to take pictures of.
Now that I’ve spent several months in the country and have more insight into the culture, I understand why the majority of the Moroccan people shudder at the sight of a camera.
Shameless and ignorant tourists
Over the past few decades, Morocco has seen a huge growth in tourism. No wonder because Morocco is a very beautiful destination with many great photography locations.
Sunset in the Sahara desert near Merzouga
Although it’s been economically very beneficial for the Moroccans to have so many travelers visiting their country, this mass tourism has also taken its toll on some parts of the country and its population.
Citizens of popular towns and cities like Fez, Marrakesh, Chefchaouen, and Essaouira (just to name a few) have to deal daily with oblivious tourists pointing cameras at their faces without even asking them for permission.
One afternoon while visiting the open-air market in Marrakesh, I noticed countless tourists marching into the shops like they owned the place, ignoring the owner and striking a pose for Instagram. Others stuck their camera into the shop owner’s face and then walked away without saying a word.
The crowded indoor market of Marrakesh
It honestly made me cringe. Those tourists were so ignorant of the Moroccan culture and acted like it was their absolute right to snap photos of the salesmen and their merchandise without asking and saying thank you. No wonder there’s such a culturally-rooted aversion towards portrait photography in Morocco.
Personal privacy & cultural codes
Morocco is an Islamic country where the vast majority of people have strong traditional values and beliefs. Not only are they protective of their privacy and don’t always want their picture being shared on the internet, but some also can’t have their photo taken for religious and social reasons.
This is why you’ll have a hard time taking photos of women in Morocco, especially in rural areas. They generally don’t like it at all.
The reason why most women behave so unfriendly and act frantically when they notice a camera is because they’re tired of being ‘accidentally’ photographed by ignorant travelers who violate their privacy. You could get these women in some serious troubles if, for example, their husbands find their picture on Facebook or on the website of a travel agency.
I was able to take a handful of portraits of Moroccan women with their permission (see my tips below). There are exceptions but most women will want to hide their faces with a veil.
The Curse of the Evil Eye
The Curse of the Evil Eye is a concept and a belief that appears in many cultures and religions. This belief is also taken very seriously in Morocco.
What is it about? In short, if someone gives you the Evil Eye, you’ll receive misfortune or injury. It requires immediate action and protection to avoid harm. The Hand of Fatima, also known as Khamsa, that you see in many Islamic countries is a symbol that offers protection to the Curse of the Evil Eye.
What does this curse have to do with taking photos of people in Morocco? A lot of Moroccans believe that if they appear to be successful and wealthy, bad luck will befall on them due to the envy and jealousy of others around them.
Having a photo taken on which they look happy and successful can be seen as boasting about their success and is bound to bring them evil looks and misfortune from others. For this reason, people who strongly believe in the Curse of the Evil Eye will object to being photographed.
Extra challenge: being a female photographer
It works to my disadvantage that I’m a female photographer. It’s not common for a woman in Morocco to approach a man. In certain regions, it would even be very inappropriate and considered as something that is just not done.
It’s a sad reality but if I wouldn’t have had Niko by my side when asking Moroccan men if I could take their photo, I’d have found myself in some very awkward situations and wouldn’t have been able to take that many portraits in the first place.
As a traveling photographer, it’s important to understand the culture. Keep in mind that you’re dealing with people, not objects, and that you have to respect their privacy, values and cultural codes.
Does this mean that you’re not allowed at all to take pictures of people in Morocco? Of course not. You might even meet some youngsters who will ask you to take their photo and request you email it to them.
It’s just that it’s going to be challenging and you can’t expect to have as many portraits as you would in other countries.
2. Things you need to know about photographing people in Morocco
1) Be friendly, smile, engage in conversation and ask
This is a tip that you shouldn’t only apply in Morocco but anywhere in the world: approach people with a smile and have a friendly and gentle attitude when you ask to take a photo.
I know it can be daunting for some people to walk up to a stranger and ask for a picture. I’ve been there too. But what’s the worst that can happen? The person refuses and says no.
If that’s the case, just smile, say thank you and wish that person a lovely day. It’s important to stay polite at all times and respect that person’s wish.
