16 travel portrait tips

20th December 2010
It feels a bit odd writing travel photography tips just before Christmas, but there is some logic to it. While many of us see Christmas as a time for pulling the curtains shut stuffing our faces and hibernating in front of the TV, many people take a holiday, or at least plan one.

You’ll notice that many of the tips don’t relate to how you use the camera. This is because half the battle is simply about building bridges and relating to your subject. The more relaxed they are and the more you understand them the better the shot will be.

1. Build rapport
Shoving your lens in someone’s face and snapping away is not going to win you too many friends. Even if you don’t speak the same language a friendly smile and some positive body language will endear you to most people. If you’re humble, sincere and respectful you’ll win most people over. Even if you can only point to your camera and then at your subject you’ll normally get a positive response.

2. Talk to them
If you actually take the time to chat with people you’ll start to see their personality shine through. Capturing someone’s personality, or fleeting emotions is what portraits are all about. Meeting new people like this actually enriches the whole travel experience anyway. Ask them questions about what they do, where they live, their family and any hobbies they may have. If they are wearing or own something interesting then you can talk about that and take photos of it until you’ve built up the confidence to take their portrait.

3. Watch the light
You may not feel confident repositioning people you’ve just met, so try approaching them from a different angle so that they turn round to face you in a more flattering light.

4. Watch the aperture
When taking portraits you’ll normally want a large aperture like F4. This will help ensure the background is blurred and therefore it won’t distract from your main subject. If the environment around the subject is part of the story then you can choose a smaller aperture of F8 or more. Remember, the longer the lens, the less depth of field you’ll have.

5. Watch the shutter speed
You’re unlikely to be using a tripod in this situation. In fact I’d advise against it, as it will detract from the casual, relaxed, natural environment you want to create. Therefore you need to ensure you have a shutter speed that’s at least the reciprocal (the same) of the lens. So, if you have an 17-70mm lens set to 60mm then you need at least a 1/60th second shutter speed. This will give you an acceptably sharp shot, assuming you and the subject aren’t moving.

6. Look all round the frame
When photographing complete strangers in a foreign land you may feel more nervous than normal. If so, fight the desire to rush and get out of there (part of the reason I recommend you talk to them first). Make sure that when you compose your shot that there are no distracting elements around or behind the subject. When taking travel shots it’s easy to get so fired up that you only see the interesting subject and overlook the traffic light sticking out the top of their head (or whatever).

7. Buy something
In many countries you’ll win friends very quickly if you simply buy something from someone. I’ve purchased pieces of fruit from hawker stalls and given spare change to monks simply because they looked photogenic. It breaks the ice, puts them in a positive disposition and aside from all that it’s the best way of meeting the locals.

8. Keep visiting the same store
This takes the ‘buy something’ approach to the next level. When travelling in Egypt (alas, before I was any good at photography), I noticed that all the stores were selling the same stuff. Instead of buying a bit here and a bit there I decided it would be best to buy all my souvenirs from the same person. Not only did I benefit from economies of scale I also ended up with a shop keeper who couldn’t do enough for me – including posing for photos. He even took my wife and me out for coffee and a shisha.

9. Pretend you’re photographing the scenery
I often find a nice backdrop for a portrait and set up my tripod and wait for someone suitable to talk into the frame. This doesn’t work for intimate portraits, but if you want to spice up a standard location shot with some human interest then this technique works very well. They assume you’re photographing the scenery and act completely naturally, unaware of your devious plan.
If you feel particularly nervous about photographing people then you don’t even need to look through the view finder – you can just stand there casually and press the button as they walk into your pre-determined spot.

10. Use a wider angle
If you have a wide angle lens then you can get a lot into the frame. Your camera can point at an angle from your subject and still keep them within the frame. They thinking you’re photographing something to the side of them, not realising they’re still in the shot.

11. Get down the market
Markets are a hotbed of human activity. You have people haggling, buskers, stalls that naturally frame their subject, movement and a way of life that echoes down the ages. Markets are always one of the best places to get as close as possible to the traditional culture of any destination you visit.

12. Make friends with someone
If you get to know someone local then a whole new world of opportunities arises. I took this principle to the next level when I ended up marrying a local I got chatting to at a wedding. You don’t need to take things that far, but making friends often means you get to see the underbelly of your destination.

13. Visit a local charity
I love to visit charities when I travel. Everything from an orphanage in Kenya, to a charity that trains and employs disabled masseurs in Indonesia. It can be uplifting or depressing, or both. Where there’s emotion there are great photos to be had. Obviously I’d recommend that you support the charity in some way too. Either with money, time, publicity, or by giving them some of your photos.

14. Show them the photos
If you show them the result of the first photo you normally get encouraged to take more – particularly with kids. I’ve had to turn photo requests down on the island of Komodo as my battery was running low with all the children wanting their photos taking.

15. Should you pay them?
I don’t have too many hard and fast rules with this one. It depends on so many factors: their circumstances, their personality, whether they ask for money, how much of their time I take up, how much I want the shot, how I feel about them etc. etc. One thing I would say is that if they ask you for money after they’ve happily let you photograph them then I’d certainly avoid paying.

16. Thank them and follow up
Once you have the shots in the bag, don’t make a hasty exit. Stay and chat and if they ask to receive a copy of the photo, make sure you send them one when you return home. At worst you’ve built bridges and done a good deed – at best you may have a new friend in an exotic location. Cheap accommodation next time!

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