For many of us, visiting somewhere away from home can feel like just that, somewhere that isn’t our home. There’s often so much for us to engage with, so much to take in, that it’s easy to forget that it’s someone else’s home. Travel portraits enable you to engage with the people that call that place home and can not only give you a greater understanding of the country you’re in, but also make connections with people who you’d otherwise have never had the pleasure of meeting.
Why Travel Portraits?
As a tourist, it’s very easy to get carried away with visiting attractions, photographing architecture and famous landmarks. As a photographer, I always enjoy trying to delve a little bit deeper.
To really try to understand a place, you need to be there for an extended amount of time, but during your short visit as a tourist, there are ways in which you can go further than just photographing the surface and actually try to capture the essence of the place.
For me, interacting and photographing the locals gives me amazing insight into the place I’m visiting. It gives a greater sense of what the place is actually like and helps to engage with the daily life to see it from the natives’ perspective.
Photo by Zigg-E
Facing the Fear of Asking
Getting past the fear of asking someone if you can take their photograph is a very important step to take if you want to succeed at taking travel portraits. If this is something you do at home anyway, then you’ll find it far less intimidating when abroad.
it’s all about having confidence and understanding that the worst that will happen is that the person will say no! It may be the case the person you’re asking is far more intimidated by you, being a stranger with a camera, than you are of them. If language is an issue, then simply smile, point at your camera and gesture taking a photo. It’s amazing how far basic body language, a thumbs up and thumbs down will get you.
Photo by Liv Unni Sodem
Getting Kitted Up
As far as equipment goes, there’s aren’t any requirements for anything in particular, as long as you have a camera that you’re happy working with. A DSLR will give you the greatest capabilities, but if you’re traveling light, a camera such as the new Fuji X-Pro1 would be ideal.
Lens wise, something like a 50mm prime lens is great for portraits, nice and quick, allows you to get nice and close to your subject and offers you the required shallow depth of field.
Some photographers also like to carry a flash or reflector, but again this depends upon space and personal preference. It’s also always a good idea to carry spare batteries and memory, especially if you’re traveling for days at a time.
Photo by geezaweezer
The usual portraiture tips apply. The most important thing being that you focus on the eyes, which will give you the strongest possible connection to the subject.
In some cases, it can be a good idea to use manual focus over autofocus to ensure that you do get the eyes pin sharp. Use depth of field to blur out the background to avoid any distractions behind the subject.
Photo by Daniel Gorecki
It’s important that you’re not overly intrusive into someone’s day. It may the case that you photograph the subject in a situation and then move on, in which case, there’s no need to over organize or stage manage anything.
Having them in context can often be the best and most natural way of getting the shot you want. However, in some situations it can be nice to work with your subject to photograph them in a specific scene or context. So maybe finding a nice textured background to stand them in front of.
Sometimes it works nicely to shoot your subjects head on, but don’t feel restricted to one vantage point, maybe side on or with a slightly tilted head will work nicely.
Photo by Jez D
The All Important Lighting
With travel portraits, it can be very difficult to get the ideal light for the shot you want. In most scenarios, it will be a case of utilizing the available light as effectively as possible.
Making the light work in your favor can be the difference between a good shot and a great shot, so take your time to assess your options before diving in with your camera. If you’re outside, avoid harsh direct sunlight. If you’ve got no choice, have your subject move so that sunlight is hitting them side on. If you’re inside, use light from a window or open doorway.
Photo by Dave Watts
It’s important that with all the factors that I have detailed so far that you’re able to make quick decisions and think fast. This will come with time and practice, but in order to capture natural reactions, smiles, interactions and people working and living in context, you need to be able to make snap decisions in order to get the shots you want.
Show People the Photos
Photo by Silas Dich
Many of your subjects won’t have access to the photographic technology that you’re using, so the opportunity to see their faces on a screen will be a real novelty. If applicable, you can ask for an email address in order to send the subject the photo.
Be sure you take note of the shot number or time/date next to the email address, so you get the right person. However, ask sensitively, as in many poorer countries, email isn’t something they’ll have access to. Mailing prints is always a good move as well.
Photo by geezaweezer
To Pay or Not To Pay?
The customs regarding payment to subjects for having their photos taken varies from country to country. In places like Morocco, it’s seen as obligatory, where as others will be slightly less inclined to demand payment from you.
There is a line of thought that suggests payment encourages begging, so if you’re not sure, ask a guide or someone at your hotel. At the end of the day, it’s up to you. It doesn’t have to be much, just a few small coins will be a sufficient contribution.
Whatever you do, don’t agree to pay and then just leave after you’ve taken your shots, not only will this cause tension at the time, but it will teach the locals that they shouldn’t trust tourists and photographers.
Photo by Liv Unni Sodem
Over to You
So there we have it, a simple guide to taking travel portraits. A lot of the process comes down to confidence, not necessarily in your ability to take the right shot, but to grant yourself the opportunity to get the shot.
It may be worth trying it out somewhere closer to home, even in the local town centre, to gain a bit of confidence in asking people if you can take their photo. Some people will say no, some will say yes, but you’ll come away with some shots and hopefully feel far more prepared for the next time you’re on your travels and want to dig a bit deeper and capture some of the natives.
Photo by Dave Watts