However, you might be surprised at the number of times you’ll get a yes. In Morocco, it really depends on the area you’re in and how you present yourself.
In Essaouira, for example, it was very easy to approach someone and take their photograph. This coastal town is quite touristic but the locals are very laid-back. I think there were maybe three people who refused but all the other times I got a yes.
Some women even gave me permission but they didn’t want to have their faces photographed I was only allowed to take photos of what they were doing, like making argan oil or decorating lamps.
In Morocco, it works very well if you first greet the person. Have a small conversation, ask about his or her day and show genuine interest. This makes the person relax. Then you can introduce yourself and ask politely if you can take a photo.
If you don’t want him or her to pose and prefer a spontaneous photo, ask “Can I take a photo while you work”. The person will very likely return to what he was doing and you’ll have green light to shoot away.
Important tip: Don’t overdo it. Take some photos for a few minutes and then stop. If you focus too long on the same person, he or she will become self-conscious and uncomfortable and it will also ruin the spontaneity of the picture.
2) Show the photo(s)
Always try to show the picture(s) you took. Not only is it nice for your subject to see what you’ve been doing but it can also lead to more (natural) photo opportunities.
Your subject(s) will very likely smile at the sight of the picture. If they were posing at first, they will very likely relax now and probably allow you to take a few more photos while they’re behaving naturally.
Although I emphasize the importance of asking permission first, I understand it’s sometimes hard to resist a spontaneous photo opportunity.
If you grasp that moment, you should still approach the person and show him or her your photo. Your subject might not be very pleased with it and ask you to delete the picture or he/she will like the photo and appreciate it highly that if you asked permission to keep it.
In case you don’t have the courage to approach your subject in fear of his reaction or you don’t want the risk of having your photo deleted, remember that you can’t use this photo for any commercial purposes unless the person agrees to it.
Don’t be so ignorant to think that the Moroccans don’t have Facebook or Instagram. On the contrary, they are very active on social media and the internet and if someone recognizes your model, you can get in trouble for violating this person’s right of publicity.
All my ‘models’ have granted me permission to publish their portraits online.
Tip: Take a selfie!
While I personally don’t like taking selfies, most people do and the Moroccans are no exception. It has a more friendly and personal feel to it than doing a photo shoot.
It could be a great idea to warm your subject up by taking a selfie with him or her. It will probably make them laugh and feel relaxed, after which you can ask to take an individual portrait.
3) Learn the language or employ a local guide
Many Moroccans are fluent in French. In the touristic areas, some will also understand English and Spanish. But if you can speak some Derija (Moroccan Arabic) it will play hugely in your advantage for photographing people in Morocco!
Honestly, if it wasn’t for my partner Niko who speaks the language very well, I wouldn’t have been able to take so many pictures of people in Morocco.
Not only was it a lot easier for me to photograph men by having a male companion by my side (remember, it’s not very appropriate for a solo woman to approach guys in Morocco), the fact that Niko was able to engage in conversation with everyone in their own language opened many doors.
The Moroccans love it if you can speak Derija (even if it’s just a little). They are very impressed by it and will almost immediately open up to you. We barely had any people refusing when Niko asked in Derija if I could take their photograph.
Another advantage of being accompanied by someone who speaks the language is that, while Niko was talking to my subjects, they would forget I was taking photos. It offered me fantastic opportunities to photograph the people in their natural way of being.
Read the guide Niko wrote on how to learn Deija: Tips and Tricks to learn Moroccan Arabic quickly.
If you find it too difficult to learn Moroccan Arabic (can’t blame you) and you don’t have a travel partner who speaks the language, you could always employ a local guide.
Find a guide that speaks perfect English to avoid any miscommunication with you. Ideally, someone who also speaks Berber for when you’re traveling in the Atlas Mountains or more off-the-beaten-path destinations in Morocco.
How and where can you find a good local guide?
You can employ someone who works at a local travel agency in Morocco but this might turn out to be quite expensive.
If you’re not necessarily looking for a travel guide but someone who can assist you with your photography, I’d suggest you employ a Moroccan college or university student on a freelance basis.
