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Capturing the Quintessential Travel Portrait

You’d be hard-pressed to find many people who don’t love to travel – especially amongst camera wielders. We love exploring new places around the globe and bringing back photos to share with all our friends. It’s exciting, and a look at the world outside our own perspective.

There are three questions I always find myself being asked when returning from a travel assignment – where did you go, what did you eat and who did you meet? A key component in any good travel photo story is capturing portraits and the daily interactions of the people wherever you go. The astounding diversity across the world is what makes us so fascinating to each other. For this article, we’ll focus specifically on interaction based portraiture instead of candid captures.

Here are a few tips and tricks I use for capturing the quintessential travel portrait.

Ego is Irrelevant

Perhaps my favorite phrase and one I pass along to anyone looking to create better people-based photography is this, “Check your shame at the door.” What that simply means is never be afraid to ask, dance or make a complete fool of yourself in pursuit of a great photo.

There’s no room for ego in this business and you need to get over any worries you may have about asking people for photographs. The photographer who asks for a portrait will capture 100% more than the one who doesn’t. After all, all they can say is no. If you have plans on making a career in the photo industry you’ll need to get over your discomfort of the word “no.” Because you hear it – a lot.  Take the negativity out of it and think of “no” as merely a stepping stone to another “yes.”

When you get that critical yes – or sometimes the hand gesture or smile that says to conveys an ok – it’s time to jump into action.

Context is King

Travel portraiture relies heavily on context. You don’t want someone to look at an image and think you captured it right outside your house – you want to show portraiture that tells the story of this person’s culture. What makes this person unique and interesting to you and your audience? Part of answering that question is knowing the main audience for your images. To a Tibetan a portrait of one of their fellow villagers may be nothing special – but to a Western audience it could be incredibly unique. It’s all about context.

Travel portraiture is more than just up and tight shots. Often it’s half bodies, full bodies, people as small figures in a broad scene and more. The general rule is that an individual is connecting with the photographer/camera or is clearly the immediate subject of the photo.

Showing environment is a great way to add context. Look for backgrounds that interest you and wait for just the right person to come around. Alternatively, grab someone who really interests you and if you can convince them to go to a nearby location even better.  Add variety to your images not only through different environments, but also different poses, expressions and actions. Get that mountain man to smoke his pipe, the chef with a plate of food, the business person with their notepad or the kite surfer holding her board. Use different lighting – front, side, backlit, shade, etc. All these build toward a body of work.

Connecting the Vision

Travel portraiture is all about telling a story. The question is, which story are you telling? Coming back from travels with a lot of portraits that convey a cohesive vision is much stronger than a random collection. It’s all about your perspective and vision.

Do you want to show all smiling, warm and inviting faces… or the grief a recent strife has caused in a region? No answer is right or wrong; it’s simply up to you what kind of photographer you are and the type of images you enjoy capturing. Depart on your travels with a plan for vision-based portraiture and you’ll return with a set of images you’ll be much happier to share with friends and family.

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Matt Dutile is a New York City based travel and lifestyle photographer. He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a book on Mongolian nomads. Check the page out to learn more. You can view his website or join in on his Facebook page as well.

  • http://www.lourceyphoto.com Larry Lourcey

    Great stuff Matt! I completely agree about asking. It is always tough for me – but it does open so many doors. Just gotta make yourself do it!

  • Scottc

    Great article! Tips I can use, I’m certainly not a portrait photographer but I like to photograph people when I travel.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5253010755/

  • http://zain.zenfolio.com Zain Abdullah

    Thanks for an enlightening article. In the beginning I also hesitated to take portrait photo on the street but after a couple of attempt I become more confident now. I am pleased to share the outcomes here:

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/e3b2a0520
    A neighbourhood newspaper vendor

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/e1b6d7f53
    The amil collecting zakat

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/e3987d9a9
    The most famous kebab in town (Kuala Lumpur)

  • Zach Wong

    Matt –

    There’s another article on this site about portrait photography. link.

    What do you think about his attitude of “don’t ask”? I suppose that that’s more applicable to street photography, but is it a valid way to shoot on vacation as well?