These students often have great knowledge of the English language and will be happy to accompany and assist a foreigner. They are also open-minded, helpful and eager to learn more about and from you.
They usually know their country very well and will be able to help you integrate into the local culture more than an official travel guide would. They could also really use this extra money to pay for their studies.
Where can you find these students? The easiest way is becoming part of following Facebook groups and do a call-out. Then you can invite each person who responded for a personal Skype or Facebook call.
Here are some Facebook groups where you can ask around for a local guide:
- Expats in Morocco
- Expats in Marrakech
- Travel & Couchsurfing in Morocco
- Morocco Travel
- Masters of English Studies in Morocco
Choose someone with who you feel a good connection and make proper arrangements of your expectations and how you will compensate him or her (daily wage, covering travel costs, employment based on an exchange,…).
4) Do you need permission for street photography in Morocco?
Street photography is legal in Morocco and it’s inevitable that there will be people in your shots.
When should you ask for permission? It’s a thin line and a lot depends on your ethical standards.
If my photo involves a close-up of one individual, I will ask for permission. But if there are a lot of people in my photo and the focus is aimed at the ambiance of a place, I don’t. I am, by law, allowed to use these photos for artistic purposes.
However, whenever I’m doing street photography and there are women in my composition, I’ll try to make them unrecognizable by shooting them from the back.
5) Is it okay to take photos of children in Morocco
Children are great models. I love photographing them as they have something so open, playful and innocent about them. They’re generally not as self-conscious as adults are and it’s a pleasure to shoot them in their natural way of being.
While the children will have a lot of fun posing for your camera, you should ALWAYS ask the permission of their parents or guardians! You really have to be careful with taking pictures of someone else’s child, not only in Morocco but worldwide.
6) Is it okay to pay someone for a picture?
It occasionally happens that someone asks for money in exchange for a photo. This is usually 10 Moroccan Dirham (about $1/€0,90). But is it justified to pay someone for a photo?
I asked myself this question when I was hiking in the High Atlas mountains. Two Berber women crossed my path and I found them so beautiful that I couldn’t resist asking if I could take their portrait. They agreed but only if I would pay them.
It’s very rare that a Moroccan woman agrees with having her portrait taken. But I wasn’t sure if this was a good move.
At the same time, models usually get paid by the photographer for doing a photo shoot. So why should it be ethically wrong to pay someone I just met to take his, or in this case, her portrait?
Another thing you should know is that on Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakesh’s main market square, it’s customary to pay for photos of the performers. It’s their job to entertain you with their monkeys and snakes and they ask money for every picture you take.
You better watch out for these guys as a lot of them will scam you. I also don’t like the way that they treat their animals. Although it might sound cool to have a photo of a snake charmer or a monkey handler, I refuse to support these people.
3. Photography tips on how to take great photos of people in Morocco
Now that you know more what to expect concerning photography in Morocco and what you should or shouldn’t do, let me give you some practical tips on how to capture the best portraits.
1) Go early to public locations
The best time to shoot people is during the day while they’re working. One of the best photography locations in Morocco for capturing people is local markets.
Go early – which is between 9 and 10 am in Morocco – when the people are getting ready for their day. It won’t be so busy and chaotic yet, they’ll have more time for you and they’ll still be happy and energetic as the stress and routine of the day hasn’t kicked in yet.
2) Decide on the photo style in advance
If a Moroccan person allows you to take photos, they generally don’t like being photographed for too long. So before you approach someone, try to have a general idea of how you want to capture your subject.
Observe the person (but don’t be creepy) and think if you want to have a close-up, a full-length portrait or a photo in which he or she is doing something.
Once you have a clear idea, you can go ahead and engage in conversation.
3) Have your camera settings ready
The last thing you want to do when you’re about to photograph someone in a natural setting is fiddling around with your settings. Not only will you lose time, but your subject will also become impatient and uncomfortable while he/she is waiting for you to take the picture.
I always have my camera ISO set on 200 (except in low-light conditions, then I have to set it higher) and I always shoot in Aperture Priority Mode when doing street or people photography.
The Aperture Priority Mode lets me control the depth of field so I can decide on how much and what I want in or out of focus, while my camera automatically decides the best shutter speed for this photo.
If you want to keep only your subject in focus, use the widest aperture possible (this will depend on the lens you use, ideally set your aperture at f/1.8 – f/2.5). If you want to focus on both your subject and environmental elements, increase the aperture to f/4.0 – f/8.0.
4) It’s okay to shoot in Autofocus
While many photographers claim that it’s amateurish to shoot in autofocus, I’m not afraid to admit that I, a professional travel photographer, often use autofocus, especially during circumstances where I have to act fast.
Shooting in autofocus allows me to be efficient and more accurate in situations where I want to quickly capture candid photos, fast-moving subjects or, in this case, portraits of Moroccan people.
I’m honestly more interested in having sharp and well-composed images then worrying about the fact that I didn’t focus manually. It’s the result that matters most to me.
5) Turn on Silent Shutter Mode (if you have a mirrorless camera)
This mode completely disables the sound of the shutter so your camera doesn’t make any annoying clicking sounds while taking photos.
I always turn on this mode when I’m shooting people. It makes them less aware of the camera and it allows me to capture more spontaneous moments and portraits.
6) Use a lens that covers a wide focal length
I’d suggest you use a lens that offers a versatile zoom capability, like a 24-70mm (full-frame) with a wide aperture (ideally between f/1.8 and f/2.8).
Although you’ll get better shots when you’re close to your subject, some people in Morocco won’t feel comfortable if you stick your camera right up their faces. Especially as a woman, I sometimes need to keep my distance from the man I’m photographing.
When I use a versatile zoom lens, I have a focal length that is short enough to take pictures at a near distance but it’s also long enough to take great close-ups from a further distance if my subject doesn’t feel comfortable with me being close to him.
Read my photo-essay on: Visiting the Leather Tanneries of Fez
4. The best photography equipment for portraits and street photography in Morocco
While I don’t like using my phone for taking photos (I also don’t have the best one to do so), a good smartphone camera can work very well to photograph people with. It’s less intimidating than a DSLR or mirrorless camera and more discreet while doing street photography.
2) Best camera for street photography in Morocco
I’m a big fan of mirrorless cameras as they are a lot more compact than DSLR’s. I also have to mention that I’m a Panasonic Lumix Ambassador (transparency!) so I root for the Lumix cameras.
I find the Panasonic Lumix GX9 ideal for people and street photography. It’s a small camera so it doesn’t look so intimidating when you point it at someone.
It has a tiltable LCD screen that makes it more discreet and less obvious to take photos than if you’d look through the viewfinder.
The Lumix GX9 is easy to operate, has superfast autofocus and Silent Shutter Mode and it offers great features like 4K photo and Post Focus that help with creating more and better opportunities to capture fleeting moments. And with a 20.3-megapixel resolution, you can expect fantastic image quality.
Read more about the Lumix GX9 here.
However, there’s one reason why I didn’t always use the Lumix GX9 in Morocco. The camera isn’t dust proof. As long as you’re staying in cities like Marrakesh, Essaouira, Fez or Rabat this won’t be a big deal.
But if you’re planning on making a desert trip to the Sahara, hiking in the Atlas Mountains and/or visiting the rural areas in East and South Morocco, you should have a weather sealed camera that can handle dusty and humid environments.
That’s why the Panasonic Lumix G90 is currently my favorite camera. It’s a bit bigger in comparison with the Lumix GX9 but still compact enough to not draw a lot of attention.
It has many similar specs and features of the Lumix GX9 but this camera is also completely weather sealed. I took it with me to the Sahara on many occasions, I got even surprised by a big sandstorm, but the Lumix G90 withstood!
For more information about this camera, read my detailed review on the Lumix G90.
3) Best camera lenses to bring with you to Morocco
Like I’ve already explained in my tips on how to take great portraits in Morocco, I recommend you bring a good all-round zoom lens and additionally a prime lens.
An all-round zoom lens is great for both street photography and landscapes as it will help you photographing through crowds and across distances. This lens is also useful for taking portraits if you want to respect the personal space of your subject. Just be aware that you use a lens with a wide aperture.