  • http://www.mattdutile.com Matt Dutile

    Zach, the “not ask” method is definitely applicable to travel as well – that’s just more of the candid side of photography. You’re not seeking a photo with the subjects interaction so much as trying to capture a slice of life in these kind of images. It’s applicable really to street photography more than travel portraiture.

  • Mike McPhee

    For the shy among us a 70-200mm zoom lens is another option.
    Another aspect is where the shot is taken. I am seriously thinking of adding a Canon 6D with its GPS features helping cataloging. In the more impoverished countries a print of the shot is well received if print facilities are
    available .I took photo of mother and child in a market 25 years ago on film. Had them processed and took a 7×5 back the next day.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/msranjith Ranjith

    Asking consent is sometimes not possible. And when you dont do that, you get the best (candid) shot..which i got it during my recent trip to Boston..

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/msranjith/8292333231/in/photostream

  • http://www.lesleyleephotography.com Lesley

    I would call myself a street photographer more than anything else.
    If appropriate or possible I seek the OK – a nod, inclination of head, thumbs up or a smile and I do this on my travels as well. If asking is going to distract the person (Ranjith’s subject – she wouldn’t have got that great shot if she’d asked!), make them ‘pose’ or they’re too far away, I just go for it.

    Here are two I took recently, with permission.

    In Shanghai China, http://lesleyleephotography.com/llcontent/uploads/2012/12/IMG_1865.jpg

    and in Luang Prabang, Laos http://lesleyleephotography.com/llcontent/uploads/2012/12/IMG_0219.jpg

  • http://www.iAwani.com/ iAwani

    thanks for the article! now i know what travel potrait is all about.

Some older comments

  • Lesley

    December 22, 2012 01:24 am

    I would call myself a street photographer more than anything else.
    If appropriate or possible I seek the OK - a nod, inclination of head, thumbs up or a smile and I do this on my travels as well. If asking is going to distract the person (Ranjith's subject - she wouldn't have got that great shot if she'd asked!), make them 'pose' or they're too far away, I just go for it.

    Here are two I took recently, with permission.

    In Shanghai China, http://lesleyleephotography.com/llcontent/uploads/2012/12/IMG_1865.jpg

    and in Luang Prabang, Laos http://lesleyleephotography.com/llcontent/uploads/2012/12/IMG_0219.jpg

  • Ranjith

    December 21, 2012 02:45 pm

    Asking consent is sometimes not possible. And when you dont do that, you get the best (candid) shot..which i got it during my recent trip to Boston..

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/msranjith/8292333231/in/photostream

  • Mike McPhee

    December 21, 2012 12:24 pm

    For the shy among us a 70-200mm zoom lens is another option.
    Another aspect is where the shot is taken. I am seriously thinking of adding a Canon 6D with its GPS features helping cataloging. In the more impoverished countries a print of the shot is well received if print facilities are
    available .I took photo of mother and child in a market 25 years ago on film. Had them processed and took a 7x5 back the next day.

  • Matt Dutile

    December 17, 2012 03:16 am

    Zach, the "not ask" method is definitely applicable to travel as well - that's just more of the candid side of photography. You're not seeking a photo with the subjects interaction so much as trying to capture a slice of life in these kind of images. It's applicable really to street photography more than travel portraiture.

  • Zach Wong

    December 16, 2012 08:23 am

    Matt -

    There's another article on this site about portrait photography. link.

    What do you think about his attitude of "don't ask"? I suppose that that's more applicable to street photography, but is it a valid way to shoot on vacation as well?

  • Zain Abdullah

    December 14, 2012 08:19 pm

    Thanks for an enlightening article. In the beginning I also hesitated to take portrait photo on the street but after a couple of attempt I become more confident now. I am pleased to share the outcomes here:

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/e3b2a0520
    A neighbourhood newspaper vendor

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/e1b6d7f53
    The amil collecting zakat

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/streetshots/e3987d9a9
    The most famous kebab in town (Kuala Lumpur)

  • Scottc

    December 14, 2012 09:20 am

    Great article! Tips I can use, I'm certainly not a portrait photographer but I like to photograph people when I travel.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5253010755/

  • Larry Lourcey

    December 14, 2012 09:17 am

    Great stuff Matt! I completely agree about asking. It is always tough for me - but it does open so many doors. Just gotta make yourself do it!

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