Here are the all-round zoom lenses I recommend, depending on the camera brand you use:
- Canon: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens
- Nikon: Nikon AF-S DX 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR
- Mirrorless cameras like Panasonic Lumix: Leica DG Vario-Elmarit 12-60 mm f/2.8 – 4.0 (24-120mm full-frame equivalent).
This lens is also weather sealed so combined with a weather sealed camera body like the Lumix G90, you don’t have to worry about dust or water getting in your camera!
A prime lens is the best lens for portraits. If you can get close to your subject, I’d definitely suggest you use a prime lens so you can isolate your subject and create a dreamy blurry background.
Here are my suggestions for prime lenses, depending on the camera brand you have:
- Canon: Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM
- Nikon: NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G
- Mirorrless cameras like Panasonic Lumix: Leica DG Summilux 25mm/f1.4 (50mm full-frame equivalent).
4) Is it safe to bring expensive camera gear to Morocco
You don’t have to worry in Morocco that someone will rob you in the streets if they see you have a (cheap or expensive) camera. It’s perfectly safe to walk during the day in the cities and villages with a camera in your hands. I’d keep the camera hidden during night time.
However, be careful at crowded public places like the local markets and the old city centers as there is a lot of pickpockets. Use a theft-proof (camera) bag, preferably with zippers that clip and can’t be undone in a rush.
I also always keep my camera gear with me at all times. Even when I hitchhike, take a bus or a train, my photography equipment is always in my hand luggage and I never lose it out of sight!
For worst-case scenarios, get travel insurance that also covers theft. World Nomads offers good travel insurance for stolen and damaged gear.
5) Where can you repair your camera in Morocco
You’ll find many little electronic shops in the major cities of Morocco where they offer a repair service for cameras. But honestly, as I never had to get my camera fixed in Morocco, I’m not sure of the quality of this repair service.
I do know that Canon has an authorized service center in Casablanca, called Diffazur SARL.
Address: 183, rue d’Alsace – Mers Sultan, Casablanca Phone: +212 522 424159
Just be careful with your gear, keep it away from water and dust (if you don’t have a weather sealed camera) and always keep an eye on it.
I hope that this post gave you a clear idea of what to expect concerning people and street photography in Morocco and that you get many chances to capture great portraits!
Remember, it will be difficult for both professionals and amateurs. Have the right attitude and stay patient and kind.
The Moroccan people are beautiful and colorful and when they give you their permission to shoot, it’ll have been worth the challenge!
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KNOW BEFORE YOU GO – MOROCCO TRAVEL TIPS:
- A few travel tips for Morocco:
- Planning to travel to Morocco during Ramadan? Read this first:
- Everything you need to know about traveling independently in Morocco (visa, how to get to and around Morocco, where to stay,…):
The Ultimate Travel Guide to Backpacking in Morocco
- Morocco travel costs:
Morocco on a budget – How much does it cost to travel and live in Morocco?
- Hiking and nature trips in Morocco:
- The Complete Guide to Imlil and Hiking Mount Toubkal in Morocco
- Everything you need to know about visiting the Ouzoud Waterfalls
- Rock climbing and other fun things to do in the Todra Gorges and Tinerhir
- How to get to the Akchour Waterfalls from Chefchaouen (Morocco)
- How to plan a desert trip to Merzouga and other fun things to do in the Sahara
- Our Moroccan city guides:
- FEZ: In Photos: Visiting the Leather Tanneries of Fez
- TANGIER: Top Things to Do in Tangier – The Ultimate City Guide
- ESSAOUIRA: An In-Depth Guide to Essaouira, Morocco’s windy city
- CHEFCHAOUEN: 12 Top things to do in and around Chefchaouen, the Blue City of Morocco
- RABAT: 10 things to see and do in Rabat
- MEKNES: The honest guide to Meknes and Volubilis– What to see and what to skip
- Our budget accommodation guides:
MOROCCO TRAVEL RESOURCES:
- Accommodation & Lodging in Morocco: Booking.com
- Car rental in Morocco
- Travel Insurance for Morocco: World Nomads or SafetyWing
- Books and guides about Morocco: